Sam Harris and Fareed Zakaria


I have just listened to a pretty good conversation between Sam Harris and Fareed Zakaria. Fareed hoped that contact with the modern world will slowly but inevitably move Muslims away from a literal interpretation of the Koran and Hadith, just as Christian views changed over the centuries not through arguing over Christian doctrine but through contact with the modern world. Sam on the other hand feels we should apply some pressure to specific Islamic beliefs to highlight their incompatibility with our modern ethic, if only for the sake of honesty if no other. This explicit critiquing of Islam might hurry along the modernisation process and spare us centuries of waiting for Muslims to catch up with the rest of us. It would also let Muslim reformers know we are on their side and are aware of the struggle they are involved in. Fareed on the other other hand thinks that critiquing Islam only gets Muslims’ backs up and forces them to choose between their religion and modernisation, a choice with only one possible winner. He thus thinks Sam’s strategy is counterproductive.

Fareed feels that different Islamic cultures across the world and throughout history have manifested themselves in very different ways which suggests to him that Islam is malleable to the influence of culture and not simply a monolithic doctrine set in stone. For example, there have been historical times when Islam was peaceful and Islam in Indonesia today looks very different to Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Sam counters by saying that Islam is generally peaceful either when it is very weak, or when it is very strong and has subdued all non-Muslims to Dhimmi status. He also pointed out that while many people of other religions live alongside Muslims and thus share their political grievances and economic hardships, it is curiously only Muslims who blow people up because of these grievances. Thus while political, economic and cultural factors can influence how Islam manifests itself in the real world just as Fareed claims, there still seems to be something uniquely incendiary about Islam which might be better addressed rather than sweep under the carpet.

I can understand both Fareed’s and Sam’s points of view yet I have to say that the prospect of waiting decades or even centuries for the slowest child in the class to catch up is not one that I relish. Do we really have to continue to be the victims of bombings and beheadings while Muslims get up to speed? Couldn’t they go back to their own countries while modernising? After all, we’ve showed them how to do it, now all they need to do is copy what we did.

My other worry is one I picture as a ‘barycenter’. Though the Moon appears to orbit the earth, in actual fact both Earth and Moon orbit a point somewhere between the two (though much nearer the Earth’s centre). This is their centre of mass, or their ‘barycenter’. If the Moon were to somehow gain mass or the Earth to lose some, the barycentre would shift towards the Moon.

While liberals are convinced that societies move in one direction only and that Muslims will inevitably be won over by liberal democracy I am not so sure. The idea that civilisations can go backwards seems entirely possible to me and I would view the Islamisation of the West as a backward step. And surely the more Muslims that immigrate to western lands, the more the barycenter shifts toward their way of life and away from ours. So why would a Brit, who was happy in the Muslim-free Britain of his childhood, want his country to shift, be it ever so slightly, towards Islam?


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