End of Faith: Sam Harris and ‘The Problem with Islam’.




The End of Faith is a clarion call to end all faith based religions but neuroscientist, philosopher and author Sam Harris particularly picks on Islam. He even has a large chapter, helpfully titled, ‘The Problem with Islam’. Harris’s contention is that while adherents of other religions don’t take their faith too seriously, Muslims do. And there lies the rub.

This is somewhat true. It is very rare to come across an atheist Muslim. Rather the term is an oxymoron. It is not uncommon to have a Muslim friend at dinner, refusing to touch the  chicken, because he is not sure if it is halal. Even the bacon eating, wine drinking ‘westernized’ Muslim, ultimately  believes that Koran is the word of God and unlike the Hindu or the Christian, is not given to questioning this fundamental edict. And guessing the religion of those  that get   more jumpy about books, music, paintings, newspaper articles and cartoon is a no brainer.

On a famous TV show, while interviewing Richard Dawkins, the popular TV journalist Mehdi Hasan admitted he believed Mohammad went to heaven literally on a white winged horse and that he was not joking. Now imagine CNN’s Christiane Amanpore admitting she believed the world was created in six days by God or our own Karan Thapar saying he believed the Earth was supported by a pyramid of turtles.

He points out Pew surveys in moderate Muslim Majority countries like Malaysia or Jordan where the majority agreed that the punishment for apostasy should be death. ( Jordan 82 %, Malaysia 62%)

When you see this fundamental difference you can see the point Harris is making. Islam is different. What makes it so different? Harris believes because unlike other religions Koran is one composite book with a central doctrine, much easier to instruct and understand.

Unlike Christianity, where Jesus seems to turn many of the Old Testament dogmas on its head. Which as anyone who has read the Old Testament , will know,  is much more direct call for genocide, mayhem, pillage and murder.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”. (Matthew 5: 38-39). This is just one example.

Harris believes that Koran attaches a certain finality and infallibility to itself. On a Bill Maher’s show that went viral, Harris called Islam a ‘mother load of bad ideas’ throwing the secularists of the world in a mad tizzy calling Harris a ‘racist’ – an inaccurate term most liberals use for those that criticize Islam. ‘Muslim’ is not a race.

Harris goes further to pigeonhole Islam as being in a league of its own, pointing out that the fundamentalists of all religions are not all the same. The Hindu or the Buddhist extremist is more likely to renounce his household to become a meditating vagrant . And the Jain religious extremist is more likely to starve himself to death than hurt a fly,  he writes. But an Islamic extremist is usually thinking of ways of destroying the infidels.  Harris however, conveniently leaves out the systematic genocide of the Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhist Monks in Myanmar .

Author and Neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Harris thinks that Islamic beliefs should be called out for encouraging violence. But he does not elaborate how that is going to stem Islamic terrorism. He only reiterates his conviction that beliefs lead to action so such beliefs should be questioned or attacked.

There is sort of indication in The End of Faith that the more honest interpretation of the Koran is that it preaches violence. Meaning by extension, that Osama Bin Ladin and the ISIS’s reading of the Koran is far more accurate, than all the majority Muslim moderates. Or as Salman Rushdie once said, that if they are saying they are killing for Islam who are we to say they are not.

One must concede however, no matter how much creative interpretations one may drum up , most of the Koranic verses do seem to be straightforward  instructions to despise, segregate, or simply decimate the infidels. The elaborate annotations that come with almost all translations make it worse, since they seem to corroborate the gist of the Koran’s arguments against the non-believers. For example the Hadith, or the Sayings of the Prophet, which as Harris points out, is nothing but a sort of annotation to the Koran, makes the infidel hating all the more pronounced

So why do the liberals echo the politicians in claiming that Islam is a religion of peace? Sometimes this is done right after an Islamic terrorist has blown himself up in a school bus. The liberals sometimes will blame the writer, the painter, and the cartoonist on provoking the Islamists, just as a girl in India is often blamed for provoking the rapists. Or as Salman Rushdie remarked how the liberals behave just like the right wing, not tolerating any criticism of religion particularly Islam.

Perhaps the liberals are just being the nice guys ignoring the obnoxious behavior of their host’s son on the dinner table. There is a possibility that they haven’t read the Koran. But even if they have, liberals are usually usually  more interested in perception than truth.

They are paranoid about being labeled sexists, bigoted, casteist and horror or horrors, Islamophobic and are okay with ignoring the truth in favour of politically correct mannerisms. All of which ironically is fast contributing to the demise of liberal thought and rise of the Right Wing in India as elsewhere.

Two of the biggest intellectuals of our time, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, one  on  this side of the Altlantic and one on the other, point to the socio-political and economic oppression of Muslims or Muslim nations as the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism.

However Harris questions this logic, siting examples of the 9/11 bombers who were all well educated Muslim men living in privilege. So was Osama Bin Laden and so was  Omar Sheikh, Daniel Pearl killer and a London School of Economics alumni. So are so many other lone-wolf attackers in the western and the developing world.

But what begs the question and Harris evades it in the book,  is that even if Islam preaches violence what is the wisdom of pointing it out when the majority believes otherwise. Perhaps there is a psychological reason of pushing the,  Islam-is -peaceful theory. Its just like encouraging a bad boy to be good by constantly saying he is good. This serves to confuse the impressionable  no matter what the fundamentalists preach or what they read in the Koran.

The book also does not explore why Muslims tend to be more religious. Is it plain fear drummed into them from childhood of everlasting hellfire and such that no amount of education or exposure will erase? Or is it just blind greed for rewards promised in the hereafter (the pull of the 72 virgins for martyrs remaining the ultimate carrot).

In the end after decimating Islam and in some measure Christianity, Harris (predictably? )  roots for Eastern mysticism.

“When great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical and theological traditions, the difference is unmistakable: Buddha, Shankara, Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Longchenpa, and countless others down to the present have no equivalents in the West”, he writes indulgently.

Western Philosophy is build on the edifice of Descartes famous, “I think, therefore I am”. A Zen mystic would laugh at that and say ‘’You think? Therefore you are not”. And advise  not to be a slave to the ‘monkey mind’ and observer the simple,  empirical and quotidian. For example, one’s breath.  A commonplace,  and if one can say,  a scientific way of life.

The book leaves many gaping holes in the understanding of Islam but is a must read, especially for liberals who parrot everything that seems compatible with the narrow liberal narrative of the day and that which reassert their own preconceived certitudes.


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