Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

islamWhat a terrific book: Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz are model conversation partners as they discuss the un-discussable. Harris is a well-known critic of Islam, Nawaz a former Islamist radical who now calls for progressive reform. Their dialogue is so organic and respectful that half the time it doesn’t even feel like a debate. It is though, and it makes me want to sit down with one of my own colleagues, roll the tape, and see what we can hash out on this subject. I’ll go through some of the highlights.

Demographics and Beliefs

A sticking point in these debates is the number of jihadists and Islamists in the Muslim world. So it’s nice to see Harris and Nawaz in rough agreement, that together jihadists and Islamists constitute about 20% of the Muslim population (see pp 19-24, 32-33). That’s over 300 million Muslims, which is a hideous figure.

To keep the authors’ terminology clear: Jihadists believe in spreading Islam by holy war. Islamists want to impose sharia law on society through other means like the ballot box, political processes, and social influences — the “stealth jihad”, in other words, as it’s often called (but which neither Harris or Nawaz use in this book). Nawaz agrees with Harris that the motivation for both groups is a religious ideology which is sincerely and devoutly believed. Jihadists and Islamists think they are engaged in a cosmic struggle of good over evil, that martyrdom will award them virgins in paradise, and so forth. They may differ in opinions as to what constitutes appropriate martyrdom. For jihadists, it’s suicide-bombing and killing as many civilians as possible, or dying while fighting for his army. For Islamists, it’s being killed while defying a government official, or while trying to spread Islam effectively and recruit converts (pp 40-41). The point is that they have as their focus life beyond this world.

But these Muslims also believe in the evils of western imperialism and the Arab dictators they live under. As a result, says Nawaz, there are grievance narratives that often kick in prior to a point of recruitment by a charismatic leader, and which also results in an identity crisis. The religious ideology is then fossilized once the recruiters do their job. He outlines this process as follows (pp 36-37):

(1) grievance narrative –> (2) identity crisis –> (3) charismatic recruiter –> (4) religious ideology

I don’t think Nawaz is necessarily wrong about this — and Harris agrees that these factors can work together — but I’m not sure it’s particularly illuminating. What too often goes unacknowledged in these discussions is that religious ideology can drive people without any of the other aggravating factors. Identity crises are superficial in any case: “One could say,” says Harris, “that the whole of life is one long identity crisis” (p 45). That many jihadists are motivated primarily by religious beliefs is shown by (a) upper/middle-class educated people from across the globe who become jihadists, and (b), on the flip-side, third-world non-Muslim countries, whose people are just as poverty-stricken and grievance oriented, and yet not combustible like Islamic regions. When someone decides to burn a copy of the Qur’an, or draw a cartoon of Muhammad, the resulting outrage (and murder) speaks for itself. It speaks for itself in the same way a southern racist does, who walks into a church and shoots African-American people because — in his own words — he was inspired to do so by the Confederate Flag. Liberals are perfectly willing to take neo-Confederates at their own words (and rightly so), but when it comes to jihadists, they retreat into denial. Mis-emphasizing grievances and identity crises can obscure this.

(Note also that conservative southern politicians have claimed Dylann Roof was a “lone wolf” with grievances. Even if that’s true, that doesn’t change the fact that certain ideologies inspire “lone wolves” in ways that other ideologies would not. Liberals claim the same thing about westerns who leave to join ISIS — that they’re “lone wolves” with various grievances. Again, that may be true in some cases, but that doesn’t undermine the force of specific doctrines and beliefs.)

On the other hand, I find Nawaz’s point about the tribal values of conservative Muslims to be largely correct. He says that conservative Muslims can be very useful as allies against jihadism and Islamism, though they may oppose progressives on gender rights, equality and honor-killings (p 26). On these kind of issues, I agree that religious ideology will often be used to reinforce deeper and more primal values — whether a tribal desire to punish members of the out-group (killing apostates), upholding male sexual honor (raping and killing women), and enforcing female sexual honor (female circumcision). The Qur’an and hadiths support such honor-based beliefs but aren’t necessarily the driving force. Conservative Muslims aren’t galvanized by ideology in the same way that jihadists and Islamists are. Honor-shame codes reflect a wider phenomenon and are not unique to Islam.

The Betrayal of Liberalism: Today vs. the past

Harris and Nawaz agree on the point of liberal failure. The Leftist silencing of honest discussion has empowered Islamic theocrats to treat women and gays murderously, and to be spared offensive cartoons in the meantime out of “cultural sensitivity”. Nawaz holds up the example of the American civil rights movement, where people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their communities and acted in a positively empowering way, instead of constantly playing the victim card or rioting in the streets (p 56). It’s refreshing to see agreement here.

Liberal self-deception?

At one point Harris makes a sweeping statement that needs modifying. He says that liberals (or moderates) are committed to reinterpreting the most dangerous or absurd parts of their scriptures, and while this is especially difficult in Islam, it requires an intellectual dishonesty in all religious faiths, because “moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside. When moderates claim to find their modern commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception.” (p 65)

It’s true there are heavy doses of self-deception intrinsic to any game of scriptural reinterpretation. But against Harris, progressive doors can certainly be unlocked from the inside. It all depends on the issue and the scriptures you’re working with. A good example can be found in arguments that Christians should display good will and mercy to gay people, even if one’s church won’t go so far as to endorse gay marriage. Theologians who preach this are not only armed with a convincing arsenal of proof-texts from the bible, they have been well received by even conservative and evangelical Christians. In Islam it’s much harder (in some cases it seems impossible) to turn progressive keys from the inside. Anyone who says otherwise needs to prove it, and come up with something equivalent to either this, or this, and which has a reasonable chance of persuading vast numbers in the Muslim community. Until then, people who say “you can reinterpret Islamic beliefs just as easily as Judaic or Christian or Buddhist ones”, are just saying what they want to believe. (Harris would agree with that part, of course.)

Nawaz, meanwhile, accords perhaps too much weight to the idea that texts are subject to the interpreter’s values (p 74). While it’s true that texts are subject in this way, it’s not an inescapable rule of the game, and the converse is just as true and sometimes even more so — that people are galvanized by texts which advance clear ideologies. No one comes away from the Jain scriptures believing they endorse violence, regardless of what the reader brings to the text. I understand why someone like Nawaz needs to emphasize the fluid nature of religious texts. Anyone engaged in reform has to find a way forward. In some cases scriptures are pliable, in other cases not as much. Realistically, I’m not optimistic about the pliability of Islamic texts when it comes to jihad, expansionism, and the treatment of unbelievers; but I’m ready to be proven wrong.

Historic precedents

Inevitably reformers like Nawaz will try grounding a hope for Islam’s future in a golden-age precedent. I’ve written plenty on this subject, and will simply note Harris’ counter which is a good summary:

“Islam was spread primarily by conquest, not conversation. Infidels were forced to convert or die. ‘People of the Book’ — Jews and Christians — were given the option of paying a protection tax (jizya) and living in an apartheid state (as dhimmi). Muslim historians recorded in assiduous detail the number of infidels they slaughtered  or enslaved and deported. It seems to me that a politically correct mythology is replacing history on many of these topics. Consider the crusades. The Christians are often depicted as barbarian aggressors and the Muslims as their highly cultured victims. But the crusades were primarily a response to 300 years of jihad… The idea of Christian holy war was a late, peripheral, and in many ways self-contradictory development within Christianity — and one that has almost no connection to the life and teachings of Jesus. One can’t say the same thing about the status of jihad under Islam.” (pp 99-100)

Readers who want a more detailed review of the crusades and the so-called “golden age of Islam” should read here. But in a sentence, when we weigh the supposed features of this period — non-jihadist peace (false), cultural pluralism (half true), better treatment of women (false), cultural and scientific achievements (only superficially true) — they are seen to be virtually meaningless in assessing the potential for Islam’s future.

Naming the Unnameable

Harris has always said that Islam is a religion of violence (as I do), while Nawaz says that it’s a religion of violence for some Muslims, and a religion of peace for others. It’s important to be fair to Nawaz, and acknowledge that he isn’t playing the obscurantist game of someone like Reza Aslan. He is very realistic about the problems inherent to Islam which results in hugely disproportionate numbers of jihadists and Islamists. He emphasizes that these jihadists and Islamists have a very plausible reading of scripture, and he deserves a gold star for that alone. I never spotted him saying that Islam carries the same potential for peace or violence as any other religion, though he does emphasize the fluid nature of religious texts. And while I’m not as optimistic as he is about what reformers can do with the Islamic texts, I applaud his honest strategies, just as I applaud those of Irshad Manji and Zuhdi Jasser. They are the much-needed antidotes to those who simply lie about Islam — like Reza Aslan, Rula Jebreal, and Karen Armstrong.

Nawaz also rightly insists that “we must name the ideology behind the Islamic State so that we can refute it; merely calling it ‘extremism’ is too relative and vague” (p 121). And he ends by discussing the Voldemort effect, which many Leftists have essentially re-enacted from the Harry Potter series. (Voldemort is the villain who causes terror on such a scale that the story’s characters can’t even name him.) President Obama still cannot bring himself to name the pernicious ideology of Islam — and even worse denies the name, saying that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic.

I have the utmost respect for Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz for debating this taboo subject with integrity. Harris criticizes Islam without any demagoguery. Nawaz accepts certain problems with it, but sees a real hope for reform and pluralism.

2 thoughts on “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

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