Sam Harris and ISIS Expert Graeme Wood Discuss “the True Believers” of Islamism March 5, 2015

Sam Harris and ISIS Expert Graeme Wood Discuss “the True Believers” of Islamism

Sam Harris doesn’t do short. Even his blog posts often run the length of many, many screens, and his latest piece is no exception. Posted last night, it’s a 12,000-word meeting of the minds between Harris and Graeme Wood, the author of the excellent March cover story in the Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants.”

I’d recommend reading the Atlantic piece first. But even if you don’t, the following extract from the Harris-Wood conversation should stand on its own, and it’ll give you a good idea of the ground that Wood covers in his report. The quotes are from various places in the Harris blog post, and, as presented here, are not necessarily contiguous.

Harris:

One could certainly say that as a vocal atheist, I’m an enemy of all religion. So, in that sense, I’m an enemy of Islam too. But for the purposes of a conversation like this, I’m actually an enemy of “Islamism,” not Islam per se. Islamism, as you know, is the desire on the part of a minority of Muslims to impose their religion on the rest of society (and jihadis are the minority of Islamists who attempt to do so by force).

Wood:

As anyone who watches the Islamic State closely knows, it manufactures propaganda at an industrial pace, and its members are eager to explain themselves. They publish fatwas in Arabic and many other languages represented among the foreign fighters. And they take great pains to describe why they do what they do.

These fatwas and religious edicts are produced by a council of scholars. ISIS has learned men working on these issues and putting out judgments using texts within the discourse and traditions of Islam. They’re not discussing whether something is right in a vague, secular sense. They are using the language of Islam and drawing, indisputably, upon its traditions of religious discourse, especially the Qur’an and the hadīth (the sayings of the Prophet) and the lives of Muhammad’s first followers.

Some readers are desperate to see my article as a portrayal of Muslims as savages, and cannot process that I am actually arguing something like the opposite, and specifically about ISIS. Its members aren’t brainless brutes who cannot think — that’s the Orientalist view, and ironically it’s the view that a lot of people who would call themselves anti-Orientalists take when reading the piece. ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil. …

[C]alling behavior craziness is a trap that a lot of ISIS-watchers have fallen into. If you see members of the Islamic State as thrill-kill nihilists, then you’re not giving them enough credit. It’s very difficult to sit across from one of these people and listen to his scholarly, often fascinating, view of history and then walk away thinking, “Oh, that person is simply crazy. He needs to be in an asylum.” Such a person has specific premises, and his conclusions follow plausibly from them. I think we should pay him the compliment of acknowledging his underlying rationality.

Harris:

Yes, but nor are these people “simply evil,” as you stated. … Calling them “evil” can be as misleading as calling them “crazy.” I’m sure jihadism is selecting for thrill seekers and psychopaths to some degree. But I doubt that it’s a large variable. If 1% of the general population is suffering from psychopathy, let’s nudge that up to 10% for the Islamic State — an increase that would still do nothing to explain the larger phenomenon. I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal. The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people — fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth — who simply believe what they say they believe.

Wood:

I take your point. But since what they say they believe in is the goodness of slavery, crucifixion, and public executions of street magicians, as shorthand I will continue to call them “crazy.”

Harris:

I now have a rogues’ gallery in my mind of pseudo-liberals, both Muslim and not, who are reflexive apologists for theocracy. These people will deny, at every turn, the link between deeply held religious convictions and bad behavior. According to them, all the mayhem we see in the Middle East is “blowback.” Everything is a product of our callous meddling in the affairs of other countries. We have no enemies in the world but the ones we’ve made for ourselves by being bad actors and rapacious guzzlers of oil.

Wood:

Part of this might be love of the underdog. Next to the United States, which is such a prosperous country and so lucky in so many ways, everyone looks like an underdog, especially anyone coming out of one of these terrible regions like Syria or Iraq.

Harris:

Do you have other ideas about why it’s so tempting for liberals to ignore the link between jihadism and religious belief?

Wood:

I think it’s fundamentally connected to a reluctance to see non-Western people as fully developed and capable of having intelligent beliefs and enough self-knowledge to express them. These people [ISIS etc.] articulate well-thought-out reasons for what they do. And yet ignoring what they say somehow gets camouflaged in the minds of liberals as speaking up for them. It’s delusional.

Harris:

If you had full control over US military and foreign policy, what would you recommend we do?

Wood:

We have to think about this with some humility, with respect to what we can do — that is, with some understanding of what our tool kit consists of. And I think it’s abundantly clear that we are not good at massive occupations of countries we poorly understand. Not only that, we just don’t have the appetite for it. We ought to be very gentle in our turning of the knobs in this situation. That’s not to say there’s not an imminent crisis. We are, after all, talking about an organization that would be delighted to kill hundreds of millions of people. It’s not saying, “Oh, unfortunately we have to do this.”  It’s saying, “We get to do this.” So there’s an understandable impulse to stop it immediately.

But I think we might be in a situation analogous to seeing someone writhing around on the ground in front of us, showing every symptom of having appendicitis. But instead of being surgeons, armed with sterile scalpels, we are just laymen who once read a first aid manual and have no tools other than a rusty soup can. There’s no good option, even though we recognize the problem. The overwhelming probability is that the patient will die a terrible death, and we will have to watch.

Harris:

What do you think we should do about ISIS recruits who hold Western passports? Some have burned them, no doubt. And some will die over there, or simply never want to leave so happy a place. But what about the prospect that some hundreds, or even thousands, of Americans, Europeans, Australians, and so forth will return to their home countries fully steeped in the glories of jihad? What should we do about them?

Wood:

I’m less worried than most about the Westerners who head over there. I absolutely guarantee there will be attacks in Europe, North America, and elsewhere perpetrated by returnees from the Islamic State. They will be horrific and will kill, I suspect, hundreds. But the orders of the caliphate are unequivocal: You should attack overseas only as an alternative to immigrating (what they call making hijrah) to the Islamic State. They are playing a long game, and are trying to stock up live bodies and talent in their state, so that they can prepare for an expansionary war and eventually the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and Europe.

These excerpts constitute only about one tenth of the entire conversation. For the full exchange, go here.


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment