Sam Harris and Omer Aziz

If you have 3.5 hours to kill to understand what I’m talking about here, go listen to this episode of Waking Up with Sam Harris.  What follows is a review of that episode.

I’ll start off by saying I’ve read almost all of Sam Harris’ books, and found him to be a writer with an enviable sense of structure and an admirable willingness to wade outside his intellectual home base of neuroscience.  He is probably most famous for commenting on religion, but his ability to tie his experience with meditation to seemingly unrelated concepts like free will are his main draw for a listener/reader like me.  He has a tendency to engage in thought experiments that are helpful to his readers but make him a frequent target of intentional misunderstanding.  As I will write later, for all his forward-thinkingness he also has a few apparent blind spots in his understanding of the world.

My first exposure to the work of Omer Aziz, like many of the people commenting on this podcast, was reading his two articles on Salon.com on Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz’s book and on the podcast itself.  The articles are indeed unfair and seem to be written for an uncritically anti-Harris audience, as Sam says.  In the podcast, however, he comes across as much more generous than on the page, and sadly for Sam also appears to have a much more nuanced view of the role religion plays in real people’s lives.

The format that Sam insisted on and Omer agreed to, going through the article line by line, was a terrible idea, and Omer’s stated reluctance to take part in it was proven correct.  There were many times it seemed the two could have had a fruitful conversation if only Sam had not annoyedly prodded Omer to keep moving through the article or quashed a potentially interesting divergence by insisting that they cover it when it came up in the article.  After the first hour it should have been obvious that they would never reach most of it, and of course they

The first hour, in which they discuss Omer’s dismissal of Sam’s and Maajid’s book as an attempt to cash in on a supposedly huge anti-Islam book market, was extremely frustrating.  Of course Omer should have recognized that he didn’t know the finances of publishing or Sam’s and Maajid’s motivations for writing their book, and his continued insistence that the fact that books are sold for money therefore Sam’s and Maajid’s motives for writing are suspect was a dishonest attempt to defend his original slur by simple innuendo.  Of course the original slur was made in an article for Salon for anti-Harris Salon readers, and he probably didn’t expect to ever have to defend it, a point Sam makes at the beginning but then seems to forget himself.  Sam is right that commentators in the public sphere should only use words responsibly, but of course people shouldn’t text and drive either.  Sam was the host and set the format; he should have moved on from this topic on his own.

As the podcast goes on it becomes a bit more clear that Sam is releasing years of frustration on being misquoted and intentionally misread on Omer, who of course is one of those misreaders, but only one of them.  Omer for his part seems bemused that the animus of his words and the words of people he defends are taken so literally and that his dishonesty in an article for Salon would be taken as evidence of dishonesty in general.  The article does take an openly hostile stance and as Sam describes it always interprets him in the least charitable way possible.  Omer’s apparent surprise at Sam’s umbrage can really only mean that Omer doesn’t take publishing in Salon seriously either.  It would be intellectually empty but exciting for some of Sam’s listeners to hear him take apart one of these critics if it didn’t also sound like the two could have had a very fruitful conversation in other circumstances.

As Omer wrote after the podcast was recorded, Sam initially decided not to release it, and mostly blamed Omer for being a fruitlessly dense interlocutor.  Sam begins the version of it that he eventually did release with an admission that he is not proud of how he sounds on it.  Indeed, the conversation as recorded makes him look small-minded and focused on his own grievances rather than the grievances a public intellectual and lawyer/social activist should be talking about.  Sam was right on most points on the one-sided hostility in Omer’s article, it wasn’t worth the length of a podcast to go over those points.  If Omer deserves the blame for writing a bad article (or at least a bad introductory paragraph), Sam deserves the blame for letting his feelings about it dictate his thought processes throughout the conversation.  Omer, as became clear during the podcast, is worth having a conversation with on these issues even if it means swallowing one’s pride at having been publicly insulted by him earlier.  It also shows a bit of a lack of trust in the audience that Sam feels the need to stay on points such as the misattribution of motives for so long after it is clear Omer will never change his stated position.

The points Omer makes in the article and podcast also highlight what I’ve realized is a big blind spot for Sam, his tendency to evaluate religions by their propositional content rather than as one force out of many in the cultures and minds that interact with them.  The content of religious texts is important, of course, and Sam is right that different religions are variably compatible with different sets of social norms because of plausible interpretations of the contents of their holy books.  However, as I started realizing after reading his and Maajid’s book, he incorrectly believes that religious texts have one unambiguously literal reading, a core from which other interpretations may spring but which religions always have a chance to revert to (which Christopher Hitchens compared to the sewer rats of La Peste).  Maajid made the point in that book that the Koran has multiple valid literal readings, and while none of them (presumably) says that Snickers are packed with peanuts, it isn’t true that “kill apostates” is the core interpretation to which other interpretations must be considered inferior.  The tendency to consider one interpretation “literal” is part of a socio-political phenomenon which I would like to hear Maajid or Omer talk more about.

Sam is right that within the currently popular ways of reading religious texts, some content is more likely to lead to social problems than others.  He is wrong to expect problematizing the books themselves to be useful, and as Omer and Maajid point out, the content itself is not the main problem that leads to their practicalization in illiberal or violent ways.  To me, Maajid’s autobiography absolutely screams this point, that political Islam was one large hook that was available for him and many others to hang their identities on, but what made that hook necessary was his difficult youth in Essex.  I see the same point with a different version of Islam made in the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Unfortunately I think Sam has so much intellectual currency invested in the idea that religions are mainly their lists of rules that I don’t believe he’s likely to take the idea of religions as social phenomena seriously.  Referring to holy books as a source of behavior is analogous to pointing to dictionaries as a source of verbal behavior – it leaves out the human minds that religious ideas and languages both have to inhabit and the situations that make parts of them more or less salient to their users.

After hearing the entire podcast I have become more aware of the political and social background of the current issues of Islamism and Jihadism, I have more respect for Maajid Nawaz and (despite his initial article) Omer Aziz, and less for Sam Harris.  Sam was definitely right that this podcast doesn’t present him at his best.

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