Sam Harris and Omar Aziz Email Exchange

Imagine Sam Harris invited me to discuss my blog post “Sam Harris Mistackles His Critics” on his podcast. I am given the chance to read it out, for him to comment as we go, and for me to add or discuss in response. To even bring what I want into the conversation.

I would jump at the chance. To discuss and challenge what we think is the pinnacle of a free society.

Omar Aziz was given that very opportunity based on this piece he wrote in Salon, though he complained about the format. Harris felt the resulting four hour recording was unbroadcastable. Omar Aziz complained this was against free speech, and was a cover for unpalatable views expressed by Harris, in his latest Salon piece.


Unfortunately for Aziz, Sam Harris has on his podcast broadcast the relevant parts of their discussion. If you listen to the exchange above, Aziz does not come across well.

Aziz also quotes in Salon from his email exchange with Harris. Below I reproduce part of their email exchange. It provides a different perspective from what Salon readers may have expected from the partial quotes.

Hi Sam,
Thanks for the clarifications. I really hope you were not literally intending for me to come on and read my essay on your podcast with you stopping me every other sentence as if I was in some kind of deposition or trial. This would be a totally fruitless conversation. I assume your readers have read the essay, and I’d welcome specific questions you’d like to raise in a debate/discussion format.
Rather than me reading my essay line-by-line, I suggest we each propose a handful of broad topics and we have a conversation on each. We can alternate who kicks off the discussion for each topic.
Looking over the essay, here’s a rough chronological outline of the issues I’ve raised:
1. Reforming Islam
2. The history and tradition of Islam (and what that may reveal about radical jihadists)
3. Holy War (past and present)
4. Hate crimes against Muslims
5. Your views on torture, Ben Carson, and Noam Chomsky
6. Anything else we don’t get to
I’m up for a discussion on all these topics, their ethics, their politics, their implications. If you have other suggestions, please let me know.
January 12 at 1 pm sounds good.
No, I’m serious about you reading every word your essay. Here are my reasons:
1. Most of our listeners will not have read it and never will.
2. It is the reason I’m having you on the podcast. You took the time to write it, and the charges you level at me are clearly expressed and deserve to be discussed.
3. Part of my interest in having this discussion is to see if we can bridge the distance between a Salon-style hit piece (which you wrote) and an actual conversation. I want us to move back and forth between the text of your essay, my response to it as a reader/listener, and your response to my response. It remains to be seen whether this will produce and interesting/useful conversation or a “fruitless” one. But I’m pretty sure no one has ever attempted something like this before.
So this is how I want us to approach the podcast—with you reading what you wrote and our stopping to talk about each point, wherever relevant. Again, you can say anything you want in this context, and I won’t edit you (though if our exchange truly is “fruitless,” as well as boring, I reserve the right not to air it).
January 12th works. Are you in or out?
Hi Sam,
What you call a hit piece I call an essay-length review of your book. I find it highly revealing that you will not have a traditional debate or discussion around themes or topics but insist on me reading my essay word for word and you reserving the right to stop me whenever you want. Unless you are a state prosecutor putting on a show trial, this seems like a highly dubious way to proceed. It should come as no surprise that “no one has ever attempted something like this before” — they actually did in the old totalitarian states when writers went off message and had to be publicly censored by the state — because depositions where one party is stopping the other every few seconds to “correct the record” are a highly denigrating form of intellectual exchange, and most writers would not allow themselves to be condescended to in such a way.
However, I will still come on and abide by all these restrictive guidelines you want to pre-emptively impose, but I will add a couple of my own.
1. Instead of reading all 2800 words on your podcast, why don’t you highlight which sentences/paragraphs are the most inaccurate, misguided, offensive, insulting (whatever adjective you want to use here), and I will read those. This way, we can actually have a conversation around the most contentious charges, and we can let the conversation flow as it will.
2. I reserve the right to make my own recording of our discussion in case it is fruitless or “boring” from your perspective, but fruitful and interesting from mine.
So, once again, I gladly accept your invitation to come on, despite its restrictive, questionable, and one-sided terms, and I look forward to the 12th.
Are you in or out?
The fact that you view my offer to put you on my podcast and let you say anything you want to my audience unedited in terms of “show trials” and other forms of totalitarian coercion suggests to me that having a productive conversation will be a challenge. Yes, I want to hold you accountable for every word in your essay. You took the time to write it, and nearly every sentence exemplifies what is wrong with our public conversation on these topics. Is the fact that you appear reluctant to stand behind your work “highly revealing”? I’ll let you decide. But there’s nothing about the format I propose that would prevent us from talking for ten minutes at a stretch on any specific topic, or digressing upon others. Can you seriously believe that I’d be dodging debate/discussion by allowing you to present the sharpest, written version of your charges against me on my podcast and then discussing them at length? You think this gives me some kind of unfair advantage? While reading your essay, you can expand upon your points, or refine them, or do anything else you want. I’m simply asking that every word of the text also be read, so that our listeners can hear every point, and I can respond (or not).
Honestly, Omer, life is too short for this. If you were going on CNN for an interview with Fareed Zakaria, would you reserve the right to record your own version of the interview? That’s not how things work. I’m inviting you on my podcast. It takes a lot of time and money to produce. If you turn out to be a terrible guest—producing a river of empty insults with no coherent arguments—I reserve the right to kill the show. And no, I don’t give you permission to record and broadcast our conversation in some other forum.
Is there enough good will here for us to continue? Perhaps I should mention another portent of doom: I just noticed for the first time that Murtaza Hussain is one of your friends/collaborators. That doesn’t bode well, because I consider Hussain to be the most unscrupulous person I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter online (and that’s saying a lot). I certainly would never attempt anything like this with him. I have great respect for the power of conversation, but I’m not a fool (or a masochist).
But I also detected a ray of hope: I read your fine piece in TNR, “The Soul of a Jihadist,” [Link] and agreed with every word of it. Part of my interest in attempting difficult conversations like this is to reconcile the seeming paradox that you and I can agree about so much and still find ourselves so far apart. I honestly have no idea whether we can bridge the gap. But I’ll let you decide whether or not we should try…
Should I book you for the 12th? If so, we still need to get you a microphone.

Harris commented his reason for sharing this part of the email exchange: “Given that Salon published an edited version of my emails with him, I could release the whole thread. You’ll see that it reveals him to be a fairly paranoid, victimology type. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s the heart of the exchange.”

I am surprised that Harris went through with taping a podcast. Doing so at least shows someone willing to try and engage their critics. The excerpts from the recording demonstrate why it was not broadcast.

Update 12/3/2016

After pressure from fans and detractors alike, Sam Harris has announced he will be publishing the full four hour podcast.

I think one of the comments below summed it up that though the conversation might be boring, and disingenuous, it would show how the argument plays out involving Sam Harris. And that would in itself make it worth listening too.

Careful what you wish for … it sometimes happens.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78

My Huffington Post Blog



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29 responses to “Sam Harris and Omar Aziz Email Exchange

  1. Gary

    So essentially what happened was that Omar wrote a blatantly antagonistic review of Sam and then started to get annoyed when Sam didn’t frame the dialogue as a balanced and welcoming exchange in response.
    I agree Sam’s approach was clearly a bit of an attempt to put Omar on the defensive, whether Sam intended it or not, but that’s hardly unfair when you write a review of someone claiming they just write books for money.

  2. Someone

    John, where did Sam publish this email exchange that you have quoted in the article. Did he send it directly to you?

  3. George

    Personally I think it was a mistake for Sam to approach Omer. As this email exchange, and the second hit piece in Salon, suggest, Omer was intent on weaving as much controversy into this interview as he possibly could… Playing to the sneering, cultish, bully-boy gallery of Hassan, Mutaza, Greenwald, and other regressives. Going by Omer’s original piece, he is not a serious writer, and not a savoury personality, and it should’ve been left at that. As it was, Sam ended up with two bad outcomes – either he doesn’t pull the podcast, and gives publicity to a belligerent victim mongerer who makes no attempt at mutual understanding. Or he does pull it, and Omer gets to ratchet this up as some affront to his freedom of speech: a moral and intellectual victory for Islamic apologism.

    • The alarm bells were clearly ringing in email exchange. As I say, that was the time to end it.

      Omar has now written *another piece* in The Huffington Post. No idea if it is worth going point by point or whether life is too short.

  4. I think it is fair to say Sam has cleaned up on this one. It’s always good to be on the winning side!

    • Yes – I think the podcast does conclusively prove Sam’s point and the email exchange clinches it. And Omar has plenty of people to read his views. Free speech seems to be the winner here.

    • Dave Peekineeze

      Sam cleaned up? Far from it. He made two errors in judgment that have damaged his reputation. The first mistake was in inviting an obvious “enemy” on his podcast. Not everyone who disagrees with you is an enemy but those who intentionally misrepresent your positions in an attempt to damage your credibility are. Aziz wasn’t just a kid with different ideas. He is a millenial SJW who never lets an opportunity go by to be offended. The “collateral damage” and the “let me educate you” exchanges proved that. Aziz should’ve been a character on last year’s season of South Park. The second mistake was to squash the podcast. Sam has damaged his reputation. He has created the perception that he has something to hide by refusing to air it, in which Aziz and the authoritarian leftist minions predictably seized on. Based on what I’ve heard, releasing the podcast would serve to show everyone what a smug little brat Aziz is. The choice is obvious.

      And what’s up with Aziz’s accent? Ever heard Joe Rogan do the SJW accent? The kid is an absolute caricature.

      • Scott E.

        Dave hit the nail on the head. Sam made some crucial strategic errors in judgement and in general should be more willing to let the irredeemable “regressives” do their thing and only engage with “adults”. (Dr. Haidt) .And he should release the podcast, however painful it may be and be done with it. Sam’s intellectual clarity and combativeness, which is one of his greatest assets in discourse, especially the written word, does not serve him well when “debating” the many on the left who are not interested in the exchange of ideas and drilling down to core assumptions. His bluntness, (which I love) often unduly agonizes those who disagree with him and often sends the tone of the conversation spinning in a negative direction. Even when the podcast does not follow Sam’s (and mine) preferred course of honest intellectual discourse (Maryam Namazie) I still “enjoy” the insight provided in the exchange, precisely because it highlights, in Maryam’s case, how deepfelt emotional empathy for the immigrant community can short circuit an honest intellectual excercise of choosing between many unsatisfying and painful trade-offs for the greatest good. There are many who occupy her position on the empathy trumps reason scale and it is illuminating to hear it expressed, however painful. Aziz’s podcast would do the same.

      • Glad I’m not the only one who enjoyed Namazie encounter. If Sam’s regular podcast listeners ask for it, who knows. As you say, the quality could be forgiven for the actual exchange happening.

  5. joe

    Harris acts if there’s someone holding a gun on all of the audiences head, if the audio is released. As if we must listen to all 4 hours. As if we must be protected from boredom.

    • Shank

      I think it’s more because he wants his podcast to earn and maintain a serious reputation. It’s called “Waking Up”, after all. A title like that carries with it an obligation to meet certain standards, and I doubt a four hour long shouting match with a haughty, disingenuous SJW like Omer Aziz would live up to them.

      I must confess, I’d rather like to hear the podcast, but I’d like to hear it in the same way I’d like them to make another Sharknado movie, and I don’t think that’s the vibe Sam’s going for.

  6. I’m honestly not sure what podcast edit you are listening too that makes you think that Harris comes out well from this.

    The nationally read author and successful blogger can think of ‘no format’ where he can respond to Omer’s criticism? He starts the exchange by telling Omer that this article (he thinks we all need to hear read word-for-word) is so bad it is like Omer guessed randomly at facts and had no logical ground to stand on? So why then, would it be worth making the topic of the podcast in the first place?

    He claims he will not edit Omer without his permission, and leaves that in this edit, one assumes, to fool us into thinking he didn’t, when it’s clear from the listening that is exactly what he did (as Omer’s HP piece confirms).

    One must consider Harris’ purpose in this exercise. To refute Omer’s claims? If Harris personally reads the article line by line, and tells us why his is wrong, that looks like he is just being petty about a bad review (because he is). Same if he posts a blog post. How about a debate, where they can exchange ideas? But when Omer suggests this Harris says it MUST be about the EXACT words of the article. Why? Because Harris doesn’t want a debate about ideas. He wants to prove Omer was wrong in his piece and the Harris’ book is above reproach.

    If he cared about the discussion of actual ideas about the topics in the book or article, he would not declare a four hour long debate (this a long time to talk to an ‘enemy’ who has nothing to say but mean-spirited attacks) as simply ‘boring.’ No, it was not boring, it simply did not achieve his goals. It did not make him look as smart as he wanted it to.

    And so, when Salon called him on this bad behavior, he airs only the clips he personally finds (against the promise he made Omer not to use it out of context without his permission) flattering to him and hurtful to Omer (though not early so hurtful as Harris would like to think).

    In the list of petty, very strange things Sam Harris has done in his career when criticized, this is certainly one of the most revealing about how thin-skinned he really is.

    • Hang on – Omer out of context wrote about their debate first. So it was fair for Sam to reply on those points, with their actual conversation, on those things outlined in Salon.

      Sam as producer of his podcast can decide what he wants to broadcast, and their is some logic to what he says about how many would have read Omar’s article. To give an example, between 1-5% of readers click on a link in any blog post I publish. So Sam is correct that most listeners would never read that article, even if he linked to it.

      You can call it a vanity exercise or trying to nail down a critic to back up their published claims (perhaps even both). I am not surprised that format went out the window as Sam mentioned it could.

      The email at least shows the intention in a more favourable light than you suggest. I think Sam was naive how this would end up going, but I think he was sincere about having a conversation around that article.

      • Babs

        What do you mean out of context? Omar wrote an article and gave his side. What additional context was needed? It’s tiring to hear this line over and over and over from Harris supporters. Every critique of him is taken out of context and no one truly understands him. Sam Harris refused to give the other side until the internet forced him to. I don’t think Sam’s approach was fair, that’s why he said that according to his knowledge, the format he chose had never been done before. Why do you think that was never done before?

        I think the fact that so many people demanded the audio to be released shows that a good chunk did indeed read the article. Harris really wasn’t coming out on top, even after leaking selected pieces of their exchanges – like the content on this page. That wasn’t enough to turn the tide so he had to release everything.

        The intention was to have the entire piece read line by line and critiqued like a lawyer would do in a deposition. That isn’t academic and doesn’t benefit anyone except Harris who is trying to damage control his “brand”.

      • The collateral damage remarks by Omar did not reflect Sam Harris POV – even Salon had to contact Sam so they could clarify by edit in the article.

        Sam chose portions of the recording that responded to main points in Omar’s write up. That is hardly leaking, unless you call Omar’s write up of the debate leaking. Neither term fits.

        We are all going to now have the chance to listen to four hours of the exchange. One Sam said could flow freely away from the text at any time – as we will hear it did. So much for a deposition.

        If I have missed anything else, probably in my comments above. But if you read the first link “Sam Harris Mistackles Critics” (which Sam read after I published it) in my post I am critical of Sam.

        I just prefer to try and represent his views correctly when doing so. It means we can have a conversation, rather than a mud throwing – you want a war on brown people because you have a bloodlust against Muslims – which is hardly academic.

        Speaking of academic, I would go through essays paragraph by paragraph with some tutors that took the time.

  7. Anthony Ratay

    To the attempted critique of Sam Harris’ decision to have Aziz read his article etc. The obvious reason for this is to have Aziz defend his positions in an actuall conversation absent the digital wall created by anyone ability to say anything that they want about whomever they want. This is made worse by unscrupulous publishing organizations who are not only willing to amplify but to retitle the article to make it as inflammatory as possible. I highly doubt Mr. Harris would have a guest on who wrote an article about Mr. Harris that he(Mr.Harris) agreed with all characterizations. That would be truly fruitless. I would hope that someone who wants to be taken seriously in this space would be able to defend charges leveled against others. That would be a minimum requirement.

  8. I think it was unrealistic of Sam to think anybody is going to change his mind in real time and publicly say so while being recorded. Yes, that might happen once in a very great while, but to get perturbed about this not happening is something I think Sam should reflect on.

    For example, I got banned from RDFRS blog for being a “troll”.

    In other words, my detractors persisted in making endless fallacious arguments, and I persisted in discounting them with my own arguments and I would not acquiesce to their points no matter how often they were made by every other poster.

    Since I did not change my position then, by their lights, I must obviously be a “troll”, since so “obviously” their points were so irrefutable that only an intentionally obstinate person would persist in countering them and denying their validity.

    Rather than consider that they simply had failed to make convincing arguments they banned me. So, even a site that bears the name of Richard Dawkins is not immune to this kind groupthink.

    I happen to agree with Sam Harris about the substance of nearly everything he says, but I think the focus on the lack of real time change by the other party was unproductively unrealistic on Sam’s part.

    I greatly appreciate Sam’s contributions in general over the years, but as he has discussed, there are limits to discourse, and very unfortunately an expectation of real time change is one of those limits.

    Sam seemed kind of down on himself about this not exactly being his finest hour, but I would say que sera sera, just keep on keepin on, peace bro.

    • Anthony Ratay

      The fact that someone can be given the opportunity to come
      in and defend their idea in real time is a welcomed idea. What I hope people focus in on here is.

      1. When confronted with this opportunity Aziz had the opportunity to come highlight his opinions or retract them depending on how the conversation went. Instead he employed SJW techniques and logical fallacies to change the subject or move goal posts(you pick the flawed tactic because I heard several different varieties)
      2. Harris did not attempt these techniques.

      This IS useful information. After listening to Aziz I am happy to categorize him based on his actual words in the context of an actual
      conversation. Something Harris gets none of.

      The most obvious reason Harris is sniping the “taken out of context” angle is because he is taken out of context. In 500 years Harris will no longer have the opportunity to defend his views, it is likely that his books and articles will live on. If he doesn’t defend himself in his own time there will be opportunities for others to use his words against his intended meaning( as they do now). This is important when considering the topics Harris discussed.
      How much crap have we heard about einsteins or kitchens death bed conversion to religion? Unless you’re in the room at the time you have no way of knowing the truth,never less there is never a shortage of people willing to use your name for their own reasons.

      • “What I hope people focus in on here is…”

        Yes, those are reasonable points to consider. But in some sense they are a given, in that any time one engages a Muslim critic of atheism and American foreign policy such techniques are nearly assured. Further, the probability of a real time admission of error is vanishingly small.

        I am sure that on some intellectual level Sam is well aware of this. But, in the moment he lost his serenity of perspective, which we all do from time to time, unless one has achieved nirvana. I mean, Sam was cursing at the guy. On reflection he realized this was not an exchange to be proud of.

        My advice to Sam, for what pittance it might be worth to him, is to revisit expectations of the other party prior to engagement, thereby avoiding emotional reactions to the inevitable fallacious argumentation and intransigence in the face of sound refutations.

        Anger and frustration makes one vulnerable to the diversionary tactics of the intransigent detractor. To avoid that vulnerability do not expect rational argument or real time admission of error, rather, drive straight through by deflecting attempts at diversion thus exposing the fallaciousness of the other’s arguments to the audience without being distracted by his predictable intransigence.

      • If he wants a conversation, it’s best done not with an audience listening. Then you might have a dialogue later with an audience. Otherwise, you get “this is the message I want people to hear” reactions rather than following a line of inquiry you want to lead it down.

  9. Anthony Ratay


    I hear what you are saying. I’m less skeptical about the tenor of this being bad. I would agree it is frustrating and (in this and the Miriam situation) fruitless.
    Again, for all time these conversations are out there. I know the next time I am talking with someone and they bring up either of the aforementioned guests I now have an easy reference point to guide them to.
    I would also not make blanket statements about the j tensions of either party pre conversation. Acting that way would have made Harris’ recent project with Maajid Nawas impossible.
    I think engaging these people and having them speak is the best way to do this moving forward. It ruins credibility.

  10. Mark Bethune

    The problem was — which Sam says is the bigger problem at large — is that Omar could not stay on topic. It took them four hours to read three paragraphs. The start of Sam’s introduction he plays the clip of Omar getting off topic.

    If we could draw up a chart with arguments pointing to arguments I’m sure we’ll find Omar is in left field. (I’d love to see that actually…. internet?)

  11. I love the Podcast i got 30 mins left.Not boring at all.The 16 mins at the start of Sam going on and on is hilarious. Their just seems to be more too Omer than Sam.

  12. Tim Rutherford

    I found it absolutely engrossing. Like many in my family and social circle, Omar’s ability to build great millennias-long structures of highly ordered & complex levels of detail great and small, was impressive, because he was completely transparent about having erected them upon foundations of cognitive dissonance and logical fallacies. Every time Sam was able to drill down to that foundation, Omar refused to answer or refused to acknowledge, and then fled with a deluge, a misdirection, or ad hominem or combination of all three. Aziz argued like he wrote; like a teenager who has spent too much time online, and thinks there’s nothing more to debate than monologues full of hyperbole & venom. I’m glad to see its not just the millennials in my family and social circle. It’s systematic.

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