Open Letter to Sam Harris

Sam, I’m having a problem with your otherwise wonderful and excellent app, Waking Up. It’s that when I’m on Twitter and I see these frankly rather silly arguments between you and various Muslims, the animosity and playground jabs stay in my mind and make it hard to focus on the contents of my consciousness.

So, a couple of suggestions: first, if you’re going to be a meditation guide, then maybe lay off the arguing-with-Muslims side business. You have to know (being smart) that that goes nowhere. All you’re accomplishing is being a source of energy for genuine Islamophobes. But (you might respond, were we at a coffee shop drinking élitist lattés) what about the conversation? What about the marketplace of ideas? And I would respond… oh, Sam. You’re smarter, harder working, and probably more athletic than I am, you should know that is a crock. When conversations happen about topics not linked to identity, people might be persuaded. When they are linked to identity, though, the words are reduced to a background hum, wayyy drowned out by identity signals. (You should listen to David McRaney’s podcast, You Are Not So Smart; he goes into this stuff in detail.)

Second, here’s the true thing behind what I call the Jihadi Problem. It’s not about Islam (go a couple of paragraphs down to find out what it is about) – Islam is tremendously varied in many dimensions; you have your whirling dervishes, your Sufi mystics, your sophisticated urbane atheists who only do the occasional prayers to keep their moms from crying, your rustic peasants for whom Islam provides lifecycle rituals and structure for their community. You have your American Black Muslims getting away from the slavemasters’ religion, your hippie and hipster Muslims for whom the appeal is that nobody else in their circle does it, and they can lord it over them as some kind of expert. And of course your Indian Muslims, living as a minority and watching their step around emboldened and occasionally murderous nationalist Hindus. Many, many more…

The problem is not Indonesian fishermen or community organizers in Harlem. The problem is not even Iranian Shias (though they do have the neuroses of anyone with a glorious imperialist past, hankering for past glory and needing to blame others for its loss). The problem is the Gulf Sunni royal families, using their petrodollars to fund Wahhabi imams throughout the world, to advance their ideology fueled by imperial golden-agism and rich-guy perverted sociopathy.

Islam’s collection of texts is not that different from any other shelf of sacred texts. Remember The Bible Code? Very silly book about how you could do a sort of cryptographic treatment of the Hebrew Bible and extract prophesy. Some mathematician showed you could the same thing with Moby Dick, or indeed any big-enough book. The night sky will show you whatever you want, as will a Tarot spread. Randomness contains all stories if it features a sufficient number of items.

The funders of Wahhabism are propagating a particular story drawn from Islam’s texts to promote a bellicose, murderous, death-relishing machismo, which is highly appealing to shiftless, underemployed young men (and the ambitious young women who love them) and frustrated engineers. What good does this do? I think it is a power fantasy for the Gulf petrocrats. They get no material benefit. They’re not past wanting things, but they have every material thing imaginable, including sex and power. All that’s left is the perverted desire to make everyone pay for their not having the one thing they can’t have – an Arab Empire, from Morocco through Malaysia, bowing toward them. Just like any good supervillain, they Want to Rule the World. I’m sure they even pet their kitten as they fantasize about 9/11.

What can be done about it? The elimination of oil would return the Gulf Arab states to depending on colorful local costumes and pearl divers for tourist Euros. Gulf Arab attempts to move beyond the inevitable (but distant) end of oil seem (ironically) ham-handed to me. Buying a Louvre and a Guggenheim? Buying American universities? Dubai and real estate? Have you been there? It’s horrible! It’s quite pathetic, for a people who invented algebra.

So, aside from eliminating oil or reducing its price to a point where the petrocrats have to spend their time governing or something productive instead of fomenting apocalyptic mayhem, what can you do?

Eliminate US support for them. But that would mean finding something to replace all those fighter plane jobs lost.

Maybe it could be strengthening Iran carefully, in such a way as to enhance democracy there and weaken theocracy. I think Obama was trying to do that.

I don’t know! You’ve got a podcast, maybe invite some guests who can address this, instead of whining about how college kids yell at them for saying Islam is so wicked. My eye-rolling muscles are so sore…

Anyway, thanks for the great meditation app. I doubt I could have strung these thoughts together before I started using it! So, see? This letter is all your fault.

Thanks for the app, Peter Basch