Sam Harris and Maryam Namazie’s recent discussion, titled ‘Throw Open the Gates’, on The Waking Up Podcast is best characterised by Sam himself as having been ‘unnecessarily difficult’. As an impartial listener, familiar and enthralled by both of the interlocutors work in tackling islamist extremism, I took to writing a brief outlining of where I thought the impasse of dialogue advanced and how best it could’ve been forced to retreat.
As someone who has read Sam’s books, his blogs and listened to his podcasts, I feel familiarised with his viewpoints enough to be able to recognise ideas that he might agree with. So with somewhat of an understanding of the nuances of his opinions, it was clear to me that Sam’s interjections perfectly matched those moments when Maryam was explaining, rather eloquently, the problems surrounding islamism that Sam would wholeheartedly concur with.
It appeared that the main impediment to conversation was the shifting focus of Maryam’s address. Maryam would begin at a point of contention and initially characterise Sam’s views, perfectly accurately, before expounding on her disagreement. This was a fascinating collision of ideas and a necessary one to have. The problems arose when the focus of the issue would inconspicuously shift from Sam’s views to the wider reaching problems of the far right’s genuine bigotry, racism, othering and homogenisation of muslim people. Whilst it was clear on the sourer points that Maryam did not think Sam contributed to the extremes of this bigotry, it was difficult to tell as the complexities creeped in and the charges were more ambiguous whether or not Maryam believed Sam to be culpable. There appeared to be points where Sam felt he was being addressed when it was clear to me that Maryam was exploring the wider issues. At these moments, Sam might’ve felt misrepresented at times when Maryam wasn’t trying to represent anyone in particular.
Evidently, a certain amount of confusion is to be expected; Sam could not reasonably expect Maryam to know the totality of his views and so allowed expansion on points he knew he agreed with whilst being mindful that the discussion might best serve the audience where true points of disagreement are navigated. Indeed, the moments where Sam feared his interruptions were being viewed as hostile might’ve been avoided had the direction of the dialogue been outlined more robustly from the start. Maryam may have been able to participate better in Sam’s pursuit of reconciliation had it been clearer that Sam did not want to explore the full extent of their accord. This is understandable seeing as Sam is, as he pointed out in the prologue, quite use to enjoying the harmony and the virtues of mutually affirmative discussion. Additionally, having recently done four hours on a scrapped podcast to no avail, with no convergence of ideas and with no palpable reconciliation in sight, perhaps Sam wanted to ensure his energy went into constructive contention on this occasion. The attempt to this effect was briefly outlined at the beginning and was later restated as Sam pointed out that the discussion on profiling and immigration was being had against a background of mutual agreement and as allies on the broader problems with islamic extremism.
The clear frustration from Maryam’s perspective was that Sam appeared to denounce all points of confusion as Maryam misunderstanding his view. Whilst misunderstandings did happen, a clear exception – where Maryam was entirely right to characterise the confusion as just a difference of opinion – was on how Sam’s views contribute to, normalise and fuel anti-muslim bigotry without being bigoted in of themselves. It is fair to say that in 140 character world we inhabit, Sam’s views on profiling are easily manipulated into anti-muslim soundbites. Whilst a part of this is due to the complexity of his view when submitted to the average thinker, it is most likely down to the constraints of language and semantics; the distinction between muslims and islamists, as well as the enduring racial connotations of the former are integral in this area.
I felt Maryam made an enlightening comparison by outlining how most islamist-normalising regressives have no compulsion to be jihadists, just as not all those who contribute to the fear mongering on the right are racist jingoists. The point I wish has been elaborated on was Sam’s refutation of this idea; he pointed out that he regularly criticises the genuine damages caused by the far-right bigots, the implied corollary is that even mild-regressives are rarely critical of true islamist supporters. It seems to me that Sam’s more controversial views fuel the far right rhetoric comparably as much as the defence of ‘multiculturalism’ and denouncing the ‘clash of civilisations’ might fuel the regressive-left: whilst each viewpoint can be substantiated, it appears easy for the respective opposition to refute, however meretriciously.
The ‘muslims are not a race’ argument was pulled into the reality of the political sphere and was not so much weakened as criticised for it’s niavety. Maryam pointed out that it is easy for nationalist groups to see muslims as a race and so Sam should be more sensitive to the connotations of his call to profile muslims in spite of his view that the word muslim should – true to the reality of the 6,000 european, sometimes white converts – be free from racial underpinnings. It doesn’t makes Sam’s opinion less valid when it comes to the finer points of profiling, but it does perhaps make it a touch cumbersome and insensitive to the reality of the far-right anti-muslim mindset. Maryam, being more engaged at the grass-roots level with the regressive noises made by both political extremes, see’s these distinctions as a part of the concern. Sam, being invested in the full ratiocination of his views as fortified by appropriate language, is less interested in the dangers of indiscriminate political rhetoric.
It is this fundamental difference in perspective and approach that sometimes gave way to tension and frustration – often making the stalemate seem inscrutable – but which also made for a thoroughly engaging collision of ideas that dearly needs to be had more often on ever wider-reaching platforms.