Sam Harris: "Liberals Want to Grade Islam On A Curve," "Political Correctness is Stifling Conversation"


DON LEMON, CNN: The sudden rise of ISIS and its brutality in dealing with its enemies has sparked a heated debate about Islam and what it teaches. I want you to take a look at an argument that broke out on Bill Maher's HBO program between Maher, actor Ben Affleck, and author Sam Harris.


SAM HARRIS, AUTHOR: When you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of

Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.


HARRIS: And that is -- it's intellectually ridiculous.

BEN AFFLECK, ACTOR: So hold on. Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You can interpret that? You can say, "Well, this is..."

HARRIS: I'm actually well-educated on this topic.

MAHER: Why are you so hostile about this subject?

AFFLECK: It's gross. It's racist.

MAHER: It's not. But it's so not.

AFFLECK: It's like saying, "You're a shifty Jew."

HARRIS: Absolutely not.

MAHER: You're not listening to what we are saying.

AFFLECK: You guys are saying if you want to be liberals believe in liberal principles like freedom of speech, like...

MAHER: Right. Right.

AFFLECK: ... we are endowed by our forefathers with inalienable rights, like all men are created equal.

HARRIS: Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas.

AFFLECK: Of course we do. No liberal doesn't want to criticize.

HARRIS: But Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.


LEMON: the mother lode of bad ideas. Sam Harris is here with me tonight. He is the author of "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion."

Thank you. I'm sure you've seen that a lot. You created a firestorm there. Do you stand by your statement that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas?

HARRIS: That's the kind of thing you say when a celebrity is shouting over you and not letting you talk. So it's not -- it requires more discussion than that, and to be fair, that was a context in which it was very hard to have this discussion.

But you know, I can defend that claim. I think that -- that we have an idea here that all religions are the same, that they're all equally wise or equally empty or equally irrelevant. And this is obviously devout believers of various religions don't believe this, but -- but secular liberals tend to believe this. And it's just not true. Our religions are quite different.

And there are many cases in which, you know, Christianity is worse than Islam if you're going to talk about something like opposition to embryonic stem cell research, because Muslims believe that the soul enters the fetus at day 180 or 120, depending which on which Hadith you believe. So I would never dream of criticizing Islam on that point.

But we have to acknowledge that Islam has doctrines like jihad and martyrdom and death to apostates, which are -- which are central to the faith in the way that they aren't in other faiths. And we just have to -- we have to grapple with that. And Muslims have to grapple with that.

LEMON: And you are an atheist, and the point being for many people is that you can criticize Christianity. No one will call you anti- Christian or anti-American, but if you do the same when it comes to Islam, then you're Islamophobic.

I want to get to an article that you wrote. It's called "Sleepwalking toward Armageddon." All right. I'm going to put some of these quotes, and I want you to respond to it.

Sort of in the context of what you were talking to on Bill Maher. You said, "No doubt many enlightened concerns will come flooding into the reader's mind at this point. I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS; nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about the ideas and their consequences, not about the 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously. Why don't people hear that instead of being racist or Islamophobic?

HARRIS: Yes, well, we have a kind of dogma of political correctness here which is stifling conversation. Many liberals want to grade Islam on a curve. You know, that just -- they're not expecting the same kind of civility and openness to free speech and other liberties that we hold dear, and are right to hold dear, from Muslims throughout the world.

And so when cartoonists draw the wrong cartoon, and embassies start burning, we criticize the cartoonist, and we criticize the newspapers that printed the cartoons, and we practice self-censorship. We have -- there was an academic book at Yale University Press on the cartoon controversy that wouldn't publish the cartoons. This is just madness.

And yet, it's a double standard that, if you actually want to look for racism and bigotry, this is the bigotry of low expectations. This is -- this is a kind of racism. And this point doesn't originate with me. My friend, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has made this point many times. And so what we need is the same standard of reasonableness and tolerance applied across the board.

LEMON: OK. I want to get another couple if I can.

You said that "There is now a large industry of obfuscation designed to protect Muslims from having to grapple with these truths. Humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems."

And I think you believe that not admitting that there is a problem does more harm than good. Not only -- mostly to Muslims.

HARRIS: Yes. So what the president wants to say is that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. And I understand why he has to say that, because it would be too inflammatory, given the concern that we are clashing with the Muslim world, to speak honestly about this.

But clearly, ISIS has a lot to do with specific doctrines that are really Muslim doctrines. You know, Islamic doctrines. And it's not just the kind of Islam you get at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. It's the kind of Islam you get if you simply read the Koran and Hadith.

And so, if you're waging jihad against the infidel and killing apostates and taking sex slaves, even, this is in the teachings. And it's not peripheral. It's not -- it is central. And reformist Muslims need to speak honestly about this. And many of them do. People like Majid Nawaz and Irshad Manji. These are people who will not play hide the ball with the articles of faith. They will honestly talk about these problematic doctrines and honestly call other Muslims to figure out a way to contextualize them and put them on the shelf and retire them, frankly.

This is quite a challenge, because we have this idea of revelation, that these books were dictated by the creator of the universe. In the case of Islam it's the Koran. In the case of Christianity it's the Bible. And then you are now hostage to the contents of these books, which can't be edited.

But happily, the Bible is much easier to cherry-pick. And this explains why we can forget about Leviticus and Deuteronomy and so many of the vile passages in there and why Christians never -- you don't hear any talk among Christians about stoning people for working on the Sabbath. It's easier to do that, and -- but we have to encourage the same kind of reformation in the Muslim world.

Show commentsHide Comments

Latest Political Videos

Video Archives