Regular readers of this blog will know that I admire Sam Harris, but also have some strong disagreements with him. What ISIS really wants is a podcast of his from the middle of last year in which he comments on an issue of Dabiq, that outfit’s mouthpiece titled in deference to their fantasy ground zero, the eye of the apocalypse. His commentary makes me aware that he is far better at making sense of Allah’s finest to those who have never been Muslim, especially those who have never known unfreedom and all-pervading unreason, than I am. I would not have been nearly as able to accessibly comment on Dabiq as he does in this podcast.
I struggle with finding the point, the knot, in the Western mental make-up that makes people reject certain unimaginable things before it even reaches their thoughts, like blinking before you see something heading for your eye. There’s much about the way Muslims are brought up to think (not just ISIS) that Harris lays out very carefully in his commentary. Much of this it would not have occurred to me to explain as I take them to be self-evident. But they’re only self-evident, I’ve come to realise, because I was once a Muslim. If I’d commented on this material, I’d have run into the same tired objections from Western people that I always run into. Harris, I suspect, will do better.
By the same token, I think he still doesn’t quite appreciate what madrassas do to the minds of children. There is a difference between someone who converts to Islam in adulthood, and someone who’d been done in a madrassa. And while the story of the Finnish convert to Islam is horrific and her worldview glows in the same light of insanity as that of her co-religionists around her (and there is no reason to doubt a word of it), it is also misleading. It tends to prejudice the reader into thinking that what ISIS calls for and offers, in fact what the Qur’an calls for and offers, is something that appeals or fails to appeal equally to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It does not. A Muslim who has been through the madrassa experience is primed to be receptive to this and does not require ISIS to turn him or her into a similar monster, indeed, does not require anyone at all, when it comes to it. For as long as there has been Islam there have been people who, if imagined within today’s context, would have been a perfect match for any of the Muslim terrorist groups plaguing the world today. In their own time, they might’ve taken up the sword, or wandered around as isolated, lonely individuals whom others might have politely avoided. I can think of several people I’d known in my childhood (before the world went nuts), who would have been viable candidates for jihad. Muslims turning to practising Islam in the manner the Qur’an demands (for example by joining ISIS) is much more like flicking a switch that sets something in motion, than the voluntarism implied by an appeal a convert might respond to.
Nonetheless, I am very glad that this excellent commentary is out there.