Regular reader and commenter Ken posted the video below in the comments of an old post a few days ago. It’s one that engendered a lot of discussion and I felt that it needed a post of its own. I was busy writing my post on China, North Korea, and Taiwan at the time, so I asked Ken to write the post. He very kindly agreed, and the result is excellent.
Gad Saad in Discussion with Nick Cohen
Wikipedia tells us Gad Saad is a Lebanese-Canadian evolutionary behavioural scientist at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has a Youtube channel called The Saad Truth in which he “critiques political correctness, the ideology of multiculturalism, Postmodernism, third-wave feminism, the ideology of Islam, safe-spaces and trigger warnings”.
Nick Cohen is an English political journalist who writes for many publications, though mostly The Observer in London. He has written several books on politics as well. Cohen was a guest on The Saad Truth recently and the discussion was interesting due to a few major disagreements against a backdrop of quite broad agreement on many issues. As sometimes is the case, when two people agree on so much, where and why they differ can be quite instructive.
I don’t know either man’s work in much detail, particularly Saad’s, who I’ve only seen a few video clips of. I’ve read several of Cohen’s articles, but none of his books. So I’ve taken what they said in their hour long discussion pretty much at face value.
Both are atheists and consider themselves to be classical liberals, interested in protecting enlightenment values such as free speech, rather than adhering to any political tribal affiliations. While Cohen more clearly self-identifies with the Left, he has written about where he thinks the modern Left has gone wrong by not anchoring their programme on the core liberal values that he holds dear. Saad is possibly best known for his views on Islam and what he might describe as a growing politically correct climate in Western universities. He seems fairly described as having similar views to other new atheists like Sam Harris and Dave Rubin. Saad makes the point several times that he doesn’t see himself specifically on the left or the right, but will agree with one or the other based on where issues fall in his value spectrum. Yet this is the very point Cohen challenges him the most on.
The first half of the discussion establishes what they very largely agree on and there are no surprises here. It includes a disdain of large factions of the left for, in their view, not being consistent enough defenders of everyone who faces discrimination, regardless of their circumstance. More specifically, that too many on the Left seem to identify almost exclusively with anti-Western groups and choose to support such groups even at the expense of oppressed minorities within those same groups; a sort of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” meme.
Additionally, Cohen argues that this part of the Left (and he stresses it doesn’t apply to all the Left, which are a fragmented bunch in his view) no longer even offer solutions to problems, but only critique. And though he often agrees with the critique, he feels the lack of a values based approach is one reason why a clear alternative programme is often absent, and that this is why almost no political parties of the left are doing well these days, particularly in Europe. I don’t think that’s the main problem and think Cohen makes a better point when he says many left establishment parties have become economically neo-liberal, and that the alternative usually isn’t a social democratic party, but a right nationalist party. So the choice is often between the economically right and the nationalist right. He predicts that Brexit and Trump will force Left parties to reconsider and advocate for much stronger programmes in the future; that these political revolutions should lead to intellectual revolutions in response. The alternative, he says, is that the Left will double down (as it seems the Democrats in the US are doing) and things will get much worse before there is any hope of improvement.
The crux of their disagreement, which gets started just past the 28th minute, comes when Saad says he believes Muslims are less likely to hold and want to protect Western values. He asks if his view that they therefore represent a specific threat that should be confronted means that he is an Islamophobe.
Cohen responds that the problem with Saad’s position is that it approaches the problem at the level of “whole peoples”, instead of individuals and ideas, and that this is unwise. All become unfairly tarnished with the same brush. Cohen cites the many Muslims he knows in London currently “getting it from all sides”, both the racist Right and the relativist Left, and feels strongly that Saad’s approach leaves them in the cold as much as lukewarm support from the Left does.
Cohen claims Saad is resorting to a sort of identity politics that smooths all differences between individuals into a stereotypical homogeneity, and that this serves the purposes of the far Right as well as the far Left, both of whom prefer a simplistic view that avoids the messy reality.
Saad responds essentially by doubling down. While rejecting the extremism of Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration, he argues his position is based merely on statistics that imply a greater danger from Yeminis than Lithuanians, and therefore his statement is just common sense and made with no hatred. You get the idea.
Cohen’s even larger point though, is that as he puts it, Saad’s house is changing, but Saad isn’t acknowledging the changes. That it’s one thing to take his position when Western countries are living their proclaimed enlightenment values and maintaining the sort of societies where tolerance and individual rights are the rule, but that things have changed much in the last five years and now there is an equal threat from the Right that must be met. He claims some Lithuanians aren’t as enlightened as Saad may think!
Cohen bemoans the right-wing commentariat in the UK who have gone limp in the face of Trump’s win, hypocritically refusing to criticize what is happening in the States and the UK (and possibly soon France and others) as bluntly as they do the Left when they seem out of line. He says we’re about to see if any of those who complain about the Left really mean it and will forthrightly criticize the Right as well.
Saad seems to miss the nuance and keeps citing statistics. Cohen says that while the statistics are what they are, they are not the only thing that is important when deciding what action to take.
Cohen also points out that most current violence by Muslims in the West comes from those born in Western countries and that Saad would have to be willing to take the same position regarding them as he does for potential immigrants, i.e. be willing to somehow remove them from society.
They eventually agree that Western countries need to require that certain values be respected by immigrants at least, though they don’t discuss just how that might be practically implemented. But Cohen again points out that Western governments first have to be the sort that will defend those values and that Trump and La Pen, who are quite happy to be called anti-liberal, can’t be expected to do so. He behoves Saad that next time he has a guest from the Right on his show, he must ask them about what’s happening on their side and challenge them for displaying the same hypocrisy they charge the Left of exhibiting.
I have disagreed strongly with Cohen in the past, but I certainly agree with his challenge to Saad here. At one point Cohen says that, five years ago, he wouldn’t have been so concerned with Saad’s views, and I take strong issue with that as I think the threats to marginalized people that worry him now are not at all new, but just present to an even greater degree. But the sad truth is that Gad Saad seems to nearly miss the point entirely.
That doesn’t follow. Most nations treat citizens differently from non-citizens. Recognising that much of mainstream Islam rejects fundamental Western values is not the same thing as saying we need to deport them all.
From the UK perspective, one thing I think we should be doing is not allowing Islamic schools. Why on earth do we allow schools that teach a rejection of key British liberal values to young British citizens?
[And by the way, I would also disallow schools run by any other religion or any political group. As I see it, a school should make a point of challenging the religion of the child’s parents, and deliberately expose them to different view points, rather than seeing its task as reinforcing the religion of the parents.]
Again, from the UK perspective, this is being claimed. But I’m not convinced. People seem to be exaggerating the threat from the “far right” in an attempt to divert attention from you-know-what.
I must take issue with some of your terminology, Coel. I think “fundamental Western values” is a misnomer. It makes it all too easily sound like non-Western countries don’t have, or have never had such values, and increases the siege mentality nationalists. It also makes the West sound entirely positive — as if Nazism is not a Western value system. I think “Enlightenment values” would be better.
Same with “British values”. It opens the door to nationalists, and makes it sound like there are values that are distinctly British, and which are, due to their Britishness, closed to Muslim participation. I would prefer a reference to universal human rights.
Ok, fair point about terminology on Western vs Enlightenment values.
I’m not so sure on “British”, the word there was because we’re talking about what British schools should promote. “British” values aren’t aligned with or opposed by any particular religion, and one of those currently speaking up strongly for British values is Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim.
Sorry, bad editing, I meant, aren’t *necessarily* aligned with or opposed by any particular religion. Indeed, any religion could adopt them if it wishes, and would be welcome to do so.
It’s funny. “British” has this reputation of being very stiff upper lip etc., but British values are actually quite liberal, humanist, and closely aligned with Enlightenment values. From the outside there’s an alignment with Christianity, but that’s not there anymore except for ceremonial purposes.
It’s similar in NZ. With colonialism we became very British and still have many embarrassing remnants like a blasphemy law and a prayer to start question time in parliament. There’s a nod to just about every religion you can think of in public ceremonies, and nothing for those of us who don’t believe even though we’re the biggest group by far (well over 40%) if you split Christianity into Catholic and Protestant.
Thanks for the clarification. I agree with it in that sense of the word.
Heather, I think there are plenty of Indians and Africans for whom “British” conjures up images less enlightenment influenced. Maybe it’s because I was born in the States, but empire and racism are the first things that come to my mind too, though I certainly acknowledge Britain’s role in advancing enlightenment values as well.
Oh, I agree. I was thinking from the pov of the British. 🙂
I take your point, Yakaru, but just to be clear, I believe Saad and Cohen use the terms interchangeably, so when they say Western values, they mean enlightenment values. Call it shorthand between them, as they both know what they mean.
Coel, I agree, don’t think Cohen was seriously suggesting Saad supported deportations, yet I don’t remember Saad reacting negatively to the comment either.
Thanks for the article, Ken. That’s a good summing up of what happened. I think this issue of whether or not we think it’s right to group Muslims as a monolithic group is a crucial and instructive one.
Both left and right do it. I see the left do it mostly with statements like “Those cartoons offended 1.6 billion Muslims.” They also do it, more laudably but also disastrously, by “accepting Muslims into the community” by placing their Muslim-ness in the foreground — without realizing that this inevitably strengthens religious based divisions and opens the door for Muslim fanatics to get a grip on a section of society. (Here in Germany, as in the UK, Salafists have gotten access to prisons and schools thanks to generous uncritical government programs.) We need new language and new concepts to deal with this. It’s difficult to complain about it without sounding like a right wing nutcase.
Back to Saad. I think there is a problem with the format of this kind of podcasting. Saad presented it as a discussion between equals. But Cohen spent an entire career studying and reporting on European politics, and has a solid grasp of modern history and political analysis; Gad Saad is a blogger with a webcam.
It doesn’t even seem to register with Saad that, regardless of right or wrong, he is talking to someone who has a far superior factual knowledge of the issues, and who has considered the issues far more deeply and from multiple perspectives. He spends a great deal of time thinking he can put one over on Cohen with his “provocative” thesis about it being fine to treat Muslims as a monolithic group. After getting a flat but very sophisticated and well argued rebuttal, all he can do, as Ken noted, repeat the charges.
Cohen knows a great deal about right wing extremism in Europe too, and Saad, due to his obvious ignorance, underestimates the danger. Bad as it is here with terrorists entering the country and attacks on women, right wing violence is vastly more prevalent, and far more dangerous, especially after the catastrophic decision of the US to turn itself into a right wing oligarchy.
Saad’s subsequent meltdown over being criticized, where he spent a week or more insulting a female ex-Muslim on twitter in the most pathetic fashion showed how far out of his depth he is at this level, and how insincere his motives are. He really has no business talking to a professional political analyst like Cohen on such terms.
….Related to this, I must also take issue with a minor point from the post. (I’m sure you knew I’d have to nitpick something, Ken!) Sam Harris and Rick Rubin should not be mentioned in the same sentence. Harris has a PhD in neuroscience. Rubin has never had an original idea in his life. And whenever I see a tweet from him he is trolling and looking for an audience. And he has no problem with aligning himself with idiotic Trump-worshiping racist groups like Pegida. Equating Sam with someone like that is wrong on every count — intellectually, politically, professionally, behaviorally, and in terms of IQ.
Thanks, Yakaru. Re the Harris/Rubin comparison, our exchange in the other thread wasn’t front of mind when I wrote this. I accept there are differences, but they still seem broadly of the same school to me, though as you say, Harris’ approach to Eiynah was admirably different to Saad’s. Certainly Harris and Rubin seemed to have formed a mutual support group, at least at one time, and when Harris has been on Rubin’s show, I can’t remember anything at all they disagreed with each other on.
I have a small issue with your comment that implies Saad maybe shouldn’t even be talking to someone like Harris, though. He was out of his depth for sure, but I’d like to think he’s learned something and that’s the only way to do it. But regardless, it shouldn’t matter. I’ve probably got fewer credentials than Saad, but have debated with Harris and certainly think we should all be able to do so. Not so much if the topic is neuroscience, perhaps, but I’ll take Harris on re politics and particularly geopolitics any day, and having done so, have found him no less stubborn than Saad on topics I think aren’t that hard to grasp.
And unfortunately, I’ve had reason to question Harris’s intellectual honesty too. As I’ve related before, the email exchange I had with him was disappointing. For instance, despite his rhetoric about taking what terrorists say their reasons are for acting at face value, he can cherry pick with the best of them. I pointed out what bin Laden said were his reasons for turning against the US and later for 9/11, and that the majority of them were political in nature, not religious. He refused to even acknowledge the political reasons, let alone rebut them, and to this day will quote the religious reasons exclusively in support of his position that it’s almost all about Islam. This is also part of why I’m happy to lump him in with the others. It seems more a matter of degree than of kind.
Like Yakaru, I felt Saad was really out of hus depth talking to Cohen. The analysis of the so-called Clash of Civilisations, and the way different groups have been handling it, is one Cohen has been writing about for years but Saad is new to. I suspect Saad thought he would have an ally for his position, without realising that Cohen’s position is much more thoughtful, nuanced and sophisticated than his.
Since it’s a couple of weeks now since I watched it, I can’t remember it that well (oh, for the memory of my youth!), but I remember being embarrassed for Saad. Cohen didn’t do anything deliberately to cause that, it was just that Saad hasn’t thought deeply enough about the topic. I think Yakaru’s analysis of how he did is spot on, and I wouldn’t mind betting his subsequent attacks were because he realized he was way out of his league.
I’m going to try and find time to watch this again so I can do a better job of commenting on it.
Thanks again for all the work you put into this Ken!
Thanks again for asking, Heather. It was fun, though as I said to you in email, I have a far greater appreciation now of all the effort you put in to ensure your posts are coherent (and free of typos)!