I just read Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, by renowned atheist Sam Harris and former jihadist-turned-liberal-activist Maajid Nawaz. I had this book on my radar for a while, and decided to read it yesterday in the wake of the tragic news of the recent Orlando shootings. My hope is to better understand what drives people to extremism and how we can reduce the probability of similar attacks from occurring.
I first found out about the book from browsing the website of Sam Harris, one of the four “New Atheists.” Harris and I see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. The most obvious one is that we are atheists. In addition, we both support LGBT rights, scientific reasoning, taxing billionaires, and we disapprove of the Iraq war. I do not claim to agree with everything he says, of course. Indeed, some of Harris’s statements have been controversial (as one would expect when dealing with religion). He actually felt compelled to write a blog post to respond to controversy.
As of this writing, Islam and the Future of Tolerance is Harris’ most recent book, but the interesting thing is that it’s actually a dialogue with Maajid Nawaz, listed as the book’s co-author. Nawaz has a remarkable personal story, which he describes in his 2013 autobiography Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism. Nawaz was born in Britain, but after experiencing personal grievances (including racism), he joined the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. After an arrest in Egypt, he turned his life around by rejecting radical Islam. Today, he is of the world’s foremost liberal Muslims and a key challenger to extremism.
Islam and the Future of Tolerance is a conversation between Harris and Nawaz about Islam. Harris is skeptical that Nawaz can achieve the goal of reforming Islam. Harris, however, concedes that people like Nawaz — and not “infidels” like himself — are the ones who have to do the job. How can the faith reformation happen? What will be the future of Islam? That is the subject of their dialogue. Here are some of the highlights of their conversation, outlined according to the section:
The Roots of Extremism. This is a short section where Nawaz provides an abbreviated version of his autobiography.
The Scope of the Problem. Here’s the key takeaway: a primary issue with getting Muslims and non-Muslims to ally together is that the largest group of Muslims, which Harris and Nawaz call “religiously conservative Muslims”, do not wholeheartedly support contemporary liberal human rights. Thus, while those Muslims would be our allies against the Islamic State, they would also resist our efforts in promoting women’s rights, LGBT rights, etc.
The Power of Belief. Harris asks Nawaz how he originally became radicalized. Was it due to “ordinary” grievances that might be corrected with more tolerance (e.g., turning to radical Islam due to racism from non-Muslims?), or due to deeper forces such as martyrdom? I have frequently wondered about this process because, as an atheist, I struggle to understand how something like religion (in its most extreme form) can systematically guide people towards terror, barbarianism, and destruction.
The Betrayal of Liberalism. Both Harris and Nawaz slam liberals for their adherence to “political correctness.” (Donald Trump would be proud of them.) In the previous chapter, Harris rips liberal scholars who say that the West is to blame for the problems in Middle Eastern societies. Harris and Nawaz point out one unfortunate consequence of political correctness: that only right-wing bigots are accurately assessing jihadists nowadays.
The Nature of Islam. Harris argues that most of our human rights progress in the last few centuries is despite the presence of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and (especially) Islam. There are plenty of religious moderates, but Harris argues that these moderates somehow have to filter out the more dangerous parts of their scripture. Harris concludes that the purest interpretation of reading scripture — and therefore leaving out personal biases — would actually favor the Islamic State:
This is why the approach of a group like the Islamic State has a certain intellectual appeal (which, admittedly, sounds strange to say) because the most straightforward reading of scripture suggests that Allah advises jihadists to take sex slaves from among the conquered, decapitate their enemies, and so forth.
- Finding the Way Forward. Most of this section concerns the fatwa against the Islamic State. Harris and Nawaz, while recognizing that a fatwa is better than no fatwa, have reservations because it belies the true issues with Islamic tolerance. Near the end, Harris and Nawaz talk about the heavily American phenomenon of “being at war with Islam.” Harris admits that he may have played a role in assisting that culture, and Nawaz argues that President Obama must start naming the enemy radical Islam (I believe Nawaz is correct on this, but I also believe too much has been made out of this).
Despite the book’s brevity, I feel like both men were able to make good points. The conversation as a whole, while certainly not being a substitute for a more rigorous study of the role of religion in history, provides some interesting highlights. I learned about several historical events and spent some time browsing the corresponding Wikipedia pages to learn more.
One of my biggest takeaways from the book is that I doubt if liberals are effectively handling the problem of radical Islam. Harris and Nawaz, while both being liberals (in the sense that they would vote Democratic in the United States), would argue that liberals are not doing a good job. But they would also have that opinion of the conservative response.
But there’s something more important I need to mention. I think this conversation is useful because it shows how how people with different religious beliefs can come together and have a friendly, reasonable discussion without ripping each other’s throats. Nawaz is not that religious, but we need to have a starting point for a honest conversations with Muslims, and this dialogue serves that role effectively. In the wake of the Orlando shootings, these conversations give me hope that humanity will grow more peaceful and more tolerant in the coming years. Having an open mind is incredibly important. As Nawaz concludes:
Allow me to to take this opportunity to also thank you, Sam. It isn’t easy for anyone to reach across divides — real or imagined — and try to hold a sensible dialogue amid so much background noise and confusion. You will no doubt be censured by some Islam critics for not insisting that I am in fact a closet jihadist, just as I will be criticized by many Muslims for having this conversation with you.
Thanks to Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz for having this conversation.