Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz combine the worst of both worlds: the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee views of the far right with the pro-war, imperialist stance of the liberal centrists.
By Ben Norton / AlterNet
Sam Harris’ life goal is ostensibly to defeat Islamist extremism; it is the focus of his constant diatribes. Yet he is strangely also an advocate for the very wars of regime change that have fueled the rise of Salafi-jihadist groups, from al-Qaeda to ISIS.
This hypocritical approach suggests Harris has yet to wake up to the impact of the militaristic policies he proposes.
In the January episode of Sam Harris’ ironically named podcast, Waking Up (later changed to Making Sense), the “New Atheist” ringleader played host to Maajid Nawaz, a British self-styled “counter-extremism” activist who has earned a fortune marketing his story of transitioning away from radical Islamism.
The two pundits spent much of the conversation salivating over the prospect of more U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and glossing over its well-established role in propelling the spread of Islamist extremism across the world.
Harris admitted that he did not oppose the Iraq War. He also noted that, during the 2016 presidential campaign, he was comfortable with Hillary Clinton’s hyper-hawkish policies, stating, “I felt that she always knew where to fly her drones.”
Both lamented that the U.S. did not militarily intervene enough in Syria. Harris mourned that “the red line in Syria was just a bluff.”
The anti-religious pundits remained blissfully unaware of the fact that they were effectively calling for the U.S. military to act as the air force of the Islamist extremist-dominated Syrian opposition, to help Salafi-jihadists overthrow a secular pluralistic government in the heart of the Middle East.
The podcast discussion also featured praise for the extreme war hawks President Trump has appointed to oversee his foreign policy. Nawaz spoke highly of Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who he said “is a genuinely strategic, scholarly mind,” along with former CIA director David Petraeus, whom Nawaz noted he met “on a couple of occasions.”
Nawaz in fact repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by the Trump administration and its far-right policies, stating openly, “I don’t think Trump is far right.”
He condemned left-wing protests against Trump as “petulant and childish behavior” and maintained, “Some of his appointments may not be the best, but I think he’s surrounded by enough good people that I think this ship will steadily sail forward.”
Harris and Nawaz made these remarks while relentlessly attacking the left. Nawaz pilloried what he called the “the Glenn Greenwald left” for mistrusting the U.S. military and its intelligence apparatus.
Echoing far-right talking points, they criticized multiculturalism and “identity politics.” Nawaz likewise called for stricter controls on immigration, warning that it results in a “cost to culture.”
The two combined the worst of both worlds: the racist, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee views of the far right, along with the pro-war, interventionist, militaristic stance of the liberal centrists.
While ignoring the the root causes of Islamist extremism — Western imperialism, wars of regime change and military intervention — Harris and Nawaz boldly proposed policies that would actively exacerbate it, destroying the grayzone from both ends: threatening acceptance of Muslims in Western societies while simultaneously dropping more bombs on Muslims in their homelands.
Calling for more Western military intervention
In a previous article, The Grayzone reported on this same January episode of Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up (now called Making Sense). In his interview with Maajid Nawaz, Harris declared, “You can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightened.”
Harris proposed figuring “out some way to keep the number of Muslims down in any society, whether we’re honest about this or whether we do this covertly. Clearly it’s rational to want to do this.” As Nawaz voiced agreement, Harris added, “I think many people will feel, what is the f**king point of having more Muslims in your society?”
The two-hour podcast episode also featured substantial discussion of political issues. While blaming the left for the world’s problems, both Harris and Nawaz called for more war.
Harris’ dogmatic disciples never fail to falsely claim that critics of their beloved guru take his quotes “out of context” (the response to the previous article was no exception). Thus, as AlterNet did in the first piece, timeframes of quotes are included in this article, so that readers may listen to the recording and see that the comments are, again, fully in context.
Nawaz insisted at 1:21:17 that the harsher anti-immigration policy they proposed “needs to be coupled” with “a bit more of an interventionist approach.”
He condemned the anti-imperialist left as “isolationists,” which Nawaz claimed is a right-wing position. He called for a “middle line between neoconservative military aggression and isolationism.”
Harris responded at 1:21:53 admitting that he did not oppose the Iraq War: “I was not quite so virtuous, but I simply confessed ignorance about it. I didn’t know what to think about it at the time,” he said.
Today Harris remains just as hopelessly ignorant about the Western wars he espouses. He acknowledged in the podcast that many of the refugees are fleeing the war in Syria, but expressed almost no interest in the actual details of the war.
Neither Harris nor Nawaz even attempted to address the fact that Western wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria led to a dramatic resurgence and expansion of Salafi-jihadist movements. In fact, they demanded policies that would only further the march of Islamist extremism across the Middle East and exacerbate the refugees crisis.
Their abject ignorance of the causes of the extremist menace they claim to oppose was only preceded by their zeal for Western empire.
“Not every intervention is bad,” Nawaz said at 1:22:13. In defending his call for more Western military involvement around the globe, Nawaz cited two historical examples as supposedly positive models: Kosovo and Rwanda.
The Kosovo war, and the 1999 bombing campaign in which NATO destroyed and balkanized Yugoslavia, led not only to increased death, suffering and poverty in some of the former constituent nations, but also to the rise of Islamist extremism.
Nawaz spoke of Kosovo in passing, as if the mere invocation of the word justifies military intervention. What he did not mention is that, as The New York Times put it in 2016, Kosovo has since “turned into fertile ground for ISIS.”
In the wake of the 1999 NATO war, the Times noted, Wahhabi clerics from Saudi Arabia and extremist mosques funded by Saudi Arabia “have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists.”
The Times added that this was done “under the watch of American officials.” The U.S., the imperial sponsor of the Saudi monarchy, let it happen.
The 1999 NATO campaign in Yugoslavia was effusively supported by Hizb ut-Tahrir, the far-right Islamist cult that Maajid Nawaz formerly belonged to, and which he left in a supposed turn-about.
Hizb ut-Tahrir also held numerous rallies calling for Western military intervention in support of Syria’s Salafi-jihadist rebels.
As another supposedly positive example of intervention, Nawaz bizarrely pointed to Rwanda, where the U.S. in fact intentionally removed United Nations forces and actively prevented international action, exacerbating the 1994 massacres.
A detailed investigation by the Organization of African Unity concluded that “it is indisputably true that no nation did more than the US to undermine the effectiveness of” attempted United Nations action to prevent the mass killings in Rwanda.
Nawaz failed to cite another supposedly positive example of U.S. military intervention.
Rooting for regime change in Syria, in aid of Islamist extremists
While warning of the dangers of supposed non-intervention, Maajid Nawaz pointed to Syria. At 1:22:23, Nawaz implied that there has been “a lack of action” by the U.S. in Syria, echoing a false yet popular interventionist talking point.
Both Harris and Nawaz forcefully condemned President Barack Obama over his Syria policy — but not for the billions of dollars his administration spent arming and training al-Qaeda-linked rebels. Rather, they lamented that Obama did not intervene enough.
Secretary of State John Kerry “wanted to do more and was stopped by Obama,” Nawaz claimed before oddly accusing Obama of having “allowed himself to be used” by so-called “Islamist lobbies.” (Western military intervention in Syria was supported by a consensus of American Muslim civil rights groups, from the Council for American Islamic Relations to the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.)
“That’s where Obama went wrong. I was so disappointed with his track record in the Middle East,” Nawaz said at 1:22:35. Harris joined him in criticizing President Barack Obama for, in their view, not being hawkish enough. (They failed to mention that Obama’s administration dropped more than 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim-majority countries in his last year in office alone).
“His failures, especially with respect to foreign policy, have been so egregious,” Harris said at 1:50:19. Yet he was not referencing, say, how the Obama-backed 2011 NATO regime change war destroyed the secular government of Libya, plunging the country into violent chaos from which it still has not recovered, handing over the North African nation to Salafi-jihadist groups including ISIS and leading to a massive weapons free-for-all where Libyan arms ended up in the hands of extremists throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Rather, Harris lamented at 1:50:49 that Obama did not cross the “red line” he drew in Syria and directly carry out regime change in the country. Ironically, one the most aggressively atheistic pundits mourned that the U.S. did not go all the way in a war that would have removed a secular government battling an Islamist extremist-dominated insurgency that was backed by the U.S. and its Wahhabi Gulf allies.
“I think his primary commitment was to get out of what he considered unnecessary or fruitless wars,” Harris said disparagingly of Obama at 1:50:29.
Nawaz responded at 1:50:55 condemning Obama’s track record as “terrible” and “unjustifiable.”
As undeniable proof for how bad Obama’s foreign policy was, Nawaz unironically observed at 1:47:55 that he did not know of a single American pundit who writes on the Middle East and who liked Obama. This says a lot about Nawaz’s world view: trust the pundits.
Applauding Clinton and whitewashing Trump
In the January episode of the podcast, Sam Harris likewise complimented Hillary Clinton, whom he endorsed for president, on her militaristic foreign policy proposals.
He noted confidently at 1:42:28, “I felt that she always knew where to fly her drones. She was if anything more hawkish than many liberals would be comfortable with, and perhaps even more hawkish that Trump would be or will be.”
“I was never worried that she herself was an especially useful idiot for Islamists,” Maajid Nawaz added at 1:43:13.
Nawaz also applauded the war hawks leading the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
At 1:30:05, Nawaz commended Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is notoriously referred to as “Mad Dog” due to his intense bellicosity. Mattis “is a genuinely strategic, scholarly mind,” Nawaz insisted.
He also spoke highly of former CIA director David Petraeus, whom he said he met “on a couple of occasions.” (Petraeus openly called for using “moderate” members of al-Qaeda to fight ISIS.)
In fact, Nawaz actively whitewashed Donald Trump, who he denied is far right.
“Trump as a businessman understands one thing: to succeed you have to surround yourself by people who know what they are doing better than you,” Nawaz said at 1:30:36.
“Some of his appointments may not be the best, but I think he’s surrounded by enough good people that I think this ship will steadily sail forward,” he added at 1:31:10.
And even if Trump does pose a threat, Nawaz downplayed it at 1:29:45, depicting neoconservative leaders like John McCain and Lindsey Graham as counterbalancing figures.
“I’m clearly not somebody who supported him, but I don’t think it will be as bad as those people out rioting on the streets seem to think, and I just think that’s particularly petulant and childish behavior,” Nawaz said at 1:31:56.
Siding with U.S. intelligence agencies
The biggest problem the two had with Trump was not his far-right, overtly racist and misogynist, anti-Muslim policies, or his ultra-capitalist views, or his climate science denial. Rather, Sam Harris lamented at 1:37:11 that Trump and Republicans are “disavowing our intelligence services.”
“He has disavowed the CIA, the FBI,” Harris warned at 1:38:04. Trumps denials of Russian meddling in the U.S. election “run the considerable risk of alienating our intelligence services in the process. He has just defamed the CIA and the FBI,” Harris worried at 1:39:10.
“People aren’t thinking rationally,” Nawaz replied at 1:39:35.
The two fearmongered about Russia at 1:33:00, slamming President Vladimir Putin as a “thug.” And they praised Russian chess grandmaster turned opposition activist Garry Kasparov. Nawaz noted at 1:34:52 that he was hosted by Kasparov at the right-wing Oslo Freedom Forum, and encouraged listeners to take what he says “very, very seriously.”
Nawaz went on at 1:40:14 to condemn “the Glenn Greenwald left” for mistrusting the U.S. military and military intelligence.
“The only thing I can think of is that they’ve lost their rational abilities to think through this in a logical way, and they’re thinking emotionally,” he said at 1:40:36.
Harris and Nawaz spoke as if people who dare to disagree with them do so only because they are clearly “irrational.” They acted as though they have a monopoly on reason, and anyone who diverges from pro-war neoliberal centrism is an irrational dogmatist.
Attacking the left
At the heart of their political discussion was vehement condemnation of the left. Both Harris and Nawaz attacked the left dozens of times in the podcast — although they spoke in broad generalizations and named few specific figures.
“What we need is a new center,” Harris declared. “I think the left is more or less destroyed.”
Nawaz likewise constantly repeated that he is defending the politics of the “classically liberal center.”
The anti-religious pundits even, at 1:26:45, went so far as to blame the left for the rise of the far right. “I’ve long been worried about the left being essentially the midwife to fascism here, because of its blindness. I think that is being borne out,” said Harris — who only moments before had echoed neo-fascist positions against Muslims and immigration in the name of preserving cultural “enlightenment.”
Nawaz piled on at 1:27:38, accusing the left of being responsible for the far right by branding their far-right opponents as racists. He also advanced the debunked centrist talking point of “horseshoe theory,” which conflates the anti-racist socialist left with its mortal enemy, racist far-right fascism.
While attacking German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her pro-immigration policies, both pundits repeatedly referred to her as left-wing, despite the fact that she is a conservative politician from a center-right Christian party and voted against same-sex marriage.
“You are the facilitators to the right wing!” Nawaz said of the left, enraged.
Harris and Nawaz reduced opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry along with anti-racism and feminism to the crude category of “identity politics,” which they flatly condemned. The latter also espoused a “liberal critique of multiculturalism.”
Nawaz said he does support some immigration, but it must be controlled. At 1:19:13 he stated, “Our countries need immigrants, they economically survive on migration. But I think there’s a cost to culture that is associated just for cheap labor.” He added, “We cannot continue to ignore the cost to culture that it has.”
As much as they repeated that they are liberal centrists, Harris and Nawaz made it clear that they find common cause with the right. At 1:51:26, Nawaz recommended an article by right-wing economist Thomas Sowell in the neoconservative magazine the National Review.
And in a particularly symbolic moment in the lengthy podcast, Sam Harris went out of his way to criticize left-wing Congressman Keith Ellison, who he implied might be a “stealth” Islamist who is trying to infiltrate and taint secular U.S. politics with Islam. (Harris claimed the Muslim civil rights group the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, is an example of such covert “stealth” Islamists.)
Ellison is one of the most consistently progressive U.S. politicians. Yet Harris and Nawaz did not engage with or even mention any of Ellison’s left-wing policies, except for his support for same-sex marriage. Instead, they spoke of Ellison exclusively as a Muslim.
This discussion reflected how, for “New Atheists” like Harris, the politics of the situation is irrelevant. What is only important is that religion be opposed always and everywhere and treated as if it’s all the same, politics be damned.