Last week, I inched my way through the tough conversation between Sam Harris and Omer Aziz on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. While there were moments that I wanted to write a point for point post against Omer Aziz and take a more in-depth analysis of the conversation, I quickly recognized that I couldn’t bear to listen to the episode again.
While I don’t intend on this being a post directly about the podcast, really, there were two points that were presented that I really wanted to voice my thoughts on. The first point is directed at an allegation made by Omer Aziz, meanwhile the second topic of this post will touch on a claim made by many people, regardless of faith. To begin, I want to talk about the first point Aziz and Harris touch on in the podcast.
Get Rich Quick!!!
If you listened to the podcast or followed this “controversy” between Harris and Aziz, you know that this was provoked by Omer’s critique in Salon of Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz’s collaboration on their book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: a Dialogue.
The first and immediately damning point that Omer tries to make is that Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz were simply taking advantage of a hot topic to make a quick buck. His first paragraph reads:
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!
This point, in accordance with many points made by the new-age intellectuals, only finds its reasoning at the surface, its prowess in its supposed ethical superiority, and arrogance in its ego stroking narrative. I would argue that even looking at the surface of this claim, this should be clearly false to anyone. What Omer fails to consider here is just about everything there is to know about Sam and Maajid.
The first thing that Omer should recognize is that this has clearly been a topic of great importance to Sam Harris since he recognized the serious correlation between ideas, beliefs, and their consequences, all of which reached the utmost clarity on 9/11, acting as the catalyst for Sam Harris to begin writing The End of Faith. For Maajid, a former Islamist who managed to find his way out of such destructive ideas, is now a co-founder of Quilliam, a counter-terrorism think tank set up to challenge the very extremism that Maajid was once drawn so vehemently to. If you assert that this is all merely two men’s attempt to make money, rather than two men trying to be a forward thinking voice on an important issue, I find it hard to believe your intentions are pure.
In the Podcast, Sam spends an incredible amount of time on this paragraph alone as Omer refuses to budge. Not only should this point have been defeated by Sam simply assuring Omer that this was not their intention (Sam in fact never attempts the simple route, and it is quickly clear it would never have worked) but even as Sam explains to Omer the financial detriments and security concerns that come with writing a short book that is critical of Islam, Omer only doubles down.
Like a child, Omer asks if he’s made any money or acquired twitter followers as a result of publishing this book, implying that this would justify his point. But it doesn’t, this only gets closer to how poor his claim is. Let’s suppose Sam and Maajid only benefited from this enterprise. This does not mean that their intentions were poor. You cannot assume that just because you can be successful talking about a controversial issue, that you must only be doing it for monetary and selfish reasons. This is the same as saying no good deed is truly good if it made you happy in the process, implying that the good deed was purely done for selfish reasons.
In closing on this tangent, I want to show just how truly poor and upsetting the reasoning of this first paragraph was. It became obvious to me that such a defaming claim with weightless assertions could be flipped so easily, almost suggesting that Omer is merely out to make money and ride the gravy train of political correctness to uncapped success. I give you now, Omer Aziz’s get rich quick scheme:
There are few get-rich-quick schemes left in modern publishing, but one that persists could be called Project Islamic Apologetics. Writing an article that fits in this category is actually quite easy. First, don’t label yourself a reformist, because there is nothing that needs reforming. The crisis of terrorism that we see from the likes of ISIS are only political and the Islamic State bases none of its principles on a belief in Islam. If anyone claims that there is a direct correlation, label them as bigots, xenophobic, and Islamophobic. Never mind the congratulatory self-coronation this stance implies. Second, make your agenda clear at the outset by criticizing those who criticize Islam. Sam Harris and/or Maajid Nawaz would be a good place to start. Third, propose that there is nothing to fix. Claim that this is all political, this is all completely unrepresentative of Islam, and most importantly, this is all the U.S.’s fault. 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!
Bravo, Omer… Bravo.
The second topic I want to discuss was spurred by this podcast as well, but it is not a direct rebuttal to Omer. Rather this is a rebuttal to a common point made across all faiths that is truly hollow and ultimately arrogant. I was reminded of this in the Podcast when Sam would attempt to link what we are seeing from ISIS to scripture in the Qu’ran or the Hadith. At every turn, Omer would say that this is simply wrong. He would say they are interpreting the scriptures incorrectly, they are justifying their own desires and finding what they want to find in the text. Omer would continue with claims that Islam requires a much more scholarly reading and anything otherwise cannot be taken seriously. We’ve heard this argument in many forms and across many faiths, and this statement is always wrong. Why? There are two paths that can be taken and both yield the same result. One can either begin with the assumption that their faith (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) is true, or no religion is true (or one is simply agnostic or unsure). Let us first begin with the latter.
Let’s assume no religion is true, or that we are unsure. This means every interpretation of Islam or Christianity, etc. is incorrect because there cannot be a true interpretation. Not only that, but this probably makes things worse than believing the scripture was true, because now we can claim to know with certainty that these were written by men with an inconceivably narrow view of reality. It becomes much more reasonable then to take the awful verses literally and assume there was no godly depth to them. So the inequality of women, the hatred for homosexuals, etc. are all very man made ideas that can be easily pulled from the texts.
The most important point to recognize here is that if no religion is true, then no interpretation can be correct. So when ISIS is throwing homosexuals off of roof tops, when Christians are holding signs saying “God Hates Fags”, when women are not being allowed an education, when we see all of this hatred or inequality and the one’s uttering or enacting this hatred quote their doctrine to justify it, you have absolutely no basis on which to say they are wrong.
Now let’s suppose you believe Christianity, Islam, etc. is true. You don’t have much more to go on, other than you simply believe you are interpreting your faith correctly and they aren’t. But as religion isn’t based on evidence or facts, you will find that you have no real foundation to stand on when you say “they aren’t interpreting the scripture correctly”.
For instance, simply suppose ISIS has interpreted the scriptures correctly. Suppose the Westboro Baptists have interpreted the scriptures correctly. Are they really doing anything that cannot be drawn back to the scriptures of their faith? If you ask them why they are doing what they are doing, will they not quote scripture directly? Of course, you may not agree, but here you reside in the arena of faith and not science, evidence, or facts, so life becomes much more difficult when you try to argue that they have the incorrect interpretation.
Interpretation of scripture is not a popularity contest. It does not yield to anyone’s credentials. If there is indeed a correct interpretation of these scriptures to be had, everyone is in the game and no one is out. So when there is a group in the hundreds of thousands proclaiming an interpretation of a faith in Islam. You cannot simply discount it as wrong, because you will find yourself standing on as little justification as they are.