Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of "Islam and the Future of Tolerance"

Anyone familiar with Sam Harris will know that his claim to fame has been in his criticism of religion and in his indirect founding of the New Atheism which came on the scene after his first book The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason. Harris has been particularly critical of Islam, saying that its doctrines are incompatible with the modern world. So,when he sat down with Maajid Nawaz and co-authored Islam and the Future of Tolerance, those familiar with his work had good reason to be skeptical that there would be much tolerance in the book since his other books have been particularly intolerant.

Maajid Nawaz is a completely different guy than Harris. A former Islamist, Nawaz spent several years in Egypt as a prisoner where he had an awakening, both politically and spiritually. After being released from prison, he renounced Islamism and became a secular Muslim (a Muslim who does not want Sharia law imposed on the world, but still a believer in the religion). He wrote a memoir, Radical, and established a think-tank to counter terrorism known as Quilliam. In short, Nawaz began his life in intolerance, but is now an outspoken proponent of tolerance. Knowing that he would be a more than adequate intellectual opponent for Harris, I thought this had the makings of a good bout, and I was not disappointed.


The book begins, and it is in dialogue format throughout, with Harris recalling that he first encountered Nawaz when Nawaz was debating former Muslim and critic of religion Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In the debate, Ali took the side that Islam was a religion of violence, while Nawaz took the side that Islam was a religion of peace. After the debate at a dinner, Harris asked Nawaz if he was being honest when he said he believed that Islam was a religion of peace. Nawaz answered that he was and that he would be happy to discuss the matter with Harris further at a later time.

Nawaz then briefly recaps his story of being an Islamist and then becoming a secular Muslim. He also distinguishes and defines Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism. According to Nawaz, Islam is a religion, and religions are a set of ideas so they are neither peaceful nor violent necessarily (though certain interpretations of them can be). Islamism is the desire to impose certain reading or teachings of Islam on society at large. Jihadism is the desire to impose Islamic teachings on society by force. So, all Jihadists are Islamists, but not all Islamists are Jihadists; Nawaz himself was a Islamist but because he never used force to accomplish his aims, he was not a Jihadist.

After clearing up the definitions, Nawaz states that there is no absolute way to interpret scripture, so no one can be absolute about their religion. Since there is no absolutely correct way to interpret scripture, this will lead to pluralism about scripture, which will in turn lead to secularism and humanistic values. If this happens, and it can according to Nawaz, then Islam can find its place as other religions have in a modern, secular world.

Harris, who does most of the listening, is not as optimistic as Nawaz about this. He reiterates things he said in other books by repeating that it is simply impossible or very unlikely to reform something as long as scripture is respected because while some may reform there will always be those who can say that it is fine for other people to interpret scripture as they choose. He states that some people will choose to interpret it in an Islamist or Jihadist way, so the problem will always be there. Nawaz agrees that this can be a problem, but recalls the Golden Age of Islam and points out that Islamism and Jihadism are modern phenomena and that the past shows that Muslims can in fact be tolerant. Harris retorts that Islam was imposed and spread from the start by violence, even by the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Nawaz does not disagree with this, but points out that there have been eras where Islamism and Jihadism were not significant problems, so it is possible for Muslims to assimilate.

The book ends with Harris and Nawaz agreeing that the battle to save the world from Islamism and Jihadism must be fought on multiple fronts. For starters, we cannot be afraid to say, as former U.S. President Barack Obama was, radical Islam. If we are fighting against something, we need to be very clear what it is we are fighting against. Second, we cannot exclude Ex-Muslims and non-Muslims from the fray; we are all in this together. Third, we must all regard pluralism and secularism as the end goals. If everyone can share these values, then there is a chance we can win this fight. In the end, this is a war of ideas, and the secularists have better ideas than the Islamists and the Jihadists.

The book is well-written and shows thoughtful, informed conversation on both sides. In short, this book is itself a testament of what we are looking for; those of different faiths or no faith at all sharing a seat at the table and talking about their differences openly and clearly with no thought of violence, i.e pluralism and secularism.

I do have one criticism of the book, and it is aimed at Nawaz. He states several times that there is no correct reading of scripture, and this is not a view that many religious people will accept. While we may not always agree all the time about a given passage, that does not mean that the passage is therefore meaningless. This is an appeal to mysticism, and the Abrahamic religions in particular shun mysticism (though there Sufism does embrace mysticism). It would be better to say that there are things in religious texts that are not compatible with western society, but that these need to be taken in context of the times. We need to do careful exegesis in order to get to the bottom of what a text is saying. It is simply erroneous to say that there is no correct way to read texts, and believing that will not lead to pluralism, secularism, or tolerance. Good argument and a willingness to listen lead to those values.

We are going to be dealing with Islam, violence, and the conversation of how to be tolerant for the rest of our lives. Harris and Nawaz' book is a good start in talking about how to have that conversation and evidence that it can in fact be done. I recommend this book to Muslim and non-Muslim because we must solve this problem if the human race wants to live in a tolerant manner.


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