Why Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky are Both Right

Sam Harris recently appeared on Kyle Kulinski’s radio show to discuss his views on “progressivism, torture, religion, and foreign policy.” The impetus behind Harris’ appearance was to defend himself against the accusations of Glenn Greenwald and (the increasingly execrable) CJ Werleman, both of whom had previous public discussions with Kulinski.
Somewhat ironically, Harris sounded rather like Noam Chomsky in the widely read email exchange between the two, in which Chomsky dismissed Harris’ views with an ornery, if not outright angry, tone. Chomsky seemed to think that Harris was misrepresenting his views, and indeed this was Harris’ primary complaint about Greenwald and Werleman. As Harris rightly emphasized, one doesn’t need to distort the views of one’s opponent to disagree, or even harshly criticize, those views. Intellectually honest interlocutors first make sure they understand the other’s position, and then proceed to dismantle it as best they can.

I feel bad that Harris has had such terrible luck with being misrepresented. He holds, I believe, a number of views that I disagree with, but distorting those views is no way to reveal their weaknesses. This being said, on my reading of his work, I think Harris places too much emphasis on the causal role of religion — in particular, Islam — when it comes to terrorism. The exact same could be said of Chomsky with respect to US foreign policy. The truth, on my view, lies somewhere in-between. It involves a complex feedback network of two factors, namely (a) religious beliefs about how the world is and, more importantly, how it ought to be, and (b) the particular material conditions in which human beings happened to find themselves.

If one reads the scholarly literature on religious terrorism, this is exactly the picture that emerges. Consider the Islamic State. This is a Sunni terrorist organization that explicitly sees itself as an active participant in an apocalyptic narrative that’s unfolding in realtime. Their current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the eighth of twelve caliphs in total. A climactic battle in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq will soon commence between the Muslims and the "Byzantine" (eastern Roman) crusaders, after which the Muslims will (re)conquer Constantinople, followed by Jesus descending over the white minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to fight the Antichrist (or Dajjal). The world will officially end in 2076, or 1500 of the Islamic calendar.

These are eschatological beliefs about the future that are actively influencing behaviors in the present. Indeed, the founder of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Ayyub al-Masri, believed that the Islamic messiah, the Mahdi, was going to appear any day, and because of this belief he made a number of strategic decisions (which ended up backfiring). More recently, the Islamic State has been trying to lure Coalition forces to fight them at Dabiq, thereby initiating Armageddon. As an Islamic State militant with the severed head of Peter Kassig, a US aid worker, lying at his feet said in a 2014 propaganda video, “Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

But beliefs among Sunni radicals about the Mahdi, an imminent battle at Dabiq, and so on, simply weren’t widespread before the recent wave of US intervention in the region. As David Cook, a leading expert on Islamic eschatology, writes, "Until the end of 2001 major radical Muslim thinkers such as Abu Mus'ab al-Suri ridiculed the use of apocalyptic prophesies on a popular level. ... With the rise of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, however, this changed." Al-Zarqawi was the forefather of the Islamic State (he headed al-Qaeda in Iraq), and his apocalyptic declaration that, "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq," is found throughout the Islamic State's literature. The spark was, of course, lit by the US when we initiated our "shock and awe" demolition of Iraq, and it was fueled by our subsequent occupation of "Muslim lands."

In times of great distress and upheaval, people often search for interpretive frameworks through which to give their suffering some meaning. Religious apocalypticism, in particular, provides an extremely powerful lens through which to make sense of the tribulations and trauma surrounding oneself. Suddenly there’s a reason to live — and, perhaps, a reason to die. In the end, everything is going to be alright (whew!), because once the end comes the enemies of God will not merely taste death, but will find themselves banished to the eternal fires of perdition. Indeed, eschatology provides the ultimate theodicy: when the last chapter of history closes, God will exact cosmic justice on the world and all those who evaded punishment in this life will finally get what they deserve.

Whereas Harris draws a direct causal line between religious beliefs and destructive behaviors, there’s a further question that he (on my reading of his work) fails to ask: what led people to adopt those beliefs in the first place? Without a doubt, the Islamic State appears to be driven, in a causal sense, by its apocalyptic convictions. And it’s certainly true that such apocalypticism, referenced often in their online propaganda magazine called Dabiq, is a primary point of attraction for foreign fighters flocking to join their ranks. Harris is completely right that if one held every variable stable and simply replaced the tradition of Islam with that of Jainism, or perhaps Buddhism, the degree of violence would almost certainly be orders of magnitude less than it is, if there's any violence at all. In this sense, Islam is to blame.

But it’s equally true that without the long history of brutal Western imperialism in the Middle East, including our 2003 preemptive invasion, Islamic extremism almost certainly wouldn’t be what it is today. In fact, when the Islamic State bulldozed barriers between Iraq and Syria in 2014, some tweeted pictures of the event, excitedly declaring that they were demolishing the Sykes-Picot border. As Will McCant's, a Brookings Institute scholar of Islamic terrorism, writes in his book The ISIS Apocalypse, "Until the Iraq war, apocalypticism was unpopular among Sunnis... . Sunni books on the apocalypse were commercial failures." But the violent destabilization of the region made it begin to look like the world really was ending: people were surrounded by death, with civilian casualties perhaps reaching over a million. In fact, apocalyptic belief among Muslims is currently highest in the two countries most severely affected by US military action, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a Pew poll, a whopping 83% of respondents in Afghanistan and 72% in Iraq anticipate that the Mahdi will appear in their lifetime.

One finds the exact same apocalyptic response to the Iraq War among many Shi’ites. A Reuters article called "Apocalyptic prophecies drive both sides to Syrian battle for end of time," for example, quotes a Shi'ite fighter who states that "he knew he was living in the era of the Mahdi's return when the United States and Britain invaded Iraq." As he puts it, “That was the first sign and then everything else followed,” adding that, "I was waiting for the day when I will fight in Syria. Thank God he chose me to be one of the Imam's soldiers." (The Twelfth Imam is the Mahdi on the Twelver Shia view.)

According to the former director of the CIA, David Petraeus, the proliferation of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, such as the Mahdi Army and the Promised Day Brigade, constitute a greater long-term threat to the region than the Islamic State. The Mahdi Army, whose name makes explicit reference to Shia eschatology, emerged in direct response to the Iraq WarAs Cook observes, along with many Iraqi civilians, this group “likely” held that “the purpose of the US-led invasion was to initiate an apocalyptic war — in this case, to find the Mahdi and to kill him.”

Critics of religion like Harris, in my view, fail to recognize that terrorism in the Middle East isn’t a supply-limited phenomenon that's solvable by a “whack-a-mole” strategy, but a demand-driven phenomenon that's emerged as a consequence of arguably the biggest US foreign policy blunder in history. Consider the poignant words of an Islamic State fighter in a documentary by Vice News: “God willing the Caliphate has been established, and we are going to invade you as you invaded us. We will capture your women as you captured our women. We will orphan your children …” at which point he begins to choke up, “… as you orphaned our children.” He then starts to cry.

Bringing the discussion full circle, Harris is correct in asserting that beliefs influence actions. In particular, apocalyptic beliefs can be used to excuse virtually any act of violence and treachery on the grounds that the present moment is one of cosmic significance and urgency. But beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum. The material conditions in which people find themselves can have a profound influence on the sort of worldview they adopt. And this is where Chomsky is correct. The West has an absolutely sordid history of aggressive, self-interested, and morally questionable meddling in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries. The debacle known as the Iraq War created a situation of widespread desperation that's seduced a whole generation of religiously-inclined people to latch onto extremist views they otherwise wouldn't have accepted. In turn, these views then modified their behavioral patterns in ideologically specific ways.

Like Harris, I see argumentation among people who accept the conversational rules of evidentialism and logic as a cooperative venture. This is precisely what Harris didn’t get with Chomsky, and that’s unfortunate. I hope I've avoided distorting Harris’ views on the matters discussed above. But I also hope I’ve convinced readers that a parochial fixation on religion as the primary (or even exhaustive) factor behind religious terrorism isn't so much incorrect as it is incomplete. A more comprehensive picture makes room for both material and religious factors in the explanatory equation of terrorism, with each factor reciprocally influencing the other. In a phrase, both Harris and Chomsky are right. This could mean that I have either made friends with both, or will receive the disapproval of each.

Phil Torres' forthcoming book is called
The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse (Pitchstone Publishing). He also founded the Center for Existential Risks and Religion (www.risksandreligion.org).