AS219: The Sam Harris Maryam Namazie Breakdown

The Sam Harris Maryam Namazie Breakdown

Today’s episode is all about breaking down the Sam Harris Maryam Namazie breakdown which happened on Harris’s Waking Up Podcast. The episode in question can be found here. While my podcast will provide a more detailed explanation, I’m also going to do a bit of a blog post here to hit some of the highlights and to link some relevant information.

I want to explain where my mindset was, as honestly as I can, going into this conversation. I had absolutely no idea it would be such a disaster. I am recorded as saying, in an episode I did with Eiynah (who is mentioned by Sam a few times) that I was very excited for this episode and was looking forward to hearing the two of them hash some things out.  I’ve also been a strong supporter of Maryam, specifically in the Goldsmiths incident in which a highly disrespectful Muslim student group shouted her down and pretty much ruined a talk she was giving to the skeptic club there. I’ve always found her to be a courageous voice in the fight against Islamism and specifically its terrible treatment of women. In full disclosure, I’m also a big Sam Harris fan. I love his openness to have difficult conversations, his willingness to defend unpopular beliefs even when I and others disagree with him, and his clarity of thought. So as you can see, I had very high expectations for the Sam Harris Maryam Namazie discussion!

These expectations were completely dashed. It was so bad that I really wanted to do a detailed breakdown to see what went wrong. I painstakingly listened and summarized the first 50 minutes of the discussion, starting with when Sam outlined the reasons for the episode and ending with when Maryam made Sam change the subject to migration. I was going to do the entire episode, but the second part was plagued with many of the same problems and I already had way more than enough to discuss.

Why the Sam Harris Maryam Namazie Breakdown Happened

Listen to the embedded podcast for more detail, but despite the fact that I think I agree with nearly all of Maryam’s positions, I believe she has the majority of the blame for the discussion being so terrible. To start, her Twitter account after the show made evident how she viewed the discussion going in. Check out these tweets:

Could it really be said that Sam invited her on not to hear what she had to say? In the 50 minutes I painstakingly documented, Sam Harris spoke for roughly 19 minutes while Maryam spoke for 31. At a point when Maryam asked Sam to stop interrupting her because she had let him talk for such a long time, he had talked for 7:45 and she had talked for 13:39. I think this shows that Maryam’s image of what went down is not exactly accurate. I know this may seem somewhat obsessive compulsive of me to have timed all this out, but when I heard how Maryam was portraying the podcast I simply had to know what the actual facts were. 

More evidence that the above Tweets are quite out of line is the fact that Sam is the one with a history of giving people who disagree with him a platform. This includes someone who did a far better job arguing against his pro-profiling stance than Maryam did, by the name of Bruce Schneier. Perhaps Maryam should have read this dialogue to get an idea of what Sam’s position actually is and how to argue against it. Maryam’s entire argument amounted to “I look at people as individuals. You can’t punish Muslims as a whole. You have to focus on Islamists.” When Sam would ask how one might focus on Islamists without focusing on Muslims, she was never quite able to answer. I’d like to repeat that I think Sam is probably wrong in his stance on profiling, but not for any reasons that Maryam came up with. I disagree with him because of the practical problems involved in such profiling. But Maryam did a terrible job of having a dialogue. I would recommend she spend at least a tiny amount of time listening so that she can actually engage Sam where he stands. Again for much more detail on this, check out my podcast embedded in this post.

If you’d like to see my painstaking notes (which I’m almost embarrassed to have taken)  on the first 50 minutes of the Sam Harris Maryam Namazie disaster, I made them into a PDF here.

14 thoughts on “AS219: The Sam Harris Maryam Namazie Breakdown”

  1. OK not quite finished listening, but I wanted to summarize my view so far. First of all I pretty much agree with everything you said. I didn’t count the minutes or anything, but I was rather exasperate with her repeatedly saying “you’re not letting me talk”, when I though it was obvious she was doing most of the talking.
    In a nutshell I think she went into the discussion with the mindset of a politician facing a hostile interviewer, while Sam thought he was having a friendly discussion with someone he respects.
    Finally on the insulting comments directed at Maryam about her body. I think it’s rather pointless to tell people it’s a bad idea or wrong. People who do that know it is, and don’t care. It somewhat reminds me of feminists talking about teaching men not to rape as though rapists don’t know rape is bad, The people you’re talking with aren’t decent people who just don’t realize what they are doing is bad, they are simply bad people. I also heard Maryam’s response to Sam when he tweeted people shouldn’t do that differently. It wasn’t simply”You don’t need to do say that I can take it” it was “I don’t need you white knighting for me”, implying he was iinfantilizing her and acting as though she was some poor little girl who needed a man’s help. Maybe I’m wrong but given her hostility towards him I don’t think it’s an unreasonable impression to have.

    1. I wanted to add that also like you I want to help refugees, and I’m not really concerned about the potential terrorists that come with it. That being said if we don’t discuss it, if we don’t express some concern, if we don’t take some steps to limit that likelihood, we’re ignoring significant number pf people who are concerned (rationally or not), and the result is a situation where only the right appears to care, and the result of that for example is Donald Trump.

  2. I think a lot of how you see this interview depends on what you expected from it, and what expectations and assumptions Harris and Namazie carried into the discussion. Harris was his usual assertive but generally reasonable self, Namazie was uninspired and disappointing. She may not have been right to claim Harris was trying to prove her wrong, but the outcome of the debate was very much that – Namazie could not supply enough to counter Harris’ narrative and in fact came up woefully short . Having said that, I agree with you in that there are other reasons why Harris is probably wrong about profiling, it’s problematic and impractical.

    You make a big deal about the time being allotted to each speaker. But as Namazie was coming onto Harris’ show, normally I would have expected the lion’s share of the dialogue to have been coming from her. When you bring a guest on to AS, it seems that up to 75-80% of the dialogue is from the guest. But maybe Harris’ show is different (I’ve not listened to it before) seeing as he is, I presume, often a “bigger name” than the interviewee, you might expect his podcast to be more weighted towards time for him to talk than usual for a podcast. So if he thought the latter, and she the former, you can start to see where the differences in expectation might have started to emerge.

    As far as profiling goes, we can all say what we think about it, but in reality it’s up to the security and counter-terrorism services how they deal with this issue. It is not a matter for public discourse in my view, or at least that discourse will probably not affect much. Individual agents are always going to do what they think is best. Harris is not in charge of the budget for home security or counter-terrorism, so he isn’t really in a position to say if saving time or resources by profiling is a better course of action than making savings elsewhere or getting more funding so that his organisations don’t have to profile in the first place. It does annoy me a bit when people try to make resource-based arguments from a position outside the organisation whose resources they are discussing.

    The Tommy Robinson thing was really weird. I may have a different perspective on this being a Brit. A while back, Robinson (real name Yaxley-Lennon) was little more than a soccer thug, a righting nutjob well known to us Brits for his extreme anti-multiculturalist views ; the head of a far-right nationalist political party (EDL – alleged to have links to the Norweigan mass murderer Anders Breivik), and his being the equivalent of a British Donald Trump for instance. In recent years, he has left the political activism behind and moved into a slightly calmer phase where he is trying to paint himself as reasonable. But for many of us, there is so much baggage with Robinson that a mention of his name and we are already thinking the worst. Many Muslims, black people and even white immigrants understandably still see him as a threat. If he was in charge, he would kick us out in a heartbeat. That is the context in which I imagine Namazie sees Robinson. And there are those (specifically at Goldsmiths!) who regard even Namazie as an Islamophobe. Imagine how they see Robinson.

    As someone who has spent more time in the UK than Harris, Namazie would be more familiar with Robinson and his history. I think Harris needed to do a better job of researching Robinson’s history, if he had done so he would have known that there are much better people to agree with who are saying the same things, and that he has no need to draw from someone else who does not approach his own intellectual resources. So, there are much better examples to make his point, and this was an unfortunate one that really touched a nerve.

    What I think we needed here really, was to formalise the discussion a bit more. Harris would have had to set out some points he wanted to make in advance, get some early responses so they could get straight into the detail on the podcast. He could have made it clear that he wanted around 40% of the airtime. If that was understood beforehand, Namazie might not even have agreed to do the podcast, as like you said she didn’t really say anything new and took a long time to make what points she did.

  3. Hey Thomas, I would love to leave a review for you on iTunes, but I access your podcast through an RSS feed on an app in an ancient device known as a Blackberry. If it’s possible to review it somewhere else let me know, and I’ll get out my digital chisel and hammer and carve one out for you.
    Great show, my favourite podcast.

  4. I would really like to know the argument for how profiling is impractical? It seems to me the counterargument isn’t against it’s practicality but against it’s insensitivity.

    1. I don’t think anyone has really criticised Harris’ position on profiling because it’s “insensitive” or “unfair”, the arguments that I’ve seen have all been about practicality. You should check out Bruce Schneier’s take on it here ( where he describes the consensus among security experts on why Harris’ approach not only wouldn’t work, but would weaken security.

      Basically trying to profile people in the way Harris suggests costs more money, requires more resources, and is less effective – i.e. impractical. Here’s one of the relevant bits from that discussion:

      “But so what? You’ve proposed a correlation between being Muslim and being a terrorist. I could propose other correlations with terrorism: wearing a gun, carrying a certain kind of reading material, having a certain micro-facial expression, appearing on a particular government list, buying a one-way ticket, holding a passport from a particular set of countries. There’s no shortage of correlations.

      You’ve gone further, though. You’ve advocating a nationwide security system with two tiers of security based on your correlation. What you’re missing is that your correlation is just a small piece of that complex system and, as such, you’ve skipped a lot of steps along the way.

      Security is a trade-off, and requires some sort of cost-benefit analysis. What is the cost of your security system? What are the benefits? What, exactly, is your correlation? (TSA screeners can’t sort based on religion; they have to sort based on something they can detect. And since there’s no such thing as “looking Muslim” — it’s a belief system, not an ethnic group — they’re going to sort on something like “looking Arab,” whatever that ends up meaning.) Then, you’re going to have to analyze the resulting security system. How does it work, and how does it fail? What’s the false-positive and false-negative rate? (You’ll have to do some theoretical analysis, at the very least refuting current research.) Can your system be gamed? (You’ll need some experimental data with real-world TSA agents in real-world conditions. The last thing we want is a security system that can be defeated with a bottle of blonde hair dye.) You will need it to relate to other security systems. We only have a limited security budget. Is your security system better than other airport security options? How does it affect the other security systems already in place at airports? Would we be better off spending that money on some other aspect of airport security? Or something more general than airports? In my book Beyond Fear, I proposed a five-step process to think through some of these questions. There are other, more rigorous models. But security engineering requires something more than intuition.” – Bruce Schneier.

  5. Was I the only person who noticed that she constantly dominated the conversation by not pausing for a second and diverting into several tangents just so she could continue to talk?

    It doesn’t matter she is ex-muslim, it doesn’t matter she is a woman, she was a bully, a beligerant bully who pulled out every passive aggressive, condescending and manipulative tactic she could just to force her own point of views.

    Either she was being purposefully dishonest, or she had her own agenda and abused her invitation to be on the podcast by pushing her own agenda….. but she certainly did not go into it wanting to have a conversation.

    Complete… total… arrogance

    1. I felt the same. She took pains to disagree with Sam on every point – painting herself as a humanist and Sam as bigoted against Muslims.

  6. Only just discovered the podcast (while looking for responses/analysis of the Omer Aziz debacle) and greatly enjoyed it, although I definitely fall further from the social justice side than you do. But as an American living in Europe I see these issues a little differently. I was a Maryam fan for the most part until the podcast and I can’t take her seriously any more. Her views were incoherent and completely self-defeating. You didn’t get into the immigration portion but it was even more ridiculous than the profiling portion in my opinion. Maryam’s stated view on immigration (in the interview) was:
    – No differentiation between refugees, economic migrants and people just wanting to jump borders because they feel like it.
    – When at the point of entry an immigrant states that they hold Islamist views let them in as long as they state they haven’t committed war crimes.
    – Once they are in your society and they continue to voice views antithetical to liberal society then you challenge their ideas in the public square.

    Sam could not get her to understand that that makes no sense. Again, we’re not talking about legal residents or citizens who are already there (who, short of committing a crime, must be tolerated and challenged in the stadium of ideas, of course) or true refugees (a challenging situation in these small countries that can barely deal with the influx of well-meaning refugees, let alone bad actors abusing the refugee situation.) She was stating that if someone shows up at the border under no threat of persecution in their homeland and states that they hold views opposing western liberal values you still have to let them in and THEN challenge their ideas. Why?!? What sort of immigration policy is that? Why would you extend this courtesy to people who are expressing their intention to undo your society? It’s like Maryam took a no-brainer question and answered it in the opposite of common sense just to oppose Sam.

    Similarly she said that the borders should be opened up to anyone regardless of their reasons for wanting to enter and regardless of their views on society but then when Sam suggested that the borders might be too porous she repeatedly said something about how the border checks were very strict. But she’s opposing that strictness. So which is it?

    Her views on immigration don’t normally seem so extreme (again, having a completely open border policy to non-refugees is a truly EXTREME view that almost no one in the debate actually voices) so she was either showing her true colours or she was just being combative because she’s so immature that she couldn’t allow Sam to come to any agreements with her no matter how obvious. It’s similar to the Omer interview, just opposing every bit of common ground just to be contradictory to a guy who is desperately trying to find some agreement to use as a starting point. So frustrating.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

  7. I was about to measure the time each person spoke. Thanks for doing it for me. It seems to show that Maryam Namazie really was missing the point of the discussion. It basically rendered the whole 2hr talk a waste of time. Such a shame.

  8. Wow, that was a painful listening experience!!! Thanks so much for the notes and comments. Great to have the extra insights. I listened to the entire thing. Very disappointed in Maryam’s condescending attitude, refusal to give straight answers or clarify her views, rambling comments, complaints of interruptions but repeatedly interrupting Sam, and the snarky, unprofessional tweets :O

  9. Sam could have asked her to answer “yes or no” after each one of her rants and then asked a yes or no question, which (I hope) she would answer with a yes or no and then she would probably embark on another rant.

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