Islam and the Future of Tolerance is a dialogue about the possibilities of reforming Islam between Sam Harris, neuroscientist and New Atheist, (one of the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse), and Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist turned reformist. As the book details, the idea for this discussion began in the wake of an Intelligence Squared debate on whether or not Islam is a religion of peace – a remarkably silly question that is as ever-present in discussions of Islam as punning titles on veils.
Reviewing the book for MMW, I was particularly interested in The Question of Muslim Women and had expected there to be more discussion of this question (as well as on the always accompanying question of what Muslim women wear). As it turns out, however, in this dialogue between two men about what to do with the problems of Islam, Muslim women (where they appear at all) are depicted only as subjects of potential abuse, entirely without agency. More on this later.
The fact that Muslim women only appear as victims of patriarchy in this dialogue is an indication of the problems that run throughout the book. Harris and Nawaz attempt to tackle the possibility of reforming Islam, but all too often the dialogue devolves into an effort on the part of Nawaz to convince Harris that Islam is even reformable. That is, instead of debating how to go about “fixing” the problems, they end up debating whether the problems are fixable.
This is encapsulated in the opening lines, where Harris simultaneously expresses his grave doubts about “the prospects for reforming the faith,” and proclaims that “[his] primary goal is to support [Nawaz]” in his efforts to do just that. A little bit of a contradictory note.
Given the almost rabid hatred of some in the New Atheist movement for Islam and Muslims, it is refreshing to see something labelled “A Dialogue” (with an olive branch on the cover and all). However, apart from the novelty of these two in dialogue, there is nothing particularly new offered in this book.
Nawaz’s part in this dialogue involves arguments he had made before, particularly the need to move beyond the grievance narrative, the need to “name the ideology…so that we can refute it,” and the need to stop defensively arguing that extremism has “nothing to do with Islam”. All valid and important points, especially the last. In a recent discussion, Graeme Wood was asked why Muslims did not speak up against ISIS (another of those ever-present questions), and to his credit, Wood pointed that Muslims did in fact speak up, but that the problem was “they speak up in ways that are under thought-out or expedient” such as saying that “the Islamic State is Un-Islamic”. This is how counterproductive the nothing-to-do-with-Islam discourse that some chose to use is: it has become the new “moderate Muslims are silent.”
Muslims, as Nawaz states repeatedly, do have a responsibility to work on dismantling the ideological rigging supporting the barbarities committed in the name of their religion. The problem is that, again and again, the dialogue between Harris and Nawaz veers away from how to do that work and ends up making the point that the extremists are actually the “truer Muslims” because of their literalism.
For his part, Harris is frustrated that experts insist “we can never take Islamists and jihadists at their word”. He in contrast is determined to take them at their word at every level. Consider the footnote that explains the use of the name Islamic State “without prejudice” throughout the dialogue, because that is what the group calls itself. I have no problem with this – it is in fact common practice in Arabic news media to refer to the group as “tandhim al-Dawla al-Islamiyya” (the Islamic State organization), without a “so-called” in sight. However, I did find the footnote ironic when juxtaposed, on the very next page, with Harris’ characteristic disparaging attitude towards those he is supposedly championing against the Islamists and the jihadists: “one hopes there is a much larger circle of so-called moderate Muslims, whether they would label themselves that way or not.” Harris spends much of the book lambasting the “regressive left” for among other things, failing critical voices and minorities in Muslim majority countries – yet here, as in the very first paragraph of the book, he disparages and casts doubt on “so-called moderate Muslims”. This is only compounded by the fact that he goes on at length throughout the book about the acrobatics required to be a “moderate” Muslim in the first place (given the inherent savagery and barbarity of the religion).
This disparaging attitude towards “so-called Moderate Muslims” creeps into the discussion. In fact, at times the condescension is cringe-inducing, such as when Harris concedes to Nawaz: “it may be that your thinking has evolved to some degree”. Later, Harris goes off on a wonderful rant that starts off “listen, you barbarians” and includes the phrase “in the interests of getting you to behave like civilized human beings.”
Nawaz attempts at times to provide some nuance to Harris’ sweeping generalizations, explaining for example that “degrees of religious conviction” do not necessarily help distinguish between “revolutionary Islamists, political Islamists, and non-Islamist Muslims.” However, the efforts on Nawaz’s part to provide some contextualization of Islamist discourses takes the same blinkered approach of some TV Terror Experts, where Islamism becomes a self-contained object of study. In this dialogue, all discussion of other political movements, including secular movements , are left to a few words in the last few pages. This is a major weakness of the book. As Robin Yassin Kassab pointed out recently in a discussion at the Frontline Club, the person who is responsible for the vast majority of the dead in Syria is not an Islamist.
As mentioned before, for me the most egregious aspect of this book is the discussion of women. Muslim women appear only as victims – in fact almost every time they appear, it is as the object, alongside the verb “treat” and possessive pronouns. Harris for example worries about “how the average conservative Muslim man will treat his wife or daughter,” and in a jab against “Western liberals” argues that they “support the right of theocrats to treat their wives and daughters however they want” while being spared cartoons depicting the Prophet.
Despite Nawaz wanting Muslims to be “reform-minded” there is not a single reference to the “reform-minded” work that has been and is being done by Muslim women – in fact, if you were to read this book with no prior knowledge, you’d think reform- minded work were the exclusive domain of the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank.”
When I finished this book I was left wondering: who is the intended audience here? Who would read this book and be applauding by the end? Perhaps some of Harris’ admirers (those who think he can do no wrong, rather than those who would be offended by a dialogue with a self-professed Muslim, no matter how reform-minded). However, I can’t see this book making much of a splash where it should be trying to have most impact.
In part, this is because Harris and Nawaz have an image problem when it comes to that mythical equivalent of “The Arab Street,” that is “The Muslim Community” – as Nawaz recognizes, for some, his “talking to (Harris) is more problematic than…talking to jihadists.” He reiterated this point in a recent conversation about the book. It shouldn’t be more problematic, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that talking to jihadists would be understood as part of countering extremism, while dialoguing with new atheists is understood, at least by some, as selling out and pandering. Again, who is this book trying to reach?
Appropriately, given the very symbolic use of Muslim women in this dialogue, the one Muslim woman who wanted to ask a question of the speakers was told to ask her question instead of the person before her, because the moderator noted that she “wanted to get a diversity of questions” (and because the Muslim woman is wearing a hijab she apparently represents that diversity). That is, even before she speaks, the Muslim woman questioner becomes symbolic of the “inclusiveness” of the discussion.
The questioner asks about how to engage in self-criticism without fuelling Islamophobia, and especially how to do that work within Muslim communities. In response Nawaz makes relevant points about identity politics , but does not address the issue of working within Muslim communities. Of course, as he points out in the book, his organization does grassroots work. The problem is this: to be aligned with figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris gives you a certain cache with a certain audience, but it will likely not be helpful in grassroots engaging Muslims, which is the work that needs to be done.
If the problem is Islam itself, there’s not much point in continuing the discussion.
And this, I think, is the heart of the matter – the degree to which this dialogue places the people who are doing and need to do more of this reform-minded work on the periphery of the debate instead of at the center. This includes Muslim women who appear only as objects that are treated badly, as embodied indictments of Islam, rather than as human beings practicing their faith in vastly diverse ways.