Are Liberals Blind to Religious Extremism?

Sam Harris, whose most recent controversy-stirring book, Letter to A Christian Nation, is reviewed elsewhere in this blog, wrote a largely clear-minded Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times.  For a link to the article, click here .

What I continue to find difficult to deal with in Sam Harris’ writing is that he dilutes the effectiveness of his accurate statements with his deep seated anti-religious bias.  Harris falls into the trap of making broad generalizations about complex topics because he is categorically irreligious and therefore unwilling to accept shades of grey in his manichean worldview.

To wit, I have excerpted some of Sam Harris’ conclusions from the article and comment on them below:

"In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal."

I disagree with Harris’ notion that Liberals "can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions" because I disagree with Harris applying the label "Liberal" to this entire argument.  The problem that he addresses is a different one–  "wishful thinking"– as opposed to "Liberal thinking".  Unrealistic people who do not want to take radical religious fundamentalists at their word may overlook basic moral distinctions and may overlook the fact that radical Muslims do wish to kill all of the world’s 13.3 million Jews– but that does not make them Liberal, it makes them Panglossian.  Getting sucked into an argument as to how much of an overlap exists between "Liberals" and "People Who are in Denial"misses the the real issue here, in my view.

"Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise."  Many American Jews are Liberals and would differ with this statement.  While these Jews may be statistically irrelevant, perhaps a more appropriate question should be, "Why do people insist on refusing to take the daily statements of hate and incitement to murder from Hamas and Hezbollah at their face value?"  I believe that the answer is more complicated than to say "because they are liberals."

"We are entering an age of unchecked nuclear proliferation and, it seems likely, nuclear terrorism. There is, therefore, no future in which aspiring martyrs will make good neighbors for us. Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies." This is a correct statement, but for the use of the word ‘liberals’.  A more inclusive grouping would be to say "Unless those people who live in fear of seeing the draft reinstated and their children-of-privilege going to war" realize that there are tens of millions…."

I suspect that many Americans of all political persuasions would prefer to see the current all-volunteer U.S. Army ‘get the job done’ or ‘get out’ before committing to address the realities of an "inevitable" war against tens of millions of Muslims through a full mobilization of the American people.  Wishful thinking?  Perhaps, but entirely understandable and unrelated to a Liberal Dick Cheney Fear Factor.

"Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies." Here again Harris is left with no allies because he first rejects the tolerant intelligentsia for being in liberal denial and then the evangelical Christian right for being dogmatic, but only slightly less so than the radical Muslim fundamentalists who want to force everyone to convert to Islam or die.  Life’s tough when you paint yourself into a corner– all the time.

"Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game. While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant." In my view, the people who are making themselves largely irrelevant, liberal or conservative, are those who do not recognize that militant Islamic fundamentalism has reached critical mass and that it will continue to vex us with the intent of irrevocably changing our lives.

"Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t. The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants." Being reasonable and tolerant of diversity does not mean that a person is stupid.  On the contrary, it means that you remain open to coexisting with your fellow man– as long as your fellow man has not become a radical fundamentalist whose only objective is your death.  The problem that Harris accurately points out is that too few people– other than the Christian Right in the U.S. and the Israelis– have figured this out– particularly in Europe. This doesn’t mean that they are liberal, or dogmatically multicultural.    

"The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization."

Harris is correct in his final statement– this does not bode well for civilization.  In many respects I share Harris’ pessimism about the current state of affairs because, unfortunately, he may well be proven right in asserting that it is likely to take a series of escalating acts of fundamentalist violence to get the center of opinion to shift to the view that religious fundamentalists must be eradicated through strong resistance. 

Resistance can take many forms, however, and dialogue and negotiation are important elements of  any solution to the daunting problems that the world community faces today because of ardent religious affiliation. 

The answer is not to conclude that raising your child as a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew is a "ludicrous obscenity", as Harris asserts in Letter to a Christian Nation.

In my view, rational people everywhere first have to stop being in denial about the very serious and escalating religious problem that is fracturing the globe (I do see more evidence of this every day).  Second, all of us need to put aside traditional notions of liberalism and conservatism in identifying a common ground to deal directly with religious fundamentalism so that a broad consensus can emerge to define effective responses to the problem.  And third, we need to think pragmatically about multiple ways to resist those whose singlemeinded purpose is to promote death and genocide in the perversion of the purusuit of religious fidelity.  We are, however, unlikely to get there without first experiencing a lot more pain.

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