In Gaza Siege, Atheist Author Sam Harris Finds Yet Another Opportunity to Disparage Islam

For someone who propagates the importance of evidence, Sam Harris often ignores his own counsel.

Last week the bestselling atheist author posted a podcast (with transcript) titled: “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?”

While ultimately conjuring the courage to condemn Israel’s siege of Gaza, Harris ultimately lays the blame almost exclusively on the Palestinians, blaming their religion for their woes.

One of Harris’s central claims is that if the Palestinians/Muslims had the chance, they would obliterate Jews. He writes;

“There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would”

Harris would like his audience to believe that Muslims have always been gunning for the Jews in a battle for ascendance—but he has not done his homework.

Mark R. Cohen, who teaches history at Princeton, disputes the “Golden Age” narrative, which suggests that the Jewish-Muslim relationship was an “interfaith utopia” under Muslim majority empires. But to say that Jews and Muslim have never been amicable is a distortion of history:

“The idea of a so-called Golden Age, a Jewish-Muslim interfaith utopia in Islamic Spain and elsewhere in the middle ages, has rightly been called a myth” writes Cohen. “But to say that Muslims have always persecuted the Jews…would be just as wrong indeed, a counter-myth.”

Cohen has described many instances during the middle ages and beyond where relations between the two religious groups had remained cooperative and peaceful. He further reveals that the roots of anti-Semitism are much more recent: “imported into the Middle East in the nineteenth century on the heels of European colonialism.”

Even Bernard Lewis, whose work on Islam has been met with severe criticisms (and rightly so), maintains his position that any inherent hatred within Islam for Judaism or Jews is simply a falsehood.

In his book Jews of Islam, Lewis reveals that Muslim Jewish relations were far more amicable under the umbrella of Muslim rule than in Christian Europe, a notion widely accepted by numerous historians and academic scholars. Lewis writes:

“In Islamic society hostility to the Jew is non-theological. It is not related to any Islamic doctrine nor to any specific circumstance in sacred Islamic history”.

For Lewis, discrimination faced by Jews under Muslim governments had much to do with the perils of being a minority rather than canonic Muslim law.

Journalist Roqaya Chamseddine recently wrote a piece that helps decimate Harris’s nonchalant argument about Arab genocidal intentions towards Jews. As she reminds us, quoting historian Gregory Harms, there were Jews in Palestine well before 1880, “some of who had been there as long as any of the native Arabs.”

Contrary to Harris, Chamseddine explains that, “Presenting the colonization of Palestine as being a religious rivalry …wipes away the existence of these multidimensional histories…including the cultural and intellectual dimensions, which coloured life for all those in Palestine”

The chief evidence of this genocidal objective of the Palestinians/Muslims that Harris alludes to is the Hamas charter, which allegedly claims the obliteration of Jews. Once again, Harris’s propaganda doesn’t hold up.

He discounts the fact that in 2006, before the parliamentary elections, Hamas removed the call to destroy Israel from their charter. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, responded that “We do not fight the Jews because they are Jews per se. We fight the occupiers.”

Not privy to nuance, Harris condemns “Jewish extremism” as a fringe phenomenon. But this extremism does seem to be getting significant traction in Israeli politics. The right wing coalition government led by Benyamin Netanyahu has openly called for Arabs to prove their loyalty to the Jewish state. And during the current conflict, members of the right wing coalition have called for genocidal steps; over the past couple of years such rhetoric has clearly escalated.

Moreover Harris seems to consider “Muslim” and “Palestinian,” to be interchangeable terms, bypassing the truth that a sizable number of Palestinians happen to be Christian. In purposefully ignoring this distinction, he exposes his whole argument as an all-too-familiar anti-Muslim tirade, a habit he seems to be dangerously addicted to.

In naming faith as a basis for the current war, as he does for most such conflicts, Harris’s analysis spearheads an irrational view of the occupation. The Jewish people according to him are administrating an occupation for the protection of its people; and therefore, the settlements, the blockade and Israeli violence makes sense.

Besides a rote condemnation of Israel’s actions, Harris’s raison d’être for Israeli aggression ultimately boils down to Palestinian hatred, which if left alone, will annihilate the Jews. And the roots of this hatred? Their Muslim faith.

Sadly, this is the kind of simplistic analysis that Sam Harris’ readers have come to expect.