Atheists don't get terrorism: Why Sam Harris fails to understand the "Islamic threat"

Blaming acts of violence on the Muslim faith ignores the oppressive military factors that motivate jihadists

Published September 17, 2014 10:30AM (EDT)

Sam Harris           (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia)
Sam Harris (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet. It has been corrected since it first published.

AlterNet Christopher Hitchens said that while atheism does not guarantee a smarter-than-thou intellect, an atheist’s intellectual advantage is his ability to reject false notions on face value. Atheists often pride themselves on being more open than believers when it comes to accepting new information and facts. This is not so, evidently, for luminaries like Sam Harris.

Harris’ recent blog “Sleepwalking Towards Armageddon” is presumably an oblique reply to my recent Alternet op-ed. I say presumably because Harris addresses each of the points I had ticked off against his failure to grasp the driving force of terrorism.

“What are their [terrorists] real motivations? Insert here the most abject hopes and projections of secular liberalism: How would you feel if Western imperialists and their mapmakers had divided your lands, stolen your oil, and humiliated your proud culture? Devout Muslims merely want what everyone wants—political and economic security, a piece of land to call home, good schools for their children, a little leisure to enjoy the company of friends,” Harris writes.

Harris’ bestseller End of Faith reads as a response to the terror attacks of 9/11. At the time of the book’s release, the West knew little of what drove seemingly reasonable people to turn themselves into human missiles. In 2005, I witnessed a twin suicide bomb attack in Bali, Indonesia. Like Harris, I believed religious fanaticism had to be the driving force for such hateful and vengeful atrocities. But maturing counter-terrorism analysis has brought new information to light.

The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which documents all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, demonstrates that it is politics, not religious fanaticism that leads terrorists to blow themselves up. This is supported by research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force.

We’ve spent the last half century waging and funding wars in the Middle East, playing one side off against the other, stoking ethnic rivalries, and arming regimes that inflict economic oppression upon their people. We've encircled the entire region with nearly 50 U.S. military bases and parked an aircraft carrier group permanently at their shores. The 17 Saudi 9/11 hijackers made their intent clear; they wanted the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia.

The belief that Islam is the root of terrorism doesn't explain how Western-targeted terrorism coincides with the period post oil being discovered in the Middle East during the 1930-'60s and the establishment of the Jewish state on Arab Palestinian land. Harris also ignores the fact that Palestinian Muslims welcomed Zionist Jews in the 19th century. It was only when Jewish settlers began taking their land, and when Jews made it clear they did not wish to share the remaining land, that violence ensued.

While Harris gives scant lip service to oil dependency and U.S. support of oppressive regimes, he ignores how our arms for oil strategy has created a permanent majority economic underclass in countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq—which creates an environment for the criminal class to thrive. It’s from the criminal class that groups like ISIS draw their support. Our bases and arms guarantee the flow of cheap oil while at the same time enriching the ruling elite, usually monarchies. The multitude of Saudi princes reside in mansions while a majority of the citizenry live in squalor.

In dealing with ISIS, Harris says, “We won’t even honestly describe the motivations of our enemies. And in the act of lying to ourselves, we continue to pay lip service to the very delusions that empower them.” This is a breathtaking failure to understand what and who ISIS is. ISIS is the Sunni militia. Its leadership consists of former Baathist, anti-Islamist, pro-secular Saddam loyalists. When the U.S. removed Saddam and put 1 million Sunnis on the unemployment line, the 20th-century Western-manufactured country of Iraq disappeared, and Iraqis reached back for older identities: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.

Painting ISIS as motivated primarily by religious fanaticism, rather than tribal territorial goals (self-determination) gives political cover for military hawks to execute a military solution over a diplomatic one. It also leads “millions of Sunni Iraqis to see an alliance with ISIS as lesser evil than submission to the brutal U.S. and Iranian backed regime in the Green Zone,” writes Nicholas J. S. Davies.

Harris’ contention that terrorists are motivated more by the writings of the Koran, rather than by economic, political, social, and military oppression, is based on feeling rather than fact. Harris is unable to explain the transformation of U.S.-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki’s views in the decades before his death, because there is no evidence to suggest that a religious awakening led to his adoption of a radically different theology. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, al-Awlaki told journalists: “There is no way that the people who did this could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion.” Explaining the concept of Jihad, he said, “If there is an invading force from outside, then we would, too, struggle to defend ourselves, and that is where armed combat occurs. So actually, fighting is only part of a jihad, and it’s considered to be a defensive force in order to protect the religion.”

The U.S. government had determined al-Awlaki to be a moderate, and he even spoke at a lunch event at the Pentagon. By 2010, however, he had become increasingly disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy. In a “Call to Jihad” lecture he gave that year, al-Awlaki said:

"We are not against Americans for just being Americans. We are against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. What we see from America is the invasion of countries; we see Abu Grahib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay; we see cruise missiles and cluster bombs; and we have just seen in Yemen the death of 23 children and 17 women....I for one was born in the U.S. I lived in the U.S. for 21 years. America was my home. I was a preacher of Islam involved in nonviolent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion of Iraq and continued aggression against U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim.”

Al-Awlaki’s radicalization is consistent with the historical pattern of political activists adopting a belief in terrorism when political action fails to bring about change. “From the French anarchists who began bombing campaigns after the defeat of the Paris Commune, to the Algerian FLN struggling to end French colonialism, to the Weather Underground’s declaration of a state of war following state representation of student campaigns against the Vietnam war,” terrorism is nearly always rooted in political and economic oppression says NYU adjunct professor Arun Kundani.

“Perhaps one day we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for,” Harris writes. “ISIS has managed to attract thousands of recruits from free societies throughout the world to help build a paradise of repression and sectarian slaughter in Syria and Iraq.”

His choice of words is telling. That Harris says Muslim recruits are fleeing from “free societies” serves to extol our own virtue and conceal the economic factors that make foreign military adventurism appealing to disenfranchised South Asian immigrants of Britain (mostly). He also points to the "failure of multiculturalism.” These claims are patently false. Majorities of British Muslims live in towns that the collapse of the industrial age has left behind. Towns like Luton, England, which is now a South Asian ghetto, have youth unemployment rates higher than 50 percent. People don’t join violent gangs because it’s a wise career choice, they join because in some cities, gang life is the only career choice, and ISIS is a gang that profits from racketeering, prostitution, drug running, kidnap ransoms, and extortion.

Harris' experience of America leads him to believe America is a vessel of virtue, a “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of justice and pro-secular values, while the Middle East is filled with “millions of people far scarier than Dick Cheney,” endless violence and suicide bombers in waiting. “Neither is it an accident that horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world,” he asserts.

Harris’ dehumanization of the Muslim world should trouble even the most casual self-proclaimed free thinker. The U.S. killed more than 150,000 innocent Iraqi civilians during the seven-year occupation. Our “terror is delivered to the wretched of the earth with industrial weapons. It is, to us, invisible. We do not stand over the decapitated and eviscerated bodies left behind on city and village streets by our missiles, drones and fighter jets,” Chris Hedges writes. “We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them.”

Sam Harris remains unmoved from his reflexive post-9/11 position on terrorism. He will not be swayed by new information, data, political realities, exhaustive counter-terrorism studies, geo-political realities, or even his own double standards. Does not such stubbornness make one a fundamentalist?

By CJ Werleman

CJ Werleman is the author of "Crucifying America" and "God Hates You. Hate Him Back." You can follow him on Twitter:  @cjwerleman


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Atheism End Of Faith Islamophobia Religion Sam Harris