Reading along #11 | The critic of Islam and misuses of the Ecstasy metaphore

FSM3dSam Harris is an atheist and a proponent of rationality, even advocating for a mild form of intolerance towards certain (religious) ideologies and ad hominem attacks during debates, through which not only the argument, but also its author is put on the spot for adhering to irrational ideas (so, I hope he doesn’t mind when other people do the same to him!). However, it seems that for him, intellectual and scientific rigor doesn’t need to be applied to reflexions on religion, and most notably, on Islam, or at least, that his how his blog post entitled Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy makes me feel.

Indeed, he goes on about Islam by confusing several levels of reality concerning this religion, following the now age-old argument: I’m not totally against this or that ideology, belief or set of values, I even acknowledge that it might have many very positive aspects. But let’s face it: some of its other sides are so dark and dangerous that they completely outweigh anything constructive and right that it can bring along, so we need to fight it as whole and without any nuances! Especially since it can make hundred of millions of victims and alienated victims at that, as in the case of Islam, which concerns no less than a billion people who are supposedly all spell-bound in this dangerous fantasy.

Thus, Mr. Harris completely misses out the fact that there is often a complete and deep gap between the intention of those who produce a message and how it is interpreted by those who receive it. This means that people don’t just gobble down whatever is served them, not even when it is done using extraordinary eloquence and charisma. And it is even more so when part of the message is old and has undergone many changes and interpretations as is the case for the Koran. On top of it, he also completely skips over the fact that the concept of “Muslim” itself can mean many different things depending on who you’re talking to. Not all Muslims are believers in God or even respecting religious rituals. Actually, a surprising number of them are secularized practitioners of religious-related traditions in the same way many Christians are, that is they are “culturally”, not “religiously”, Muslims. In the same way that many European or American people celebrate Christmas or Easter as a special social event devoid of any spiritual meaning, they will celebrate Muslim festivities just for the sake of gathering and partying with friends and family.

sad_scarecrow_clip_art_19065_transMr. Harris starts his piece with the typical straw-man argument that would make any sceptic cringe. In order to caricature those who oppose a simplistic understanding of Islam, he takes on the case of the most disingenuous and delusional academic militant he could find, making it a sort of representative of the average secular liberal position on these issues, simply because his beliefs are “apparently shared by many people“! How many?

Modification June 12, 2013*:

Mr. Harris starts his piece with the typical straw-man argument that would make any honest sceptic cringe. In order to caricature what he calls the “secular liberal” position, he resorts to an excerpt of a conversation he had with professor Scott Atran, pulls it out of its original context and re-frame it in order to make him say something different from what he probably intended, making him sound completely disingenuous and delusional. He then tries to pass these quotes as the average secular liberal position on Islam, simply because what he calls Prof. Atran’s beliefs are supposedly “apparently shared by many people“! How many? We won’t know, but this is enough to conclude that this anthropologist’s discourses illustrate the usual rhetoric opposing islamophobia. By manipulating the terms of this debate that way By framing the whole debate that way, Sam Harris can then present himself as the only reasonable middle-ground between lunatic leftists and Islamic fanatics, and the best placed to speak for the hundred of millions of poor Muslim victims of all these crazy people! And to make his case stronger, he even states that he can understand them better than most secular liberals because he was himself an avid religious practitioner in the past.

Unlike many of my critics, I recognize that these practices profoundly affect people. In fact, I’ve spent thousands of hours doing practices of this kind. I am not even slightly scared of “the Other.” I love the Other—I love his food, music, and architecture, and I even share his spiritual concerns.

This is how he claims that he finds many elements of the Muslim rituals particularly touching such as the call to prayer or the recitation of the Koran, which he finds spell-bounding. But this is exactly this capacity to put people’s mind into a sort of ecstatic state, that he finds so problematic. Because he considers Islam to be the most dangerous religion presently on Earth. How is that? Well, simply enough, Mr. Harris has decided that the most violent and barbarian passages of the Koran constitute the heart of Islam! How does he come to this conclusion? By counting how many people follow the famous reciter of the Koran, Sheikh Mishary bin Rashid Alafasy, on his Twitter account! And deciding that these people do represent Islam (as if there is only one Islam).

Their ecstasy is inseparable from the desire to see nonbelievers punished in hellfire. Is this some weird distortion of the true teachings of Islam? No. This is a recitation from the Koran articulating its central message. The video has over 2 million views on YouTube. It was posted by someone who promised his fellow Muslims that they, too, would weep tears of devotion upon seeing it. The reciter is Sheikh Mishary bin Rashid Alafasy of Kuwait. He has as many Twitter followers as Jerry Seinfeld and J.K. Rowling (2 million). In doctrinal terms, this is not the fringe of Islam. It is the center.

How does he know who these followers are? Well, he doesn’t say. And then, we can really wonder why on earth so many social scientists and governmental experts would go to such length as trying to figure out precisely how Islam is practiced in different countries and settings or even how Muslims see themselves, when all you need to do is count how many people follow specific Twitter accounts!

Thus, the other obvious problem with Mr. Harris’ psychological analysis of Islam and Muslims is that it represents them like a homogeneous bloc of alienated people, incapable of thinking for themselves and modulating their faith, with some few and totally insignificant exceptions like the practitioners of Sufism. This kind of approach just flies in the face of rigorous analysis. If Muslims were so easily ensnared into fanaticism and terrorism, Europe and the USA  should have been completely turned into fields of fire and blood since long ago! This is obviously not the case, despite the war in the Balkans (started by Orthodox radical nationalistic Serbs, one should remember) and some spectacularly murderous terror attacks, without reckoning the fact that Al-Qa’ida has successfully pushed some of our countries to significantly undermine the principles underlying our democracies and states of laws (cf. the Patriot Act in the US, the treatment of “armed combatants” by US forces abroad, and the progressive regression of the laws protecting citizen’s privacy justified by the fight against “terror”, even in some European countries.). But I guess that it is totally foolish to think that a sense of personal failure in life and meaninglessness could have pushed the authors of these terrible acts to such extremism rather than the mere enchantment of recitation!

Moreover, by adhering to such a limited and literalistic interpretation of the Koran, which is that of the Islamic fanatics themselves, and reasoning as if these extremists represented the real Muslims, Sam Harris ends up actually comforting their logics, completely ignoring the many different ways Islam manifests itself. I’m not even talking of the Muslim intellectuals fighting for an Enlightened modern Islam (Irshad Manji, Shirin Ebadi, Gamal Al-Banna, Malek Chebel, Abdelwahab Medeb, etc.) who have been gaining more and more media exposure these last few years. I’m talking of the millions of people who have many different stands with respect to the Koran, Sharia, rituals but also to Islamic customs, etc.

In the countries that have witnessed what was called the “Arab Spring”, a section of the population, mostly urban secularized and middle-class citizens, is now fighting for the revolution to yield a democratic and secular state, against their more conservative and religion-centered fellow citizen, who seem to prefer the Muslim Brotherhood or other salafist movements. In Europe, there are actually many Muslims who aren’t even believers and are more “culturally” Muslims than spiritually! That is, they socially participate in some of the most important celebrations of Islam, but never practice it, some of them (especially from the Balkan) to the point of ignoring the many daily life rules imposed by traditions, such as the ban on pork or alcohol! How can one think that such people, who are attached to democratic values and religious freedom, could be so easily brigaded into violent jihad, simply by the magic of the rhymes? Unless of course you think that they have no mind of their own and are somehow preconditioned to react to such chanting! But then, besides injunctions to do so, as in Mr. Harris’s blog post, I don’t see how anyone would be forced to fall under any spell, even of a beautiful performance!

This video has everything: the power of ritual and the power of the crowd; tears of devotion and a lust for vengeance. How many of the people in that mosque are jihadists? I have no idea—perhaps none. But their spiritual aspirations and deepest positive emotions—love, devotion, compassion, bliss, awe—are being focused through the lens of sectarian hatred and humiliation. Read every word of the translation so that you understand what these devout people are weeping over.

As I used to say to my friends in high school, who kept telling me that once I find the love of my life, I’ll forget all about my idea of not marrying and not having children, it isn’t because I fall in love that I have to loose my marbles (and I haven’t so far)! The same goes for Muslims. It isn’t because they hear some violent passages of the Koran being beautifully recited that they will automatically turn into terrorists or even start supporting terror attacks against non-believers! This kind of reasoning just blatantly ignore decades of anthropological and sociological studies about the way people receive messages, whether from the media or from other sources. Between oneself and folly there is something called education, socialization, self-representations and yes, some morality and the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, as well as between fantasy and reality!

Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not. Secular liberals who worry more about “Islamophobia” than about the actual doctrine of Islam are guilty of a failure of empathy. They fail not just with respect to the experience of innocent Muslims who are treated like slaves and criminals by this religion, but with respect to the inner lives of its true believers. Most secular people cannot begin to imagine what a (truly) devout Muslim feels. They are blind to the range of experiences that would cause an otherwise intelligent and psychologically healthy person to say, “I will happily die for this.” Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.

Yes, sure! So, Mister-Project-Reason is telling us that unless one gets a subjective experience of a phenomenon, there is no way one can understand it. And of course, as we all know subjective perceptions are universal and shared alike by everyone! One really wonders at this point why science relies so much on protocols and methods that aim to reduce as much as possible personal biases! It is even more amazing that social scientists are required to be aware of this specific issues at all times when they do researches! What the heck! You only need to feel it! And this is from a person who wants to “spread science and secular values”! It feels more like he wants to spread  atheism and a sort of blind faith in scientific knowledge, without much regards for the scientific method.

Thus, if the ecstasy metaphor works in anyway to explain the impact of Islam it is only concerning some of the lost souls that move towards radical Islam and sometimes violent jihad for the same reason others fall into the trap of ecstasy: the desire to escape a reality that hurts too much into a fantasy world, which seem easy to understand and to suit some of these persons’ deepest emotional needs. But then, if one looks at those who become the pray of other religious sectarian groups, one realizes that their motivations and behaviors are very similar.

His post basically feels as if Sam Harris had decided to cling to old beliefs, one usually calls stereotypes, if not outright prejudices, and to ignore anything that contradicts it when it comes to Islam. This would explain his very particular selection of sources, something any proponent of rationality would call cherry picking and his tendency to over generalize from specific example, whose significance, both in quantitative and cultural terms, is very questionable. And coming from someone who presents himself as an advocate of science and reason, it is kind of unnerving.

* I have to thank two of the commentators below this post for pointing out the problem with the way Sam Harris treats Prof. Scott Atran. I also must acknowledge that I haven’t heard of him yet, despite him being apparently a worldwide authority in his specific field of study within anthropology. Or I might have come across his name while reading articles, but not remembered it. I must say, I have been juggling with so many authors during my dissertation and feel so saturated at times that I have difficulties remembering specific names. I should have researched better who Prof. Atran was when I read the first part of Sam Harris’ post, but I was so focused on the other aspects of his prose that I got less watchful for the possibility of such manipulation. Had I been a bit more “rigorous” and less impatient, I would have realized that it is quite unlikely that Scott Atran would have said that the expectation of Paradise is not at all part of the jihadist suicide bomber’s motivations, as he seems to be doing in that excerpt reproduced by Sam Harris. I’m not implying that he never said what was quoted in the Mr. Harris’ blog post, but simply that it was probably taken out of context and thus endowed with meanings that were probably not intended by prof. Atran.

Indeed, because Sam Harris wants to reduce radical Islamic terrorists to mere “ecstatic” fanatics who got ensnared by the worse part of the Koran, he tries to make Prof. Atran sounds like he is denying that it might have any impact on radical Muslims. His demonstrations of the brigading of Muslims into murderous intentions towards non-believers, based on some videos which he interprets in a very personal way, typically illustrates what a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument (or the “sneezing argument“) looks like. After viewing the video of two discussions between Scott Atran and Sam Harris, posted by “Otinot” below,  and reading the anthropologist’s Facebook page as well as other sources, I believe that his words were manipulated by Mr. Harris, who seems to consider him more as an enemy than a mere contradictor. This is why I have decided to modify the first part of my own response. One can disagree with Prof. Atran, but doing so by manipulating his words just discredit the manipulator. Especially when the latter is presenting himself as an advocate of science and reason. Sam Harris shouldn’t be that surprised with some of his readers’ strong reactions. He’s calling for it when he is resorting to such dirty tricks.

11 thoughts on “Reading along #11 | The critic of Islam and misuses of the Ecstasy metaphore

  1. otinot says:

    *”I think religion is basically a neutral vessel… and there is nothing intrinsic about religion for the good or for the bad.” Atran (3 minutes and 30 seconds into this talk) This might be what Harris was following up on with this question to Scott Atran.

    Here are a number of videos of direct interactions between Sam Harris and Scott Atran. I hope they can help you arrive at a more informed opinion.


    • Thanks! I’ll watch that later! I realize I should have checked better who Scott Atran was. I guess I have trusted the author too much here, because I have had social science professors saying crazy stuff of that kind before, so I thought it wasn’t unlikely. I guess, one of my own bias has been in the way without me thinking about it at the moment.


    • Alright! I have to thank you for your help and contribution. I have made modifications to this blog post in order to take into account what you and Al have signaled to me about the dispute between Sam Harris and Scott Atran!


      • Al says:

        There is a more detailed exchange from that 2006 conference here:

        Atran has actually posted a more detailed reply to Harris here:

        This part is particuarly interesting:

        “As a final note, I should also mention that I am a lead investigator on several multiyear, multidisciplinary field-based science projects sponsored by the Department of Defense, including “Motivation, Ideology, and the Social Process in Radicalization,” aspects of which are taught to military personnel from general officers down. And I am recurrently asked to give briefings on these subjects to the White House, Congress and allied governments. I know of no comparable demands or operational interest among the political, defense or intelligence agencies of the U.S. and its allies for Harris’s musings on religious ecstasy. In Harris’s strange worldview, which is admittedly popular among many who believe that reason’s mission is to end religion to save the species, failure to apply those musings to stop religiously-directed violence across the globe may well be a another sign of the “crazy” ideas that he regularly ascribes to those who refuse his truth.”

        In fact and in contrast to Harris’ presentation of Atran as some kind of mentally ill and intellectually dishonest quack, Atran’s work has actually brought to the attention of these audiences (policy makers) the successful methods of the Indonesians and others in tracking down terrorists before they act.


        • Hi there!

          Thanks a lot for your precisions and all these links! As you might have seen, I have modified my post to take into account your information. I guess, my lack of knowledge about Atran’s work is mostly due to the fact that these last few years, I have heard a lot more about the work of people in the French-speaking world than in the US or even the anglo-saxon countries. And even though Atran is apparantly teaching in France too, I think he mostly writes in English.

          I’ll try to keep track of his work from now on!


  2. Al says:

    “In order to caricature those who oppose a simplistic understanding of Islam, he takes on the case of the most disingenuous and delusional academic militant he could find”

    Actually, Scott Atran is far from a disingenuous and delusional academic militant. In fact, Harris is completely misrepresenting Atran and appears to be lying about his past discussions with him.


    • Well, what he quotes from Prof. Atran is very disingenuous and delusional. I’m really only criticising Sam Harris’ blog post, not his person or his overall work. I should have been more careful and rather say: “he takes on the most disingenuous and delusional academic militant discourses he could find.” But, at the same time, to say that none of the radical jihadists believes in Paradise, he must be quite wide of the mark.

      By the way, visiting Scott Atran’s FB public page, I indeed found a reaction to these quotes by Sam Harris:

      Sam Harris posted a recent blog about my views on Jihadis that is typically dishonest. What I told him was exactly what every leader of a jihadi group I interviewed told me, namely, that anyone seeking to become a martyr in order to obtain virgins in paradise would be rejected outright. I also said that (and have written several articles and a book) saying that although ideology is important, the best predictor (in the sense of a regression analysis) of willingness to commit an act of jiahdi violence is if one belongs to an action-oriented social network).

      Does it mean that Sam Harris manipulated the quote to make it mean something else than what Scott Atran meant or even invented it? I guess, the best would be to ask the former. But if it turns out that he did twist the whole thing, it would confirm that political bias can deeply even affect those who claim to promote rationalism and scientific approach to the world (not that this is a revelation to me, but from those who spend a lot of time denouncing that kind of bias in others, it is kind of annoying)!


      • Al says:

        It is not even a quote from Atran. It is what Sam Harris said Atran said. You will not find Atran making those remarks in any of his writings.


        • Well, since he is quoting from a conversation, I guess it will be his word against Atran’s word. However, it doesn’t change much to what I say. Whether Atran actually said it or not, this quote is used in bad faith in order to caricature the liberal secular approach to Islam that Sam Harris seems to consider way too tepid.


          • Al says:

            I’ve read the vast majority of what Atran has written on suicide terrorism (which consists of years and years of field research) and I am almost certain that Harris is being dishonest on this one. Harris has done this kind of distortion many times in the past with peoples’ arguments, whilst at the same time screaming that his critics misrepresent him. I have become more and more sick of Harris and his latest piece of writing was one of the silliest things I have read by him.


          • I see. I’ve got to figure out what I’ll do with that specific part of my post. I might try to contact Sam Harris and Scott Atran to ask them how this conversation went. Or change it. I might not have the time to do a go-between and get into a whole dispute with them. It is my fault. I really didn’t think I would have to double-check on this quote. Also, I’m a bit surprised Prof. Atran didn’t refute it completely, but that doesn’t mean anything.

            Anyway, thanks for signaling this to me!


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