My secret debate with Sam Harris: A revealing 4-hour dialogue on Islam, racism & free-speech hypocrisy

When I wrote an essay critical of the famous atheist, he asked me to debate the issues. Now he refuses to air it

By Omer Aziz
Published March 8, 2016 2:17AM (UTC)
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Sam Harris (HBO)

Last December, I published an essay in Salon reviewing "Islam and the Future of Tolerance," a book-length "discourse" on reforming Islam, conducted between neuroscientist Sam Harris and activist Maajid Nawaz. In it, I argued that the book was a simplistic and unoriginal take on a complex topic, more of a friendly conversation than any kind of serious analysis. The piece concluded by lamenting the erosion of public debate, as intellectuals of previous eras have been replaced by profiteers more interested in advancing narrow agendas than in exploring difficult questions.

The piece got Harris's attention, and he publicly reached out to me on Twitter to invite me on his podcast to "discuss these issues." Although some of his followers mocked the invitation, I gladly accepted, and we set a date and time for our debate.

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That's when things got interesting, because it turned out that Harris did not want a traditional debate or even an open discussion. As he wrote in one email:

I'd like you to just read [your piece], line by line, and I'll stop you at various points so that we can discuss specific issues.

This was a bizarre and rather creepy way to structure our conversation. Think of how awkward it would be to read your writing in front of a critic who had empowered himself to stop, critique, and rebuke you whenever he wanted, with thousands of people listening. Even the strongest piece of writing cannot withstand a line-by-line cross-examination because such an exercise puts the writer in the witness box and therefore on the permanent defensive. If Harris's rules were followed, our discussion would be more like an undignified show-trial than a frank conversation. Is there a single journalist who has ever participated in, much less proposed, this sort of guerrilla attack?

I replied to Harris and noted the absurdity of his invitation:

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I really hope you were not literally intending for me to come on and read my essay on your podcast with you stopping me every other sentence as if I was in some kind of deposition or trial. This would be a totally fruitless conversation.

Instead, I proposed an alternative approach: We should each pick a few topics — reforming Islam, radical jihadists, holy war, etc. — and have a debate around each one, alternating between who would kick things off. In other words, we should have a normal debate, on equal footing, where arguments could be tested against their rebuttals. Harris rejected that offer and firmly reiterated demand to be  judge, jury, and prosecutor.

He wrote back:

I want us to move back and forth between the text of your essay, my response to it as a reader/listener, and your response to my response. It remains to be seen whether this will produce and interesting/useful conversation or a "fruitless" one. But I'm pretty sure no one has ever attempted something like this before.

So this is how I want us to approach the podcast — with you reading what you wrote and our stopping to talk about each point, wherever relevant. Again, you can say anything you want in this context, and I won't edit you (though if our exchange truly is "fruitless," as well as boring, I reserve the right not to air it).

It should be obvious as to why no one has ever preferred to publicly stand trial if the ostensible intention was to have an honest debate. True, there was the caveat that I could say anything to his listeners unedited, but in classic Harris form, there was the additional and contradictory caveat-to-the-caveat that the entire discussion might be purged. In light of his preemptively imposed restrictions, I requested the right to make my own recording of our conversation and suggested that instead of reciting all 2,800 words of an essay easily retrievable online, Harris should pick the most objectionable parts of the piece and we should structure a conversation around these paragraphs to keep the discussion moving.

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Once again, Harris flatly refused:

I want to hold you accountable for every word in your essay. You took the time to write it, and nearly every sentence exemplifies what is wrong with our public conversation on these topics. Is the fact that you appear reluctant to stand behind your work "highly revealing"? I'll let you decide. But there's nothing about the format I propose that would prevent us from talking for ten minutes at a stretch on any specific topic, or digressing upon others.

Standing behind one's work is not the same thing as willingly submitting oneself to a demeaning non-debate dictated by another person. Note the irony here: Harris was lecturing me about "what is wrong with our public conversation" but was simultaneously and shamelessly outlining an approach — "read it, line-by-line, and I'll stop you at various points" — that not even the most obscene Fox News anchors had the gall to do.

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Journalist and attorney friends of mine were stunned at Harris's brazen stacking of the deck. For someone who spends so much time sermonizing about free inquiry, here was Harris deliberately stifling debate, and in a rather disturbing manner at that.

But I would not give Harris the unmerited pleasure of boasting about the writer who criticized him in print and then ducked a real exchange, as I suspected he would if I turned down his invitation. Rejecting his offer would have contradicted both my personality and my principles: I had been bred on a Socratic diet of books and dialectic — refusing an invitation to discuss important issues and investigate their premises, interrogate their histories, and illuminate their contradictions would have been anathema, even given an invitation as demeaning and one-sided as this one.

So I accepted his offer and every onerous condition that came with it. Once again, all the terms were set by him: I would have to read the essay word for word, he could stop me whenever he wanted, I could not record the talk, and Harris reserved the right not to air it if it was "boring" — a standard to be defined only by him, and only after the fact.

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The conversation that took place lasted nearly four hours. We covered a breadth of topics ranging from Islamic reform and issues of free speech to ISIS, the Middle East, and American foreign policy. It was a heated exchange, at times cordial, at times digressive, though anything but boring or fruitless. (We did not make it past the third paragraph of the piece, but many of its issues were raised.) Had the conversation been a pointless exercise, one of us surely would have terminated it before the four-hour mark, but we were too busy going back and forth over Muhammed cartoons and the Iraq war.

What was fascinating about this experiment was how quickly we departed from the rules and had a free-flowing exchange. After a few personality clashes—Harris repeatedly began his points with "let me educate you on this" before I reproached him for his rudeness; I was his guest, after all — the discussion took on its own logic, swerving as if up a treacherous mountain, speeding forward towards either enlightenment or oblivion. Ideas were exchanged. Veiled insults were delivered. Bathroom breaks were taken.

Though the discussion did not plunge into the depths of history and politics that would help explain the modern problem of terrorism, I have to give credit to my prosecutor-turned-host: It was still an enjoyable encounter. Fisticuffs one moment and symposium the next, it was impossible not to walk away from the debate thinking that listeners would find it appealing, and perhaps even entertaining.

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A few weeks later, I was surprised then to find the following email in my inbox:

I just listened to our recorded conversation, and I'm sorry to say that I can't release it as a podcast. Even if I took the time to edit it, I wouldn't be doing either of us any favors putting it out there. The conversation fails in every way — but, most crucially, it fails to be interesting.

Better luck next time...

Sam

The self-righteous salutation at the end was the richest part of this otherwise self-serving note. Exactly who was Sam Harris protecting in this flagrant and sanctimonious act of expurgation? Certainly not me. Certainly not his listeners. He was protecting himself, because what he said in those four hours was as extreme and belligerent and ignorant as anything he has ever written.

Coming from a world where the edge of the neighborhood was a barricade and words were the only escape route, I had learned to distrust the supposedly noble motives of others. My article was already in the public domain. Harris's invitation was in the public domain.Why keep the contents of our conversation sealed, as Harris attempted to do?

*  *  *

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From this now-suppressed discussion there emerge four distinct themes that, taken independently or collectively, ought to disqualify Harris's claims to being a serious thinker and philosopher. Let me stipulate these charges in the prosecutorial style that Harris evidently likes:

  1. He is a hypocrite who lectures others about the principle of free speech while violating this same principle when it suits his needs.
  2. He dehumanizes Muslims to such an extreme degree that it verges upon bloodlust.
  3. He supports aggressively (perhaps regressively) militaristic policies towards the Middle East and Muslim world at-large that put him in the fringe of the Republican Party.
  4. He has passed himself off as a learned thinker despite being both ignorant of and incurious about the very issues on which he opines.

Each of these themes in order:

The hypocrisy, for one, is explicit. During our conversation, Harris complained that Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, Salon and others were unethical and dishonest "regressives" who did not stand up for free speech — a term, first coined by Nawaz, that is bitter in tone and sweet in irony, considering Harris's debate scheme.

For at least 30 minutes, Harris went on and on about the moral and intellectual failings of individuals and organizations he considered to be left-wing accomplices to jihadists, digressing boringly into petty feuds with people who were apparently so dumb they could not understand the threat posed by Islamist terrorism and so smart they could permanently get under his skin. Enduring the broken tune of the world's smallest violin was painful enough, but enduring it while the man assumed the air of a virtuoso would qualify, I think, as cruel and unusual punishment.

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(Which Harris supports, by the way.)

The only conclusion to be drawn from Harris's censorship of our talk and his repeated lectures to "regressives" on their moral confusion is that he is a hypocrite who supports free speech only to the extent that it benefits his reputation — when it does not, a commitment to free expression that ought to be sacrosanct is quietly broken. The freedom to critique and debate is meaningless if it excludes, suppresses, or censors from discussion the most sacred dogmas or prophets, be they the texts of Islam or the words of Sam Harris, Ph.D. It seems that Harris is incapable of meeting even the lowly standards of people he thinks are in bed with jihadists.

The first point of contention in our debate was the allegation in the opening paragraph of my essay that writing books criticizing Islam was akin to a get-rich-quick scheme. As with all extremists, Harris has trouble distinguishing between the literal and the metaphorical. Of course, writing any book is not literally like winning the lottery, but writing on particular topics and conveying particularly attention-grabbing or vitriolic viewpoints — especially when they concern newsworthy issues like Islam — ensures that one's book will sell, one's platform will expand, and one's name will be in the public eye.

Take Maajid Nawaz as one example. He has been given stages with prominent conservatives like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, received invitations to prestigious conferences, and made appearances on right-wing television where he delivered phrases like "global jihadist insurgency" to delighted ears. All around us, the Islam industry is growing. One of the most well-publicized novels of 2015 was Michel Houellebecq's "Submission," a satirical tale about an Islamist governing France in 2022. The notoriously Islamophobic and Orwellian-sounding Center for Security Policy drew in over $4 million in revenue in 2012, despite its president's previous support for a McCarthyite committee in Congress to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood's brilliant but still-undetected infiltration of the White House. At a time when every pundit and policymaker is worried about ISIS, writing about Islam — even intelligently or benignly — guarantees one an audience.

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Harris contended that I knew nothing of his and Maajid Nawaz's motives, lacked all information about their finances, and so was completely wrong that they had written their book to make money. They did not receive an advance for this book he said; therefore, there was no money to be made.

So, I asked him: Is there not a thriving market in America for texts that denounce Islam? In the publishing marketplace specifically, are these texts not well-received among certain groups of readers, and the authors not well-compensated, either with royalties or speaking engagements? Was the Republican Party's anti-Muslim agenda not itself evidence that the Islam-bashing industry was prospering? Was it not the case that his book was originally supposed to be a blog post, before they decided to expand the project and publish it as a book, as a product?

Since the book was published, Harris has spoken at Harvard and appeared on multiple media outlets. His slim book has generated more revenue and attention that it ever would have gotten had it remained a blog post.

In any event, my argument was not that Harris's motive was solely to get rich but that his views on reforming Islam were overly simplistic and surface-level — yet he managed to get them published by the Harvard University Press and profit from them nonetheless. Harris wasted far too much time defending his noble motivations. Perhaps this was the part of the podcast he thought was "boring."

The second and third themes that emerge from our debate-turned-debacle is Harris' dehumanization of Muslims and his support for violent policies against them. These two charges are connected, since the dehumanization is what underpins, rationalizes, and ultimately justifies the extreme militarism Harris champions.

Recall that this is the same man who said "some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them." Recall further that Harris previously entertained the deranged fantasy — masquerading as a thought experiment — of conducting a nuclear strike against Muslims. These noxious, authoritarian views of his served as a backdrop for our debate.

Once we had cleared our throats, Harris repeated his clichéd trope that he was defending the minorities of the Middle East — atheists, women, and the LGBT community. I heartily agreed that everyone must defend the rights of persecuted minorities, but I asked: Where was Sam Harris's defense of thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims killed by Western bombs? He had never bothered to defend their right to life, those who had suffered hurricanes of shrapnel for years. Did he not lament those deaths, too?

In his reply, Harris reduced these people to "collateral damage," and he went off on a tangent about the utility of this term, and the puritan motives of Western policymakers. This is the euphemism Harris repeats quicker than even the most hawkish conservatives do. He does so, I believe, because the Muslim-looking or brown-skinned body is of no human value to him. In one breath he declared his moral superiority in defending minorities, and in the next, he dehumanized thousands of victims and sanitized the victimizers. The corpses of children conveniently hidden behind his two favorite words, Harris could proceed with a clean conscience.

[Editor's note: When asked to confirm the wording, Harris said, "That's a euphemism. Everyone in the war-making business uses it. It's the jargon term they use." He insisted that his choice of words did not indicate a lack of care for the victims' lives.]

As a side note, it is worth repeating, though it shouldn't need to be, that Islam is made up of Muslims and there is nothing in the most strident criticism of its doctrines that should lead one to advocate war against its adherents or to refer to them as though they were lesser evolved brutes. It is possible — indeed, necessary — to intellectually excoriate religious creeds while defending rather than vilifying the actual human beings who belong to it. This is the tradition of Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Sam Harris does not deserve their company.

Having vandalized the principle of free speech, relegated Muslims to the status of barbarians, and turned the stereotype of the insane armchair militarist into a job description, the charge that supersedes all of these in terms of severity is Sam Harris's intellectual mendacity.

By the midway point of our discussion, it was clear that Harris was unknowledgeable about the very Muslim societies he wanted to reform. He would take a single poll done in a single country and generalize it to all Muslims, including the 80 percent of Muslims who do not live in the Middle East. He would look at the massacre of Shiites done by Sunni extremists and extrapolate that into a theory that Islam hated its own minorities, despite the fact that Sunni and Shia lived harmoniously together for centuries and that the Sunni-Shia conflict in its modern, politicized, genocidal form was the recent creation of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia and Khomeinism from Iran.

On the question of ISIS — its history, its ideology, its power — Harris did not care to discuss how al-Qaida in Iraq went from being nearly decimated in 2011 to reconstituting as a caliphate in 2014. Nor was he interested in the dynamics at work between the Assad regime and the coterie of ex-Saddamists who were now ISIS's operational masterminds.

On free speech, the Salman Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoon controversy, Harris seemed to know nothing about the political machinations of Saudi Arabia and Iran, who goaded their citizens into protesting in public squares where large gatherings are normally illegal.

(The British writer Kenan Malik has documented in a brilliant essay how neither "The Satanic Verses" nor the Danish cartoons caused an uproar when they were first published; only after a few Islamist imams mobilized did the Saudi and Pakistani governments see an opportunity to use blasphemy as a cudgel to attack Western governments while distracting from their own incompetence at home.)

Because Harris is ignorant about the politics of the Middle East and of the political reasons why the Saudis, Iranians, Pakistanis and even the Indians — the Indian Congress Party, led by Rajiv Gandhi, was the first government to ban "The Satanic Verses" — were suppressing free speech, his argument was that the mass demonstrations and embassy seizures and recalling of ambassadors in the Muslim world were due to the doctrines of Islam. By excluding politics entirely from his analysis, and therefore missing the crucial power relationships and internal competitions within Muslim-majority societies — it is not a coincidence that the well-financed Islamist right-wing stoked the sectarian tensions and benefitted from the results — Harris could conveniently argue that Islamic doctrines themselves caused a hyper-sensitivity on the part of demonstrating Muslims. If Islam was the reason for irrational violence, the Muslim world, to use Harris's earlier phrasing, was "utterly deranged by religious tribalism," which would explain their reactions to novels and cartoons they didn't like. This was the same theory of "black culture causing poverty," transposed into the international sphere, where the "doctrines of Islam" or "Muslim culture" were alleged to cause hot-blooded violence.

Politics was excluded from Harris's worldview. History, where it could falsify his theories, was denied. Islam equaled texts and texts equaled terrorism. This was an unserious, lazy mind at work — a mind that seemed to relish being ignorant on most important questions.

Harris's worst assault on my intelligence came when he restated his patently false claim that most of Islamic history was jihad. This is his core argument, because if terrorism and suicide-bombing and jihad are central elements of Islamic history, it can be concluded that Islam directly leads to mass carnage. If such violence is missing from the longer history, then there are other forces at work beyond the texts and the traditions over which Harris obsesses — mainly politics and the competition for power within Muslim societies.

Rather than recapitulating the many periods of coexistence between Islam and Christendom — though I did bring up the long history of Islamic pluralism and philosophy to remind Harris that history did not begin on Sept. 11, 2001 — I quoted for Harris the words of Bernard Lewis, the noted conservative historian whom Harris says has shaped his thinking:

At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.

Harris has been arguing the exact opposite of this for years, that a "plausible" reading of the text leads to terrorism, and that the "motherlode of bad ideas" known as Islam is to blame for suicide-murder. If Harris cannot be trusted to understand the views of people he admires, what should readers make of his take on people he dislikes?

All of this is doubly appalling because Harris told me he was familiar with the pictures taken of the Muslim world in the 1950s and 1960s, when the left was ascendant in these countries. Take a look at photographs from Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan, once all part of the "hippie trail" that connected Turkey to India.

As if it was not enough for Harris to invite me to a debate, and then warmonger for four hours and censor our discussion, more duplicity followed, because hypocrites have to take additional steps to cover their tracks lest they are discovered. In a later podcast, Harris slithered around the truth once more and told his listeners that our debate would not be released because it was "boring":

We spoke for nearly four hours and it was a terrible conversation. Unfortunately, it was terrible in a way that wasn't at all interesting. So rather than inflict this boredom on you, I decided to cut my losses and move on… In the end I just couldn't bear to put out a three-hour podcast, which I knew would bore people to death… Being boring is the one unforgivable sin in this space, and boy, were we both boring.

Several of Harris's followers were suspicious of his reasons and raised the appropriate and obvious question of how on earth Harris could publicly challenge someone to a debate and then refuse to publish it.

On that same podcast, Harris reflected with astonishment that I "didn't even seem to be religious!" When I heard him say this, I burst out laughing. Unlike the charlatan Maajid Nawaz, I forthrightly admit that I am a skeptic and make no claims to being a "reformer" — such titles are for self-anointed prophets, not writers. Harris referred to me as a "young Muslim writer," echoing his remarks during our debate where he referred to the same Middle Easterners he considers backward subhumans as "your fellow Muslims." Imagine the grotesque stench of anti-Semitism if I called Sam Harris a "Jewish neuroscientist" or referred to Jewish terrorists in the West Bank as Harris's "fellow Jews." This is what white supremacy does: It reduces another person's complex humanity to a two-dimensional stick-figure and allows the objectifier to remain so ignorant of how other people actually live that this ignorance becomes a privileged badge of honor rather than a mark of impoverishment. One should pity individuals like Harris, so blinded by arrogance that they live in a world removed from the struggles of everyday people who they assume to be knaves and fools.

Harris ought to retire from the Islam industry altogether, or at least take a long vacation from spouting bile for a living. If this is too much to ask, he should at least have the integrity to admit that his attempted ambush on the "young Muslim writer" who "didn't even seem to be religious" backfired and so he deprived his customers of the truth.

For all of its shortcomings, this unpublished debate was not a waste of time. It illuminated one thing for certain: that Harris and his brigade of reactionary pseudo-liberals are not at all interested in the questions they raise. It is about power for them, and maintaining a belief in their own superiority. No debate will rob Harris and his ilk of such a satisfying elixir, that they are civilized, while those people over there, in their ghettos and their mosques, they are barbaric, they are criminals, they are animals. Why escape Plato's cave if you are the one holding the chains?

Better luck next time indeed, Sam.


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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Islam Islamophobia Religion Sam Harris