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. 😉