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In a recent discussion between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz held at the Kennedy Forum at Harvard University, Harris briefly describes how his collaboration with Nawaz came about: First they had a brief unpleasant encounter, which at the time Harris thought would not bear any further fruit. Later, Harris initiated another encounter which he says he thought would only be one blog post's worth, but it turned out to become "such a productive dialogue" on the telephone, that he and Maajid decided to embark upon a closer and more extended interaction, leading to the "small book" that documents it.
The collaboration obviously has continued after the book, even if it may only, or largely, be a matter of normal promotion. In his brief introduction near the beginning of this video discussion, Harris describes what he calls "the regressive liberal pushback" against the collaboration, which he characterizes as "amazingly cynical and ugly". When I heard those words, I immediately assumed Harris meant coming from the "Islamophobes", and thus cynical concerning the fruitfulness of a collaboration by an Islamocritical analyst (Harris) with a studied deceiver doing taqiyya (Nawaz). It quickly turns out that Harris is talking about the opposite phenomenon -- a what I would term PC MC complaining that Harris has no right to be advising Muslims on how to reform their Islam and, in the present context of his collaboration with a Muslim (Nawaz), referring to the latter as "Sam's lapdog", according to Harris saying it was an "obscenity" for a "white non-Muslim" like Harris to have the audacity to declaim about Islamic reform. As Harris is clarifying this misconception, he reveals a most telling admission:
"If you read the book you'll see that if anything, my views and my way of speaking about this problem... have been more modified than Maajid's by our... collaboration."
The cynical "Islamophobe" (as many if not most in the mainstream would label me) would be supremely unsurprised by this and consider the expectation that Nawaz would change his views to be naive and gullible in the extreme. But then, that's the overall problem with this Conservation in the first place: to what extent is Harris being naive and gullible in this collaboration? I'll get to that question a little later.
Not long after his telling admission, Harris's logic flows into a broader outlet, so to speak. When the moderator asks him a fundamental question to start things rolling -- "Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of war?" -- Harris indicates two things in his non-answer:
1) with questions like these, he says, his instincts are different from those of Nawaz, and he prefers to "defer" to Nawaz;
2) and from #1, it becomes more acutely clear what's been going on all this time: Nawaz is not merely -- or rather, not really -- a Muslim from whom Harris, the concerned non-Muslim Westerner, is trying to ascertain why his co-religionists are trying to kill us and destroy our society. No: Nawaz is a partner in a Conversation about how "we can move forward".
This approach, this tone, this posture, which Harris is setting for the overall "effort" is bracketing out and begging the question of whether Nawaz is himself Friend or Foe. Apparently, Harris already concluded that Nawaz is, naturally, a Friend. At what point did Harris conclude this? What led him to this conclusion? Does he hold an axiom or two which tends to seduce him into being so charitable with, rather than suspicious of, Nawaz? The answers to these questions may reveal why it is that Harris, apparently, sees fit to avoid the hard questions that should be put to Nawaz (for an extended discussion on just such a disquisition, see my follow-up essay, How to pass as a "Moderate Muslim" in the Counter-Jihad).
What Harris says next in the video seems to indicate an answer. He says basically that he trusts Nawaz as a partner in cri-- er, I mean, in conversation because while Nawaz may initially sound like the typical Islamopologist when adjudicating (read: evading) the question about Islam (making pointed reference to Reza Aslan here), Harris claims Nawaz does not rest there: "He admits there is a link between specific ideas and specific behaviors." For Harris, this vaguely warm and fuzzy concession is enough to exonerate Nawaz and distinguish him from the Good Cops, the Islamopologists who try to fool the mainstream into thinking there is no problem with Islam. What Harris is not seeing, I maintain, is that there are two alternatives to the Good Cop:
1) the sincere Moderate Muslim who will join us in a conversation about this most eixgent and thorny problem their Islam is causing the world
2) the "Better Cop" who is still an Islamopologist doing stealth jihad -- only doing it more cleverly, so as to fool the warier among us who have begun to educate ourselves about the horrors of Islam sufficiently to become resistant to the standard-issue wiles of the garden-variety Good Cops.
Certain things about Nawaz don't add up to a #1 option; but do indicate Door #2. To palpate them better, one would have to ask Nawaz the tougher questions, and not let him squirm and wriggle deftly sideways and every which way but loose.
After watching this video discussion, I was disappointed. Harris failed to confront Nawaz on the most key issues that would expose him (or exonerate him, if his moderation is genuine) -- among them being two I can think of right now:
1) Why did Nawaz name his foundation after W.H. "Abdullah" Quilliam, a British Muslim convert of the 19th century who advocated resistance to British efforts to help Sudanese Africans against a fanatical jihad, and who, in addition, fervently supported the Caliphate?
2) Why does Nawaz distinguish "Islam" from "radical Islamism" (whereby only the latter is of concern to our safety and human rights)? Or more pointedly, how in the world can Nawaz not know that many if not most of the human rights abuses and acts of jihadism & terrorism we would locate only in the Tiny Minority of Extremists Who Have Nothing To Do With Islam are in fact found squarely and massively in normative, traditional, mainstream Islam? Can Nawaz be that ignorant of his own culture and history, of which he has been a zealous (now moderately so) student all his life?
These aren't the only questions about Nawaz; but they'll do for now, and are certainly among the most important that need to be clarified thoroughly, with absolute candor and ingenuousness, and without the usual artistry he seems so well versed in. Another subtler question would bring up and probe why it is that when he mentions his arrest, incarceration and torture at the hands of Egyptian police while he was a dangerous terrorist member and later leader by his own admission of the evil and dangerous Hizb-ut-Tahrir jihadist organization, his locutions seem to indicate that he was wronged and mistreated. One almost detects victim grievance rhetoric when he refers to this episode in his life, describing the Egyptian police imprisoning him for his "Islamist political views" -- a decidedly anodyne way of referring to the mass-murderous terrorism in the name of religious fanaticism with a goal for world domination through a Caliphate for which he was an ardent activist for years.
One also gets the sense as Nawaz is recounting all this, with seemingly sincere passion and mildly affect righteous indignation, that he is trying to establish his bonafides as a sincere interlocutor, rather cleverly doing so in a sideways manner:
"Look, folks: I've been through the wringer, I've been around the jihad block, I was wild and crazy Islamist in my youth, I was put in prison and tortured, I've been attacked by neo-Nazis on the streets of London -- and now some white liberal has the gall to impugn my credentials as a Muslim who can talk about reform...!"
And the pièce de résistance is when he twists the liberal attack on his credentials into an expectation they are trying to force upon him, whereby in order to be a "good Muslim" he has to be "frothing at the mouth" -- i.e., sounding like an extremist. When we pause to consider this, we see that it is a masterful stroke by Nawaz -- he's making himself out to be a victim of the same politically correct liberals who regularly attack the Counter-Jihad, thus earning him brownie points for his Counter-Jihad street cred.
But has he yet earned this cred? Nawaz's exhibition at the beginning of this conversation is also a slyly backhanded way of wriggling into the position he should still be auditioning for under interrogation, but which he enjoys by virtue of being accorded undue respect by the likes of Harris. Rather than more conventionally defending his credentials against the wary and skeptical Counter-Jihad, he finds an ingenious way to arrive at the same result by defending himself against the liberals who attack him for trying earnestly to be a Reformer! And no doubt if Sam Harris ever read my account here, he would find it excessively cynical, so far gone is he in his trust in Nawaz as they walk hand in hand toward the sunrise of a new dawn of "Islamic Tolerance".
From there, Nawaz goes on to articulate (or rather, retail) his standard Better Cop argument, whereby with the skill of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, he deftly juggles two opposing vectors: 1) yes the problem of Muslims pursuing violent jihad is bad, I feel your pain -- but 2) it's a "minority" position while the "vast majority" of Muslims interpret Islam in a peaceful, benign way, so let's not get carried away in our concern. As his articulation continues, he plays the two off each other -- one moment magnifying the danger of this "minority" to beef up his counter-jihad cred, the next moment reminding us that, after all, it's only a marginal minority to remind us not to be Islamophobic. His rhetoric is riddled with this paradox, parrying left and right like a skilled sophist.
As Nawaz talks on the video, the examples of his sophistry I could cite accumulate, and would burden this blog post today with more details than I intended. I can advert to one more (at about the 26 minute mark, before and after) -- a dazzling display of double-speak selling itself as honest analysis (at least for those who can see the Camel in the Room and the Emperor With No Clothes On astride it) that almost takes one's breath away. After the moderator alludes to the problem of naming the problem -- how our politically correct culture is too timid to say, as she puts it, "This isn't extremism, it's Islamic extremism" -- a problem of the problem she mentions is of concern to Harris, the ball is then passed to Nawaz (or rather he seems to seize it, since the moderator at that point was alluding to Harris's position). Nawaz then takes the audience on a little garden path of talking about the Harry Potter books (warming them up with a joke about how he read them all "in prison"), and specifically about what he calls the "Voldemort effect". This is based on the theme in the books whereby the people are "too afraid to name" the evil Voldemort, always referring to him as "He Who Shall Not Be Named". So far, so good. This is the incisive, albeit elementary, problem of the problem in its crystalline crux. Seconds later, Nawaz has thrust the keen blade of his jihad of the tongue into the heart of his audience without them feeling a thing, when he deploys his "Voldemort effect" to do precisely what it is supposed to counter! Thus:
"Now, I took that.. Voldemort effect, of being too scared, too petrified, to name the problem, when actually it's staring you in the face -- is what has happened with Islamist extremism! And the problem is that we have been unable to name the problem!"
Notice that in Nawaz's locution, he deftly avoids even the "-ic" of the moderator's "Islamic extremism" she was saying the mainstream is too afraid to pronounce, and substitutes instead the furtively softer "-ist" of "Islamist extremism". And this is not even factoring in that the phrase "Islamic extremism" itself is already a softening of the problem -- which should be squarely and unflinchingly Islam itself, straight no chaser. Indeed, adding such padding as "extremist" or "extremism" or "radical" or "radicalism" (and there are many such terms calculated to soften the blow of Islam in our mainstream Denial) is already an expression of the very same fear which Nawaz is supposed to be boldly and robustly countering with his "Voldemort effect".
In vain we sit and watch the video unfold, waiting for Harris to point out the excruciatingly obvious sleight-of-hand Nawaz just performed; but he never does. He just sits there calmly acquiescing -- or oblivious -- to the linguistic, intellectual and moral trick that was just perpetrated on stage beside him. Nawaz then takes our breath away even further when he goes on to say that when people avoid "naming the problem", they are in effect serving to "blur the lines" and "obfuscate" the issue, thus actually facilitating those who wish to condemn all Muslims -- those who "take pleasure and delight... in stigmatizing every single Muslim" (and he hastens to point out that his new friends "Sam" and "Ayaan" (that's Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in the audience) do NOT do this).
That is to say, as we collect our breath to see what he's done yet again: by pretending to "name the problem" through actually avoiding the honest "Islam" and substituting for it the deftly weasel phrase "Islamist extremism" (not even "Islamic" -- too close for comfort for Nawaz), we prevent the effect which "not naming the problem" tends to foster -- namely, the effect of stigmatizing all Muslims. This is pure balderdash. Nawaz has to know that in fact the general mainstream reluctance to name the problem is just as responsible for protecting Islam as is his locution which also avoids naming the problem (but which only pretends to boldly name it). What he's doing is cleverly co-opting the tactic of seeming to be boldly counter-jihad, while simultaneously being cleverly soft (the softness, for good measure, mantled in the righteously respectable disinclination to tar all Muslims with the same brush, a sin which "Sam" and "Ayaan" agree to eschew, of course). I.e., Nawaz is transforming the Counter-Jihad -- with many gullible members in it climbing aboard his peace train -- into a protection racket for Islam and the "vast majority of Muslims". Not that the Counter-Jihad needs that much tweaking, what with the squishy nougaty underbelly it seems to have, thanks to all the Softies in it, and thanks to the lack of a coherent platform.
A few paragraphs above, we referred to the skillful sophistry Nawaz employs. It needs to be skillful because it rests on an inherently untenable if not incoherent foundation. Its inherent flaws can be detected by the careful (and educated) listener. For example, we see this when he delineates the two problems that inhere to the problem of the problem -- the problem of "being afraid to name the problem" (which we discussed above) -- as 1) a problem external to Islam, and 2) a problem internal to Islam. We've already shown above how Nawaz handles the first of these problems, twisting the nature of the problem to suit his self-aggrandizement as a Muslim Reformer. His handling of the second problem is no less devious. He says that this misnaming of the problem has the effect of disempowering the reformers of the Muslim world. He doesn't fully explain how and why it has this effect; but it doesn't flow logically from his previous claim he made minutes before -- namely, that "the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful". If this were so, then it shouldn't be that difficult to "empower" the "reformers". Indeed, there wouldn't be any need for "reformers" if the "vast majority" are already peaceful. His language that is heavily laden with a sense that "reformers" are beleaguered and vulnerable to the wrong rhetoric that names the problem incorrectly does not make sense, again, if the "vast majority" are already on the right track. What's really going on with his language is that he's juggling a paradox through sophistry, trying to play off the force of the two sides of the contradiction he's otherwise trying to conceal, which if revealed would expose the fundamental incoherence of his position (if nimbly perpetual tap-dancing can be termed a "position").
Indeed, his audience is so gullibly naive, that it's almost like watching a million-dollar Vegas magic act performing for a children's birthday party. Perhaps Nawaz thinks he has to up his game, or keep it up, for Harris. If only.
Apparently, given this video, all this charlatanry worked on Harris, and Nawaz is still his partner and collaborator, since throughout this discussion Harris tacitly gives Nawaz his blessing and not once contradicts him. This means Nawaz gets a free pass and doesn't have to do any 'Splainin' at all -- that ship has sailed as he and Sam "go forward". I.e., even if the book involved some disagreements, they obviously worked them out enough for Harris to continue the "partnership".
Be that as it may, the issue is too important for us to proceed without making sure Nawaz answers all our questions to our satisfaction. Harris seems to be jumping the gun here, setting sail on a course before making sure the boat is fit and sailworthy. If Harris doesn't learn this in time, the West at large will, the hard way.
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At this point in my essay, I have watched about 1/3 of the video. As I've had enough of the slimy sophistry of Nawaz, I will review only the contributions of Harris for the remainder. Hopefully, he won't continue sitting there acquiescing to his "partner" like a bump on a log, as he has for the first third.
Alas, now that he's speaking up more, it's not helping. For example, he notes the problem of Muslim countries where liberal values taken for granted in the West are still under assault:
"... to be gay... or even a woman in a country like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh... these are unlucky places to be... [as] a minority of that kind..."
Notice how Harris failed to mention "Pakistan" -- the home country of Nawaz -- in that list. Not only should he have mentioned it, he should be questioning Nawaz about how and why his home country is a filthy, evil, anti-liberal hellhole. But that would hurt their precious collaboration, apparently.
Soon thereafter, Harris gives his blessing to the terminology Nawaz has dictated. In the context of complaining about the problem of liberalism (or "pseudo-liberalism"), and how, as he rightly notes, we can criticize Christianity all day long, he says:
"...the moment you try to shine a light on the problem of... I think [motioning his hand to his left to refer to Nawaz] appropriately described as 'Islamism'... for this conversation... the full armamentarium of political correctness and... cries of racism just hits you full in the face..."
First off, Harris doesn't even see the discrepancy he himself is formulating here: he is comparing the attitude of the PC MCs when one criticizes Christianity with their attitude when one criticizes "Islamism". The proper comparison would be between Christianity and Islam. Not to mention that he has yet to explain why in our Conversation we must only address this artificial construct "Islamism" rather than Islam. Whoever that "white liberal" was who accused Nawaz of being the "lapdog" of Sam Harris got it wrong: it seems to be the other way around.
At any rate, I await delivery of the new book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, from Amazon.com and will read it forthwith, to see if it in any way redeems this disappointing video exchange. From all the buzz Harris generated before the book, and now in promotion to give its sales "legs", one would get the hopeful impression that the Counter-Jihad has been reconfigured and rebooted, updated & upgraded to a new level where we can finally see a new horizon. So far, however, the experience has been more like trying out Windows 10 and realizing it's not as good as the previous OS before the much-ballyhooed Windows 8.
Ironically, back in June of this year on the Sam Harris forum, I posted a topic titled, "I won't buy Sam Harris' new book until he responds to my question" -- the question being essentially what my tweet encapsulated up top, though articulately unpacked. Needless to say, Sam Harris did not respond to my post (nor to my email which I noted in that post I had sent to him a few days before).
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Harry's Place [particularly zeroing in on this useful information about Maajid Nawaz and another (albeit less famous) "Better Cop" -- Usama Hasan]