Sam Harris' detestable crusade: How his latest anti-Islam tract reveals the bankruptcy of his ideas

Harris' haughty ignorance & chauvinism are on full display in his new book, a "dialogue" with a former radical

Published December 28, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

Sam Harris           (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia)
Sam Harris (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia)

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!

The books that make up Project Islamic Reformation are not works of scholarship or even well-crafted popular texts. They are almost exclusively political pamphlets of a very personal nature that often begin as biography and end as self-help, except the "self" in this case includes a quarter of the world’s people, and the "help" may or may not come at the end of a missile. Ayaan Hirsi Ali—who deserves empathy for her personal ordeals but not her conclusions—released such a book earlier this year with neat, Manichean categories delineating good and bad Muslims, as well as the expected checklist of proposed reforms. More tracts will certainly follow because publishers love a good Reformist, and the affluent Western audience that consumes these books loves having most of their pre-existing beliefs confirmed rather than challenged.

It is in the context of Project Islamic Reformation that the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris and the redeemed radical Maajid Nawaz have published their latest book, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance,” put out by no less a publishing house than Harvard University Press. The book is structured as a conversation between Harris and Nawaz, who go back and forth over issues ranging from polling data suggesting Muslims support corporal punishment to the Islamic justifications for jihad. Compressed into its 128 pages is the entire Reformation Project, except that the book’s contents are as thin as its subject is grand. For a work whose title includes the words "Islam" and "future of tolerance," the Harris-Nawaz pamphlet consistently veers from the ahistorical into the nonsensical and back again, almost always at Harris’s urging.

What is right in the book can be attributed solely to Maajid Nawaz. In fact, one can skip over everything Sam Harris says because he is merely repackaging ideas he has articulated many times before. Among the elementary truisms Nawaz points to: addressing the grievances many young Muslims feel, changing the narrative the Islamist demagogues have mastered, injecting a dose of cultural liberalism into conservative societies to induce progress on women’s rights and free speech, raising the low expectations held by too many Americans about supposedly thin-skinned Muslims who cannot take a joke and must be coddled. Well and good, and self-evident enough, except to the most benighted idealogues.

Nawaz knows his history, and crucially, his Islamic history. He cites the Mut’azila (a rationalist theology that flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries in Iraq), Imam al-Shatibi (a 14th-century legal scholar from Spain) and Ibn Taymiyyah (a 13th-century theologian routinely mentioned by jihadists). He could have gone even further, noting that the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was a repository for learning where the works of Aristotle were preserved and translated. He also could have noted the many contributions made to medicine, optics, philosophy, political economy -- indeed, the scientific method itself -- by Muslim polymaths, or the feasts of reason and discourse that flourished in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Long before atheism went vogue in the West, the 9th-century atheist al-Ma’ari was irking the ruling classes in Syria with his vitriolic, anti-theist poems. (When al Qaeda swept through northern Syria in 2012, they beheaded statues of al-Ma’aari).

The Sufi tradition barely gets a nod, perhaps because its emphasis on music and mysticism contravene the narrow lane this book travels. “I am free, my mind is free,” wrote the 18th-century Sufi philosopher Bulleh Shah. Enlightenment is an Islamic tradition as well, though one would not learn that from this tract.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that Sam Harris is illiterate when it comes to history. He has a tendency, both in his online writings and in this book, to reduce all 1,400 years of the Islamic past to jihad. The world, he says, witnessed “a thousand years of jihadism” before Bin Laden sent airliners to mutilate the New York City skyline, and Islam spread “primarily by conquest, not conversation.” The historian Zachary Karabell wrote an entire book refuting this simplistic repackaging of history. Actually, Muslims, Christians, Jews and other minorities lived together in Muslim-governed territories for long stretches of time. Relations between these communities were not always harmonious -- this is the past we are talking about -- but co-existence was woven into the fabric of Muslim society and polity. As the historian Jason Goodwin writes,

Islam was generally not spread by the sword…In both North Africa and Spain, ordinary people sometimes converted, hoping for access to wealth and status. Often the conversions were sincere. They were welcomed within limits, but they were very rarely forced.

True, apostasy was still a crime, though let’s remember that translating the Bible into the local language got one burned at the stake during the contemporary period in Christendom. Even in Britain, Oxford and Cambridge did not begin admitting non-Anglicans until the late 19th century. There was certainly conquest in the lands of Islam, as there was conversation, but more than anything, there was commerce. Merchants who wanted to get rich in Muslim lands converted and engaged in the proto-free market that was already beginning to appear in the Middle East and North Africa. Capitalism tended to do wonders for the social unity of medieval Islamic societies, before the term "capitalism" even existed. (The Jewish Marxist historian Maxime Rodinson, in his book "Islam and Capitalism," documented how merchants circumvented the no-usury rule by concocting elaborate financial schemes, not unlike the workarounds today’s interest-free Islamic bankers use.)

This is not apologia: Muslim empires were bloody, seduced by power and expansion, and their caliphs and sultans, like all imperialists from time immemorial, wanted ever more control. But Harris is no multitasker; holding a complicated picture and talking at the same time seems impossible to him, so he reduces history to mottos and engages in sloganeering to mask his ignorance.

At one point, Harris even bizarrely rationalizes the Crusades. Remember, he tells readers, the Crusades “were primarily a response to 300 years of jihad” -- the emphasis here is his. The Crusades were a “reaction,” he laments, and in any event, holy war was a “late, peripheral” development within Christianity. This ought to be news to the flayed bodies and burned heretics and massacred dissidents put to death by Christianity’s sword. Muslim empires were authoritarian, as were Christian empires. Muslim clerics gave fatwas declaring jihad, and Pope Urban II gave his own decree explicitly calling on Christian subjects to take up arms and reclaim the Holy Land from the Mohemmadans. Why Sam Harris feels the need to take sides in the fanatical squabbles of our barbaric ancestors eludes me.

All of this can be excused, but only up to a point. What is inexcusable, and what should preclude Sam Harris from participating in any more projects on Islamic Reformation, is his complete lack of awareness about Muslims as they actually live today. He censures American Muslims for paying more attention to the coldblooded massacre of three American Muslims at the University of North Carolina than to the crimes of ISIS -- proximity to Raleigh over Raqqa may explain why -- before going on to say that hate crimes against American Muslims are “tiny in number, often property-related, and still dwarfed five-fold by similar offenses against Jews.” Reread that sentence and take in the moral callousness of this thinker.

The FBI says there are now 100 to 150 anti-Muslim hate crimes committed in the United States every year, a five-fold increase from pre-9/11 levels, and that’s before the San Bernardino attacks and Donald Trump’s fascistic fear-mongering. Furthermore, the vandalism and destruction of property is not something that should be taken lightly. Throughout American history, racially and religiously motivated violence desecrated the physical spaces minorities inhabited, threatening them everywhere, at all times, even in their places of worship. Anti-Semitism is a vile and contemptible form of group-hatred, but violence done against one minority should never be downplayed because there is greater violence against another minority. Harris has the supreme privilege — a rich, white man’s privilege, I should add — of remaining aloof and ignorant about these crimes, and it makes one wonder if he knows any Muslims beyond Maajid Nawaz and the two others he always cites, or if he has ever set foot in a Muslim-majority country and talked to more than a handful of Muslims.

No, the very real violence done against a Muslim body or piece of property is not worthy of his sympathies. This is the type of pseudo-intellectual interrogation that is replayed on media outlets every day, and ends, as these interrogations always do, in inquisition -- the inquisition of a schoolboy in Texas, the inquisition of a hijab-wearing woman in New York, the inquisition and murder of three model citizens in North Carolina.

Sam Harris’s problem is not, as he often says, that he is right and all his critics are wrong or deceitful, but that he is an undisciplined public intellectual who prefers to claim the moral high ground with bold stances that are neither daring nor original. His limited defense of torture in 2005 came three years after Alan Dershowitz already made the case for torture warrants in the ticking-time-bomb scenario, which is a devious thought experiment because it only allows for one moral choice — torture or a bomb goes off in Manhattan — that would pose no conundrum to the policymaker in the heat of the moment.

(Christopher Hitchens, who is unfairly lumped in with Harris as a new atheist despite being a far more rigorous thinker and a cutting writer, was waterboarded in 2008. “Believe me, it’s torture,” he later wrote.)

Harris’s defense of profiling can be reduced to letting the old grandmother to go through TSA screening unmolested while scrutinizing people who look like me — again, neither original nor controversial. His latest attempt at contrarianism was his endorsement of a theocrat over a rationalist. “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time,” Harris said. Never mind that Carson thinks Obamacare is worse than slavery, that the Big Bang is a fairytale, that abortion should be illegal even in cases of incest, or the fact that he compared ISIS’s resilience to the grandeur of the American revolutionaries. Never mind that Noam Chomsky is a skeptic and atheist, and said that “the best outcome would be if ISIS were destroyed by local forces.” Endorsing an imbecilic Christian extremist over Noam Chomsky to make a broader point that is itself factually inaccurate is the kind of simplistic comparison only the ignorant think is intelligent.

Maajid Nawaz for his part does not push Sam Harris on any of these points. The phrase “I agree” or some version of it appears at least 15 times in this book and the tone remains one of satisfaction, the authors continually referring to how important conversations like this one are, as if frank discussions were not taking place every day in the very Muslim communities Nawaz and Harris wish to reform. The conversation that Nawaz needs to be having is around the dinner table with conservative Muslim families, not with Sam Harris or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who have precisely zero influence over Muslims and are considered prejudiced, dishonest interlocutors at best. It really should make one wonder what Nawaz was thinking in proposing this project -- the book was his idea -- if he wasn’t going to actually debate Sam Harris.

For all of Nawaz’s mentions of Trotsky and dialectical materialism, there is no mention of Marx and the social conditions that give rise to ideology, Islamist or otherwise. The neuroscientist takes little interest in social conditions, preferring to view a violent mind as a product of its own creation, but the question that needs to be posted, and yet is absent, is why a sliver of the Muslim population that reads or hears the same verses as all the other Muslims do, including devout, quietist Salafists, reaches for guns and bombs between prayers. Despite acknowledging the social circumstances that gave rise to his own former jihadism, Nawaz does little to illuminate how one’s environment and social milieu could have such a polluting effect on one’s mental universe, so that leaving a 6-month-old daughter behind -- as the California terrorists did -- to shoot up a disabled persons center becomes acceptable.

Nawaz has also been viciously attacked for publishing a book with Sam Harris, and the epithets lobbed at him -- "native informant" and "porch monkey" among them -- have no place in intellectual combat. Yet, this being a conversation on Islam, irony is certain to abound, and it does. As Nawaz has himself admitted time and again, Islam is not a race but a collection of ideas. As far as I know, he has not been criticized because he has brown skin or because he is of Pakistani descent. Rather, he has been attacked for his association with right-wing political activists, his think tank’s acceptance of British government money, the disturbing fact that his organization sent a list of alleged Islamist sympathizers to British intelligence, as well as the the deal he struck with the right-wing extremist Tommy Robinson, apparently paying the latter to leave the fascistic English Defense League so Nawaz’s organization could take credit. Attacking a public person’s ideas, associations, deals and sources of funding are all fair game.

Even if one assumes that all of this is untrue, that these are rumors invented to disparage Nawaz, the root of the anti-Nawaz sentiment is that he has used Project Islamic Reformation as a self-serving tool to enrich himself. This book both opens and closes with details of Nawaz’s life story, his radicalization, his time in prison, and his shift to liberalism. The implicit thread that runs through his public performances is I went through this, therefore you should listen to me. Unless Nawaz is perpetually writing a memoir, his personal experiences should reach diminishing returns quite quickly, yet they are right there, front, center and back. Can a man who makes all of Project Islamic Reformation about himself really claim offense when his critics attack his character? They did not make this personal. He did.

For all of the paeans to dialogue in this book, the concept is itself overrated when dealing with politics and religion, which require a clash of minds and ideas in opposition; in other words, a debate. Worshipping at the altar of dialogue is just another way of avoiding the difficult task of deep thinking and critical engagement. Saul Bellow understood this and wrote in one of his finest essays:

“Dialogue” has been invested with a certain sanctity. Actually it bears no resemblance to any form of real communication. It is a hard thing to describe. Two or more chests covered with merit badges are competitively exposed to public view. We sit, we look, we listen, we are attracted by the perceptions of hosts and guests.

There was a time when public intellectuals could actually debate important questions about religion and politics and, through their disagreement, push the argument further and at least attempt to reach the truth while involving others in the project. Now, the public is supposed to applaud when two people who agree on almost everything publish a slim book and waste precious space extolling their own virtues. In another time, H.L. Mencken said that it was the business of the thinker to stand in “permanent opposition.” Neither Harris or Nawaz meet the Menckenian standard, and this is why their book is ultimately a disappointment. It contains so little heat, and therefore, so little light, but it does illuminate much about the intolerable state of the pseudo-intellectuals who want to transform the world.

Omer Aziz is a writer, fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He worked most recently for the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria. Twitter: @omeraziz12

By Omer Aziz

Omer Aziz is a writer, a JD candidate at Yale Law School, and a Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. Follow him on Twitter at @omeraziz12.


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