When Sam Harris argues that we need to “defend them [nominal Muslims],” he fails to realize that the way he constructs Islam actually defends the ideas of those he labels “jihadists”. On Bill Maher’s HBO show a few days ago, Harris joined Ben Affleck and others in a robust discussion about representations of Islam, which followed Maher’s controversial comments a week earlier (which were the topic of Reza Aslan’s generalizing critique of generalizations on CNN which I discussed on Friday). While Harris and Maher both employed the language of “facts,” assertions like the following reflect their choices more than any facts. Sam Harris asserted (starting at 4:00 in the following video),
Just imagine some concentric circles. At the center you have Jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates. . . . Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise, wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they are wanting to work within the system. They are not going to blow themselves up on a bus. . . . Outside of that circle is conservative Muslims who can honestly look at ISIS and say that that does not represent us, we are horrified by that, but they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals, that are deeply troubling. . . .
Choosing to place jihadists in the center of Islam accepts the interpretation of Islamic ideas and practices presented by some jihadists and Islamists and reinforces his other assertion that fundamentalists are not the fringe. Others might want to put moderate Muslims and reformers in the center instead of excluding them. Harris doubles down on this point, asserting, “There are 100s of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people.” In his mind, to “take the faith seriously” means to want to kill people, clearly accepting the definition of Islam that jihadists present and rejecting the understandings of Islam that many Muslims hold.
How do we know who should be at the center of Islam? What does it mean to take the faith seriously? These questions are unanswerable and problematic, as they assume a stable center, a clear meaning that exists free of individual interpretation. More generally, the assumption that Islam acts in the world, teaches ideas, promotes violence (or peace), or “acts like the mafia” in Bill Maher’s terms, provides support for assertions like Harris’ (and that of many who disagree with him).
Islam neither acts in the world nor is a stable entity whose center we can debate. Islam is a symbol, like any word, that people fill with meaning and interpret in various ways (see my earlier discussion of the swastika and its shifting meaning). Whether we read texts, interpret poll numbers, or observe practices, the meaning that we construct for a symbol builds from our own assumptions, observations, and ideas, none of which are complete or infallible. Placing jihadists in the center of Islam is Harris’ choice, reflecting his particular assumptions about the nature of religion, jihadists, the Qur’an, etc. Others place a different group in the center of Islam and ascribe to Islam a different set of central conceptions of the world, built on their own assumptions. Instead of debating what Islam does or what is its center, we need to recognize that the labels for any religion (along with other ideologies and identifications, such as “liberal values” and “family values”) are essentially symbols with no stable meaning or ability to act in the world. People (who happen to have a range of interests and identifications, not just a religious identification) act in the world, constructing meanings and using symbols like Islam to promote or defend various positions. Recognizing these labels as symbols that people employ for various reasons actually undermines the jihadists, instead of supporting them.
Photo credit – “Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles lay stacked in a warehouse in Bosnia and Herzegovinia awaiting transportation to a steel works for smelting MOD 45148207” by Harland Quarrington – Photo source: defenseimagery.mob.uk. Via Wikimedia Commons OGL