Neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris conducted a wide-ranging interview with journalist Graeme Wood that was supposed to be about the latter’s cover story in this month’s Atlantic, but which turned into an opportunity for Harris to outline what, to his mind, is the psychological state of a jihadist.
Harris began by arguing that it was rational to believe that most believers understand religious texts at a literal level. “There are more or less plausible, more or less straightforward, more or less comprehensive readings of any scripture,” he said.
“And the most plausible, straightforward, and comprehensive readings tend to be the more literalistic, no matter how self-contradictory the text. So, for instance, when it says in the Qur’an (8:12), ‘Smite the necks of the infidels,’ some people may read that metaphorically, but it’s always tempting to read it literally.”
“In fact,” he continued, “a line like that fairly cries out for a literal reading. Of course, some Muslims believe that such violent passages must be read in their historical context. But it seems even more natural to assume that the words of God apply for all time. So it’s no accident that the Islamic State has made a cottage industry of decapitation.”
Because “the Islamic State is giving a very plausible reading of the Qur’an and the hadīth. That’s a terrible problem, because one can’t stand up and say that this behavior is un-Islamic.”
Harris then wondered why so many academics refuse to believe the statements made by jihadists at face value.
“No one doubts the political and economic justifications that people give for their behavior. When someone says, ‘Listen, I murdered my rich neighbor because I knew he kept a pile of money in a safe. I wanted that money, and I didn’t want to leave a witness,’ nobody looks for an ulterior explanation for that behavior,” he said.
“But when someone says, ‘I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,’ many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it. So the game is rigged.”
The reason those academics refuse to believe the statements of a believer is that they are too committed to their secular understanding of the world to fully comprehend the power of belief.
But “once you imagine what it would be like to actually believe in paradise, and in martyrdom as the surest way of getting there, it becomes obvious why someone would want to join the Islamic State. If a person truly believes that the Creator of the universe wants him to wage war against the evil of unbelief and that the Islamic State is the very tip of His spear, he has to be insane not to join the cause.”
“I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal,” Harris said. “The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people — fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth — who simply believe what they say they believe.”
“The fact that most jihadis are generally rational, even psychologically normal, and merely in the grip of a dangerous belief system is, in my view, the most important point to get across.”
“It is amazing how resolutely people will ignore the evidence of this,” he concluded. “Justin Bieber could convert to Islam tomorrow, spend a full hour on 60 Minutes confessing his hopes for martyrdom and his certainty of paradise, and then join the Islamic State — and Glenn Greenwald would still say his actions had nothing to do with the doctrine of Islam and everything to do with U.S. foreign policy.”