(Photo via Simon & His Camera)
Sam Harris reflects on his failure to have a productive conversation with Noam Chomsky.
(Photo via Simon & His Camera)
Sam Harris reflects on his failure to have a productive conversation with Noam Chomsky.
(Photo via Axel Naud)
For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.
Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.
(Photo via Pete Zarria)
Johann Hari is a British journalist who has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and The Sydney Morning Herald. He was an op-ed columnist for The Independent for nine years. He graduated from King’s College, Cambridge with a double first in social and political sciences in 2001.
Hari was twice named “National Newspaper Journalist of the Year” by Amnesty International. He was named “Environmental Commentator of the Year” at the Editorial Intelligence Awards, and “Gay Journalist of the Year” at the Stonewall Awards. He has also won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for political writing.
Hari’s latest book is the New York Times best seller Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. You can follow him on Twitter @johannhari101.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and has been called a “pioneer in online activism” by The New York Times. He is working to find new ways to spread political freedom globally, and he recently launched Movements.org as a crowdsourcing human rights platform. Movements gives people the ability to connect directly with activists on the front lines.
David and I spoke about tyranny, radicalism, and how we all can help defend the rights of vulnerable people elsewhere in the world.
The 16-minute video posted above is well worth studying. It features Asim Qureshi, the research director for CAGE, an Islamist front group that has until very recently managed to pass itself off as a human rights organization in the UK. When “Jihadi John” was finally identified as Mohammed Emwazi, with a degree in information systems and business management from the University of Westminster, CAGE argued that his gruesome career as an executioner and propagandist for the Islamic State was just a natural by-product of the humiliation and abuse that innocent Muslims suffer each day at the hands of the British government. Having never seen an allegation of this sort that he didn’t fancy, Glenn Greenwald circulated CAGE’s ludicrous press release at once:
Dr. Nina L. Shapiro is the director of pediatric otolaryngology and a professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. A graduate of Harvard Medical School and Cornell University, Shapiro has been honored with several prestigious awards, including the American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology Awards for Clinical and Basic Science Research, the UCLA Head and Neck Surgery Faculty Teaching Award, and the American Academy of Pediatrics Young Investigators Award, among others. In 2008 and 2012–2014, she was named a “Super Doctor” by Los Angeles Magazine; she is a Castle and Connolly 2014 “Top Doctor” and is listed in Who’s Who in America. She has given over 200 national and international scientific lectures, and written over 80 peer-reviewed journal articles, two medical books, and 16 academic book chapters. Dr. Shapiro is an editor of “50 Studies Every Pediatrician Should Know” (Oxford University Press, 2016), and she is working on a book about hype in popular health advice. Her work and expert commentary have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Time, BBC World, Salon, and on NPR.
Graeme Wood writes for The Atlantic, where he covers a wide range of subjects, including education, science, books, and politics, and he has reported frequently from the Middle East since the early 2000s. In the March issue of the magazine, he published a lengthy investigation of the ideology of the so-called Islamic State—which included the controversial claim that the Islamic State is, despite its deep unpopularity with most Muslims, Islamic.
Wood was kind enough to speak with me at great length on this topic.—SH
Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Living the Secular Life, Faith No More, and Society Without God. He has also edited several volumes, including Atheism and Secularity, Sex and Religion, and The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois. Zuckerman writes a regular blog for Psychology Today titled “The Secular Life.” His work has also been published in academic journals, such as Sociology Compass, Sociology of Religion, Deviant Behavior, and Religion, Brain, and Behavior. In 2011, Zuckerman founded the first Secular Studies department in the nation. He earned his PhD in sociology from the University of Oregon in 1998. He currently lives in Claremont, California, with his wife, Stacy, and their three children.
I recently sat down with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks to discuss my most controversial views about Islam, the war on terror, and related topics. It was, of necessity, a defensive performance on my part—more like a deposition than an ordinary conversation. Although it was a friendly exchange, there were times when Cenk appeared to be trying very hard to miss my point. Rather than rebut my actual views (or accept them), he often focused on how a misunderstanding of what I was saying could lead to bad outcomes—as though this were an argument against my views themselves. However, he did provide a forum in which we could have an unusually full discussion about difficult issues. I hope viewers find it useful.
Having now watched the full exchange, I feel the need to expand on a couple of points:
My recent collision with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show, Real Time, has provoked an extraordinary amount of controversy. It seems a postmortem is in order.
For those who haven’t seen the show, most of what I write here won’t make sense unless you watch my segment:
So what happened there?
I was recently interviewed onstage at George Washington University by Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post. The next day, Boorstein published an article summarizing our conversation, in which she excerpted a few quotations that made me appear somewhat sexist. I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading. Boorstein seemed to anticipate that they would spark a little controversy, and they have.
My exchange with Boorstein in the Lisner Auditorium had been somewhat prickly, in fact. At one point, she flatly denied that a significant percentage of Americans are fundamentalist Christians. I cited poll results going back 80 years that suggest the number hovers around 45 percent. Boorstein then asserted her authority as a journalist, having focused on these issues, studied all the relevant polls, and written multiple articles explaining them to the public. According to her, the kinds of questions I claimed had been asked and answered, and upon which I based my case—Do you think God created humans in their present form? (46 percent); Do you think Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years? (41 percent)—hadn’t been asked at all, and wouldn’t indicate a person’s actual beliefs even if they had. I found her remarks stunningly uninformed. I did my best not to let this derail the interview, but after we left the stage I told her that she had a professional responsibility to get her facts straight. She seems to have now paid me back in print.
In his speech responding to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British jihadist, President Obama delivered the following rebuke (using an alternate name for ISIS):
ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America.
In his subsequent remarks outlining a strategy to defeat ISIS, the President declared:
Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.
As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”
The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute telephone conversation that took place on August 6, 2014. I hope readers find it useful.—SH
(Photo via Getty Images)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu in 1969. The daughter of a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship, she lived in exile, moving from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Like 98 percent of Somali girls, Ayaan was subjected to female genital mutilation. She embraced Islam while she was growing up, but eventually began to question aspects of the faith. One day, while listening to a sermon about the many ways in which women must be obedient to their husbands, she couldn’t resist asking, “Must our husbands obey us too?”
In 1992, Ayaan was married off by her father to a distant cousin living in Canada. In order to escape this forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and then citizenship. In her first years in Holland she worked in factories and as a maid—but she quickly learned Dutch and was then able to study at the University of Leiden. She soon began working as a translator for Somali immigrants, where she witnessed firsthand the clash between liberal Western values and those of Islamic culture.
After earning her M.A. in political science, Ayaan began working as a researcher for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation in Amsterdam. She eventually served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in parliament, she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation—practices that had followed Muslim immigrants to Holland. In her three years in government, she found her voice as an advocate for an “enlightened Islam.”
In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film, Submission, depicting the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin, a radical Muslim, left a death threat for Ayaan pinned to Van Gogh’s chest.
In 2006, Ayaan was forced to resign from parliament when the Dutch minister for immigration revoked her citizenship, arguing that she had misled the authorities at the time of her asylum application. However, the Dutch courts later reversed this decision, leading to the fall of the administration. Disillusioned with the Netherlands, Ayaan then moved to the United States.
Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security.
In 2005, Ayaan was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” one of the Glamour Heroes, and Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. She is the author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad. She is now working on Short-cut to Enlightenment, a dialogue between Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and three of her favorite Western thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek.
A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” [NOTE 5/11/14: This wonderful sentence seems to have been wrongly attributed to Hitch (who was imitable after all). I’m told these words first appeared in a tweet from Andrew Cummins. Well done, Andrew!]
The following text is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Watch the above video. (Then watch it again.) And then read the (unedited and uncorrected) description of this footage written by the organizers of this Muslim “peace conference”: