Bad Faith: Sam Harris, Omer Aziz, and Islam

Mar 30, 2016

Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson

By Jamie Palmer

In a recent post covering a discussion between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz at the JW3 in London, I wrote the following regarding their critics:

Allegations — often nothing more than insinuations — have been made that Hirsi Ali and Nawaz have lied about who they are, that they don’t mean what they say, and that they are either greedy and self-serving or greedy and self-hating or both. A paradigmatic example of what the late Christopher Hitchens called “the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one.”

Hitchens offered this remark, not just as a matter of observation, but from personal experience. He had set out the moral arguments in favor of the removal of Saddam Hussein at abundant length and with a rare passion and clarity. Salient to his advocacy was the Iraqi regime’s mass-murder of Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and the torments suffered by Iraqis more generally at the hands of a despotism of uncommon paranoia and cruelty. The removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, he argued, would be a deliverance, and the nobility of the project to help build a democracy in its place ought to be self-evident.

But when his erstwhile colleagues on the political Left asked themselves what might lead a former Marxist, anti-Imperialist, and friend and admirer of Edward Said to support a Republican administration’s wars, they preferred to ignore the case he actually made and defended. Instead, they ascribed to him the most sinister and ignoble motives they could come up with. Hitchens, they claimed, was in fact driven by a desire for the personal enrichment that came with Establishment approval, by racism, by “bloodlust”, by a newfound worship of American power or, more often than not, by a combination of all the above. There was a general eagerness to convict him of treachery and greed and to explain that what really animated him was, at best, a wicked indifference to seeing lifeless Muslim bodies drawn from rubble.

The only time I have ever seen Hitchens caught off-guard by a question was towards the end of his debate with the former Labour Party parliamentarian George Galloway. The question pertained to Hitchens’s integrity but it came, not from Galloway himself, but from the debate’s moderator, Amy Goodman. “As you’ve changed your views over time,” she asked, “do you feel that the media is friendlier to you?” An uncomfortable pause followed, broken by a smattering of audience snickering and applause. “Um….” Hitchens started uncertainly, “I’m just…trying to…think…” Galloway took the opportunity to contribute a derisive laugh of his own. “No…” Hitchens continued:

I have…I have…I was a columnist for…say, Vanity Fair which is where I think most of my readers follow my stuff, uh, before I, erm, resigned from the Nation, for example. And I still…I didn’t get that job by quitting the Nation. I have a feeling I know the, uh, imputation of what you’re saying. But I think I probably wouldn’t be the best judge in my own cause. I can see the editor of the Nation magazine sitting in the front row. I feel fairly confident that if you asked him he would not say that I left the Nation in order to improve my salary prospects. And I frankly think that’s a bit of a waste of a question. But if the impression I give is of someone mercenary and as bad at handling money as that it’s an impression I wouldn’t be able to correct by denying it.

Well, quite. “That’s a bit of a waste of an answer,” Galloway interjected with obvious satisfaction. But what other answer could Hitchens have provided under the circumstances? He immediately understood that whatever he said was likely to sound self-serving and possibly self-righteous, and that he was only going to be able to sidestep that trap by declining to offer a robust answer in his own defense.

* * *

A few weeks ago, Sam Harris invited a writer and law student named Omer Aziz onto his podcast to discuss the latter’s scathing review of Harris’s recent book, a collaboration with former Islamist Maajid Nawaz entitled Islam and the Future of Tolerance. Aziz began by protesting, “I don’t care about your motives. For me, it’s about what the book says”. If that were true, listeners would have been spared the podcast’s tortuous first hour, and what followed it might have been more constructive.

But it is hard to accept Aziz’s professed indifference to Nawaz and Harris’s motives when he had decided to open his review with this:

There are few get-rich-quick schemes left in modern publishing, but one that persists could be called Project Islamic Reformation. Writing a book that fits in this category is actually quite easy. First, label yourself a reformist. Never mind the congratulatory self-coronation the tag implies; it is necessary to segregate oneself from all the non-reformists out there. Second, make your agenda clear at the outset by criticizing what is ailing Islam and Muslims. The Qur’an is a good place to start because Muslims, especially in the Middle East, surely treat their holy book more like a military instruction manual than anything else. Third, propose a few solutions. Lest you be accused of nuance, the more vague and generic these are, the better. Fourth, soak up the inevitable publicity that awaits, and with it, your hard-earned cash. Voilà!

Aziz not only ascribes explicitly avaricious and self-aggrandizing motives to Harris and Nawaz, but he front-loads his review with an entire paragraph devoted to this accusation, for which he appears to have no persuasive evidence outside of his own suspicions.

Harris seemed to be under the impression that this could be dealt with fairly quickly. Unlike Hitchens, he had come pre-prepared with what he thought was an unanswerable rebuttal. Aziz was, after all, claiming that the authors’ cynical and true intentions contradicted their stated goals. Absent anything actually substantiating their duplicity, how could he possibly know this?

Harris pointed out — inter alia — that slim volumes published by Harvard University Press were hardly a lucrative way to make a living; that most of what Harris described as his core audience had limited interest in the topic of radical Islam; that the reputational and security costs associated with writing critically about Islam were enough to dissuade others interested in the topic from touching it; and he pointed out that he and Nawaz had been offered no advance on the book and that he had no idea how well it was selling.

Aziz was having none of this. If Harris and Nawaz had wanted their motives to remain untainted by suspicions of self-enrichment, he declared, then they ought to have made it available for nothing. He demanded to know how much money Harris had made from the book (something he really should have taken the trouble to discover before accusing Harris of being motivated by nothing else). Wearily Harris agreed that, yes, they will have made some money from sales although he didn’t know how much and, in any case, that really wasn’t the point. That led to this exchange:

AZIZ: You have just admitted you made money out of this, number one. Number two, it was originally supposed to be a blogpost. And number three…would you deny that Project Islamic Reformation books demanding reformation are not in vogue now? That articles calling for reformation don’t go viral every two days? Would you deny this? That there is a great market and a great readership and a great listenership for these kinds of ideas?

HARRIS: Yes. I would deny it. It is the least lucrative and most costly thing I could be doing. And I’m informing you about this. I don’t expect you to know this. But what I’m saying is true. And your reluctance to step back at all from your “get-rich-quick scheme” claim says a lot about you. You’re getting your JD at Yale. What could you possibly hope to do as a lawyer if you’re showing this little concern, not only for the truth, but for the perception of your commitment to the truth?

AZIZ: My commitment to the truth is completely independent from and I think should not factor in financial profit of any kind. I think it’s a corrupting motive, number one and number two…

HARRIS: Jesus Christ. Omer—

AZIZ: …as an attorney, someone who is actually interested in reforming many communities and inducing cultural liberalism, I want to work with these communities, which is apparently what Maajid wants to do, and here-here-here’s something: I’ll tell you, this book is going to influence and change precisely very few opinions in the Muslim world.

HARRIS: Again, you’re changing the subject, Omer. The truth I’m talking about here is that you made a claim about our motives that is demonstrably false. I’ve given you several reasons why you should recognize—

AZIZ: You just admitted you made money off of it!

Presumably Aziz is paid for the articles he has published in Salon, The New Republic, the New York Times and elsewhere. Is it therefore legitimate to conclude that his only interest as a writer is in filling his own pockets? Will his work as a lawyer be undertaken pro bono to preserve the integrity and nobility of motives that would otherwise necessarily be suspect? His review then went on to ascribe the same mercenary motives to Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the basis that “publishers love a good Reformist”, but again without troubling to actually substantiate his claim.

Amidst the general atmosphere of exasperation the conversation produced, the most important question got lost which was why? Why had Aziz found it necessary to get into the matter of motives at all, especially since he claimed that what really concerned him was the substance of the book itself? What, in other words, were his motives for deciding to open his review with such a gratuitously ungenerous and mean-spirited paragraph, which then echoed across every substantive criticism that followed?

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12 comments on “Bad Faith: Sam Harris, Omer Aziz, and Islam

  • Despite Sam’s sensible warning, I actually listened to the whole 3+ hours of this podcast. I was struck by how irrational Aziz was but couldn’t quite figure it out until I read this analysis. It’s a pity really because you would think Harris and Aziz had much in common and could make a difference together. Not Sam’s fault though – he tried.

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  • @kdiamond6 – #1 – (Despite Sam’s sensible warning, I actually listened to the whole 3+ hours of this podcast.) – you have far more patience than me!

    Clearly, from both the explanation provided here and the excruciating exchange between Harris and Aziz (which I could only endure for about 30 min total, hopping around and hoping for something compelling), Aziz was exposed as being surprisingly intellectually lazy. This laziness was compounded by his badgering persona in writing a follow-up column in Salon after Harris wisely opted (initially) not to broadcast the conversation as a podcast. I was surprised that Harris finally relented, but understand why based on his preamble to the podcast.

    Though Harris did well in both situations, I prefer his far more succinct, well reasoned beat down of Ben Affleck on Maher.

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  • Every attack of the person conceals a deficit in being able to attack their ideas.

    Never attack the other’s motives. You simply do not know the origins of their behaviours or thoughts…unless you know they they have failed to take their meds.

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  • I have a problem with current definitions of “Left” & “Right”. It reminds me of Orwell’s “Newspeak” or even more of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who defined a word to mean whatever she felt it should mean.

    I’m more or less the same age as Christopher Hitchens, from an almost identical family and geographic background and like him defined myself as left wing. I never found myself apologising for Left-Wing dictators, the only dictatorship I might have voiced support for was that of “… The proletariat”.

    It is now fashionable to define any supporter of an “unorthodox” or “different” persuasion as Left, but I would describe such individuals more as the sheep of “Animal Farm”, the “politically correct”.

    I resent the attitude that the “Right” should get all the credit going for opposing religious or secular totalitarians and for the same Orwellian reason I gave above.

    These labels are unhelpful to all but the intellectually lazy. I resent it when a particular opinion I may express is extrapolated to embrace an entire philosophy. Because I believe in basic tolerance should not lead others to imply that therefore, I approve of the right of psychopaths to to rape young girls (or boys) and force them into unfashionable dress codes – for example.

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  • Darn. I have been hypocritical. My previous post was exactly failing to follow this advice of mine in #5.

    I think this (#5) counts more than the self satisfaction of my post on the motives of the hyper pro-social left.

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  • If your goal were the removal of Saddam, all you would have to do is accept his offered surrender just prior to the invasion. America was not interested in getting rid of Saddam. The war carried on long after he was toppled. They wanted the spoils of occupying Iraq. Obama announced the end of the invasion on the very day of the big auction where they sold off Iraq’s oil to American and European oil companies.

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  • phil @ # 5.

    I concur; at all costs avoid an ad hominem attack; it’s very tricky, but be Socratic and flush your opponent out into the open, that way they can sometimes be induced into destroying their own arguments. Hitchens did just that with Blair in their Ontario debate about religion, but the former was a master of the craft.

    Incidentally, I always enjoy the Sam Harris podcasts.

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  • 11
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    I’m a big fan of Sam and I have listened to most of his podcasts. Most are interesting, though some are a bit long… Anything over an hour is just too long in my opinion. I did listen to his 2 hour podcast with Mariam Namazie which I found to be excruciatingly frustrating, counter-productive and disappointing. After that, I didn’t have the stomach to go through 3 hours of something that was purported to be even worse….

    I’m a pragmatist: life is too short and I’m getting old and we have to be selective about what books and shows we invest our precious limited time into. There’s already way too much to read and learn for a 100 lifetimes’ worth even if you limit yourself to the best material. So none of us can afford to waste time on fruitless or sterile discussions, useless books and idiotic shows.

    I admire Sam for taking such risks however. He makes it a point to attempt these difficult and uncomfortable conversations because he understands how important this is. But for any conversation to bear fruit, intellectual honesty and the willingness to revise one’s positions based on new evidence are required on both sides. Unfortunately, inflated egos and willful ignorance often take over and completely hijack or derail the conversation and it’s all back to square one.

    And in the worst cases, the ego-based frustration of not having had the better of the conversation will linger on and devolve into underhanded personal attacks like it has for Ms. Namazie and others (Cenk Uygur, Glen Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, etc…). Nobody likes being proven wrong but we need to grow up as a species and this is the only way: we have to learn to value truth more than our previous little selves.

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  • The Controversial Poster Philoctetes #6
    Mar 31, 2016 at 4:01 pm These labels are unhelpful to all but the intellectually lazy.

    I totally agree with everything you say about sloppy use of vocabulary in discourse, obfuscation of meaning with misuse of terms, intellectual sloppiness etc, but I don’t agree that the labels are unhelpful. They are of great help to the hidden persuaders; Fox News, government spin doctors, PR departments of big business, fundamentalist religious apologists… These people in general are not stupid and certainly not lazy, its just that their goals are not truth and enlightenment, but power and money.

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