I begin to sense a pattern

From March 2016: Omer Aziz had an experience with Sam Harris.

In December 2015 he had published an essay in Salon on the book by Harris and Maajid Nawaz on reforming Islam.

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 The piece concluded by lamenting the erosion of public debate, as intellectuals of previous eras have been replaced by profiteers more interested in advancing narrow agendas than in exploring difficult questions.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.”

He accepted happily, but it then became apparent that Harris didn’t want a debate but something more like an interrogation; no prizes for guessing which of the two would do the interrogating.

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.

And then add that the critic would be Sam Harris.

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

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.

Something like a normal conversation, in other words.

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).

The nerve of the guy is really staggering.

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.

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.

I would have been long gone by that point, but Aziz felt it was his Socratic duty to say yes, so he did.

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.

Now there I think he’s profoundly wrong. Harris’s conditions were grotesque, especially the one where he gets to throw the recording out if he doesn’t like it, and Aziz gets no say. But he did it, and they went at it for nearly four hours; Aziz thought the result was at a minimum entertaining.

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…


What a breathtaking asshole.

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 which 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.

He’s also self-important, rude, and a general pain in the ass.

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