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Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.


by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz



ISBN 978-0674088702

Even after the jihadi murders in Paris and San Bernadino, the clerisy which dominates the media and governments of the West refuse to acknowledge the truth of Pascal's observation. Instead, they stubbornly cling to the conventional pieties: all religions are innately peaceful, including Islam; religious beliefs, by definition, promote only benevolent and charitable behaviours; Western values are universally held and aspired to by all peoples; the chaos in the Islamic world is the child of Western intervention; Muslim youth in the West are radicalized by virtue of their being victims of economic and social exclusion; and so on.

Such platitudes insulate us from the reality that much of the Islamic world openly rejects Western ideals. Core Western values such as personal autonomy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, scientific rationality, gender equality, creedal forbearance, the right to apostasy, and the separation of Church and state, are forthrightly renounced by significant numbers of Muslims. Additionally, a general decline and atrophying of the religious intellect and imagination in the secular democracies has made it difficult for the liberal West to challenge an aggressively militant strain of Islam. Our media and political elites trade on simple-minded equivalencies; all religious beliefs are equally true or equally false; all religions promote behaviours which are equally benevolent or malevolent; and all religions grow from myths equally irrational.

Hence when our politicians attempt to account for jihadi atrocities, they are forced to outlandish and fatuous conclusions, such as, pace President Obama, that the violence perpetrated by ISIS does not stem from religion, but results from a "group of thugs with good social media."

Such bien-pensant apologists are prominent throughout the chattering classes of the West. And, as Sam Harris points out in Islam and the Future of Tolerance, "their influence is as intellectually embarrassing as it is morally problematic." The book's central premise is that defeating radical Islam requires a forthright appraisal of the religious foundation of Islamist violence and a blunt examination of Islam's foundational texts.

Sam Harris first rose to prominence with his book, The End of Faith and so became counted among the so-called "new atheists." His views concerning Islam continue to earn him opprobrium from Islamic apologists, along with the predictable charge of "Islamophobe."

Maajid Nawaz is a UK-born Muslim. He is the co-founder and chair of Quilliam, a London-based think tank focusing on religious freedom, extremism, and citizenship. He is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahir, an association which led to his arrest in Eqypt in 2001, where he remained imprisoned until 2006. During his imprisonment, he underwent a conversion to a human-rights perspective which led him to renounce Islamism and call for a "secular Islam."

While there are differences between the two men, they agree upon the major points: the evils of Islamism, the blindness and obtuseness of the West in attempting to understand and counter Islamism, and most crucially, the urgent necessity of reforming Radical Islam.

Among the barriers to a productive discussion of a reformed Islam is finding the appropriate terminology in which to distinguish among Islam, religious extremism, and jihadism. Nawaz argues that "Islam is just a religion. Islamism is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam on society. Islamism is therefore theocratic extremism. Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Jihadist terrorism is the use of force that targets civilians to spread Islamism."

Employing this template provides a helpful lens into the debate, one which allows us to see that the rise of both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are manifestations of a far deeper and systemic malaise. Talk of "defeating" al-Qaeda or the Islamic State on the field of battle is to mistakenly assume that the fight is against one or another "extremist" group. However, as Nawaz points out, the problem was never "al-Qaeda-inspired extremism, because extremism itself inspired al-Qaeda, and then inspired the Islamic State. It is this extremism that must be named as Islamism--and opposed."

Both men are contemptuous of the fatuous moral posturing that too frequently characterizes the "Islam" debate in the West. In their view, too much commentary glosses over a very disturbing truth: namely, that many of the moral failings of Islamism--the subjugation of women, the persecution of homosexuals, the death penalty for apostasy, the criminalization of blasphemy, the stoning of adulterers, the beheading of enemies, and so forth--are practices which find their justification in religious scripture. Harris and Nawaz frankly acknowledge that the actions perpetrated in the name of radical Islam, however savage and barbaric, are nevertheless based on interpretations of Islam's foundational texts, the Koran and the hadith (the collections of the reports claiming to quote what the prophet Muhammed said verbatim on any matter). Ultimately, jihadi violence is justified by scripture. As Nawaz points out, "Merely calling it "extremism" is too relative and vague, and sidesteps the responsibility to counter its scriptural justification" (121).

The question of reform then becomes the urgent question of finding ways of interpreting these texts which would preclude violence, and ultimately bring about Nawaz's desideratum: a secular, tolerant and democratic Islam, one which values human rights, positive law, scientific rationality and the equality of the sexes. In short, what is most needed is a reformed Islam, one which denounces jihadi violence and embraces modern values.

The way forward then is crucially about finding new ways of interpreting Islam's central texts, a task which Quilliam sees as foundational to its mission. And there is some reason for hope. As Nawaz points out, historically Islamic scholars have taken various approaches to scriptural interpretation, such that on any given subject there are multiple interpretations, "which demonstrates there's no correct one. If we can understand that, then we arrive at a respect for difference, which leads to tolerance and then pluralism, which in turn leads to democracy, secularism, and human rights" (105).

The need for a reformed exegetical tradition in Islam is imperative, and any person of good will can only wish the best for this project. Yet does such a reformation necessarily lead to a rights-based, democratic, modern society? After all, even if we allow for a multiplicity of legitimate textual interpretations, that very toleration would still allow for fundamentalist, literalist readings. Moreover, as Harris argues, "scripture, read in anything but the most acrobatic, reformist way, seems to be on the side of the barbarians" (114).

Both Harris and Nawaz accuse liberalism of having betrayed the cause of a reformed Islam. As Nawaz writes, "A great liberal betrayal is afoot." Liberal intellectuals, who by all rights should be siding with attempts to reform Islam, are instead busy shouting "bigot" and "Islamophobe" at liberal Muslims such as Nawaz, or indeed at anyone else who dares criticize Islam. In a marvelously telling phrase, Nawaz labels such people the "regressive left" for their tendency to side with every regressive reactionary in the name of "cultural authenticity." (As an aside, it is distressing that the West is now compelled to re-fight various battles in the war of ideas which were once believed to have been won. Voltaire famously declared "ecrasez l'infame," where the "infamous" thing which he would crush was the Catholic Church. Of course, what Voltaire was ultimately arguing against was the power of any and all authoritarian religious institutions, and the whole system of ecclesiastical power and superstitious belief on which they rested. What, pray tell, would he have to say about the current crop of liberals, and their pussy-footing around radical Islam? Why have liberals betrayed their legacy?)

The West is involved in a war of ideas, not with Islam, but with Islamism, a medieval, millenarian religion inimical to the values of the secular West. Yet our multicultural biases, combined with the stifling political correctness of the "regressive left," result in numerous delusions which have effectively paralyzed the conversation that we so desperately need to have.

Harris and Nawaz provide a much-needed corrective to a half-century or more of wishful thinking about the religious roots of Islamic violence. Neither man shirks from stating painful truths. Nevertheless, the interlocutors manage to steer a middle course between the rhetorical bornbast of the political right and the moral posturing of the left. They provide the reader with an excellent primer concerning one of the great challenges of our age. But perhaps just as importantly, this little book serves as a model of how civilized debate can and should proceed, even when discussing a topic so fraught as Islam, Islamism and the rise of jihadi violence.

Patrick Keeney has written for both the academic and the popular press. He has contributed articles and reviews to journals and newspapers in Canada, the US, Ireland, and the UK. He is co-editor of Prospero: A Journal of New Thinking in Philosophy for Education. He can be reached at

Reviewed by Patrick Keeney
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Author:Keeney, Patrick
Publication:Humanist Perspectives
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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