ISIS Debate

This is a recent 10 minute debate I saw on Youtube that annoyed me. In summary, Ben Affleck and the guys to the right of Bill Maher argue that it’s unethical to ostracize an entire religion because of the insane actions of a few people. Bill Maher and Sam Harris are the ones who are arguing against them by saying that a large group of Muslims, even though not extremist, hold extremely immoral stances on issues like homosexuality, abortion, and women.

What bothered me was that they weren’t arguing about the same thing. Affleck was expressing a good point, you should never condemn an entire religion because of the actions of a few of its members. That would be like condemning the practice of medicine because of the malpractice of a few doctors. But there is fundamentally a growing problem, and that is extremism. It’s growing rapidly and powerfully in the Middle East, and as someone who was living there, I’ve seen just how wide spread it’s become.

The reasons are many, and many political commentators will have their own justifications for this rise of terrorism, but the fundamental issue is that there is something that needs to urgently be addressed. Maher and Harris have built careers by criticizing religion. It’s their job. They don’t like what religion stands for, and they don’t like that it’s a dominating and influential force today. Any event or story that exhibits the dangers of religious extremism comes as another argument for their case. It’s a classical case of selection bias. These guys prey on these events, but their comments can be somewhat misleading.

While Islamic fundamentalism is a problem, Islam isn’t. There are many Islamic countries that do not engage in violence, and that is really a case in point. Extremism is created by religious leaders in a region abrupt with turmoil and violence, in a region that is the perfect melting pot for fundamentalism to thrive and grow.

Say you have two chemicals, the first is called ‘chemical A’ and the second, ‘chemical B’. If you pour chemical A into a container, nothing will happen. If you then pour chemical B on top of it, you’ll get an explosion equivalent to that of a nuclear bomb. The metaphor here is obvious.

Harris explained that if you think of Islam in terms of overlapping circles, you’d get the guys blowing themselves up in the core, the guys who think that’s cool but won’t do it themselves just outside the core, and the guys who aren’t cool with the blowing up bit, but love to discriminate against women and homosexuals. I think what he’s saying is mostly true, but he also said that these factions combined make up around 20 percent of the Islamic population, and that’s probably accurate as well.

So what does this all mean? You’ve got 20 percent of an entire religion that’s the second largest in the world (a few hundred million people) who are to most people’s standards, immoral. Should we condemn the entire religion? In other words, if I said that 1 in 5 police officers accepted bribes at some points during their careers, would that mean that all cops are corrupt? Obviously not.

And I suspect that Maher and Harris know that, yet they side step the issue as if they’re answering a completely different question. In summary, yes, there is a growing problem in the world and it’s religious extremism, and a lot of innocent people will lose their lives because of it. Does this mean that we should condemn all Muslims? Of course not, and I doubt any sane person would argue that.

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19 thoughts on “ISIS Debate

  1. I disagree that Maher and Harris were preying on extremists events and I think claiming that they built careers on criticizing religion often obscures the points they’re trying to make about religions. What makes their comments misleading are things like Affleck’s knee-jerk reaction to rail road them as bigots and accuse them of trying to lump in all Muslims or all religions into a box resembling extremism.

    Ultimately, when Harris and Maher argue against religion, and I would say Harris is more eloquent on this point than Maher, they’re arguing against unsubstantiated beliefs. Those incidentally devolve into violence or discrimination, as you stated for a few hundred million people. It’s not the point that most practitioners are peaceful. Nor does it undermine what they’re saying to harp on how many “good” examples of, still unsubstantiated beliefs that don’t result in extreme stories.

    The only blanket condemnation is believing things without evidence. All the violent details and name calling comes after.

    • Thank you for your comment, you raised a number of good points. First off, let me start by saying that I don’t contend Maher’s or Harris’ objection to Islam on the grounds that it leads to bigoted and unsubstantiated beliefs. What I do have a problem with is how they managed to use ISIS to oversimplify the situation. This seems to have some kind of appeal, but it doesn’t work because it’s just not true.

      When I say that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who lead peaceful, functional lives, I’m trying to highlight the fact that those who don’t are effected by other external factors such as regional conflict, war, and poverty. If Maher and Harris want to make arguments against religion, that’s fine. If they want to make arguments against Islam, that’s also fine. In fact, I think a lot of their musings on religion are highly entertaining and thought provoking.

      But to use the actions of terrorist organizations to make broader characterizations of their religion is dishonest and dangerous. They’re not giving enough consideration to context. There isn’t anything inherent about Christianity that gave rise to the crusaders, and there isn’t anything in atheism that gave rise to Stalinism. Similarly, there is nothing inherent in Islam that is giving rise to the fundamentalism that we see today.

      ISIS and all other terrorist organizations should be studied within the context of the region and time period that they operate in. When you single out one factor without owing anything to other factors, you’re spreading a very dangerous message that can easily be misinterpreted. So I’m not saying that religion has nothing to do with this, it may well have a lot to do with it, but it’s critical to be able to resist the urge to isolate it as the only cause of violence when there are so many other dominating factors that can be identified.

  2. I agree that religion is not the sole cause for fundamentalism and do believe we often forget the entirety of the context that breeds the kind of behavior modernity finds barbaric.

    I would hesitate to compare a religious belief to atheism when discussing what is and isn’t “inherent.” There’s nothing inherent in atheism, that’s the point, least of which a path to Stalinism. There is however embedded in certain religions, particularly Islam and Christianity, a bedrock of potential reasoning to justify terrible actions. If you kill people as an atheist, you’re simply a bad or corrupted person. If you kill people and reference your holy book, you potentially feel superior and claim the moral high ground.

    I think the oversimplification is an attempt to explain that you can’t begin to fix the details if you disagree on how to reason through then. Will an impoverished and war torn area happily accept aid or will they resent that it came from “infidels?” Will the majority of peaceful practitioners of their chosen religion fight fire with fire in condemning and isolating extremist factions, or will there be enough of a soft spot by rallying around enough less controversial beliefs?

    It seems that you can’t get a terrorist organization or large enough group of people to engage in bad behavior unless there’s an unflinching allegiance to some form of irrational premise. Picking a religion, capitalism, or undue confidence in your nationality can all lead you to a similar place. And with no one out there attacking “ideas” as persistently as the “new atheist” crowd I can understand how it can seem to be phrasing too broadly, but there still is the unfortunate fact that the attacked beliefs are irrationally underwritten.

  3. “If you kill people and reference your holy book, you potentially feel superior and claim the moral high ground.”

    Right, I believe this is our only point of difference that I can make out so far. Islam as a religion is not violent, there is no part of the Quran that commends the behavior we see today, at least as far as I know.
    When you see footage of young men bowing their heads to the holy book and heading out to battle, it’s a psychological exercise of eliminating fear more than anything else. Obviously, they don’t know that, they really think that what they believe in is fact.

    They’re influenced by religious leaders who assume most of the political control in the region. The power dynamics are so different and I think that’s why there are so many misunderstandings when it comes to discussing this topic. The western world has an entirely different point of reference. What I mean by this, is that government is controlled by politicians who are elected by the people in the west. If the United States were to go to war with Saudi Arabia and priests and men of faith were on the news talking about how this war would bring salvation to their country, it would be absolutely true to claim that religion is the major factor here spurring the war on.

    The situation is fundamentally different in the middle east. The politicians are themselves men of faith and religious leaders, so when you’ve got all these ludicrous beliefs about dying in the name of religion, what’s actually happening is that they’re dying in the name of political interests. There’s a significant political and economic incentive for violence, and it turns out, using religion is supremely effective for mind control. But the idea here is that it’s the use of religion that’s the problem, and not the religion itself.

    And you hit the nail right on the head in your last paragraph when you say.

    “It seems that you can’t get a terrorist organization or large enough group of people to engage in bad behavior unless there’s an unflinching allegiance to some form of irrational premise. Picking a religion, capitalism, or undue confidence in your nationality can all lead you to a similar place.” This is precisely true. These irrational premises are perfect modes of manipulation and they work like clockwork when you throw it in with poverty and lack of education. So when an entire religion is being criticized on the premise of its irrationality, I will always join in on the side opposite to the ones defending religion.

    There are so many questions that religion should answer for, and on that basis, I will have no contention. But again, it is the assumption that a religion is the cause for terrorism that doesn’t make sense. And I’ll tell you why I oppose this notion other than the fact that it isn’t true. There are a lot of things that are being said that just aren’t true, but I don’t pay particular attention to because they don’t matter.

    But the main issue here is that when social commentators make statements like this, they can be creating bigotry and hatred in people who don’t have the urge or incentive to examine the argument further. Affleck in the video was anything but eloquent, and he gave no arguments that remotely made sense but his heart was in the right place. It’s never wrong to say what’s on your mind, but sometimes, when you have a platform that has a very large reach, you should be a little more aware of the amount of social responsibility this entails, and word your statements more carefully.

  4. The Quran actually has many verses speaking towards violence, particularly against infidels, including beheading. One example

    “Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

    Which, to me, regardless of how loose the word “interpretation” is used, seems pretty straight forward. But there are numerous calls to violence throughout.

    I think overwhelmingly we’re on the same page, I just don’t quite understand why you would separate the religion itself from the use of the religion. It feels a little like saying “calories aren’t bad, but too many will make you obese” though, calories in and of themselves are banal and necessary. Believing something in ignorance or standing by irrationality isn’t.

    “But again, it is the assumption that a religion is the cause for terrorism that doesn’t make sense.”

    I hope you don’t think that’s an assumption I’ve been carrying. And I thought I was explaining why I don’t think Harris and Maher would sum it up that simply either.

    I also agree with your last paragraph, and think what happened was in the middle of trying to specifically phrase and unpack their argument, they got hit with a brick that was Affleck.

  5. No, of course I don’t think that you assume religion is the cause of terrorism. I also don’t think that Maher or Harris do either. The point I’m making is it would be better if Maher and Harris didn’t make statements that sounded like we were saying that. As for the Quote from the Quran, these kinds of explicitly violent statements are not exclusive to the Quran. Other holy books have the same kind of language, and this truly is a worrying thing. As for taking these statements in context, and not literally, I don’t know how much of a difference in meaning that would incur. But if you want my take on it, I’d say that these holy books at one time in history were really effective and useful. Again, everything is context sensitive. The language and violent undertones used in those books were effective for getting the message through to people 2000 or several hundred years ago.

    These books were meant as moral guides to a very different society. It’s not wise to try to apply the same teachings to our world today. To give you a quick example, think of the concept of how fornication was considered a sin. It’s a shock to people today, but it shouldn’t be surprising at all. You’re talking about a time when condoms, or any kinds of contraceptives were not invented. I can only imagine how easy it was for diseases to spread around. Of course, in today’s world, that wouldn’t make much sense because we’ve invented ways of stopping the spread of these diseases without stopping the act altogether.

    As for why I separate religion from the use of it, think of it this way. Say they were the same thing. That should imply that everyone gets the same thing out of it. In that, if the fact that they are religious automatically means that they are using it in the same way, they ought to be getting the same things out of it and living a similar lifestyle. But when you see how differently religious people live, you realize it’s not like that at all. You’ve got some of the most peaceful Muslims in the world in the far east and some of the most violent ones in the Middle East. That tells me that something is off. It’s not the religion that’s the problem, it’s how people are using it.

    And, yes, I do see your point for why Maher and Harris would sum it up that way. It makes sense, but I’m not sure the benefit of saying it that bluntly outweighs the harm. That’s my issue with it.

    As for your last statement, you may be making a very good point. Perhaps Maher and Harris, the latter in particular had a lot more to add to their argument that would make it a lot easier to agree with. That’s a very likely possibility.

  6. “The point I’m making is it would be better if Maher and Harris didn’t make statements that sounded like we were saying that.”

    Harris actually explains in his reflection of the “debate” that Affleck wasn’t familiar with his work nor appreciative of how informed he truly was on the topic. I think the larger point is that even hinting that there are problems with the doctrine or those that follow it gets attack by overly-sensitive liberals and they start calling your racist or islamaphobic.

    I’ve done extensive reading/discussing on what various “contexts” we’re to read holy books, and I don’t disagree that meaning and purpose has changed over time. Harris actually makes a good point about this on CNN in that the kind of social reformation in relation to the stoning or slave owning passages in the bible needs to take place for Muslims regarding the Quran and Hadith. It took a while before Christians could “laugh off” stoning or laud arguments about context.

    “That should imply that everyone gets the same thing out of it. In that, if the fact that they are religious automatically means that they are using it in the same way, they ought to be getting the same things out of it and living a similar lifestyle.”

    I don’t think it follows that because you have a belief system and use it to justify some sort of behavior that it means people are necessarily going to use it in similar ways. We’ve previously agreed that any “ism” can be construed and used to justify horrible acts. The thing about capitalism though, is it doesn’t outright call for the beheading of a competing company. Explicit doctrine, to me, makes arguments in deference to “peaceful interpretation” weak if not a bit silly. I’d simply call peaceful Muslims nice people before I shouldered them with the myriad implications of their holy book.

    I can tell you having read nearly everything Sam Harris has ever published, there’s a significant portion of the discussion and his argument that couldn’t even be peeked at given the torrential spitting of Affleck. I would encourage you to read his reflection of things. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/can-liberalism-be-saved-from-itself

    • I agree with almost everything you just said. You make a lot of good points, especially about the reformation of the Bible. I read Harris’ post in the link you sent me, and here are some of my remarks.

      “Contrary to what many liberals believe, those bad boys who are getting off the bus in Syria at this moment to join ISIS are not all psychopaths, nor are they simply depressed people who have gone to the desert to die. Most of them are profoundly motivated by their beliefs. Many surely feel like spiritual James Bonds, fighting a cosmic war against evil. After all, they are spreading the one true faith to the ends of the earth—or they will die trying, and be martyred, and then spend eternity in Paradise. Secular liberals seem unable to grasp how psychologically rewarding this worldview must be.”

      My problem here is that he’s saying things like ‘most of them’ are profoundly motivated by their beliefs. I would like to see a statistically accurate poll of terrorists joining ISIS discussing to the media why they’re joining ISIS before I can believe that statement.

      “But what do you think would happen if we had burned a copy of the Koran on tonight’s show? There would be riots in scores of countries. Embassies would fall. In response to our mistreating a book, millions of Muslims would take to the streets, and we would spend the rest of our lives fending off credible threats of murder. But when ISIS crucifies people, buries children alive, and rapes and tortures women by the thousands—all in the name of Islam—the response is a few small demonstrations in Europe and a hashtag.” I don’t think I’m being uncharitable when I say that neither Affleck nor Kristof had an intelligent response to this. Nor did they pretend to doubt the truth of what I said.”

      Here’s my response to this. Let me start off by saying that the types of reactions we see from the Muslim world to the destruction of Islamic Holy books is completely ridiculous. However ridiculous it is, we should also be sensitive to context, it’s important to be careful and accurate here. I’m not sure Harris is aware of the political situation in the middle east, but there’s actually a war going on between Islamic fundamentalists and their more secular counterparts in Syria, and violence is raging between those two groups all over the region. I’m not only talking about the different offshoots of Islam battling each other, I’m talking about people from the same denomination in Islam fighting each other. If there are people who don’t speak out, it’s because they fear for their lives.

      Let me ask you, if you were born a Muslim, and suddenly groups of Muslim extremists surged into the world and killed everything that moved if it spoke out against them, how brave would you be? This is my problem with Harris. Surely, he knows this. He knows that it’s completely irrational to expect that so many Muslims would speak out against the extremists.

      Why would they go riot when the Quran is being burned? Let’s divide those people into two groups. I assume Harris is talking about the conservatives going out to riot. Again, put this in context. If we go back only a 100 years in the United States, what would the reaction be to someone burning the Bible in public?

      I’m not advocating religion, I’m only making the point that its important to be intellectually honest, and I really think a lot of people aren’t. Harris, being one of them. He thinks the problem is with Islam, it’s not. He thinks it’s a good argument to say that the fear that Muslims have of speaking out is a testament to the violence found in Islam. There is absolutely no logic in this.

      Look, there’s a huge problem in the middle east, and there’s a dangerous spillover effect that’s resulting from it. But unless the west wants to see more alienation and hatred towards them from hundreds of millions of Muslims who are against the extremists, they need to be careful with how they phrase their arguments and make sure they’re pointing the blame at the right people.

      I’m personally very worried about the situation. This disease of fundamentalism is spreading like wild fire, and I want it to end as quickly as possible. Youths are being brainwashed every day, but unless Harris types want to start a religious war, there needs to be an open line of communication with the Muslims who opposing the extremists. And such reformers do exist.

      • I won’t be able to respond to this is more detail for a few days, but I feel you’re not giving Harris enough credit. I also still haven’t understood how the doctrine and explicit edicts of Islam are not an obvious answer as enabling extremists. I’m most confused by “he thinks it’s a good argument to say that the fear that Muslims have of speaking out is a testament to the violence found in Islam. There is absolutely no logic to this.”

        How? That’s an explicit testament. If you speak out, you could die. If you burn the book, you could die. I really don’t understand how it could be anything else.

  7. I should say that I didn’t mean to put myself up to defend Harris’s words in the article. I thought it spoke to some of the questions we raised earlier about his credentials and definitions. I don’t think we need statistics on numbers of people fleeing to joining ISIS about whether or not they are psychopaths to believe how compelling religious doctrine can prove to be.

    ” If there are people who don’t speak out, it’s because they fear for their lives.”

    I’d put money on Harris having a deep appreciation for the political climate in the middle east. Your last line seems to only hammer in the deeper point. In a war of many things, but ultimately ideas, Islam still preempts a place where violence and fear are common.

    I’ve never brought into question the willingness or bravery of an oppressed group of people being slaughtered. Neither has Harris. I’m not sure I understand the reason for the question. He disagrees with being attacked for speaking out against bad ideas. He agrees with the leaders who do speak out against them. There’s still some 80% of Muslims in the surrounding regions and all over the world that could speak louder or stand in opposition. The “general acceptance” of so much unhelpful doctrine the seeming impediment to them ever doing so.

    I don’t understand your “context” arguments or analogies either. Whatever the context, the overall point has been about the bad ideas religion fosters, the improper response from liberals, and the tip-toeing around how to talk about it from Muslims to atheists. The year doesn’t change any of the points related to those issues.

    What has Harris said that is false? As far as I can tell, you’ve only disagreed with “the potential to be misunderstood,” so to speak, in how he describes bad ideas. I would reiterate my point, how is being afraid not a testament to violence?

    Has Harris blamed anyone other than the groups who commit the atrocious acts or who tacitly support their efforts? I challenge you to find a single quote form Harris, in any blog or any book of his, that blankets Muslims under a single kind of extremist or violent position. Still, to one degree or another, just as Christians are responsible for what evil things are said in their book, calling something a bad or dangerous idea is not the same thing as calling every follower of that idea a terrorist.

    Religious extremists don’t need Harris to start a religious war. That’s more to the point. Harris also works with those leaders and supports their efforts to speak out, Ayaan HIrsi Ali for example.

    • “I’d put money on Harris having a deep appreciation for the political climate in the middle east. Your last line seems to only hammer in the deeper point. In a war of many things, but ultimately ideas, Islam still preempts a place where violence and fear are common.”

      Yes, it does, and it also preempts a place where violence and fear are uncommon. All other major religions have preempted places where violence and fear are common throughout history. Therefore, to take a religion and to measure it only by examining the direct consequences it has today is great oversimplifying the complexity of why terrorism really exists at all in the first place.

      “There’s still some 80% of Muslims in the surrounding regions and all over the world that could speak louder or stand in opposition. The “general acceptance” of so much unhelpful doctrine the seeming impediment to them ever doing so.”

      Again, how many Germans could have stood up and spoken louder against Hitler for his brutal crimes and ridiculous ideology? Or the masses of people throughout history who have been too afraid to speak against any form of political injustice or even social injustice such as slavery? Would it be reasonable to condemn those people, to call them morally bankrupt? Should we attempt to find consolation that perhaps since they were Christians, Jews, or Muslims, it must be the reasons they were so passive and fearful?

      “I don’t understand your “context” arguments or analogies either. Whatever the context, the overall point has been about the bad ideas religion fosters, the improper response from liberals, and the tip-toeing around how to talk about it from Muslims to atheists. The year doesn’t change any of the points related to those issues.”

      I agree that religion fosters bad ideas when taught a certain way that involves underlying political motives, but that applies to all religions. My argument from context is built on exactly this. You cannot isolate one factor (religion) and use it as an explanation for violence in a region that is highly complex. You can’t think about how religion is the culprit without recognizes the larger role poverty undertakes, or politics.

      This whole discussion is about one thing, really. We simply do not agree on the categorization of religion. You are okay with saying that religion is the mother of bad ideas, and I am not. I think that’s too simple, and well, wrong. It’s not religion. People can interpret passages from scripture any way they like, and you’ll find that oftentimes, those who interpret it in a way that propels them to commit acts of violence are influenced by other factors that have nothing to do with religion.

      “Has Harris blamed anyone other than the groups who commit the atrocious acts or who tacitly support their efforts? I challenge you to find a single quote form Harris, in any blog or any book of his, that blankets Muslims under a single kind of extremist or violent position. Still, to one degree or another, just as Christians are responsible for what evil things are said in their book, calling something a bad or dangerous idea is not the same thing as calling every follower of that idea a terrorist.”

      “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas.” He took a religion that is practiced by numerous societies, prosperous and poor, educated and uneducated, and insinuated that this religion causes destruction and violence. I don’t know if I’ve made this point before, but if he makes that statement, he is logically implying that all practitioners of that religion are doing bad things. I think that pretty much blankets Muslims together. If it doesn’t, then I don’t know what does.

      I never said Harris was a bad guy. And I don’t think people should tip-toe or hide their opinions away. I only think that they should think about the implications of what they’re saying. Harris might say something like, “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas” and might think that he’s targeting ISIS or Al Qaeda, but he’s simply not. He’s grouping all Muslims together, and it’s not a stretch to see it that way.

      I don’t think a religious war is ever going to start because of what Harris says, or doesn’t say, but a lot of people can take offense to what he says, and feel targeted themselves even though they weren’t intended to be. And would probably create a kind of universal contempt for Islam among people who value his opinions highly.

  8. “to take a religion and to measure it only by examining the direct consequences it has today is great oversimplifying the complexity of why terrorism really exists at all in the first place.”

    Islam is the only one “today” that’s this big of a problem. That’s what’s relevant. I think I’m being nit-picked at this point. Today it’s violent and makes people afraid. Today it has it’s hands as dirty as Christianity in the past. It doesn’t speak to anything to keep bringing up the people are peaceful time and again. They’ve been noted. The fact of their existence doesn’t change what’s happening.

    “Again, how many Germans could have stood up and spoken louder against Hitler for his brutal crimes and ridiculous ideology”

    I’m going to deliberately shy away from this. WWII and Hitler’s Germany was an extremely complex situation that I’ve, incidentally, also read much about, and I don’t think it’s going to help the conversation to equate what we were talking about earlier with that much speculation within the climate of that era.

    I still really really do not understand why you’re bringing up people who are afraid. I don’t know what I’ve said that would suggest I don’t believe or know about people being afraid, in the region, about any number of dominant issues. I don’t know what you’re speaking to. I don’t know what it’s supposed to refute regarding “Islam has and promotes bad ideas.” Every time you bring up a circumstance in which masses too close to the fire are afraid, I feel you’re only validating the idea that Islam is as bad as we’ve said, and now here’s further horrible times to compare it to that it mocks up against.

    “You cannot isolate one factor (religion) and use it as an explanation for violence in a region that is highly complex.”

    So this has all been about isolation? I don’t recall saying religion is the sole keeper of why things go wrong out there. The point has, I thought consistently been, it’s a collection of bad ideas that explicitly calls for and justifies the behavior we see today from extremist followers.

    “You are okay with saying that religion is the mother of bad ideas, and I am not.”

    “A” mother, not “the” mother. I refer you back to my “any ism” lines in the beginning.

    To hold a bad idea is not to say they all hold extremist or violent positions, which is what I explicitly stated he hasn’t done. It is a bad idea to believe things without evidence. That blanket is there, sure.

    One of the reasons I shared the blog was to read his clarifying on that explicit statement “Islam is the motherload of bad ideas.”

    FTA: “The most controversial thing I said was: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” This statement has been met with countless charges of “bigotry” and “racism” online and in the media. But imagine that the year is 1970, and I said: “Communism is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” How reasonable would it be to attack me as a “racist” or as someone who harbors an irrational hatred of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, etc. This is precisely the situation I am in. My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences—but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people.”

    In a significant way, Muslims are united by their doctrine. The the degree in which you do or don’t speak out, passively or actively agree with extremists or conservatives, or hold your head in the sand about your belief system’s potential and it’s consequences, particularly today, then I don’t think it’s unfair to group that behavior as a net negative.

    I think contempt is bred from persistent unwillingness to get to the heart of what he says and why. If someone could sit down for the hours, weeks, or years some discussions might take, and only walk away with a blanket contempt for a concept as nuanced as it’s practitioners, we’ve stepped just beyond the capacity of the words “lost cause.”

    • “Islam is the only one “today” that’s this big of a problem. That’s what’s relevant. I think I’m being nit-picked at this point. Today it’s violent and makes people afraid. Today it has it’s hands as dirty as Christianity in the past. It doesn’t speak to anything to keep bringing up the people are peaceful time and again. They’ve been noted. The fact of their existence doesn’t change what’s happening.”

      That’s just the thing, it does. If people can practice the religion seriously and devotedly, and go on to live very peaceful lives then the problem isn’t with the religion. Most Muslims live peacefully, but as Harris would say, ‘they don’t really take their religion seriously if they do’. This is implying that the problem isn’t with people, it’s with the religion itself. This is precisely what Harris is saying. He is not grouping all religions together in the same box and saying that each one of them is capable of giving rise to evil equally, that it’s more a function of politics whether that does happen.

      He’s saying there’s a clear difference between Islam and other religions in that Islam is fundamentally an evil religion.

      “I still really really do not understand why you’re bringing up people who are afraid. I don’t know what I’ve said that would suggest I don’t believe or know about people being afraid, in the region, about any number of dominant issues. I don’t know what you’re speaking to. I don’t know what it’s supposed to refute regarding “Islam has and promotes bad ideas.” Every time you bring up a circumstance in which masses too close to the fire are afraid, I feel you’re only validating the idea that Islam is as bad as we’ve said, and now here’s further horrible times to compare it to that it mocks up against.”

      The existence of people who are afraid doesn’t serve to highlight Islam’s tyranny. I was trying to show that fear is a natural by-product of any kind of terrorism. Be it Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, Saddamism, or any ism. I’m trying to show that the common denominator between all these things is that they are all terrorists, and have very little to do with what religion they follow, or what God they pray to.

      “So this has all been about isolation? I don’t recall saying religion is the sole keeper of why things go wrong out there. The point has, I thought consistently been, it’s a collection of bad ideas that explicitly calls for and justifies the behavior we see today from extremist followers.”

      It certainly does it not justify any of this. Islam promotes Istishad not Intihar. ‘Istishad’ literally means ‘martyrdom’. ‘Intihar’ means ‘suicide’ and it is not mentioned as a good thing to do in the Quran. To promote the concept of martyrdom means to promote the concept of dying for something larger than yourself. It is a sentiment shared by every culture, every race, at every time period in history. It is not exclusive to Islam. What Islamic Radicals have managed to do use this concept to promote suicide bombing and terrorism. This is not a fault of religion, but a fault of those who have used and manipulated it. This has been my consistent argument.

      ” My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences—but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people.””

      This is it, precisely the problem I have with Harris’ argument. “of beliefs and their consequences”. He is directly implying that Islamic beliefs lead to bad consequences. He doesn’t say anything about how it’s mostly to do with the socio-political climate in the region, he explicitly states that Islam itself has caused people to do bad things.

      This is why he is labelled as a racist or bigot by some people. He’s not calling it for what it is, far from it.

      “In a significant way, Muslims are united by their doctrine.”

      This is absolutely false. Muslims have never ever been more divided than they are now in their entire history. Even terrorist groups are against each other. Shia, Sunni, extremist, moderates etc.. They cannot tolerate each other and wars are being fought over this hate for each other. They are not united, that cannot be further from the truth.

      • I think we’re getting father and farther away from what I thought was an easy initial agreement. If you don’t accept the cause and effect that bad ideas breed, I can’t keep repeating it. I’ve conceded, as does Harris, that of course there’s a mix of reasons for potential violence, you refuse to accept that Islam is one of them. I’d argue a key aspect. I don’t understand why you’re eager to defend them or their ability to hold bad ideas, but it’s not holding water and the more we do this, the less I’m able to pick up on where you’re coming from.

      • I do agree that Islam contributes to violence. Any belief system that propels you to believe without reason, to experience fear, to refuse to question is dangerous.

        My argument isn’t that Islam is innocent, but that is equally guilty. And to appreciate why groups like ISIS exist, we need to include all the factors in our discussion.

        I know you and Harris know it’s a mixture of factors. But do you not see how excluding those factors from your discussion can give the wrong impression to many people who aren’t willing to think much further?

        Just because you appreciate the nuance of the situation in the Middle East doesn’t mean that most people do. In fact, most people really don’t, if I had to make an educated guess.

        That’s why secular liberals call for caution and advise against making Harris-like claims.

        I actually think we agree on many points. I think I prefer a more concise and accurate dissemination of ideas to the public sphere for fear of a large number of people getting the wrong idea. I’m concerned about that. I’m not only concerned with the truth, I’m also concerned about the social impact of ideas and I think it is here that we differ in opinion.

      • I’m wildly invested in the social impact of ideas. I’ll respond later, but I’d agree to a mutual condensing and agreement on what hasnt been resolved and would like to see it in simpler/shorter terms as well.

  9. “That’s why secular liberals call for caution and advise against making Harris-like claims.”

    I think as far as the usual responses, and at least where Affleck was coming from, it’s nothing to do with portraying a more complicated picture as it is labeling Harris a bigot for calling out a demonstrable wrong.

    One comment on the “social impact.” There is no gauging it unless you have an Edward Bernays or Dick Morris level of focus grouping and influence at high places in government. Harris, for example, goes into as many details as you could ask for about clarifying his language, appearing in interviews to adjust the dialogue, writing books and blog posts adding side notes and addendums, and he can still be met with the overly-enthusiastic “bigot-hunter” who would dismiss him.

    Reasonable people seem to agree on a few basic premises as far as how to engage in discourse and when/where it’s okay to disagree. If they don’t come to the table willing nor able to discern the difference between doing that and throwing their stark raving mad opinion as a “counter” to what they don’t like, no amount of specificity or simplicity is going to help them. At least, that’s been my experience.

    • I absolutely agree with this, people like Affleck are the biggest problem. Affleck went into the room with no arguments, just accusations. He went in with no holds barred. When I say that people like Affleck are the biggest problem, I don’t mean liberals, I mean people who treat debate and conversation as a platform to be loud, point fingers, and make their point and then leave with no genuine intent on taking anything out of it.

      Bill Maher is a bit like that, Bill O’Reilly is on the extreme end of the scale. The reason why I made that initial post about the debate was because I don’t expect it from people like Harris who I consider a calm rational commentator.

      As for the point you made about social impact. Yes, Harris does go to great lengths to explaining his positions as clearly and critically as possible. However, the kind of people who are likely to actually bother reading what he has to say in more depth aren’t the people I’m worried about at all. I’m worried about the ones who are already bigoted in their thinking and need people like Harris to frame their opinions under proper context, careful choice of words, and get them to think, not to confirm their opinions.

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