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.




  •' DKeane123 says:

    Couple of comments:

    The one Harris quote doesn’t argue that there has never been a peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews – he is talking about contemporary relations. So to refute this quote with historical examples of peaceful coexistance (basically the remainder of the post) is a bit of a strawman. I would need to research your references to see if the majority of historians actually agree with this claim anyways. Citing a couple of authors doesn’t cut it.

    Also, it doesn’t appear from some quick research that they actually revised the charter in 2006, just put forward an outline for governance. So from what I can see, the charter is still in the original form. I may be wrong, but it appears as if they still are founded on the nullification of Israel by Islam. Someone please link with the full updated charter – to a correction if I am wrong.

    As far as how much religion plays a role – this is the “holy land”, and as long as each group claims to be the chosen people, there will be conflict. Take religion away, and the problem gets easier (but not necessarily easy).

  •' Guest says:

    I agree that he is discussing contemporary relations, but his generalizations and conclusions (like the quote in the piece) are simply very broad and could lead many readers to believe that Palestinians/Muslims only understand war when it comes to Judaism or Jews.

    Also later in his piece, he alludes to passages in the Koran about Jews, implying that since its founding, Islam and therefore Muslims, have always been hostile towards the Jews; and since Islam is 1500 years old, it seems obvious that Harris is arguing that previous Muslim attitudes towards Jews were or would always be hostile. Hence, it is fair I think to refer to historical relationships between the two groups to challenge this false assumption.

    If the case is that he is drawing his erroneous conclusions of Palestinians and Muslims simply through the lens of the current Israeli Palestinian conflict, it is vital educate people that their is this whole other history to Muslim/Jewish relations, and the current conflict is more about secular goals than theological ones.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    There can be no value in attacking other religions. The only value is in attacking your own.

  •' stuartcelliott says:

    A confused and, at least in part, dishonest attack on Harris. Siddiqui
    writes that the Hamas Charter “allegedly” advocates the destruction of
    Israel and asserts, to refute Harris, “before the [2005] parliamentary
    elections, Hamas removed the call to destroy Israel from their charter.”
    This, however, was only the Hamas electoral platform. Hamas has not
    altered, changed, or amended its charter.

    Confusing the Hamas Charter and its election manifesto is a an elementary mistake that a competent journalist would not make and which a reputable website like
    Religious Dispatches should have caught.

    The Hamas Charter is, in fact, one of the most hateful, antisemitic, and genocidal document around. Chapter Seven, for example, states “The Islamic Resistance
    Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how
    long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him
    salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims
    fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jews will hide behind stones
    and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there
    is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

    And, Siddiqui would have us believe that there are no theological roots to Islamic antisemitism.

    It should also be noted the Siddiqui writes that Christians make up nearly
    20 percent of the Palestinian population. In fact, according to the figure is 6 percent. A simple fact gone wrong.

    Just this week, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan, refused to disavow his
    assertion that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood in
    matzah. It might be nice if religious progressives paid attention to
    Hamas’s antisemitism instead of engaging in Sam Harris-bashing.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    People can change and grow, and you have to give them a chance. If you throw them in a kind of prison, and feed them bread and water, and demand they come around and say out loud you are right and they are wrong and agree to just go away and leave your sight, and if they agree to all that, then you might consider unlocking the door, If you further demand that every single one of them in your prison individually agrees to your demands. There will always be a few of them who are upset and don’t agree, and it starts to look like your plan is to leave the door locked forever.

  •' harryeagar says:

    Hmmm. And what are we to suppose was going to happen if the battles of 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973 had had a different outcome?

  •' DKeane123 says:

    The comment is silent with respect to issues how the Jews treat Palestinians. From my perspective, there are plenty of Jews pushing to settle greater areas of the occupied territory and advocating for the isolation/segregation of Palestinians. Although, I am unaware of any Israeli Charter that calls for Palestinians to be “extinguished”.

    That being said, if someone had statements in their charter that called for my annihilation – I might be more than willing to advocate for isolation.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Ah, so it appears that the Charter was not changed, and still is valid in the original form. Thank you.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Israel has learned from experience the one thing that works totally is to kill them all, women, men, children, even the animals. That way history skips those people, and after a time nobody cares any longer.

    Palestine is not allowed to be a country, so it doesn’t seem fair to get stuck forever on something that someone said in the past. We need to move forward from where we are, and have people talk. Palestine has zero capability of wiping out Israel, and Israel can do anything they want to Palestine, and we see it happening. The argument about the charter seems to be just a way to forever put these people down, and if you mistreat them you need some reason.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    I agree who has almost all the power in the relationship, with the exception of being invaded a half dozen times from neighboring states. If Pal. dropped the “kill all the Jews”, they would generate a great deal more pressure from the international community (IMHO), a Gandhi or MLK model. I am sympathetic to their cause and think a two state solution needs to figured out, just ain’t going to happen while God is used to demonize the other.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    They are not their own state, and they are not united. There is no one voice who can speak for them. Does drop the kill all the Jews mean every individual Palestinian has to agree to that?

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Seems as if a majority should agree to it. I’m not big into absolutism.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    My point is they don’t really have an official voice. We certainly don’t want them holding fair elections because we don’t trust them. At least that is how it seems based on previous elections. I think you have to give them a chance and see what happens, not go by some political statements of the past that are not now acceptable.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    Well said. There was also a time when Islamic scientists, mathematicians and philosophers led the world (at least in the West.) Sadly, that time is long past.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Thanks. I remember hearing someone talk about how a cleric banned the printing of any books other than the Quran, and that was a big reason for the decline.

  • HORSE MANURE. PURE HORSE MANURE. Read the qu’ran in English, Arabic or even ancient Arabic and find 100’s of attacks on Jews by mohammad. Jew hate and hate for all non-muslims is a core principal of Islam. Without the bogeyman of the evil infidel, Islam would wither on the vine.

  • actually, court Jews did most of the work, but let’s keep that a secret.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    Ummm…no. Al-Khwarizmi and Omar Khayyám (along with Diophantus) founded algebra. Al-Kindi, Ibn Rushd and Al-Rawandi were all leading philosophers. Avicenna, Al-Farabi, Al-Razi, and ibn al-Haytham were leading scientists. None of them were court Jews.

  • Omar Khayyám was a great mind but there were dozens of court Jews who also contributed to the advancements made under Islam.

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your opinion about organized religion.

    My objection was to your comment that “court Jews did most of the work.” My understanding, based on reading about the history of science and philosophy, is that most of the major players were, in fact, Islamic – at least in name. A number of them challenged Islamic dogmatism, but they were hardly “court Jews.” I would be happy to be corrected if that is wrong.

  • GMG248 says:

    I appreciate your words. I lived in Palestine during the 80s. There is no approach that satisfies the divided Israeli community that fluctuates between its calls for peaceful accommodation and calls to expel all non-Jews. The Palestinians know this internal Israeli conflict cannot be resolved and that the one-sided and half-hearted Israeli demands to make peace can never be satisfied. The Palestinians are no real military threat to the Jewish State. Israel is the Goliath here. The greatest fear Israelis have is the fear of internal civil war between rightwing orthodox and liberal secularists who want no part of some new religious tyranny installed in hopes of resurrecting some ancient vision for Jerusalem. This is why Israelis are so sensitive to and repeat the threats of the radical Palestinians ad nauseam. They need this threat to motivate the warring Jewish clans to unite against a perceived existential threat. Otherwise the social contract based on eternal war with the world would collapse. I understand the lessons the Jews and the rest of the world learned from the Holocaust. It is not fair for the Palestinians to have to atone alone for what happened to the Jews.

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