by Jerome Grapel…….
I recently saw an interview with the philosopher Sam Harris. Harris has made his mark in the world defending the atheist position against the tidal wave of religious acceptance that is the status quo for most of the world. Being that I am not a “believer”, and being that such a mind set almost always goes unrepresented and extremely under estimated in the American narrative, I’ve always been fond of Harris’s work. It is usually precise, empirical, and easily digestible.
But he recently co-authored a book with a Moslem scholar from England where he ventured outside the yes or no God corral and into a discussion of the geo-political situation in the Middle East. The foundation of the work claims the Moslem religion itself, with its aggressive, warrior mentality, must shoulder much of the blame for not just the turmoil in the region, but the angst and fear now pervading much of the world. Surprisingly, Bill Maher, the super star political pundit — whom I also admire — has voiced similar thoughts on his TV show.
In the interview, Harris constructed the debate as a battle between himself and another great thinker, Noam Chomski. Chomski casts most of the blame for the world’s general state of fear and unrest on the imperial policies of the United States. It is difficult to read Chomski and not be impressed with the detailed minutiae of his work and the conclusions he reaches. When Harris began to make Chomski the boogeyman for an idiotic point of view — and he did so with an ire beyond respectful intellectual disagreement — I could not help but feel personally attacked. And yet — I’d be letting myself down if I did not give Harris his day in court.
Extra, extra, read all about it. Harris attacks Chomski on the Middle East and the world in general. It was a one sided fight with Chomski not in attendance, but for those familiar with his work, he was there in spirit. In this judge’s opinion, this is how it came out:
The first thing I mulled over after pondering the material, were what factors may be influencing Harris in a subconscious way. Remember, he is an intellectual atheist, which would have to entail an anti-religion, anti-clerical stance as well. To be able to blame much of the world’s woes on religion would seem to fit into his world view. I’d also guess — and check me if I’m wrong — that Sam Harris is Jewish. Although I know nothing with regard to his feelings in this sense, you don’t have to be religious to be a Zionist. I make no claims with regard to either of these possibilities, but I mention them for whatever relevance (none?) they might have.
Ironically, although in the end I do not accept Harris’s basic premise, I do not deny the assertions made about the Moslem religion. But I think he is confused as to what caused the current conflict and what motivates it. Harris makes a familiar mistake here: although religion seems to play a role in this whole Middle Eastern quagmire, it only does so superficially. This is not a religious conflict. It is much more a classic imperial-colonial conflict.
The Moslem world stretches in a long swath of territory from the western shores of North Africa to the fertile plains of India. It is primarily an Arab world until we get to Iran and eastward, where other ethnic and language groups swell the Islamic ranks. Regardless of the diversity included here, one thing is constant everywhere: the Moslem religion is the galvanizing social force in all these places. (The exception is Turkey, where secular and religious ideas are involved in an emotional civil war. But even there, the religious influence is still the Big Dog). Islam, in whatever form it comes in, is the primary guide, both legally and socially, for how to conduct your life. The State itself is generally just an administer of these principles. In the Moslem world, religion, one religion, rules.
Sam Harris is correct in one sense: nobody has ever accused the Moslems of being timid pacifists. Their prophet was a warrior. As we’ve all come to know, military action, violence and terrorist mayhem of a horrific nature will not stain the conscience of a substantial part of the Islamic population. Their definition of right and wrong can easily accommodate such behavior. They will not back down physically when they feel aggrieved and their actions, as barbaric as they may be, are justified by the cause.
But does that throw the majority of the blame on them for the current madness in the world?
Let’s examine their foes in this conflict, what I’d rather refer to as the occidental-developed world more than the Christian world. To some extent, as the world has become a smaller more familiar place for everyone, all the nations of Europe, North America and some outlier offspring scattered here and there (Australia, etc.), have very similar cultures. The Christian religion is almost singular in these places, but, unlike the Moslem realms, it is far from being the primary socializing mechanism for human behavior. It plays a secondary role, if any, to the ECONOMIC system and its incentives. In the developed world, what drives human behavior is wealth, commerce, trade, acquisitive power and — cue the trumpets — CONSUMPTION. When it decides to protect its interests militarily, this is what it is fighting for, not some religious code or spiritual concept. This economic concept is so omnipotent in the west we might even say religion has been absorbed into it. Even for the evangelicals — who I like to refer to as the American Taliban — whether they know it or not, their behavior is being shaped by secular concepts more than religious ones.
So what we have here is not a struggle between Christianity and Islam, but rather, a struggle between Consumerism and Islam. In order to explain this, let’s get some historical perspective:
One of the signature developments in the evolution of Occidental history was the Industrial Revolution. It was the beginning of a technological explosion more like a dam giving way than a methodical march forward. It was the catalyst for the idea of “mass production”, a productive mechanism that made almost all of humanity relevant as potential buyers and sellers. It was the genesis of the paradigm of our current culture, which I prefer referring to as “consumerism”. The ability to produce and distribute goods grew exponentially with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. With this spectacular growth came an equally spectacular growth in the need for energy to fuel this behemoth mechanism.
As we all know, the primary food used to feed this hunger has become oil. Equally obvious is the fact that the most abundant supply of this foodstuff exists in Moslem lands. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Occidental colonial apparatus began its incursion into these lands in an effort to secure control of these energy resources. Everything that has happened there since is the result of this effort. Much of what Noam Chomski writes about is related to the lies and subterfuges used by western interests to deodorize this exploitation, an exploitation that has eventually led to the geo-political unrest that pervades the Middle East and beyond. And, just to rub it in, if we add to this the dubious creation of a Jewish state in what had been Moslem lands for centuries — an idea that perhaps would never have been brokered without the fecund energy sources nearby — some form of local resistance is not difficult to foresee. If this resistance, in the western mindset, has taken on tints of barbarism and uncivilized behavior; if this behavior, as claimed by Sam Harris and others, can be related to something inherent in the Moslem religion or culture, this does not change the historical context of the current conflict, where Occidente, now led by the United States, has to be considered the aggressor.
But let’s get down here. Let’s get real. Let’s be honest with ourselves in a way our socio-political narrative never is. If we look back in history, even recent history, can it really be said that Islamic behavior, led by its religion, is any more cruel and aggressive than western culture, led by its economic incentives? I’ll let the readers mull that over on their own, but for this writer it’s a wash, a pick’em, even money.
Noam Chomski, in his ongoing efforts to pick through the rubble of the geo-political reasons for this mess, is far closer to unraveling the truth than Sam Harris with his psychological assertions with regard to Islam. If I had the chance to talk to Harris, I’d say this: if not for this unending thirst to fuel the consumer society, we’d have no problems with Islam.