Islam and the future of tolerance

A new book by best-selling atheist Sam Harris and Islamist-turned-reformist Maajid Nawaz fails to convince.

William Eichler
8 June 2016

The RAF killed Reyaad Khan (left), a British Islamic State member in Syria. Credit: Youtube/ISIS.

Reyaad Khan was, by all accounts, an intelligent and sensitive young man from Riverside, Cardiff. In a video acquired by The Guardian newspaper he voices concerns over “illegal wars” and warns that a lack of resources for deprived neighbourhoods such as his own, may lead some down the “wrong path”.

This was a prescient observation. He subsequently moved to Syria where he joined the so-called Islamic State (IS) and became the first British citizen to be killed in an RAF drone strike. 

Why would someone choose a brutal theocracy-in-the-making over an imperfect democracy? What motivates those who join IS and take up arms against innocent civilians in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, France and many other places?

For some the answer is religion--Islam. For others it is the political ideology of Islamism. For others still, radicalisation is the result of down-to-earth factors, namely, anger at western foreign policy. Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015), a dialogue between best-selling atheist Sam Harris and Islamist-turned-reformist Maajid Nawaz, addresses the relationship between these different factors.

Their first meeting did not promise much in the way of productive dialogue. In an Intelligence Squared debate with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray in 2010, Nawaz argued for the motion: “Islam is a religion of peace.” Harris, who was in the audience, was having none of it. According to the account given here he upbraided Nawaz backstage. “Islam isn’t a religion of peace,” he protested “and the so-called ‘extremists’ are seeking to implement what is arguably the most honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine.” He then accused Nawaz of being “disingenuous” and the discussion, we are told, came to an abrupt end.

Cooler heads prevail in Islam and the Future of Tolerance. Nawaz, now unrestrained by a debate motion, begins by clarifying his position: “Islam is not a religion of war or of peace--it’s a religion.” Every belief system, he argues, is open to interpretation, and Islam is no exception. There are core texts, to be sure, but it’s up to Muslims how they are read: “Scripture exists; human beings interpret it.” The battle, insists Nawaz, is to ensure that liberal interpretations prevail over either conservative readings of the faith or what he calls the “vacuous literalism” of Islamist groups. 

Harris remains unconvinced. “[M]any of these texts,” he contends, “aren’t all that elastic. They aren’t susceptible to just any interpretation, and they commit their adherents to specific beliefs and practices.” There is flexibility when interpreting any body of work but, in the end, “there are more and less plausible readings” and the Qur’an, regardless of how it is read, is inimical to modern, democratic values. Restating his 2010 position, he argues that the literalism of groups such as IS is not “vacuous” but is, instead, an accurate rendering of Islam’s principal teachings.

It is worth saying more about the context of Harris’ outlook. A philosopher and neuroscientist, Sam Harris is also a prominent advocate for the “New Atheism” that has gained traction since 9/11. After the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a coterie of thinkers--including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens--surveyed the smouldering ruins in New York, listened with alarm to the rhetoric of American Evangelicals, and concluded the world was faced with a clash between two worldviews: the religious and the scientific.

The philosophical core of their argument was a defence of reason and the scientific method against faith and radical social constructivist ideas. This was and is both necessary and welcome. But sound epistemological positions do not necessarily translate into good politics. It did not take long for the New Atheists to be swept up in the logic of the war on terror, and as the bombs dropped on Kabul and Baghdad the philosophers became activists in a global conflagration--PR gurus for the Pentagon rather than independent thinkers.  

Harris et al are critical of all faiths, but in their eyes it is Islam that represents irrational belief at its worst--and Islamist terrorism is evidence of this. The violence of al-Qaeda and their offspring has little to do with worldly concerns, they argue, and is explicable solely in religious terms. “The truth is,” Harris explains to Nawaz, “that some people appear to be almost entirely motivated by their religious beliefs.” The notion that there may be more to it--that perhaps there is a political edge to the violence--is rejected, and the metaphysical rhetoric of terrorists is held up as proof.

This is classic Orientalism (an overused term, true, but appropriate). Islamist violence is here explained by unmediated religion. It is cast as the violent expression of a flawed culture. The complex geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that weave through and animate religious ideology are completely effaced, and the Qur’an is brandished as the primary source of the violence it is invoked to justify. When faced with real world problems the New Atheists, like the theologians they despise, scurry back to religious texts in search of explanations.

The argument that religion is to blame for ‘religious’ violence has a certain intuitive logic. But it is misleading. It is the context within which a belief system is lived, and through which it is interpreted, that is the key. 

The search for a central, immutable, uncontested message in Islam--whether violent or peaceful--is problematic as Nawaz makes clear. As with all religions it is a collection of very different and contradictory ideas. Which ones predominate in any given time and place depends on the interpretations of its followers, and the form these interpretations take depends heavily, in turn, on the political, socio-economic and historical conditions within which the followers are operating. The Islam of a Kuwaiti sheikh is, historically, different to that of a British street cleaner of Turkish descent. 

Due to the unique history of every religion, it might be easier to interpret one faith in a more violent or conservative way than another. Religions, like humans, accrue all sorts of baggage over time. A pacifist might be more attracted to, say, Buddhism than Islam. But the point is that no religion is violent, peaceful, conservative or liberal in essence; something a pacifist would learn if they studied the recent troubled history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka or Myanmar. Religions are moulded to suit the context in which they are practiced. Contrary as this might be to the teachings of the Abrahamic faiths, nothing is set in stone.

Nawaz takes issue with Harris’ ahistorical approach. “One [mistake],” he tells his interlocutor, “would be taking a snapshot of the state of Islam and Muslims today and assuming that’s how things always were and always will be.” A former recruiter for the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, he has a more nuanced understanding of our present situation. Nawaz, unlike the New Atheists, privileges the study of history and sociology over selective Qur’anic exegesis when trying to understand the emergence and spread of modern jihadist groups--a considerably more productive approach.  

Jihadi violence is, he explains, the result of the historically contingent ideology of Islamism which has been “festering in the grass roots of Muslim political activism” for decades. Youths like Reyaad Khan are preyed upon by charismatic recruiters who feed them a dogmatic ideology wrapped up in a narrative about the evils of the west. In order to stop radicalisation, Nawaz argues, we must fight the ideology and counter the “grievance narrative” supporting it.

There is much to be said for this argument. Nawaz rightly views the problem—at root—as one of politics rather than culture. He is, however, selective about the politics involved. Despite their differences, the interlocutors in Islam and the Future of Tolerance can agree on one thing: western powers have little to do with the present situation, and the left should quit saying they do. 

This is hard to buy. Western states are deeply implicated in the dangerous morass that is today’s Middle East. The war on terror—the catastrophic reaction to 9/11, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—cast the world as a battlefield and painted terrorists as soldiers. This was a gift to groups like al-Qaeda and, later, IS who wish to provoke an apocalyptic “clash of civilisations” between “the West” and “Islam”.

It is not, however, only external invasions that have helped to perpetuate jihadist terrorism. The stalling of the Arab Spring has been a major factor, and this is in no small part due to the regimes in the region we support. Our strategic alliances with counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf region--especially our Wahhabist “friends” in Riyadh--help to perpetuate the conditions that shape Islamist ideology and allow it to flourish. This is, effectively, what the novelist Kamel Daoud alluded to in The New York Times: “The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia. In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other.” 

To evade this history or dismiss it as a “grievance narrative” (or in Harris’ words, a “catalogue of irrelevancy”) is to provide a partial picture of the roots of the present crisis. It is not simply western powers that bear a heavy responsibility for the state of the Middle East--Russia, Iran and Assad also have bloodied hands. However, the reader of Islam and the Future of Tolerance could be excused for thinking the last fifteen years never happened, and the close relationship between western foreign policy and the rapid upsurge in Islamist terrorism is purely the product of the left’s collective imagination. 

Still, both thinkers make some reasonable--if exaggerated--criticisms of progressives. Those of us on the left of the political spectrum make a habit of highlighting western complicity with the professed enemy. The towers fell in New York; the history of US support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan was evoked. ISIS sent murderers to kill cartoonists in Paris; racism and class prejudice were cited as the determining factors. Hamas fire rockets into Israel; the occupation is the primary cause. This is correct given how important historical context is in understanding violence.  

But Harris and Nawaz do have a point when they chastise the left for turning a blind eye to reactionary outlooks in certain quarters of the Muslim world. Those who criticise conservative or fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, or those who point out Islamist movements--in all their rich variety--rarely have a good record on the issues that should concern the left, are routinely accused of Islamophobia. This has left too many progressives making excuses for bigots and refusing to stand in solidarity with those--often Muslims themselves--who fight for equal rights in Muslim-majority countries and communities. 

A less polemical and more open conversation on these issues is required. Harris, Nawaz et al should stop dismissing genuine Muslim (and non-Muslim) concerns about western policies towards Muslim-majority countries as mere “grievances”, and the left should stop attacking anyone who wishes to challenge some of the more reactionary political currents coursing through the Islamic world as racists and imperialist stooges.  

This would not only be more honest, but it would also serve important political ends. Every time US policy is dismissed as a factor in the growth of Islamism, Islamists step in and fill the void with tales and images of the horror of, for example, the Iraq war. And every time concerns about the relationship between Islam, Islamism and terrorism are dismissed as bigotry, the right fill the vacuum with their own narrative. Leaving questions unanswered—whatever you may think of them—is never a good idea.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance, despite its flaws, is well worth a read. It is a clear exposition of two important sides in the debate over radicalisation. Perhaps, though, next time it could be a three way dialogue with someone, such as Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming!, who might fill in the missing dimension regarding western foreign policy that is so conspicuously missing here. 

A shorter version of this review was originally published by The Tablet.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData