Sam Harris, Omer Aziz, and Motivations

I finally got a chance to listen to Sam Harris’s podcast debate with Omer Aziz. Before getting to the debate, Harris spends the first 30 minutes of his podcast explaining how he is right about everything. It clearly went on too long and conveys a certain sense of insecurity, where he is trying too hard to ensure everyone will hear the debate as he does. Then, once the debate begins the two spend about 45 minutes arguing (where Harris does most of the talking) about the first paragraph Aziz wrote:

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!

Harris objects to the idea he wrote the book as some “get-rich-quick” scheme. Jamie Palmer summarizes Harris’s arguments:

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.

At this point, I would have to agree with Harris. Aziz clearly missed the mark in trying to portray the book as a “get-rich-quick” scheme. He completely missed the more likely financial motivation behind the writing the book.

When Harris goes on and on about all the downsides to writing the book, we are left wondering why indeed did he write this book? After all, he is not some Islamic or religious scholar who has some expert knowledge or new insight to contribute. There is no CV to pad. And, as he says, he would rather be talking about his atheist spirituality. So why write it?

Of course, part of it has to do with his atheist activism. Islamic extremism and Islamic terrorism fit comfortably into his activist message of religion being evil. The problem for Sam is when he holds up Islam as an example of the evils of religion, those on the Left view this as racism and bigotry. And therein lies Sam’s problem.

For some time, Sam’s liberal enemies (Greenwald, Myers, etc.) have been portraying him as an Islamophobe, bigot, and racist. Such accusations culminated in the Ben Affleck debate. Affleck, a very famous movie star and producer, made the very same accusations on an television show. This led Harris to complain:

One of the most depressing things in the aftermath of this exchange is the way Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Maher’s “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims.” This is yet another sign that simply accusing someone of these sins, however illogically, is sufficient to establish them as facts in the minds of many viewers. It certainly does not help that unscrupulous people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have been spinning the conversation this way.

Here’s where the financial motivation comes into play. How does Harris make a living? By selling himself. And if the racist/bigot label gains too much traction, the Sam Harris brand is damaged. In fact, if you listen to his podcast with Aziz, he effectively admits this. At 33:40, he complains that accusations of him being racist are closing off other opportunities for him to make money, at 34:00 he clearly states that being called a bigot and racist isn’t good for his career (and his “career” is to sell books and get paid for speeches), at 38:30 he complains about the “cost” of dealing with this issue, from 38:40 to 39:30 he makes it clear accusations of racism/bigotry interfered with his ability to promote his meditation book, and at 43:15 he complains about the “reputational costs” associated with such accusations.

We get it. The accusations of Islamophobia, racism, and bigotry are bad for business. They make it harder for Sam Harris to make money. They make it harder for him to expand his market.

So along comes the book about Islam. Was it a get-rich-quick scheme? I don’t think so. I think it was damage control. Harris was able to throw something together, with minimal effort, working with former Islamist Maajid Nawaz – Islam and the Future of Tolerance. This pamphlet/book would serve as his way of denying those accusations by creating the impression that he works with Muslims. After all, how could he be a racist and bigot if he co-authors a book with a Muslim? And sure enough, Harris fan Hemant Mehta uses the book in just this way:

[Aghapour and Schulson] say [Harris] doesn’t see Muslims as individuals, but as monolithic… Not only did Harris write his latest book with someone who identifies as a Muslim, he’s actively praised Muslim reformers like Malala Yousafzai, and supported the work of moderate Muslims who want to reform the extremist views within the faith.

Harris did not write the book to promote some new insights into reforming Islam (after all, his book has generated no discussion along these lines). He wrote it to show that he can work with a Muslim. He wrote it to show he doesn’t think all Muslims are evil. In essence, Maajid Nawaz can now serve as his shield against the accusations that are hurting his “career.” And sure enough, throughout the podcast, Harris uses Nawaz as a shield.
So while the book may not be a get-rich-quick scheme, I think it was financially motivated in the form of serving as damage control. The opportunities to make more money were being hurt by the accusations and Harris’s book was one way to try and repair the damage, while helping to defend against future damage. Sam Harris is not anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. He’s a reformer. 😉

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6 Responses to Sam Harris, Omer Aziz, and Motivations

  1. Dhay says:

    > In essence, Maajid Nawaz can now serve as his shield against the accusations that are hurting his “career.” And sure enough, throughout the podcast, Harris uses Nawaz as a shield.

    Nawaz might well be considered Harris’ shield, giving some rationale to supporters who might say, “Sam Harris is not anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. He’s a reformer.”, but his support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali — not just moral support but also active practical support (tildeb, on March 8: “helping to fund 24 hour security for Ayaan Hirsi Ali”) — can be considered to be a drawn sword proving the opposite.

    Here’s part of one of my responses in an earlier thread:

    When Namazie claims that Harris is promoting a far-right narrative of bigotry, his support for Ali demonstrates this very nicely: in 2009, in an interview with the Reason website, she talks of the need to “defeat” Islam, not radical Islam, but “Islam, period”, Q: “We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot?”, A:”I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars”, and “There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”
    (See several paragraphs near the bottom at

    So Ali spouts the far-right narrative of bigotry; and Harris supports her and her narrative of bigotry, as Namazie has claimed.

    What a gentle, moderate reformer Ali is: “defeat” Islam, not radical Islam, but “Islam, period”; “crush” 1.5 billion Muslims; “we are at war with Islam”; “there’s no middle ground in wars”; “There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”; “enemy”.

    Harris needs to choose his friends and associates more carefully if he wishes to be thought of as someone not supporting Ali’s far-right political narrative of crushing Islam, not radical Islam, but the “enemy” of Islam, period.

    Nawaz, shield; Ali, sword. You cannot claim not to be a warrior because your shield is defensive.

  2. Dhay says:

    > Harris did not write the book to promote some new insights into reforming Islam (after all, his book has generated no discussion along these lines).

    As part of a nicely humorous summary of Sam Harris’ latest “Ask Me Anything #4” podcast …

    Just listened to the latest Ask Me Anything Podcast. My thoughts:

    – I was pleased that at the beginning Harris said he was going to give his ‘thoughts’ on Brussels, as I could then just skip the next 10 minutes and listen to the actual questions asked by readers. Unfortunately, this is Harris, so he could not let the topic of Islam drop and I have to do that thing that the Southern woman does at the dinner party in Borat, like “I am politely pretending this isn’t happening”. You say you’re trying to reform Islam and help Muslims in the Middle East but ‘decline’ to have your books translated in Arabic because Arabs would probably get so violent about it? OMG, I think the potatoes are done, gotta just run into the kitchen for a minute! Small zip codes in the US have contributed more to humanity that all of Islam in a thousand years? Wow, momentary deafness, that happens to me sometimes, weird, right? So anyways, doesn’t the garden look nice this year? ‘Mystified’ by why people complained when you spent two eons demanding Omer Aziz apologize to you? ‘Arabs’ are only 5% of the world population but only produce 1% of the world’s books? Saying, hey, let’s take a moment to compare ‘Jews’ (a term I don’t like, it sounds derogatory to me) to Muslims and think about who is producing more intellectual work vs. “beating your wife or forcing her to live in a bag”? Wow, for that one I was actually clinically dead for a minute, I was in an entirely different realm where all paradoxes were resolved and a bright white light surrounded me but, whoops!, whatever you said I missed it so I’m just gonna go check on those potatoes again now…

    … frequent Harris Forum poster NL tells us Harris is not going to get his books translated into Arabic, so there will be little availability to Arabs of the “reform” message of this last book, either.

    Well, if Harris wants to get a “reform” message directly into Arab or other Islamic homes, the blindingly obvious thing to do is to make it visible online, on the Web, he’s already got a website. And who better to translate the meaning correctly into fluent Arabic than his enthusiastic fellow-reformer Maajid Nawaz, who would surely be delighted to get the message out there where it needs to be. Until then, the message will rattle in futility elsewhere, in the heads of mostly Western New Atheists and atheists (ie Harris fans), of a very few Western or Westernised Muslims, but just a tiny number of “Muslims in the Middle East”.

    But I think NL has it wrong: as his 2011 Huffpost Politics article entitled “Bombing Our Illusions”, tells us, Harris is primarily targeting his “reform” messages at Muslims in the West:

    Rather than continue to squander precious time, energy, and good will by denying the role that Islam now plays in perpetuating Muslim violence, we should urge Muslim communities in the West to reform the ideology of their religion.


    In that same article Harris contrasts peaceful Tibetan Buddhists with Islamic suicide bombers and claims:

    … This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. …

    I rather think Harris is bullshitting, here: Rinzai Zen Buddhism was the ideal religion for the Samurai warriors of mediaeval Japan; and indeed for any callous soldier of any era, teaching a disregard of any life, including one’s own. And it’s not just in Zen, it’s right at the heart of all Buddhism, in the Four Noble Truths: look at the Second Noble Truth, concerning the causes of what’s unsatisfactory (dukkha) in one’s life:

    2. The Truth of the Origin of Dukkha is that craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable result in becoming, rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath. (Wikipedia.)

    Indeed, if I cut off (or blow off, as “collateral damage”, using Harris’ ‘imperfect weapons’) someone’s arm, but remain detached and indifferent — the more detached and indifferent the better, and the nearer to that Nirvanic state of perfect detachment from and indifference to the World — that detachment and indifference conforms entirely to the Second Law; and it is the victim who, because he or she (or child) is craving to still have an arm, and averse to both the immediate and chronic pains and the lifelong disability — it is, in Buddhist terms, arguably the physically and mentally suffering victim who is at fault.

    Then this is soon followed by Harris telling us:

    … While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization. …

    This is a presumably thoughtfully written article, not something spouted off-the-cuff, so it is with surprise that I see Harris apparently desiring “the emergence of a global civilization” — a single global civilisation, not a plurality of different civilisations, then, leaving me wondering what’s wrong with a plurality of civilisations, a plurality of cultures, are we not enriched by the present plurality; of course, an Islamic civilisation could in principle become that “global civilization”, but I feel sure that is not what Harris wants, he more probably has Cultural Imperialism in mind, and I predict that the single “global civilization” which he wants to “emerge” will be a Westernised one.

    Then there’s:

    The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.”

    There are times when New Atheists also look just like this — for a glaring example, see my comments above on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who seems to have mirror-image views. Some New Atheists would convert all children to New Atheism (or to atheism, at minimum) by removing them from their parents; their parents would be politically subjugated (or killed while resisting, or imprisoned); responses here at S2L have variously suggested that religious people have no right to an education, to education at an elite university, to teach or educate others, to practice science, or to hold down a responsible post in science. The tenets of New Atheism do not seem to admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with its “enemies”.

    New Atheists are not anti-religious or anti-religion, of course. They are, er, reformers.

  3. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.”

    In his The End of Faith, Pp 150-1, Harris says:

    What constitutes a civil society? At minimum, it is a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without the risk of physical violence. … It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else. Whether such societies have to be democratic is not at all clear. Zakaria has persuasively argued that the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite.

    It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key—and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives.

    It seems to me that what Harris envisages in his last paragraph is but the mirror image of what he says “devout Muslims” envisage: that is, the only future Harris can envisage is one in which all Muslims are converted from Islam as they know it, are politically subjugated by imposition of a Harris-approved state from without — using “economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both” — or killed. His tenets simply do not admit of allowing power and self-determination to his ideological enemies.

  4. Dhay says:

    > Harris objects to the idea he wrote the book as some “get-rich-quick” scheme.

    Sam Harris’ best refutation of Aziz’s “get-rich-quick” scheme accusation is contained in the transcript — just now blogged — of his podcasted discussion (published June 2015) with the historian Dan Carlin:

    I actually just gave up a book contract that was the best book contract I’ve ever had and maybe will ever have, but I decided that the topic was going to put me in an all-out war against critics whose first impulse would be to ignore all the nuance in my arguments.

    What I read into that is that Harris passed up a lucrative book contract on a topic that would have put him “in an all-out war against [his] critics”, presumably his controversial positions on Islam and what to do about it; a sentence or two further on he says said topic was one which Ben Affleck has misinterpreted him on, so almost certainly Islam.

    I note that this same sentence supports Michael’s idea that the substituted book co-authored with Maajid Nawaz was probably damage limitation.


    Harris has just tweeted “Many have requested podcast transcripts”, together with a link to this one. I understand the frustration of those “many” who find a spoken podcast inadequate: life is too short to listen attentively enough through a two-hour podcast for that listening to be worthwhile and to pick up and understand all the relevant points; indeed, the ephemeral nature of voices — if you think about what’s being said while it’s being said, you mentally chatter over what’s being said, and you miss portions, and points — the ephemeral nature of voices means that realistically you have to listen twice; now where were those passages I wanted to ponder, compare and contrast, and probably to quote — listen again; now did I understand that passage right — find passage and listen again; that majority of us who are not practiced audio-typists will need to listen several times as we write a passage down if we are to quote it accurately. In short, critiquing a lecture or podcast is very difficult absent a transcript, and usually not worth bothering with.

    Contrast this with written material, which can be speed-read for the gist in minutes, printed out for convenience and multi-colour highlighted for subsequent instant identification and in-depth analysis of interesting or contentious passages — with easy electronic searching for that half-remembered elusive passage and easy copy-and-paste of anything worth contending.

    I wondered for a while whether Harris’ move from written blogs to audio podcasts was precisely to make life difficult for critics by making the material difficult and tedious to find, think about and discuss — looks like I was wrong on that one — and also had (and have) a cynical subsidiary hypothesis that Harris eloquent rhetorical style often work best if the listener comes away with just an impression of what was said rather than being able to pin him down to what he actually did say.


    I am glad that Harris has released this particular transcript, because I find that his words there are rather more nuanced and reasonable than those I quoted in the responses above; up to a point, anyway. He does say:

    SH“We’ve seen a tipping point on our national view of gay rights in a way that I don’t think anyone expected 20 years ago, and one has to hope for and try to engineer similar moments of change in the rest of the world. The question is, what tools do we have to do that? And one always hopes that they’re conversational first, economic second, and more coercive a distant third.”

    And he says about Saudi Arabia:

    SH: “I’m just saying that the fact that we can’t do anything other than pay lip service to our values when confronted with Saudi Arabia is a symptom of our abject and unnecessary dependence on oil. If oil were worthless, we could take a very different line with them. I’m not saying we would invade them, because that would be analogous to the other misadventures we’ve had in the Middle East. But we could take a very hard line, whether it was sanctions or just non-collaboration. We could treat them the way the world began to treat South Africa during apartheid.”

    But that relatively moderate statement from Harris about Saudi Arabia comes after Harris has been worked on for a while by exposure to Carlin’s viewpoint. His first thought, responding to Carlin’s earlier comment that Saudi Arabia is repressive of human rights (as espoused in Western countries) and exports Wahhabi extreme conservatism and intolerance:

    DC: “… in a country like Saudi Arabia—which isn’t just doing these things but in an educational sense is a bit of a fountainhead for these ideas and the most extreme of the extreme ideas—they get a pass.”


    SH: “We should plant a flag there …”

    Yep, Harris’ first thought was, “we should” invade Saudi Arabia.

    (My own knowledge of US idiom is patchy, but invasion is how Carlin, too, seems to interpret Harris here.)

  5. Dhay says:

    In the first response above I note that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is on record as very clearly and unambiguously stating she wants to “crush” Islam:

    What a gentle, moderate reformer Ali is: “defeat” Islam, not radical Islam, but “Islam, period”; “crush” 1.5 billion Muslims; “we are at war with Islam”; “there’s no middle ground in wars”; “There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”; “enemy”.

    I note that Sam Harris’ response to the 2006 Edge Question, “WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?” was “Science Must Destroy Religion”.

    Got that, destroy. Harris is just as bad as Ali, and less selective: Ali would “crush” Islam; Harris would “destroy” religion in general.

  6. Maria Sederholm says:

    Former Islamist Maajid Nawaz? Former? I have serious doubts about that, as others do as well. I think Nawaz knows exactly how Harris’s ego works. Harris as a heaven-sent gateway, now that is an ironic twist of fate. Will it turn out to be fatal? Only time will tell.

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