Maryam Namazie Vs. Sam Harris

Maryam Namazie Vs. Sam Harris March 2, 2016


Since I believe it’s important to resist anti-Muslim prejudice in the secular community, I was pleased to hear that Maryam Namazie, the ex-Muslim atheist and international human rights campaigner, was on Sam Harris’ podcast. While I agree with Harris on some things, I’ve often criticized his views on Islam – especially his indefensible beliefs about profiling – and I was hoping she’d give him a dose of perspective. In this post, I want to analyze their exchange and offer my thoughts on it.

While it was civil, with no shouting or insults, the podcast was two hours of tense and often heated argument. (You can listen to it here.) I got the impression that Namazie was treating it as a debate, whereas Harris didn’t think of it that way. However, his insistence on “correcting” some allegedly wrong ideas she held made it inevitable that there’d be sharp exchanges, and he was unaccountably surprised when she didn’t immediately concede his points just because he insisted she was mistaken.

Bigotry and “Friendly Fire”

The conversation began with Harris complaining at some length about “friendly fire” (16:00) and fellow atheists who, in his eyes, are too casual about throwing around “allegations of bigotry”. His argument is that we’re all on the same side, working toward the same goals, so we should reserve such criticism for the real bad guys rather than “mistaking one another for the enemy” (16:15).

As I observed on Twitter, Harris was very invested in getting Namazie to retract some of the critiques she’s made of his ideas, but she was having none of it. He seemed confident that if he just explained himself clearly enough, she’d be certain to come around and agree that he was right, and he was befuddled when she wouldn’t go along. It seems totally outside his sphere of possibility that two atheists might have a genuine difference of views about how to defeat radical Islam, or that ex-Muslims might find his approach unworkable or even counterproductive. He accused her of “starting these fights unnecessarily” (30:30), as if his stance was the default from which all atheist activism should begin – an immensely condescending attitude.

Ironically, although neither highlighted the parallel, Namazie used Harris’ most famous argument against him. Just as he asserts that moderate religion gives cover to dangerous fundamentalism, she argued that his too-easy acceptance of sweeping anti-Muslim policies protects and empowers the “narrative of bigotry” (27:12), even if he doesn’t think of himself as an ally of bigots.

The Question of Profiling

The interview segued into a discussion about profiling, which Harris defined as “to use some statistically relevant information” (40:50) in the investigation of crime. By this argument, the only method of law enforcement that doesn’t entail profiling would be to stop random people on the street and ask them if they know anything about the crime you’re trying to solve. Obviously, that’s absurd; everyone believes we should try to narrow the pool of suspects as much as possible when investigating a crime. The key question which they sparred over is this: Is filtering on “Muslim” a useful way to do that?

There are two key questions that Harris’ argument for profiling never answers. First, how do you know if someone is a Muslim? This is a point that Namazie brought up and Harris never responded to (55:05). Do you just ask people (“Are you now or have you ever been…?”) and, if so, do you have to believe whatever they tell you? Or do you apply some crude test of ethnicity or national origin? For all his insistence on profiling Muslims, Harris seems to have little idea of how it would work in practice, other than his bizarre insistence that you can just tell that some people are “obviously not” dangerous (52:45).

Second, what about non-Islamist terrorism? Harris seems myopically focused on jihadism, but white supremacist and separatist groups have also been responsible for some terrible acts of violence. Again, Namazie mentioned the existence of white, ultra-right-wing Christian terrorists (43:20), and Harris didn’t seem to recognize how this undercuts his profiling argument. Should we profile all white people to look for those evildoers hiding among them?

I don’t think Namazie framed her counterargument as clearly as she could have, but it was perfectly obvious to me what she was advocating: we should profile based on political allegiances, not the mere fact of someone’s origin in a majority-Muslim culture. Harris harped on the fact that FBI agents have limited time and energy, but picking a random mosque from the phone book and going there to see if they’re harboring any terrorists would be just as big a waste of time as his silly argument about profiling the Amish (1:00:10). However, if there’s a mosque whose imam expresses sympathy for jihadism in his sermons, or where people who are known to hold extremist beliefs congregate, those are legitimate reasons for investigation.

Harris also seems to think that merely asking an imam to report any suspicious characters he might notice counts as “profiling” and would be disallowed by Namazie’s interpretation. Obviously, the police can and should maintain good relations with community leaders as a way to get advance warning of any crime that’s brewing. But that’s not the same thing as spying on Muslim groups, wiretapping their phones, or planting undercover agents among them on the basis that they’re probably up to no good.

Migration and Refugees

Of the whole podcast, this part was the most repetitious. The following exchange recurred at least a dozen times: Harris stressed that some percentage of refugees might hold an Islamist ideology and asked Namazie if she supported an open-borders policy even for them; Namazie said yes and maintained that asylum and free travel are human rights regardless of who’s claiming them; Harris was dumbfounded by this and asked if she really meant that, even knowing that some percentage of refugees might hold an Islamist ideology; and so on.

I understand why a democracy would be leery about admitting people who reject democracy as a guiding principle. But, like any other restriction on free speech, this is a power that’s all too easily abused. If certain political or religious beliefs are grounds for denying someone the right to enter your country, who decides which beliefs should be disqualifying? And, again, how could we possibly check this, even if we wanted to? What would prevent people with bad intentions from just lying to the customs officers?

On balance, I agree with Namazie’s point that bad beliefs have to be defeated through persuasion and the political process, not coercion. The strictest borders in the world won’t do anything to stop homegrown radicalism; ideas flow across borders even if people don’t. And even if you knew that, say, 25% of refugees from Syria or Afghanistan held Islamist beliefs, that still doesn’t give you any guidance on what to do in individual cases – unless Harris was proposing barring all refugees from countries where fundamentalist Islam is prevalent. (He wasn’t clear about this.)

Namazie’s counterargument, which can’t be stressed often enough, is that the refugees coming to Europe are victims of Islamist repression, not its perpetrators. They’re the best allies the West could have. Many of them have dreams of secularism, free thought and human rights that can’t be realized in the societies they come from. Does assimilating a large number of immigrants create economic and cultural strain? Certainly. But in the long run, it’s worth the effort, both for basic reasons of human morality and because immigration is virtually always a boost for society.

As I’ve written before, we’re rich and strong, and we can afford to be generous. We can afford to hold out a hand to people fleeing war and persecution, people in search of freedom, people who dream of a better life. Violent Islamism is one form of evil among the many in this world, and we should absolutely be vigilant against it – but not by making crudely racist generalizations, or by treating a broad swath of humanity as falling under a shadow of collective suspicion. Sam Harris would do well to listen more carefully to atheists who’ve escaped Islam themselves, and to heed their words when they tell him why his approach is exclusionary and harmful to people like them.

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