November 1st, 2014
04:42 PM ET

Zakaria, Harris debate extremism in Islam

Fareed speaks with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and author of The End of Faith, about his take on extremism in Islam and the recent controversy over a panel on Bill Maher's show. Watch the full interview on GPS this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.

One month ago, the celebrated atheist, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris appeared on "Real Time," Bill Maher's HBO show. The conversation about Islam that ensued created quite a bit of controversy. Harris said, among other things, that, "Islam at this 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. That comes out to about 300 million people. I beg to differ, and said as much when I responded with my own thoughts on this show. But I wanted to talk to Mr. Harris in person, so here he is. He's the author of a new book, Waking Up. And we might get to it.


But first I want to ask you about that number...


...which it struck me as sort of pulled out of a hat. If you do have, you know, something in the range of 20 percent of all Muslims who are either jihadists or Islamists, which implies condoning violence and such, I'm just doing the math, that comes to about 300 million.


So there were 10,000 terrorist events last year. Let's assume all of those were Muslim. Let's assume each event was planned by 100 people. Neither of those assumptions is right, but I'm being generous. That comes to about a million people who are jihadists. So that still leaves us with 299 million missing Muslim terrorists.

Yes, right. Well, there are a few distinctions I think we have to make here. 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 they do want to...

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 doesn't mean that they want to kill people...

Well, no...

Right, those are being conservative and religious, which, by the way, is not my orientation at all. But it's different from wanting to kill people.

Yes. Well, again, you have to parse this on specific points, like do you favor killing apostates, do you think adulterers should be killed? Even among Islamists, you'd find more subscribing to one versus the other, depending on the poll you trust. But I didn't just pull the number out of a hat. There's a group at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill that looked at 40 years of parliamentary elections in the Muslim world – literally every election that has occurred – and found that Islamists got 15 percent of the votes.

So I would say that if you take this number 15 percent who vote for Islamist parties, and then you look at the poll results on specific implementation of Sharia law – do you want adulterers and thieves given the traditional punishment or should apostates be killed – you never find the number, with very few exceptions, you never find the number as low as 15 percent voting in favor of those punishments. It's often 60 percent depending on the society. So I believe 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 contests with our own. And I just think we have to speak honestly about that.

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soundoff (430 Responses)
  1. Martin

    November 3, 2014 at 3:36 pm |
  2. Martin

    New York Times

    KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — As the students knelt in a circle at a Christian kindergarten near the shores of the South China Sea, a 6-year-old girl in pigtails read out a chapter from a children’s Bible: “Sepuluh hukum dari Allah” – God’s Ten Commandments.

    Technically, she broke the law.

    According to a series of government orders and rulings by Malaysia’s Islamic councils, the word for God in the Malay language – “Allah” – is reserved for Muslims. Malay-language bibles are banned everywhere except inside churches. State regulations ban a list of words, including Allah, in any non-Muslim context.

    Malaysia, with its collage of ethnic groups and religions, has a long history of tensions over issues ranging from dietary differences to the economic preferences enshrined in Malaysian law for the Malay Muslim majority.

    But there is probably no dispute more fundamental and more emotionally charged than who owns the word God.

    For Malaysia’s religious minorities, the government’s ban on non-Muslims using the word Allah, and the repeated seizures by government officials of Malay-language Bibles, is enough to make a smiling and cheery kindergarten teacher snap in anger.


    Al-Kitab, the Malay Bible, uses the word "Allah" to mean God, technically breaking the law. Credit Rahman Roslan for The New York Times
    “Honestly I think it’s nonsense,” said Belinda Buntot, the teacher in the kindergarten here on the northern tip of the island of Borneo. “Of course we use Allah. We can’t teach the kids without it.”

    Outside the country, the Malaysian government has sought to cultivate an image of a modern, moderate Islamic country, where 60 percent of the population is Muslim, and minorities live harmoniously.

    But Christians, who make up 10 percent of the country’s population, say the Allah ban is one of many signs that a conservative Islamic movement is steering an increasingly intolerant government policy.

    In recent weeks, the religious authorities have banned Muslims from taking part in Halloween and scolded them for petting dogs, which the state Islamic authorities view as unclean.

    The government’s Department of Islamic Development did not respond to a request to explain the official position on the Allah ban, but over the years the government has offered a number of reasons.

    When the government first prohibited the “printing, publication, sale, issue, circulation or possession” of Malay-language Bibles in 1981, it said the books were “prejudicial to the national interest and security” of the country.

    Islamic authorities have warned that Malay-language Bibles could be used for proselytizing Muslims, which is illegal in Malaysia.

    The Department of Islamic Development argues that Allah is not a generic name for God but signifies “the religion of the person who uses it.”

    “That is the reason why the usage needs to be monitored and preserved by the government in order to ensure that no one will be confused with the Most Exalted name,” the department says on its website.

    November 3, 2014 at 3:39 pm |
    • rupert

      Yawnnnnn... Fictional epic!!

      November 3, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
    • Philip

      The same thing happened in the U.S. It started with God being kicked out of school classrooms and now from common everyday speech. Hardly any Americans openly discuss God during the course of a day. Ritually, on Sundays, a few.

      November 4, 2014 at 8:01 am |
  3. rupert

    Great to see the interest in Islam. It is for a good reason that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

    November 3, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
  4. rupert

    Bunch of Bangaloru's on this forum

    November 3, 2014 at 4:12 pm |
  5. 31 year old New Jersey diabetic chick with heart murmur and glaucoma

    Give Islam a chance. All those rumors can't all be true.

    November 3, 2014 at 11:28 pm |
  6. Brian

    Fareed, I was very disappointed in your segment with Sam Harris. Unlike your other guests, you frequently interrupted Mr Harris and seemed to be trying to put him on the defensive. I've only been watching your show for a couple of months, but I found your performance lacked the journalistic professionalism you ordinarily display. It seems that Mr Harris' thesis may have challenged the certainty of your own beliefs.

    November 5, 2014 at 6:41 am |
  7. Autodesk shareholder

    Excellent presentation, Mr. Harris – What was Mr. Zakaria's response to your evidence? Furthermore, why does the muslim world not do such surveys themselves? Do they not want to know how big the problem really is?

    November 5, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
  8. Philip

    I pronounce this thread dead. Off to the cloud with you.

    November 6, 2014 at 10:09 pm |
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