Monday, September 18, 2006

Sam Harris on Liberal denial of Islamic extremism

Via Kevin Drum, I came across this LA Times editorial by Sam Harris which accuses liberals of having a "head in the sand" attitude about Islamic extremists.

I have been a supporter of Sam Harris' book End of Faith, because I think it provides a much needed antidote to the pieties and politeness surrounding religios dogma in our society. But here I think he gets a lot of things wrong. Or rather, I think he's attacking a conspiracy theory America rather than Liberal America:
At its most extreme, liberal denial has found expression in a growing subculture of conspiracy theorists who believe that the atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by our own government. A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government "assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;" 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.
While these statistics are somewhat disturbing, I don't think they suggest a particularly liberal form of malaise. Indeed, Harris does not even present evidence that these conspiracy theories were held more by Liberals than by those with other political leanings. Nor does he present evidence that Liberals hold more dangerous conspiracy theories than Conservatives do.

I find myself largely agreeing with Kevin Drum's critique:
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.
That being said, I think Harris does have a point that there is some real violent pathology in certain forms of Islam, and that it is more widespread than some kind-hearted liberals would like to think it is. But I think he misses the mark when he accuses liberals of letting our hatred of Bush blind us to the danger of Islamic extremism. I would say it's the opposite: because we liberals are aware of the danger of Islamic extremism, and because we see how much worse Bush's actions are making it, therefore we hate Bush.


Blogger Heraldblog said...

Liberals would do themselves a favor by speaking out more forcefully about the illiberal abuses of human rights that are endemic in Islamic societies. Where is the outrage when Iran hangs gay teenagers, for example? Or when Hezballah uses Lebanese civilians as human shields? Yes, Bush is an incompetent buffoon, but it's not enough to just hurl insults. His buffoonery would would be more apparent to more people if liberals, moderates, progressives and other sentient beings showed the country what real leadership looks like, and that means being consistent in our outrage over illiberal social policies, no matter where they occur.

1:07 AM, September 21, 2006  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Thanks for posting, heraldblog.

Yes, I agree that liberals should attend to the injustices around the world. I think liberals are very wary of criticizing other cultures, especially those of nations poorer or less powerful than ours (which is most of them) for fear of being imperialistic or insensitive or reinforcing American ethnocentrism. And I also feel that our primary responsibility is to correct our own evils rather than try to reform others.

But some shit is just wack, and I don't care how oppressed the people who are doing it are, it's still wack shit. Killing people for being gay, calling for the death of authors, burning down embassies because you're offended by cartoons, etc. is wrong, no matter what you've suffered at the hands of "the West" or "The Zionist Entity".

But on the other hand, I'm not sure the "you're not outraged enough about X" argument is a good one to make. I'm sure there are issues that we're both ignoring that have a good claim on our liberal conscience. Darfur and the civil war in Congo are two that come to mind that I don't spend much time talking about.

While I wish my own personal sense of outrage always varied in direct proportion to the evil of an act committed, I know it doesn't. There are things I pay more attention to than others, people and institutions who piss me off more than others, things that tend to catch my attention (inconsistencies in American foreign policy) and things that don't (the problem of homelessness, which I don't think I've ever addressed). I think we're all like this, and our blogs are bound to reflect it.

However, I do think we should always make an effort to expand our "sphere of moral concern", and I think the real violent, puritanical intolerance that exists in the Middle East might be a good place to go.

9:06 AM, September 21, 2006  

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