Sam Harris on Islamic Misuse of Ecstatic States
As my cyber-friend Malcolm Pollack notes, Sam Harris has recently posted an interesting blog entry, "Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy" (June 9, 2013), though he might better have titled it "Secular Misunderstanding of Islam's Misuse of Ecstasy," for he recounts the following anecdote in which he minces no words on Professor Scott Atran's views (and character):
I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of "Alahu akbar!" or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:I would have avoided calling Atran "preening and delusional," but perhaps Harris is fed up with Atran's views, about which I know too little. Be that as it may, Harris proceeds to show embedded videos of various Muslim rituals and recitations (and one Hindu video) that induce ecstasy in those who participate, the last video offering a beautiful Arabic recitation of a Qur'anic verse on "the recompense of the enemies of Allah: The Fire." Of this video, Harris remarks:
"Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?"At a moment like this, it is impossible to know whether one is in the presence of mental illness or a terminal case of intellectual dishonesty. Atran's belief -- apparently shared by many people -- is so at odds with what can be reasonably understood from the statements and actions of jihadists that it admits of no response. The notion that no one believes in Paradise is far crazier than a belief in Paradise.
"Yes," he said, "that's what I'm saying. No one believes in Paradise."
This video has everything: the power of ritual and the power of the crowd; tears of devotion and a lust for vengeance. How many of the people in that mosque are jihadists? I have no idea -- perhaps none. But their spiritual aspirations and deepest positive emotions -- love, devotion, compassion, bliss, awe -- are being focused through the lens of sectarian hatred and humiliation. Read every word of the translation so that you understand what these devout people are weeping over. Their ecstasy is inseparable from the desire to see nonbelievers punished in hellfire. Is this some weird distortion of the true teachings of Islam? No. This is a recitation from the Koran articulating its central message.I don't know that this is the Qur'an's central message, but it does seem a prominent one. Anyway, Harris concludes:
Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not. Secular liberals who worry more about "Islamophobia" than about the actual doctrine of Islam are guilty of a failure of empathy. They fail not just with respect to the experience of innocent Muslims who are treated like slaves and criminals by this religion, but with respect to the inner lives of its true believers. Most secular people cannot begin to imagine what a (truly) devout Muslim feels. They are blind to the range of experiences that would cause an otherwise intelligent and psychologically healthy person to say, "I will happily die for this." Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.I have no difficulty grasping Harris's point about ecstasy in religion and its potential for misuse, and also like him, I cannot understand people such as Atran (assuming Harris reports accurately) who cannot see that true believers do exist and who deny that suicide bombers actually believe that they will enter Paradise.
Some people will always seek outside of religion to find the reason for radicalized believers, but if so, why do some religions produce more radicals than other religions? There must be something amiss in a religion's ideology if it does so.