Sam Harris on How to Emancipate Muslims by Subjugating Them

by Ahmed Humayun

ScreenHunter_829 Oct. 06 11.07How should the West approach Islam? Sam Harris provides one answer in his book, The End of Faith (2004), a book ostensibly about the pernicious impact of religious faith. A bestseller, The End of Faith received glowing reviews in The New York Times and in many other publications. It has been characterized as a testament to the principles of liberalism, science, tolerance, and above all, reason. Over the last decade, Harris has made innumerable public appearances expounding on the threat posed by religion; in them, he tends to focus special attention on the threat posed by Islam to the West.

Let us examine what The End of Faith has to say on Islam [1]. Harris's overall argument is very clear and straightforward. According to him, the problem with the Muslim world is the ‘irrescindable militancy' of Islam [2], which has ‘all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death' [3]. Harris believes that the West is at war with Islam's core principles, a war it must win unless the religion is radically transformed (the latter possibility is highly improbable in his view).

Is Islam inescapably militant? How could one confirm one way or another? One way is to identify how many militants there are in the Muslim world. By one recent estimate, there are perhaps 106,000 militants around the world out of a population of 1.6 billion Muslims? [4]. Based on this simple metric, it would seem that the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims want to live rather than join a cult of death, and seem to have chosen not to inflict crimes like terrorism and genocide.

How is it that the overwhelming majority of Muslims have been apparently unaffected by the inescapable militancy of their religion? Harris acknowledges that some moderates exist, but states that these Muslims are ignoring or overlooking their religion; in his public appearances, he sometimes calls them ‘nominal' Muslims. Their moderation, in his view, is in spite of their religion, not because of it. This response raises another question, however. How has Harris been able to distinguish ‘nominal' Islam from ‘genuine' Islam?

To see what I mean, consider an example that is dominating the news coming from the Middle East these days—the rise of the terrorist group ISIS, which has engaged in beheadings and slavery and conquered significant territory. Harris would say that ISIS is merely faithfully following Islam. Let us concede, for the sake of argument, that ISIS genuinely believes that its actions are fully justified by Islamic principles and Islamic law. What exactly would that prove? Not only are the overwhelming majority of Muslims not part of ISIS, but many Muslim clerics and scholars have denounced its actions as un-Islamic, and heavily cited the Islamic canon to make their case. [5] How does Harris know his view of Islam – which seems to be identical to the Islam of ISIS and of Al Qaeda and the rest of them—is the ‘correct' reading? The answer is simple: he does not know, but he wants us to accept on his authority that when Muslims commit crimes against humanity it is because of Islam, and when they don't, or when they condemn those crimes, it is because they ignore Islam.

Harris's penchant for making slipshod generalizations about Islam and Muslims has led many to level the charge of anti-Muslim bigotry. His defense is to say that he is condemning bad ideas, not an entire group of people. Yet the slipperiness of this distinction becomes evident when Harris starts offering advice on what is to be done. What does it mean when Harris says that the West should defeat Islam? In the concluding section of the fourth chapter of his book, he starts with this analogy, if we can call it that:

‘In thinking about Islam, and about the risk it now poses to the West, we should imagine what it would take to live peacefully with the Christians of the fourteenth century…' [6]

Harris likes this analogy so much, he uses it several times in the book. It leads him to the conclusion that Western victory over Islam—and the establishment of a ‘global civil society'—requires ‘benign dictatorship' in Muslim countries:

‘…and if it [benign dictatorship] cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.' [7]

Wait a minute: why not support democracy rather than dictatorship in Muslim countries? Because, says Harris, in an earlier passage:

‘… give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root. We should not for a moment lose sight of the possibility that they would curtail our freedoms as well, if they only had the power to do so.' [8]

Well, would economic progress in these countries maybe help? No, says Harris, because:

‘…Muslim prosperity might even make matters worse, because the only thing that seems likely to persuade most Muslims that their worldview is problematic is the demonstrable failure of their societies.' [9]

These are not off-the-cuff remarks or heated statements made in the frenzy of debate. These are ‘considered' reflections and arguments. They are in context.

Now let us pause for a minute and think about what Harris is saying here. Harris wants the West to wage a war against Islam, but of course, you do not literally go to war against a religion. You do not engage in a military intervention against a religion. You do not economically devastate a religion. You do not impose an authoritarian tyranny on a religion. Instead, you commit all these acts against people, ordinary people, men, women, and children. You commit them against Muslims –and the non-Muslims who may live with them or around them. Soldiers fire bullets at people, planes drop bombs on people, and tanks reduce to rubble cities filled with people. Harris is not just advocating for war against terrorists, against the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, or ISIS, groups that kill innocents as a matter of course. He is advocating war against Muslims. He is advocating for the subjugation of Muslims.


Imagine we want to implement Harris's vision. Imagine that we want to emancipate Muslims by subjugating them. We may see one potential wrinkle at the outset. Harris wants Muslim societies to collapse so Muslims abandon Islam, but he also wants dictators to forcibly liberalize these societies. Are not collapsed societies difficult to rule, especially if they are to be liberalized? Never mind, perhaps this is the sort of question that is the boondoggle of lesser minds, those that have yet to fully internalize the principles of liberalism.

Let us say we aspire to establish liberalizing tyrannies in Muslim countries but if that is not forthcoming, we will settle for their collapse as well. Where should we start? In order to maximize the extent of the emancipation, we might focus on the minimum number of countries with the maximum number of Muslims. The country with the highest number of Muslims in the world is Indonesia. It is true that as far as we know Indonesians have not attacked the West. Then again, one never knows what the Muslims will get up to in time, so we may as well prop up a dictator who can sort things out before Djkarta becomes a terrorist safe haven.

The next country on the list, with the second highest number of Muslims in the world, is India. The problem here is that there are more Hindus in India than Muslims by a wide margin, and plenty of other minorities. Also, India happens to be the world's largest democracy. That said, everyone has to sacrifice something for the peaceful and tolerant global civil society Harris wants, and the forcible conversion of Muslims into Harris-style liberals is worth the price.

The good news is that third on the list is Pakistan, which is right next door to India. Indigenous tyranny or foreign military occupation, once securely established in New Delhi, can easily extend to Islamabad. Pakistan is mostly Muslim, and despite a recent democratic election with one of the highest voter turnouts in recent memory, mostly militant, so we can take the gloves off here.

When we look further west and south, Harris's vision seems to be coming to fruition and may not require much work from us after all. In Iraq, which we helped liberate in 2003, unleashing a war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions, society appears to be finally collapsing. [10] According to Harris's hypothesis, collapse is more likely to convince Muslims of their failed worldview than prosperity. One slight hiccup is that the destruction of their society does not appear to have convinced the area's Muslims that Islam is a failed religion. Worse, a minority of them, perhaps ten or twenty thousand, are now part of the terrorist group ISIS. This would seem to contradict Harris's hypothesis, but the issue is probably just Muslim thick headedness. The situation is not bad enough but when it gets there, the salvageable Muslims will get with the program and join modernity.

Finally, to complete our brief survey, further west in Egypt, we finally have a real secular tyranny. After deposing an elected regime, it has established a settled practice of executing non-violent Muslims who belong to religious political parties, a few hundred at a time. Now, no doubt we experience some liberal squeamishness at mass executions without a fair trial by a military junta. We must remember, however, that we live in an imperfect world, and we must remain resolute in the face of such regrettable but necessary actions. It is the only way to dim the ardor of those inescapably militant Muslims. If anyone is still confused, please revisit the principles of liberalism, reason, tolerance, and secularism, as articulated by Harris.


Fixated on his grand aspiration, on the end of faith in general and on the end of Islam in particular, Harris is unable to see the hideous implications of his fantastical nonsense on living, breathing human beings. He has nothing serious to contribute to the very serious problem of militant terrorism. At a minimum, such a conversation would have to account for the complex political, historical, and economic dynamics of Muslim majority societies—especially in the Middle East and South Asia. It would have to assess the linkages between the geopolitical interests of states, the private interests of elite classes, the powerful patrons of non-state groups and the emergence of extreme ideologies. It would have to consider the endemic rivalries that crisscross ethnic and sectarian fault lines as much as religious ones. And it would have to reckon with the impacts that the widening decay of political authority, and the role of Western policies and interventions, are having on communities in the region.

Hard thinking and an engagement with the realities on the ground in these countries will advance the dialogue about what the West can do to defend its security and make things better in Muslim majority societies. This dialogue does not need adolescent fantasies about ending religion and transforming nations through force and tyranny.

Yet if Harris sheds no light on the problem of Muslim terrorism, it is nonetheless important to read and assimilate his notions for a very different reason. After all, he illustrates the obsessions of an influential mindset that has a long and sordid history. This mindset is impervious to facts, history, and reason, and inimical to elementary ethical principles. In this mindset when 19 hijackers ram jets into twin towers with murderous intent, 1.6 billion people are to blame and all are to pay the price. In this mindset, we should profile Muslims, or ‘anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.' [11] In this mindset, the building of a Muslim community center by as anodyne a religious figure as you can imagine, two blocks from the World Trade Center, is a moral travesty, because the

‘…erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity [September 11 attacks] will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.' [12]

If we truly want to advance liberalism and the spirit of rational inquiry in the world, we may want to ask how this sort of rank, militant tribalism can be viewed as respectable opinion and pass without comment in a leading publication. And the sooner we get beyond the shrieking hysteria of Harris and his ilk, the sooner all of us—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—can more effectively grapple with the very real challenges posed by terrorism.

[1] Unless indicated otherwise, all Harris quotations are from The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).

[2] EOF, 110

[3] EOF, 123.

[4] Peter Bergen,

[5] Letter to Baghdadi,

[6] EOF, 150.

[7] EOF, 151

[8] EOF, 132

[9] EOF, 133.

[10] EOF, 128. Harris cannot imagine why Muslims, could possibly have been against the war in Iraq other than the ‘reflexivity of Muslim solidarity' with Saddam Hussein. And of course, he does not account for the very wide non-Muslim opposition to the Iraq War.

[11]Sam Harris, In Defense of Profiling (April 2012),

[12] Sam Harris, What Obama Got Wrong About the Mosque (August 2010),

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