Harris v. Greenwald II: Is Islam Worse Than Other Religions?


Commenting on my previous post, adpr wrote:

[M]y simple question is: Does Islam at this moment constitute a greater threat compared to other religion for peace. This question was brought up by Harris in his lengthy response on his blog. The key question being, should we consider Islam a greater threat to peace than Jainism, a religion that strictly adheres to non-violence?This question set be back because initially I was agreeing with Greenwald. But Jainism, although still a religion that believes in supernatural deity, has a lot less that I criticize than Islam, Christianity or Zionism?

So, if we were equally critical of all these religions, are we not saying we consider each of these religions equally detrimental to the state of society that we want to change.

This is what Harris wrote on his blog, the passage adpr is referring to (emphasis in the original):

My criticism of faith-based religion focuses on what I consider to be bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behavior. Because I am concerned about the logical and behavioral consequences of specific beliefs, I do not treat all religions the same. Not all religious doctrines are mistaken to the same degree, intellectually or ethically, and it would be dishonest and ultimately dangerous to pretend otherwise. People in every tradition can be seen making the same errors, of course—e.g. relying on faith instead of evidence in matters of great personal and public concern—but the doctrines and authorities in which they place their faith run the gamut from the quaint to the psychopathic. For instance, a dogmatic belief in the spiritual and ethical necessity of complete nonviolence lies at the very core of Jainism, whereas an equally dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend one’s faith, both from within and without, is similarly central to the doctrine of Islam. These beliefs, though held for identical reasons (faith) and in varying degrees by individual practitioners of these religions, could not be more different. And this difference has consequences in the real world. (Let that be the first barrier to entry into this conversation: If you will not concede this point, you will not understand anything I say about Islam. Unfortunately, many of my most voluble critics cannot clear this bar—and no amount of quotation from the Koran, the hadith, the ravings of modern Islamists, or from the plaints of their victims, makes a bit of difference.)

If you’re interested, you can read a sort of Muslim rebuttal to Harris here. [On edit: If you follow this link you may or may not be shocked by the Truther headline, which I don’t endorse. However you react to that, the thrust of the discussion below this is on the question of the Quran’s edicts on the murder of a non-Muslim. You and Sam Harris might also be shocked by what the author of this page has to say on that subject, but it won’t be the cheap sort of shock you get with a gratuitous anti-Muslim slur from Ann Coulter.]

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to try to explain my own position on this question redacting my responses to adpr’s comments and replies to my comments, following the jump.

Where I part ways with Harris (and perhaps adpr) is that I don’t believe present circumstances–-the global status quo, such as it is,–are worth preserving quite as much. I don’t believe that the Western civilization Harris sees as under attack especially from radical Islam is as shining as Harris seems to think it is. It’s crumbling, but Islam is far from the only threat to its health, in fact, is not even the worst threat to its health–global warming, peak oil, financial corruption, foreign-owned debt all come to mind as more dangerous to more of us. Moreover,  it seems to me that Western aggression is a direr threat to the Islamic world than vice versa. After watching Alex Gibney’s film of Lawrence Wright’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda last night (not by coincidence), I’m only more convinced of this.

Not that I believe the Islamic world is all that worth preserving either, mind you, at least not as a theologically guided civilization. I know I begin to sound a bit like a nihilist, but I’m more of an anti-imperialist anarchist. I think the worst threats to the species are big ideas becoming the dogma of the controlling powers.  And I think both sides in the clash of civilizations (or the clash of fundamentalisms, as Tariq Ali calls it) are too bankrupt to do much good for anyone but the powerful-to-begin-with.

The problem I have with this focus on Islamic countries as the source of evil in the modern world is that we (Americans/Westerners/non-Muslims)  can’t really do anything about what they (Muslims)  think and how they’re feeling about us from inside their heads and hearts. We can only control our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. If it makes you  feel good to vent about inscrutable Muslims, ok. That’s a right and a freedom. But it isn’t much more than that.

The problem here, to be more specific, is that our policy makers believe (or act as though they believe) they can control perceived Islamist evil through force, if necessary, and they believe this despite all evidence to the contrary. The more force the US  and others in the West use, the more Islamism comes back to bite us in the ass. The wise guys amongst us think abandoning the forceful approach–the drone wars, detentions, ethnic profiling, entrapment, all the singling out of Muslims as the source of all our security problems–even in the face of continued or increased terror and decreased American influence in the Islamic countries, is equal to going soft, weak, female even. But it seems to me that it’s the tough guy approach that is really weakening us. It’s demonstrating that it’s they who are getting into our heads and hearts after all.

Justin Doolittle, who wrote a very thoughtful critique of my essay on his blog (it’s a good read, I highly recommend it) suggested that my reluctance to single out Islam as an especially awful religion was due to a deference toward it that had been bullied into me (he didn’t use such language, but his meaning was clear) by Islamist push back of the kinds I cited in my piece against Western desecration of Islam’s sense of self, if you will. I understand why he or anyone would think that, even though I said clearly that the way so many Muslim’s react to criticism of their religion by non-Muslims is “pathetic” (a word Doolittle thought too weak, and I’m willing to grant him that).

I think, however, that my reluctance to make harsh noise toward Islam owes more to the real doubts I have about the easiness of putting Islam in that box for we who don’t really know it or understand it. Does Islam seem harsher to me than Jainism? Absolutely. Than Quakerism or Unitarianism? Of course. Than Christianity? I’m really not so sure. It’s not Muslims who are “protesting” the funerals of the Boston Marathon bombing victims because they believe “God Hates Fags.” I think Westerners excuse Christianity’s most vile tendencies because, come on, Westboro Baptist Church isn’t Christian! Is it? Identity Christians aren’t Christian. Are they? Abortion-doctor killers aren’t Christians. Well, actually, of course they are. They all are.

I don’t think open criticism or even mocking of Islam ought to be taboo. I am a free speech kind of guy. I don’t blame freedom of speech for Islamic overreaction. If I were given the power to control anything in the Islamic mind it would be to give it a thicker skin when it comes to perceived insults to the prophet and religion. I am not a fan of religiosity or self-righteousness of any kind. I suggested in my last post that it’s not wise, prudent, or intelligent to insult Islam, but I didn’t say I thought it should be forbidden or even discouraged. I actually feel this way about all religions. I’ve done my share of outright insulting and laughing at them, believe me, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to do that. Free speech entails the possibility of being answered, challenged or criticized. Or mocked. You can’t control the reaction. Least of all can you control it if your speech is unreasonable.

What I mean is, maliciousness toward anything is not a good thing. I agree with that bumper sticker “Mean people suck,” even while admitting I’ve been mean plenty of times. We’re free creatures. We make mistakes over and over. We are permitted to. But criticism is something else entirely. There are mean ways to mock and gentle ways–it’s the difference between hurting and giving. Calling Islam the most vile religion accomplishes… what? I don’t know. Pointing out directly to Muslims that they shouldn’t be so thin skinned about their religion might actually accomplish something. I hope so. I mean, reaching across, dialoguing, communicating–these are good things. Categorical dismissal, not so good.

Let me try to boil my position down to its essence: Harris is free to have his opinions about Islam, certainly. Anyone is free to opine loudly all they want about how vile Islam is. They may be right. Personally I think they oversimplify. The bottom line for me is that saying Islam is the most vile religion or the most dangerous religion is not particularly courageous. It’s not helpful, really, in the context of what the West has done to the parts of the world where Islam is concentrated. We’re going to drone you to death AND call your religion the most vile in the world. How do you like them apples, Muslims? Now change! I just don’t see how that’s going to have any effect other than that of a steam valve on the person spewing it.

So if I’m not making myself clear, I think Greenwald’s point  (that anti-Islam rhetoric serves only to support the futilely punitive policies the US persists in taking toward Islam) is stronger than Harris’s (that Islam is uniquely dangerous).  It’s stronger because it can be checked against fact and you don’t have to be a non-Muslim to get it.

8 thoughts on “Harris v. Greenwald II: Is Islam Worse Than Other Religions?

  1. To clarify my stance, I agree with Harris in that Islam, of all religion, does seem to be the harshest. But I do concede the point that simply criticizing the doctrine is not productive. The approach matters if we are to develop any kind of meaningful dialogue (and drones do not help either).





    Sahih Muslim Book 08. N 3371Marriage

    Chapter: Al-Azl (incomplete sexual intercourse): Coitus Interruptus.

    Abu Sirma said to Abu Sa’id al Khadri (Allah he pleased with him): O Abu Sa’id, did you hear Allah’s Messenger (May peace be upon him) mentioning al-‘azl? He said: Yes, and added: We went out with Allah’s Messenger (May peace be upon him) on the expedition to the Bi’l-Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women;

    and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, (but at the same time) we also desired ransom for them.
    So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing ‘azl (Withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid conception). But we said: We are doing an act whereas Allah’s Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him?

    So we asked Allah’s Messenger (May peace be upon him), and he said: It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born.




    Al-‘Azl, (العزل) also known as coitus interruptus, is the practice of having sexual intercourse with a woman but withdrawing the penis before ejaculation. Apparently al-‘Azl with female captives and slaves was a pretty important topic for Muhammad and his companions as evidenced by the abundance of Hadith material on the subject.
    Practiced during Muhammad’s lifetime
    Narrated Jabir: We used to practice coitus interruptus during the lifetime of Allah’s Apostle .
    Sahih Bukhari 7:62:135
    Narrated Jabir: We used to practice coitus interrupt us while the Quran was being revealed. Jabir added: We used to practice coitus interruptus during the lifetime of Allah’s Apostle while the Quran was being Revealed.
    Sahih Bukhari 7:62:136
    When RAPING your captive, it’s better if you do not pull out at the end

    Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: that while he was sitting with Allah’s Apostle he said, “O Allah’s Apostle! We get female captives as our share of booty, and we are interested in their prices, what is your opinion about coitus interruptus(RAPE WITHOUT PREGNANCY)?” The Prophet said, “Do you really do that? It is better for you not to PULL OUT. No soul that which Allah has destined to exist, but will surely come into existence.”

    Sahih Bukhari 3:34:432

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