Sam Harris: It's not about politics -- 'Islam was spread by the sword for 1,000 years'
Neuroscientist Sam Harris speaking at TED2010 (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

On Sunday, Fareed Zakaria spoke to Sam Harris, the CEO of Project Reason, about recent claims of his concerning Islam.


"On Bill Maher's HBO show," Zakaria began, Harris said that "'Islam at the moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.' He went on to say that more than 20 percent of Muslims are either jihadists or Islamists who want to foist their religion on the rest of humanity," which amounts to approximately 300 million people.

What struck Zakaria about that number is that Harris "sort of pulled [it] out of a hat."

"So there were 10,000 terrorist events last year," Zakaria said. "Let's assume that 100 people -- let's assume all of those were Muslim. Let's assume each event was planned by 100 people...That comes to about a million people who are jihadists. So that still leaves us with 299 million missing Muslim terrorists."

"Right," Harris replied, " 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 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 responded, "doesn't mean that they want to kill people. Being conservative and religious...is different from wanting to kill people."

"I believe," Harris said, "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 noted that Islam was once a vanguard of modernity, preserving the works of Aristotle and making advancements in mathematics and science. "In other words," he said, "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."

"Up to a point," Harris replied. "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...Islam has been spread by the sword for over 1,000 years, and 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."

The two then clashed about the definition of "jihad," about which Harris insisted that the West must "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."

By calling Islam "the mother lode of bad ideas," Zakaria said, "do you think you're helping [Muslims] or making it [easier] for them to adopt the Osama bin Laden interpretation [of jihad]?"

"I'll tell you who's making it harder for them. Liberals who deny the problem," Harris replied.

Watch the entire exchange between Zakaria and Harris below via Real Clear Politics.