A Firm Hand


Sam Harris chances his arm at the Huffington Post – not an obvious venue for realistic debate - and comments on a “psychopathic skewing of priorities.” Specifically, the tensions between free enquiry and deference to traditional Islam:

The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name.

A point that’s been illustrated here more than once.

Our capitulations in the face of these threats have had what is often called “a chilling effect” on our exercise of free speech. I have, in my own small way, experienced this chill first hand. First, and most important, my friend and colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali happens to be among the hunted. Because of the failure of Western governments to make it safe for people to speak openly about the problem of Islam, I and others must raise a mountain of private funds to help pay for her round-the-clock protection. The problem is not, as is often alleged, that governments cannot afford to protect every person who speaks out against Muslim intolerance. The problem is that so few people do speak out. If there were ten thousand Ayaan Hirsi Ali's, the risk to each would be radically reduced.

For more on this, see my post quoting Robert Tracinski and Salman Rushdie.

Harris offers another, personal, illustration.

As for infringements of my own speech, my first book, The End of Faith, almost did not get published for fear of offending the sensibilities of (probably non-reading) religious fanatics. W.W. Norton, which did publish the book, was widely seen as taking a risk - one probably attenuated by the fact that I am an equal-opportunity offender critical of all religious faith. However, when it came time to make final edits to the galleys of The End of Faith, many of the people I had thanked by name in my acknowledgments (including my agent at the time and my editor at Norton) independently asked to have their names removed from the book. Their concerns were explicitly for their personal safety.

Several examples of backstage trepidation are listed, including this, which is far too typical.

Nature, arguably the most influential scientific journal on the planet, recently published a lengthy whitewash of Islam (Z. Sardar Beyond the Troubled Relationship. Nature 448, 131-133; 2007). The author began, as though atop a minaret, by simply declaring the religion of Islam to be “intrinsically rational.” He then went on to argue, amid a highly idiosyncratic reading of history and theology, that this rational religion’s current wallowing in the violent depths of unreason can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism. After some negotiation, Nature also agreed to publish a brief response from me. What readers of my letter to the editor could not know, however, was that it was only published after perfectly factual sentences deemed offensive to Islam were expunged.

And there’s the rub. If unflattering statements and facts are excised in the name of respect and sensitivity - or quite often, fear - a realistic and honest discussion is unlikely even to begin. (This is the approach favoured by, among others, Tariq Ramadan, who forever speaks of “dialogue” while dictating the terms on which any discussion should, eventually, take place.) It is, for instance, difficult to take any meaningful kind of stand against the barbarities of Islam without challenging the specific religious beliefs that justify and perpetuate that barbarism. And how can one honestly discuss how such things might be ended without suggesting, at least by implication, that those beliefs - and their originator - are immoral and disgusting?

The whole thing is well worth reading.