A Critique of Sam Harris’ Commentary on “Martyrdom As a Genuine Metaphysical Principle”

Official doctrine requires that those recognized as members of the educated class scrupulously avoid any serious self-reflection. Any crime or atrocity must be traced back to the incurable savagery of the Great Enemy. Today that Great Enemy is “Islamic terrorism.” Much like the “international communist conspiracy” which preceded it, “Islamic terrorism” is meant to strike fear in the hearts of all right-thinking Americans. Any deviation in this arena is troubling a sign of one’s lack of patriotism or, even worse, “anti-Americanism.” In accord with these highly jingoistic narratives, one can easily find intellectuals willing to volunteer their talents in order to sustain this image of the US as a bastion of civilization valiantly resisting the “scourge” of Muslim “extremism.” Among the partisans in this campaign are the so-called New Atheists, in particular neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris contends that the violence emanating from domains of US control are not the result of decades of imperial policies that has left the region in ruins. Instead, these incidents of sub-state violence demonstrate that Muslims believe in martyrdom as “a genuine metaphysical principle.” Harris made this argument in a 2006 debate with author Scott Atran.

In order to advance this view he relied on the oft-repeated myth of Iranian “human wave” attacks during the Iran-Iraq war. When astrophysicist Niel deGrasse Tyson asked if Muslims resort to suicide bombing because they lack an Air Force and tanks Harris was quick to dismiss it. “How do you get a mother to celebrate the suicidal atrocities of her children,” Harris asked. Absent from this complete fabrication was the fact that Iranians were compelled to engage in the “human wave” tactic because they lacked the military equipment to combat Iraqis by conventional means. This fact was pointed out in Flyntt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s excellent study of Iranian society, Going to Tehran. Here they observe that Iranians “did not have adequate [military] equipment.” Furthermore, “at times some Iranian soldiers did not even have rifles … or protective gear.” So not only was Harris incorrect in his conclusion that the desire for “martyrdom” lay behind the “human wave” attacks, but Tyson’s suggestion—that suicidal terrorism is partly traceable to the radical disparity in military technology—would be reinforced if Harris were more intellectually honest about Iranian history. Even the New York Times highlighted this disparity in a 1987 report on the human wave attacks in their description of “Iraq’s vastly superior military arsenal.” A recent report from Flinders University’s Suicide Terrorism Database undermines Harris viewpoint as well. The report concluded that “more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force,” and “Of the 524 suicide terrorists carried out in the past 30 years, more than half of the attackers were secular.”
Human Wave AttacksNone of these unacceptable facts are likely to enter into any discussion about the horrors of “Islamic terrorism.” Consequently, Harris joins the chorus of other scholars for empire who, in the words of the Leveretts, “embellished” this historical moment “with colorful but unsubstantiated accounts of plastic ‘keys to heaven’ being distributed to soldiers and actors dressed as Imam Husayn appearing on horseback to inspire frontline units.” Alongside this complete whitewash of the empirical record is a corresponding dedication to obscuring the US role in fueling atrocities in the Middle East. Therefore, Harris can feign moral indignation over mothers who “celebrate the suicidal atrocities of their children,” but this same sense of outrage it nowhere to be found in relation to US crimes. For instance, in the same video where Harris counters Tyson’s comment on how suicide terror may be linked to the disparity in weaponry he portrays the Iran-Iraq war as a conflict in which the US had no role: “Get the US out of this. Look at the war between Iran and Iraq.”

Any moderately informed student of history could easily point out that it’s impossible to “get the US out” the Iran-Iraq war. Not only did the US support Saddam Hussein in his aggression against Iran, but they also supplied him with the critical intelligence needed to use chemical weapons against Iranians (a fact affirmed in a recent Foreign Policy piece which elicited no cries of “barbarism!” from Harris or any of the other New Atheists). Harris’ response was similarly muted in the aftermath of Israeli terror in Gaza. In an article titled Why I Don’t Criticize Israel? Harris states “the onus is still more on the side of the Muslims here,” and “Even on their worst day, the Israelis act with greater care and compassion and self-criticism than Muslim combatants have anywhere, ever.”

One passage of particular interest is when Harris describes how “Muslims”—He doesn’t designate a specific organization. A crucial feature of essentialist narratives—“have committed suicide bombings, only to send another bomber to the hospital to await the causalities—where they then blow up all the injured along with the doctors and nurses trying to save their lives.” In military parlance, these kinds of attacks are called “double taps”, a clear sign that the culprit is engaged in terrorist atrocities. It’s therefore of special interest that Harris has no words to condemn President Obama, who also engages in double taps in his international drone assassination program. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has carried out meticulous analysis of this grotesque policy in multiple reports.

If one does a search through Harris’ blog one can only find one passing reference to drone strikes and it’s quite instructive, not only because of its brevity but also its content. On the necessity of drone strikes in Pakistan Harris writes “Yes, our drone strikes in Pakistan kill innocent people—and this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the West. But we wouldn’t need to drop a single bomb on Pakistan, or anywhere else, if a death cult of devout Muslims weren’t making life miserable for millions of innocent people and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to open societies.” Just two months prior to this statement from Harris (August 2013) the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a report which stated “Across seven attacks, reports suggested the [CIA] had deliberately targeted a mosque with worshipers inside; to have targeted funeral prayers for a victim of a previous strike; and on six occasions, to have deliberately targeted people going to rescue victims and retrieve the dead from the scene of an earlier attack – a tactic also known as a ‘double-tap’ strike.”

sam-harrisAs a thought experiment, suppose Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi responded to criticism of IS by saying “Yes, our fighters behead journalists and this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the Islamic State. But we wouldn’t need to behead a single journalist from the United States, or anywhere else, if a death cult of patriotic Americans weren’t making life miserable for millions of innocent Muslims and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to Muslim societies.” Even if all of al-Baghdadi’s claims were accepted as true—that the US was making life miserable for millions of Muslims—no rational person would accept such a statement as legitimate because it justifies the murder of innocent people. Yet this elementary moral observation is jettisoned when the security of Harris’ “open society” is under threat. Here Harris is endorsing policies which, by his own admission, “kill innocent people” (in fact, kill innocent people in a way strikingly similar to suicide bombers). Perhaps the “moral imbalance” between “Muslims” and “us” is not disturbed by these outbursts of mass murder because the perpetrator of these unspeakable crimes cannot be accused of religious fanaticism or Islamic “dogmatism”, a “psychopathology” exclusive to those with “frontal lobe anomalies.” We also must scrupulously avoid the fact that Obama consults the “just war” doctrines of Christian theologian St. Augustine to put a nice “civilized” gloss on his murders.

What Harris and other like-minded commentators have failed to do is recognize the transparently political character of the violence carried out by those who the US condemns as enemies. Makerere University professor Mahmood Mamdani articulated this reality in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. “Suicide bombing,” Mamdani notes “needs to be understood as a feature of modern political violence rather than stigmatized as a mark of barbarism.” As these samples of imperial apologetics illustrate, Harris would much rather decry the savage “barbarism” of “Muslims” than investigate the roots of this violence or, more importantly, the violence carried out by the so-called leaders of his own country. Such hypocrisy reveals a commitment to power systems that rises above mere tribalism. This is state worship as a “genuine metaphysical principle.”


Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran by Flyntt and Hillary Mann Leverett 







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