On Sam Harris and Terry Firma on Violence by Muslims

Sam Harris has, in the past, been criticized as being Islamophobic. This is a charge that has been leveled at the New Atheists more generally, as they found a public voice in the wake of 9/11. Harris has an article up on his webpage that will likely further this criticism.

The gist of Harris’s article is to note that religious belief is a genuine motivator of violence in some instances. Harris provides four examples of motivators to violence; ideological motivation being one of them. On the face of it, this is an uncontroversial statement. Harris drives it home because he thinks our deference to religious belief leads us to be weak in criticizing religion. There are Muslims who commit atrocious acts of violence because they are believing, practicing Muslims. Harris doesn’t want to sugar-coat that statement. Nor should he.

However, addressing this basic fact requires nuance and care. This is where Harris has opened himself up to criticism. A common response to Harris’s point is to claim that the religious belief is not actually a motivating factor. Instead, it is seen as a pretext to justify other actions. I think Harris is right to reject this. Let’s use a non-violent example. The Westboro Baptist Church members that picket funerals do so because they genuinely hold their beliefs. Other Christians may find the group’s practice abhorrent. However, the charge that they aren’t “true Christians” but bad people using Christianity as a pretext to justify bad acts doesn’t hold water. (A) It runs afoul of the No True Scotsman fallacy. (B) It robs the members of the Westboro Baptist Church the right to self-identify. Religious people do heinous things because of their religious beliefs. You can’t claim it is not truly religious because you don’t like it.

However, Harris can’t have his cake and eat it too. Most people holding religious beliefs do not commit violent acts of the sort Harris is addressing in his article. Likewise, religious beliefs lead people to great acts of kindness and good. Moreover, not all religious believers will take violent action. Just because jihad and martyrdom compel some to violence doesn’t mean that all seeking jihad and martyrdom will be violent.

Some people’s beliefs in religion leads them to commit violent acts. Pretending they aren’t truly religious beliefs is false and disempowering. However, overemphasizing this point is equally problematic, especially in regards to minority groups. When abused, it can be prejudicial. Hence, the charges of Islamophobia.

To see this in action, Terry Firma, writing at the Friendly Atheist, provided a review of and commentary on Harris’s article. In his article, Firma references a recent Pew Research Center study on Muslims’ views on religion, politics, and society. He points out that the study found that the worldwide median of Muslims who believe that “Suicide bombing is never or rarely justified” is at 72%.

Firma then comments:

Except… well, what about the other 28 percent? There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims on this planet. If 28 percent of them support violent jihad, that’s 364 million Muslims who condone, at least in some instances, the murder of apostates, blasphemers, gay people, cartoonists, loose women, and possibly everyone godless enough to attend a marathon.

The question in the Pew poll asked is suicide bombing was ever justified. How Firma jumps from that to “murdering apostates, blasphemers, gay people, cartoonists, loose women, and possibly everyone godless enough to attend a marathon” is beyond me. It seems to require questionable logic and a predisposition to categorizing Muslims as violent. Just because these groups have been the target of violence in the name of Islam does not mean all Muslims who would justify violence in the name of Islam would have agreed with such acts of violence.

To use a specific example, there may be 28 percent of Muslims who think suicide bombing may be justified, but this does not mean all 28 percent think the suicide bombing of the Christian Church in Peshawar was justified.

Firma continues:

There are 2.6 million Muslims living in the U.S.… x 19 percent… yep, almost half a million American Muslims give suicide bombers and child-murderers-for-Allah two big thumbs up when they feel the violence is somehow justified.

Again, there are 2.6 million Muslims living in the U.S. who think there are occasions when suicide bombing is justified. How that becomes supporting “child-murderers-for-Allah” is beyond me. Except, of course, when one carries a prejudicial mindset about a group of people. A mindset we might call Islamophobia.

Let’s be clear, the question asks if suicide bombings and violence toward civilian targets is ever justified when done in defense of Islam. Some Muslim’s say yes. But only 1% of American Muslims and 3% of Muslims worldwide think it is often justified. 7% of American Muslims and 8% of Muslims worldwide say it is sometimes justified. What does “often” and “sometimes” look like to these Muslims? I don’t know. That level of specificity is not provided. But, these percentages are a far cry smaller than the ones quoted by Firma.

At best, Firma’s post reads as hyperbolic and reactionary. At worst, the post is Islamophobic. I do not know Terry Firma, so I cannot comment on the kind of person he is. However, I feel comfortable suggesting he be more cautious and mindful the next time he tries to tackle religiously motivated violence.

Regarding Harris, he too seems a bit ham-fisted at times. As I mentioned at the beginning, I agree with his point that religious belief motivates violence. I do not think that basic point should be whitewashed. However, it does not motivate all believers to violence. Sometimes, it motivates believers to non-violence. As such, that basic fact must be treated with the nuance necessary of such multifaceted subjects.

Terry Firma’s contribution does nothing but further the notion that atheists are intolerant of religious believers, generally, and Muslims, specifically. Likewise, it uses exaggeration and speculation to accuse Muslims of being more supportive of violence than they necessarily are. I have no problem with cataloging and criticizing instances of religious violence, but fear-mongering a group of people is never acceptable.



  1. tmso · October 16, 2013

    Thank you. I read Sam Harris’ post earlier this week and I wasn’t too sure what to think about it. You’ve written what I couldn’t articulate.

    I’m not a Muslim, nor do I follow Islam (or any religion for that matter), but I do find all the anti-Islam talk from the atheist community alarming.

    Yes, we should be alarmed by religious-motivated violence and yes, we should be outraged when religious morals are written into secular law (or passes as secular law in some countries). And yes (god-yes!), we should do are utmost to prevent those things, but, as you said, we got to target the individuals, not the group. Thanks for your post.

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