Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sam Harris and Muslim Fundamentalism

This lady (I'm sure you've seen this photo before...) is Wafah Dufour, niece (among many others) to the Big Bad, Osama bin Laden. I think she's a good posterchild (along with Uncle, not pictured) for the West's flat and schizophrenic picture of Islam and Muslims.

But we'll probably talk about that in class. (Let me say that Harris's argument degenerates pretty quickly into insults, calling Muslims 'sexually repressed', and Qu'ranic descriptions of Paradise 'unimaginative'. I'm sort of gobsmacked that he's taken seriously.)

Here's a quote that relates pretty well to stuff I've blogged about before:

Let us imagine that peace one day comes to the Middle East. What will Muslims say of the suicide bombings that they so widely endorsed? Will they say, "We were driven mad by the Israeli occupation?" Will they say "We were a generation of sociopaths"? How will they account for the celebrations that followed these "sacred explosions"? ... If they are still devout Muslims here is what they must think: "Our boys are in paradise, and they have prepared a way for us to follow. Hell has prepared for the infidels." It seems to me to be an almost axiomatic truth of human nature that no peace, should it ever be established, will survive beliefs of this sort for very long.

Sam Harris, "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" pp 126-7

Though I don't want to be a jerk and quote myself, I think this fits into my earlier post about religion as a chain (or web) and how it changes through time. Sam Harris here seems to be neglecting a few things. First of all, Islam is just one aspect of Muslims' lives -- the great majority of Muslims, after all (2.8 million in the US alone!) are doing things OTHER than blowing themselves and civilians up, in fact they are not being violent at all. So the phenomenon of suicide bombing can not be attributable to Islam alone.

Second of all, hypothetical-future-peaceful-world-Islam is not the only religion that has to deal with a violent past. The first example that jumps to mind is the Papal Inquisition, or the early American (and contemporary English) witch trials. I don't find it inconsistent to explain these events with sociological explanations (scapegoating, groupthink, etc...) without having to find all the foundational principles of the religion itself bankrupt.
Sam Harris deals with the examples in favor of Muslim culture, like al-Khwarizmi (You'll see his picture on a stamp in Briggs Hall) by claiming (it seems) he was PRIMARILY part of the empirical/scientific tradition, and SECONDARILY a Muslim. Similarly, a 15th century Inquisitor can be seen PRIMARILY as a murderous sociopath, or a manipulated (a la Stanley Milgram) believer, and secondarily as a representative of Catholic faith.

Since there is already this pretty potent example of a tradition taking its violent, unsavory past and digesting it (It wasn't until our recent Pope John-Paul II that the Vatican officially apologized for not believing Galileo... but the Church had taken a neutral stance on science for quite a long time in between, and certainly in the present day, no one advocates Inquisition-style attempts to eradicate heresy) it does not seem difficult for another culture to do a similar trick.

...we must take care not to regard something in the Old Testament that is by the standards of its own time not wickedness or wrongdoing, even when understood literally and not figuratively, as capable of being transformed to the present time and applied to our own lives. A person will not do this unless lust is in total control and actively seeking the complicity of the scriptures by which it must be overthrown.

St. Augustine, "On Christian Teaching" p. 81

Here another example, St. Augustine expressly forbids interpreting the lives of the OT Prophets as literally worthy of emulation. The idea that Islam could not produce a theologian like Augustine (or another Al-Ghazali or...pick your favorite theologian...) seems a little implausible.

1 comment:

chrysaetos said...

Not random strangers actually, I just told people out of class to make random comments on my blog for kicks.