Roger Kimball: Why Sam Harris is wrong about Islam
By Roger Kimball:
No doubt many of my readers know about the encounter about Islam  between Ben Affleck, the Hollywood actor, and Sam Harris, the “New Atheist” writer and neuroscientist, on Bill Maher’s show.
I do not know Ben Affleck’s work as an actor, so I don’t know whether he is commonly cast in comic roles. He was pretty funny, in a slightly deranged sort of way, on Bill Maher’s show, but perhaps that is his usual modus operandi.
I propose to leave the substance — if “substance” is the correct word — of Mr. Affleck’s effusions to one side. His performance did make me wonder anew about the odd place of “celebrities” in our culture. Why, I have often wondered, does any thinking person care what Barbra Streisand (for example) has to say about . . . well, about anything not intimately concerned with pop singing? And yet clearly they do, since it’s a rare month that passes without the news that the chanteuse has weighed in  about some matter of political controversy. I’m not sure exactly which subjects I would be prepared to take Ben Affleck seriously on; Islam is certainly not one of them.
This is not, to say, however, that I am prepared to take Sam Harris seriously about Islam either. As the Canadian and (more to the point) former Muslim writer Ali Sina points out in a brilliant article for the Jerusalem Post , the fact that Ben Affleck is wrong about Islam ”does not mean Harris is right.” Indeed.
Harris is widely considered a critic of Islam. In his debate with Ben Affleck, however, he simply recycled a well-meaning but pernicious myth about the followers of Muhammed. “Hundreds of millions of Muslims are nominal Muslims,” Harris cheerfully reported, where by “nominal” he meant that they “don’t take their faith seriously,” “don’t want to kill apostates,” and “are horrified by ISIS [Islamic State].” These are the people, he concluded, “we need to defend,” to “prop them up and let them reform their faith.”
How often have you heard this? I hear it all the time, as often from conservatives as from liberals. The trouble is, as Ali Sina points out, “reforming Islam the way he envisions it is an illusion.”
Why? Harris’s argument — you’ve heard it a hundred times — is basically this: Christianity was once intolerant. There were the Crusades, for instance, but think also of such episodes as the siege of Béziers, a Cathar stronghold, in the early 13th century. Here were Catholics besieging an heretical sect of their own people. When asked by a soldier how they could distinguish the good guys from the bad, Arnaud Amaury, a Cistercian abbot who was helping to lead the fight, advised “Tuez-les tous! Dieu reconnaîtra les siens”: “Kill them all! God will know his own.”
But look at Christianity today. It’s all bake sales, bingo, and transgender-awareness retreats. Maybe the same thing will happen to Islam.
Not likely, as Ali Sina points out. “Even though at one time the religion associated with Jesus had become violent and intolerant,” he notes, “there is nothing violent and intolerant in his teachings. The Crusades were the response of Christendom to jihad, and the Inquisition was the copycat of mihnah, a practice started by Caliph Ma’mun, which means ‘inquisition.’ They have no basis in the teaching of Christ.”
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