israel-hamas war

Sam Harris’s Fairy-Tale Account of the Israel-Hamas Conflict

Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images/dpa/picture alliance via Getty I

Sam Harris is among America’s most prominent critics of fundamentalist thinking. The “new atheist” podcaster, meditation guru, and erstwhile neuroscientist has written multiple books lamenting the destructive power of religious certainty in general and Islamism in particular.

There are admirable aspects to Harris’s work. I’ve found his meditations on free will and the nature of consciousness stimulating. And I share his conviction that unsparing criticism of repressive, antifeminist theologies should take precedence over concerns for multiculturalism.

Yet on questions of foreign policy, Harris’s thinking can become nearly as dogmatic and blinkered as that of the religious zealots he’s dedicated himself to discrediting.

This was especially apparent on a recent episode of his podcast titled “The Bright Line Between Good and Evil.” Over the course of an hour, Harris laid out his views on Israel and why its present war with Hamas must be understood as a battle between “savagery and civilization.”

The core contention of his audio essay was that neither the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, nor the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, is at all relevant for understanding why Hamas perpetrated atrocities on October 7. In Harris’s account, the terrorist group’s decision to launch an unprecedented attack against Israel didn’t derive from any earthly motivation, let alone from specific political grievances or national ambitions. Rather, Hamas is simply a jihadist organization, comprising individuals who wish to secure entry to eternal paradise by killing infidels. As Harris argues:

Now, there are many things to be said in criticism of Israel, in particular its expansion of settlements on contested land. But Israel’s behavior is not what explains the suicidal and genocidal inclinations of a group like Hamas. The Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad do.

These are religious beliefs, sincerely held. They are beliefs about the moral structure of the universe. And they explain how normal people — even good ones — can commit horrific acts of violence against innocent civilians — on purpose, not as collateral damage — and still consider themselves good. When you believe that life in this world has no value, apart from deciding who goes to hell and who goes to Paradise, it becomes possible to feel perfectly at ease killing noncombatants, or even using your own women and children as human shields, because you know that any Muslims who get killed will go to Paradise for eternity.

If you don’t understand that jihadists sincerely believe these things, you don’t understand the problem Israel faces. The problem isn’t merely Palestinian nationalism, or resource competition, or any other normal terrestrial grievance. In fact, the problem isn’t even hatred, though there is enough of that to go around. The problem is religious certainty.

Ironically, Harris’s own position resembles religious fanaticism in its willful incuriosity. On Israel-Palestine, the celebrated atheist refuses to test the dogmatic tenets of a Manichaen worldview against either the historical record or present-day evidence. Instead of challenging his audience to grapple with the complex origins of the present war, he serves them a fairy tale in which the forces of “civilization” struggle against evildoers, whose malevolence derives from no political history or context but merely from their demonic possession by the mind-virus of jihad.

In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that jihadist ideology played no role in Hamas’s actions. The inverse of Harris’s view is also misguided. Some on the left have suggested that October 7 was entirely determined by (a one-sided account of) the attack’s political and historical context. In this view, Hamas militants’ decision to murder 846 Israeli civilians — in some cases, after forcing them to witness the torture and execution of their family members — was a mechanical response to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. To various Harvard student groups, this orgy of sadistic violence was such an inevitable reaction to Israeli apartheid that Israel was “entirely responsible” for it.

Insisting that the downtrodden inevitably commit mass atrocities in response to oppression might help a putatively progressive Hamas apologist evade cognitive dissonance. After all, if October 7 was an inexorable consequence of Israel’s policies, then you can reconcile horror at its toll with your sect’s taboo against criticizing the oppressed. From this perspective, condemning Hamas for committing mass murder would be as pointless as condemning a knee for kicking back at a doctor’s plexor.

For actually understanding Hamas’s attack, however, such crude determinism is unhelpful. Atrocities of the scale and severity of October 7 are not inevitable features of resistance struggles; indeed, they are not even common features of them. Understanding why Palestinian militance took the peculiar form it did on October 7 requires more information than any list of Israeli crimes can proffer. And it is plausible that Hamas’s theocratic worldview — which includes a reverence for jihadist violence — informed the character of its assault on southern Israel.

Nevertheless, insisting that Hamas’s actions were caused exclusively by jihadism is at least as mindless as claiming that they were entirely determined by Palestinian subjugation.

Harris’s theory of Hamas’s terrorism makes sense if you know nothing about Hamas.

Harris’s case for why we can safely conclude that Hamas’s 30,000 members are entirely (and uniformly) motivated by a metaphysical desire for martyrdom, rather than concrete political grievances, is built on a single argument: Hamas is a self-described jihadist group, and jihadist groups frequently commit atrocities that have no coherent political aim. As Harris writes, “There have been nearly 50,000 acts of Islamic terrorism in the last 40 years … 90 percent of them have occurred in Muslim countries. Most have nothing to do with Israel or the Jews.” He notes that in 2014, “six jihadis affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar,” murdering 132 children and burning a teacher alive in front of her students. They committed these horrors in the name of no earthly cause, and issued no set of demands. Their rationale for the atrocities was entirely religious.

For Harris, the fact that some self-described jihadists have committed atrocities for purely metaphysical reasons means that no self-described jihadist could possibly be motivated primarily by political grievances. The fallacy here is so obvious that it’s hard to see how someone as intelligent as Harris could fail to recognize it. His logic is scarcely distinguishable from the statement “Stalin was an atheist, and committed violence in the name of socialism. Therefore, all atheists who commit violence are exclusively motivated by socialist ideology.” Clearly, it is possible for groups to share a broad worldview without having identical motives or commitments.

There is another obvious logical problem with Harris’s insistence that Hamas’s actions are explained by bad theology, and only bad theology: This stance cannot explain why these vile religious ideas acquire currency in one context but not in others. The Quran was not introduced to Palestine in 1987, the year Hamas was founded. So how can we explain why an extremist interpretation of that book came to prominence in a given region at a given time without reference to history or politics? Even if we stipulate (falsely) that Hamas’s ideology is as apolitical as Harris suggests, that would not prove that its outlook’s popularity in Palestine was unrelated to that nation’s political subjugation.

The primary problem with Harris’s monologue, however, isn’t logical but empirical. His rant betrays a total lack of interest in testing his theory of Hamas’s motives against actual evidence. He makes no reference to Hamas’s history — which is convenient, since it is very difficult to reconcile that history with the theory that the organization isn’t motivated by political grievances. Hamas took shape during the First Intifada, in response to the killing of four Palestinian day workers at a Gaza checkpoint. During its first year of existence, it submitted a request for negotiations to then–Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, and demanded an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the right of refugees from the 1948 war to return to their ancestral homes within Israel. The latter issue was of special importance to Hamas’s founder, Ahmed Yassin, who had been uprooted by Israel during the Nakba. After Israel rebuffed these demands, and killed more than 142 Gazans in the course of suppressing the Palestinian uprising, Hamas commenced its campaign to destroy Israel through terrorism.

Hamas’s ideology is plainly Islamist, violent, and antisemitic. And its founding charter declared that “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad.” But Hamas’s form of jihad has always been in service of a narrow, nationalistic project. Unlike Salafi groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Hamas does not have a transnational project, nor is its brand of Sharia as extreme and thoroughgoing as that of ISIS. In fact, it has often found itself in conflict with Gaza’s smaller, more radical organizations.

None of this is meant to defend Hamas, let alone to justify its various crimes against humanity. It is only to say that (1) the organization was created to achieve terrestrial, political ends; (2) its embrace of violence was rooted less in metaphysical judgments than strategic ones; and (3) its brand of jihadism is idiosyncratic and distinct from that of the Salafi groups with whom Harris is most familiar.

This does not necessarily mean that ISIS and its brand of jihadism had no influence on the October 7 attackers. For one thing, some of the perpetrators were affiliated with groups even more extreme than Hamas. For another, it seems likely that at least some of the attackers were familiar with ISIS’s viral propaganda, including its myriad snuff videos glorifying spectacular violence. But Harris is making an incredibly strong claim — that Israeli behavior and Palestinian nationalism do not even partly explain Hamas’s violence, which is entirely attributable to religious extremism. And that claim is irreconcilable with even a cursory understanding of the group’s history.

When jihadists tell you who they are, believe them?

Harris is as willfully ignorant of Hamas’s present as he is with its past. He suggests that western academics who refuse to recognize that religious fanaticism (not vengeful nationalism) drives Hamas’s violence have their fingers in their ears. As he argues:

The humanities and social science departments of every university are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars — deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other fields — who claim that Muslim extremism is never what it seems. These experts insist that we can never take jihadists at their word and that none of their declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy have anything to do with their real motivations.

Yet when it comes to Hamas, it is Harris who refuses to take the jihadists at their word. The leader of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, told the Associated Press that the October 7 attack “was in response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza, Israeli raids inside West Bank cities over the past year, violence at Al Aqsa — the disputed Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount — increasing attacks by settlers on Palestinians and the growth of settlements.”

Another Hamas official, Basem Naim, told the Washington Post that “Jewish settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and the storming of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque by settlers” motivated October 7. Several other Hamas officials told the New York Times that they decided to launch an attack of unprecedented scale because they felt the Palestinian national cause was slipping away. Major Arab nations were seeking normalization with Israel, after decades of insisting that a two-state solution would be a precondition for such a rapprochement. Israel had not only ceased pursuing peace talks, but had ramped up its construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, while using extralegal violence and housing regulations to force Palestinian families off their land. Hamas says that it found this status quo intolerable and aimed to upend it — and galvanize global attention to the Palestinian cause — through acts of spectacular violence.

It is possible that Hamas is lying. An organization willing to mass-murder children is surely willing to tell falsehoods. But Harris is the one arguing that we should take jihadists at their word — and yet he manifestly refuses to do so, or else, he did not bother to look up what Hamas’s stated rationale for its attack was.

You don’t need to be a jihadi to be a brutal terrorist in Israel-Palestine.

From Harris’s perspective, the only antecedents for October 7 are atrocities committed by other modern jihadist groups. Yet terroristic violence against civilians has been a feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict from the very beginning, and long before the popularization of jihadism in Palestine. And such violence has often been rooted in the mutual and contradictory nationalisms of the region’s Jews and Arabs, not Islamist metaphysics.

The 1929 Hebron massacre, in which Palestinian mobs killed at least 67 Jews, was ostensibly motivated by religious grievance; the Palestinians were incited by rumors that Jews were about to seize control of the Temple Mount. But the power of these rumors derived from a broader, nationalist resistance to Zionism. Many militant Palestinian nationalists came to believe that they could beat back the tide of Jewish immigration — and secure Palestine against the threat of Zionist domination — by mass-murdering Jewish civilians until the intruders fled the region en masse. As Ian Black recounts in his history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Rashid al-Haj Ibrahim, an Arab nationalist leader, warned a group of anti-Zionist activists in 1933 that “the Jews are advancing on all fronts.” Ibrahim continued:

They keep buying land, they bring in immigrants both legally and illegally … If we cannot demonstrate to them convincingly enough that all their efforts are in vain and that we are capable of destroying them at one stroke, then we shall have to lose our holy land or resign ourselves to being wretched second-class citizens in a Jewish state. 

Asked how they could demonstrate the futility of the Zionist project, Ibrahim replied, “By doing what we did in 1929, but using more efficient methods.”

Yet a belief in both the morality and efficacy of terroristic violence was not exclusive to the conflict’s Arab side. Jewish terrorist organizations massacred Arab and British civilians, out of both retributive rage and political calculation.

During Israel’s War of Independence, meanwhile, Jewish militias committed a number of atrocities, including the infamous Deir Yassin massacre. Despite the fact that the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin had signed a peace pact with the region’s Jews, Israeli forces invaded the town and massacred at least 107 villagers, including women and children who were attempting to flee or surrender. There are credible reports that some villagers were mutilated and raped. Other captives were paraded through West Jerusalem, where they were jeered, stoned, and murdered.

This brutality had precisely the effect that Arab nationalists had aimed to achieve through terrorism, only in reverse: It enabled ethnic cleansing by terrifying Palestinians into fleeing their homes. As the Irgun commander Menachem Begin wrote, “The legend [of Deir Yassin] was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel.”

In more recent decades, secular Arab nationalists have upheld this binational tradition of terroristic violence. The Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine massacred children on an Israeli school bus in 1970. Four years later, the group killed 25 people at an Israeli school, including 22 children, with grenades and automatic weapons.

All of this is to say, violence against civilians has been an endemic feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And in the course of that long struggle, atrocities not dissimilar to those of October 7 have been committed by secular nationalists, both Palestinian and Israeli.

Therefore, the notion that Hamas’s brutality derives entirely from the transhistorical evil of jihadist ideology — rather than the cycles of violence against civilians that have long plagued Israel-Palestine — rests on nothing but dubious speculation.

From one angle, whether Hamas’s terrorism is informed by political grievances and historical experience (as opposed to mere Islamist metaphysics) may look immaterial. Either way, one can reasonably argue that the group is committed to destroying Israel through the mass killing of Jews.

Yet there are real perils to substituting a Manichaean fairy tale for a clear-eyed understanding of the present war and its origins. By imagining Israel’s enemies as a death cult motivated by no earthly grievance, Harris suggests that Israel can only combat Palestinian extremism through military force. And yet, whatever becomes of Hamas after the present conflict, ideologies glorifying violent resistance — whether Islamist or secular — are liable to retain popularity among Palestinians, so long as Israel continues to frustrate their legitimate aspirations.

A consistent feature of public opinion in Palestine is that support for peace and a two-state solution tends to increase when the latter appears possible and diminish when Israel abandons negotiations. During the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, when a two-state solution looked like an imminent possibility, Palestinians supported negotiations over violent resistance by an 80 to 20 percent margin. This September, by contrast, as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history was expanding settlements in the West Bank, 54 percent of Palestinians told pollsters that they supported armed attacks against Israel. In one July poll, between 60 and 75 percent of Palestinians had a positive view of Islamic Jihad and the Lion’s Den, terrorist organizations even more extreme in their Islamism than Hamas.

There may be comfort in imagining that human beings who gleefully burn people alive cannot possibly be motivated by any legitimate, terrestrial grievance. To suggest otherwise can feel like apologetics for butchery. But this is a fallacy. To explain the causes of an atrocity is not to justify it. And blinding oneself to a subset of such causes can foreclose potential paths toward peace.

In the specific case of October 7, meanwhile, insisting that Palestinian terrorism is wholly unrelated to “Israel’s behavior” abets the most reactionary elements within Israeli politics. If Palestinian jihadist groups and their many sympathizers are principally motivated by a desire to slaughter their way to eternal paradise — rather than to achieve self-government and security here on earth — then Israel might be wiser to expel the Palestinians than honor their rights under international law. And many Israeli officials have entertained the idea of ethnically cleansing the Gaza Strip in recent weeks.

Further, Harris’s insistence on attributing Hamas’s violence entirely to apolitical motivations reflects a broader tendency to reduce the Israel-Palestine conflict into a simple, “good” versus “evil” binary. At one point in his monologue, Harris argues that “if the Palestinians put down their weapons, there would be peace; if the Israelis put down their weapons, there would be a genocide.” But this is only true in the most facile sense. In the West Bank, which is governed by a secular Palestinian Authority that cooperates with Israel, the Palestinians have largely abstained from terroristic resistance. Yet putting down their weapons has won them repression and dispossession by a Jewish supremacist settler movement, not peace. Of course, if Palestinians gamely submit to indefinite occupation, then there may be “peace” in some sense of the word. But it would not be the sort of peace that any Israeli would find tolerable were they put in the Palestinians’ position.

Religious fundamentalism is a blight on humanity. It leads people to prefer dogma to rational inquiry, and to imagine all intergroup conflicts as timeless struggles between good and evil, even in instances where both parties have legitimate grievances. But rejecting theology does not immunize one against close-minded certainty. Tribalism tugs at the human mind like gravity. It takes diligence to prevent one’s thoughts from slinking back toward sectarian pieties. The moment you believe that you’re immune to such dogmatism, you become vulnerable to it. One hazard of militant atheism then is that it can lead people to believe that they possess such immunity.

Harris surely thinks that his analysis of Israel and Hamas is grounded on pure reason. In reality, it rests on blind faith.

Sam Harris’s Fairy-Tale Account of the Israel-Hamas Conflict