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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