Behind the Times

BEHIND THE TIMES….Sam Harris is no friend of religion, and in particular no friend of Islam. Today in the LA Times he takes his fellow liberals to task for not taking the threat of Islam seriously enough:

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that “liberals are soft on terrorism.” It is, and they are.

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world ? for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

….Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb ? and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

Is this true? Harris gives the game away elsewhere in his piece, where he cites polls showing that 16% of the public believes in conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. He’s pretty sure this is evidence of liberal denial, but the same poll shows that 16% of the public also believes the government is withholding proof of the existence of intelligent life from others planets. Face it: there’s a fringe group of Americans prone to believing conspiracy theories of all kinds, and the questions in the poll make it clear that active belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories is actually less widespread than plenty of others.

That kind of cherry picking makes Harris’s essay deeply unserious. But Harris’s second version of cherry picking is, perhaps, even worse: his belief that “liberals” continue to believe terrorism is caused solely by “economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.” His evidence? It’s hard to say, but apparently it’s based on the letters he received after writing a polemic against religion called The End of Faith. But it should hardly come as a news flash that if you write a polemic you’re going to hear polemics in return. The response to his book probably has no relevance at all to what “liberals” in general think.

In fact, it’s sort of ironic that Harris chooses this particular time to make this point, because the conversation has moved on. Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with A.N.S.W.E.R. activists or participating in peace marches, but in the liberal circles I do participate in, virtually no one subscribes to the “economic despair” argument anymore. What we do believe is that the terrorists themselves ? usually middle class and decently educated ? are small in number and limited in capability unless they have broad support among the rest of the population. Without that support the creed of militant jihadism withers and dies.

It’s that broad support that we need to target, and that’s why we should focus our efforts on things like public diplomacy, economic engagement, and working seriously with multilateral institutions. It’s not because liberals don’t understand the threat, it’s because liberals seem to be the only ones who do understand the threat these days ? namely that public opinion in the Muslim world is our biggest problem, and conventional military action only makes this problem worse. Harris has some catching up to do if he wants to join the conversation.