Somewhat ironically, Harris sounded rather like Noam Chomsky in the widely read email exchangebetween the two, in which Chomsky dismissed Harris’ views with an ornery, if not outright angry, tone. Chomsky seemed to think that Harris was misrepresenting his views, and indeed this was Harris’ primary complaint about Greenwald and Werleman. As Harris rightly emphasized, one doesn’t need to distort the views of one’s opponent to disagree, or even harshly criticize, those views. Intellectually honest interlocutors first make sure they understand the other’s position, and then proceed to dismantle it as best they can.
I feel bad that Harris has had such terrible luck with being misrepresented. He holds, I believe, a number of views that I disagree with, but distorting those views is no way to reveal their weaknesses. This being said, on my reading of his work, I think Harris places too much emphasison the causal role of religion — in particular, Islam — when it comes to terrorism. The exact same could be said of Chomsky with respect to US foreign policy. The truth, on my view, lies somewhere in-between. It involves a complex feedback network of two factors, namely (a) religious beliefs about how the world is and, more importantly, how it ought to be, and (b) the particular material conditions in which human beings happened to find themselves.
If one reads the scholarly literature on religious terrorism, this is exactly the picture that emerges. Consider the Islamic State. This is a Sunni terrorist organization that explicitly sees itself as an active participant in an apocalyptic narrative that’s unfolding in realtime. Their current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the eighth of twelve caliphs in total. A climactic battle in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq will soon commence between the Muslims and the “Byzantine” (eastern Roman) crusaders, after which the Muslims will (re)conquer Constantinople, followed by Jesus descending over the white minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to fight the Antichrist (orDajjal). The world will officially end in 2076, or 1500 of the Islamic calendar.
These are eschatological beliefs about the future that are actively influencing behaviors in the present. Indeed, the founder of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Ayyub al-Masri, believed that the Islamic messiah, the Mahdi, was going to appear any day, and because of this belief he made a number of strategic decisions (which ended up backfiring). More recently, the Islamic State has been trying to lure Coalition forces to fight them at Dabiq, thereby initiating Armageddon. As an Islamic State militant with the severed head of Peter Kassig, a US aid worker, lying at his feet said in a 2014 propaganda video, “Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”
But beliefs among Sunni radicals about the Mahdi, an imminent battle at Dabiq, and so on, simply weren’t widespread before the recent wave of US intervention in the region. As David Cook, a leading expert on Islamic eschatology, writes, “Until the end of 2001 major radical Muslim thinkers such as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri ridiculed the use of apocalyptic prophesies on a popular level. … With the rise of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, however, this changed.” Al-Zarqawi was the forefather of the Islamic State (he headed al-Qaeda in Iraq), and his apocalyptic declaration that, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq,” is found throughout the Islamic State’s literature. The spark was, of course, lit by the US when we initiated our “shock and awe” demolition of Iraq, and it was fueled by our subsequent occupation of “Muslim lands.”
In times of great distress and upheaval, people often search for interpretive frameworks through which to give their suffering some meaning. Religious apocalypticism, in particular, provides an extremely powerful lens through which to make sense of the tribulations and trauma surrounding oneself. Suddenly there’s a reason to live — and, perhaps, a reason to die. In the end, everything is going to be alright (whew!), because once the end comes the enemies of God will not merely taste death, but will find themselves banished to the eternal fires of perdition. Indeed, eschatology provides the ultimate theodicy: when the last chapter of history closes, God will exact cosmic justice on the world and all those who evaded punishment in this life will finally get what they deserve.