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ZAKARIA: One month ago the celebrated atheist, author, and neuroscientist Sam Harris appeared on "Real Time," Bill Maher's HBO show. The conversation about Islam that ensued created quite a bit of controversy. Harris said, among other things, that, quote, "Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas." Unquote. He went on to say that more than 20 percent of Muslims are either jihadists or Islamist who want to foist their religion on the rest of humanity. That comes out to about 300 million people.
I beg to differ and said as much when I responded with my own thoughts on the show. But I wanted to talk to Mr. Harris in person so here he is. He's the author of a new book "Waking Up," and we might get to it.
SAM HARRIS, AUTHOR, "WAKING UP": Yes.
ZAKARIA: But first I want to ask you about that number.
ZAKARIA: Which struck me as sort of pulled out of a hat. If you do have, you know, something in the range of 20 percent of all Muslims who are either jihadists or Islamists and, you know, which implies condoning violence and such, I'm just doing the math, that comes to about 300 million.
ZAKARIA: So there's -- there were 10,000 terrorist events last year. Let's assume that 100 people -- let's assume all of those were Muslim. Let's assume each event was planned by 100 people, neither of those assumptions is right but I'm being generous.
ZAKARIA: That comes to about a million people who are jihadists. So that still leaves us with 299 million missing Muslim terrorists.
HARRIS: Yes. Right. Well, there are a few distinctions, I think, we have to make. One is there's a difference between a jihadist and an Islamist. And there I was talking about Islamists and jihadists together. And so Islamists are people who want to foist their interpretation of Islam on the rest of society and sometimes they have a revolutionary bent, sometimes they have more of a normal political bent, but they do want --
ZAKARIA: But the fact that somebody may believe that, for example, Sharia should obtain and women's testimony should be worth half a man's in court.
ZAKARIA: Doesn't mean that they want to kill people.
HARRIS: Well, no --
ZAKARIA: Being conservative and religious, which by the way is not my orientation at all, but it's different from wanting to kill people.
HARRIS: Yes, yes. Well, we should -- again, you have to this on specific points like, do you favor killing apostates? Do you think adulterers should be killed? And even among Islamists you'd find more subscribing to one versus the other depending on the poll you trust. But I didn't just pull the number out of a hat. There's a group at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill that looked at 40 years of parliamentary elections in the Muslim world. Literally every election that has occurred and found Islamists got 15 percent of the votes.
So I would say that -- if you take that number 15 percent who will vote for Islamist parties and then you look at the poll results on specific implementation of Sharia law, so do you want adulterers and thieves given the traditional punishments or should apostates be killed, you find -- you never find the number with very few exceptions. You never find the number as low as 15 percent voting in favor of those punishments. It's often 60 percent depending on the society./p>
ZAKARIA: Right. And --
HARRIS: So I was -- I believe nudging that up to something around 20 percent is still a conservative estimate of the percentage of Muslims worldwide who have values relating to human rights and free speech that are really in zero sum contest with our own. And I just think we have to speak honestly about that.
ZAKARIA: Clearly Islam has a problem today but there have been periods when Islam was at the vanguard of modernity. You know, it was the place that preserved Aristotle and preserved science. So if it was Islam that was the problem, how come it was OK then? In other words that would suggest that it is the social and political conditions within Muslim societies or -- you know, the people -- in other words clearly Islam has been compatible with peace and progress and it is compatible with violence I would argue just like all religions.
HARRIS: Yes. Well, up to a point. I would say that specific ideas have specific consequences, and the idea of jihad is not a new one. It's not an invention of the 20th century. Many people are now spreading a very PC and sanitized history of religious conflict.
Islam has been spread by the sword for over 1,000 years, and, yes, there are -- there's been an intensification for obvious political reasons of intolerance in the 20th century, but the idea that life for Christians and Jews as Dhimmi under Muslim rulers for 1,000 years was good doesn't make any sense and certainly life for Jews when you --
ZAKARIA: Wait a second --
HARRIS: When you compare it to medieval Christendom then OK it might --
ZAKARIA: But that was the main alternative.
ZAKARIA: I mean, that's why when the Jews left Spain and were expelled they went to the place that they thought was most hospitable to them which was the Ottoman Empire.
HARRIS: Yes. OK. But so --
ZAKARIA: Which is the caliphate, right?
HARRIS: You know, I criticize Christianity as much as anyone. I wrote a book "Letter to a Christian Nation".
HARRIS: Which just say a vilification of the history of Christianity, the influence of the beliefs in the modern world --
ZAKARIA: I would have thought having written that book you would recognize that there are elements of Christianity that, as you point out in that book are --
HARRIS: There are. There are.
ZAKARIA: -- compatible and celebrate slavery and violence.
HARRIS: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.
ZAKARIA: And, you know, all these very, very backward attitudes, and yet there are times when Christianity represented that and at times when it represented peace and modernity.
HARRIS: OK. But there's a few things we have to distinguish here. One is, specific ideas have specific consequences. So when you ask why Jews aren't living out of Leviticus and Deuteronomy anymore and not -- they're not sanctioning genocide, they're sanctioning killing people for working on the Sabbath, there are several answers to that question. One is that there is no Sanhedrin. But the fact that they don't have a Sanhedrin makes --
ZAKARIA: Explain what a Sanhedrin means.
HARRIS: It's a consecrated body of elders in the community that can judge whether or not somebody should be killed for working on the Sabbath. So the details matter. And one of the details here is that a belief that in Islam that the one true faith has to conquer the world through jihad essentially and that free speech --
ZAKARIA: But jihad means different things to different people.
HARRIS: I agree with you that we have to convince the Muslim world or get the Muslim world to convince itself that jihad really just means an inner spiritual struggle. But that is the end game for civilization but the reality is an honest reading of the text and an honest reading of Muslim history makes jihad look very much like holy wars.
ZAKARIA: So in that sense, the problem is you and Osama bin Laden agree.
HARRIS: Well --
ZAKARIA: Because after all you're saying this is -- his interpretation of Islam is correct.
HARRIS: Well, his -- this is the problem. His interpretation of Islam is very straightforward and honest, and you really have to split hairs and do some interpretative acrobatics in order to get it look -- get it to look non-canonical.
ZAKARIA: But do you really think that the path to reforming Islam is to tell Muslims that their religion is the mother lode of bad ideas, that they should become atheists or symbolic followers or nominal I think was the word you used. These nominal followers.
ZAKARIA: I mean, do you really think that 1.6 billion devout Muslims are going to go, oh, damn, of course, Sam Harris is right, my religion is crap and I should just abandon it?
HARRIS: No. No. Well, and I slightly misspoke there. I didn't mean nominal followers in the sense that only Muslim atheists could reform the faith. What I meant is followers who don't take these specific dangerous beliefs very seriously and want to interpret jihad as an inner spiritual struggle as opposed to holy war.
ZAKARIA: But do you think you're helping them or you're making it harder for them by, as I said, adopting the Osama bin Laden interpretation?
HARRIS: I'll tell you who's making it harder for them. Liberals who deny the problem. I get e-mails every day from atheists and secularists living in the Muslim world who say I can't --
ZAKARIA: Forget about others.
HARRIS: No. I'm telling --
ZAKARIA: I do help --
HARRIS: I'm telling you the only metric I have for that is I hear from people living in Pakistan, for instance, who say if a liberal like you can't even speak honestly about the link between ideology and violence, what hope is there for me?
I can't even tell my mother what I believe about God because I would be afraid of my own family or village killing me.
Video via realclearpolitics.com
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