Title: ISLAM and the future of tolerance
Author: Sam Harris and Maajud Nawaz
Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2016
Review by Bob Lane
This book is an important and exciting contribution to the discussion of religion in general, Islam in particular, the future of civilization, and intelligent respectful debate. The discussion began with a meeting of the two contributors at a debate in 2010 (The Intelligence Squared Debate) in which Nawaz debated Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray. At a dinner party following the debate Harris, when prompted by Ayaan, directs a long critical comment to Nawaz which challenges him to clarify his position: “You seem obliged to pretend that the doctrine [Islam] is something other that it is -for instance, you must pretend that jihad is just an inner spiritual struggle, whereas it’s primarily a doctrine of holy war. I’d like to know whether this is, in fact, he situation as you see it. Is the path forward a matter of pretending certain things are true long enough and hard enough so as to make them true?”
Those kinds of tough questions are what make Sam Harris an important voice in the ongoing discussion of atheism and religion. Harris is tough minded. From that dinner debate comes the book: an intelligent and open, respectful discussion of the terrible problems facing us in the 21st century. Maajid Nawaz states his goal, “what I seek to do is build a mainstream coalition of people who are singing from the same page.” Muslims and non-Muslims can, he opines, be united by “a set of religion-neutral values . . . the universality of human, democratic, and secular … values” which will allow us to arrive at common ground.
The refreshing, and from my perspective, accurate, stance taken by Nawaz is that “Islam is not a religion of war or peace – it is a religion.” And like many religions its scripture contains difficult and problematic passages. He states his interpretive position succinctly, “Scripture exists; human beings interpret it.” And of course interpretation is a creative act. A valuable approach as reader of any text is to consider that reading a text is a performing art. I do not mean by this that one needs to learn to be an oral interpreter, although that is a good skill to develop. I mean that in reading a text one must engage every bit of creativity, of sensitivity, of intellect and feeling that one possesses. The story is in the text, but its full experience is in the mind of the reader. The story provides form and directs responses, and the reader completes the communicative act. Think of the text as a musical score and yourself as a performing musician. The notes are there – are in the score – and you must be able to perform them on your musical instrument. You need to bring technical skill, sensitivity to nuance, and knowledge of the language of musical notation to the task.
After the breakdown of that initial conversation the two men agree to sit down for the extended dialogue which comprises this book.
Early on we discover Nawaz’s story: born in Essex, raised in a racist atmosphere rife with what the Macpherson report called “institutional racism,” arrested several times, disillusioned and disconnected, joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, and adopted an ideological worldview that “froze my sense of grievance and turned it instead into dogma.” Arrested in Alexandria and sentenced to five years in and Egyptian prison he began to move toward “a liberal, human-rights based secular perspective which drove him to cofound in 2008 Quilliam, “the world’s first counter-extremism organization.”
One of the many values of the book is the care given to carefully defining terms, terms that have become a part of our daily vocabulary:
- Islamism = the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam on society.
- Jihadism = the use of force to spread Islamism.
- Islam = a traditional religion like any other, replete with sects, denominations, and variant readings.
Islamism is “the desire to impose by force any of those variant readings on society.”
Harris spells out secular. “Secularism is simply a commitment to keeping religion out of politics and public policy.” His is a central role in pushing for clarification, for asking the tough questions, and for representing a non-believer’s perspective with grace and respect.
A central struggle today in the Islamic world, when daily we read of more murder and barbarism, has to do with whether change comes from violent struggle and direct action or from an internal reform of the religion. An old motto of mine is “never trust a philosopher who hasn’t been in jail” and Mr. Nawaz has the proper credentials! He offers this analysis of recruitment efforts by the violence obsessed: “I believe that four elements exist in all forms of ideological recruitment: a grievance narrative; and identity crisis; a charismatic recruiter; and ideological dogma. The dogma’s “narrative” is its propaganda.” That may provide a recipe for a way forward. We can and must work to eliminate the settings that create the grievance narratives for recruits.
One of Harris’s chief contributions is his attack on “liberal delusion” which has made any criticism of Islam into Islamophobia.
Get the book. Read it carefully. Think about the topics it raises.
Bob Lane is professor emeritus in philosophy at Vancouver Island University and the author of Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation.