Sam Harris espouses liberal politics, yet he’s received his share of criticism from the left for his views on Islam. He has long warned of the dangers of embracing the Muslim religion without caveats. While he’s sometimes labeled Islamophobic, his concerns are not without merit.
In Harris's reply to Trump’s executive order on immigrants, the neuroscientist and philosopher argues the so-called Muslim ban is terrible policy. It is unethical to refugees and green card holders and will do little to staunch the slow bleed of terrorist activity; in fact, it might hasten it.
Yet Harris is duly concerned with the left’s reaction to the ban, which he writes is “contaminated by identity politics and liberal delusion.” He continues:
The Left seems determined to empower the Right by continuing to lie about the problem of Islamism. As David Frum recently wrote, “When liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals won’t do.” I have been saying as much for more than a decade—and am vilified by my fellow liberals whenever I do.
An inability to think critically about complex subjects knows no party. The majority of Muslims will live peacefully and never incite violence while remaining opposed to terrorist organizations. Most religions confine punishment and retribution to personal faith. If they follow what they deem to be a righteous path, that is enough.
Yet outliers exist across the board. The very first fracture in Islam at the time of Muhammad’s death has kept the religion battling ever since, with the Judeo-Christian lineage as much as internally. Today many more Muslims are victims of terrorism than Westerners. In America you’re much more likely to die at the hands of a texting driver. Since that’s a predominantly sanctioned (or at least under-policed) activity it does not strike fear in our hearts the way a terrorist hidden in the shadows does.
To Trump’s advantage, he called out Islamic terrorism by name — something President Obama and Hillary Clinton largely avoided. In their focus on the more progressive and unifying aspects of Islam they consistently missed opportunities to address the real problem. Trump observed that opportunity and exploited it, and continues to exploit it now that he’s in power.
This is dangerous not only in regards to immigrants and social tension, but in what it hides as well. Cautionary tales abound. As I warned last June, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ascension to power eerily mimics Trump’s own. In 1998 Orbán was the youngest PM ever voted into power in Hungary. He lost the following election, vowing to return, which he did in 2010. He plans on remaining there indefinitely.
Formerly liberal, Orbán noticed populist sentiments beyond Budapest. He lead an anti-Communist charge in the eighties, but by the time of his re-election he started using that party’s tactics. When his Fidesz party won two-thirds of parliamentary seats in 2010, Orbán cut the number of seats in half and gerrymandered the entire country all at once. In the next election his support dwindled from 53 percent to 44 percent. Thanks to redistricting he, along with every official in his party, remained in power.
Orbán punishes journalists and media institutions critical of him while rewarding those that sing his praises. He’s arrested opposition party members and fired judges he doesn’t care for. Most inspiring to his fans, he constructed a 110-mile long, thirteen-foot high fence on the Serbian border to keep Syrian refugees from entering the country.
The parallels are striking, especially as Orbán and Putin recently met to share their disdain for American sanctions on Russia. With Rex Tillerson in place as Secretary of State those sanctions are threatened. Terrorism is a convenient carrot to dangle in front of everyone’s eyes, as real a problem as it is.
Nationalism always makes for a convenient myth when distractions are needed—the dream of racial and ethnic purity that once existed, even if only in the social imagination. Naomi Klein understood this when writing in The Shock Doctrine:
The ideologies that long for that impossible clean slate, which can be reached only through some kind of cataclysm, are the dangerous ones.
Liberals, as Harris argues, are guilty of clean-slate fetishism when lashing out at any criticism of Islam. David Frum offers similar criticism:
Trump’s executive order has unleashed chaos, harmed lawful U.S. residents, and alienated potential friends in the Islamic world. Yet without the dreamy liberal refusal to recognize the reality of nationhood, the meaning of citizenship, and the differences between cultures, Trump would never have gained the power to issue that order.
As Orbán is proving, nationalism pays dividends. The swamp might not be drained, but the melting pot certainly is. If you don’t note which ingredients are being added you’ll never know what the outcome will be. This is what Harris has been warning of for years: blind allegiance to an illusion comes with its own perils.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.