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The Fight to Reclaim Islam

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
By Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
Harvard University Press, 144 pages, $17.95

In a controversial address last year, President Obama made clear that the Islamic State is “not Islamic.” “No religion,” he explained, “condones the killing of innocents.”

By declaring the Islamic State group to be an insulated clique of murderers — driven not by religious piety but by its own deranged pathology — Obama hoped to drain U.S. foreign policy of the specious (and apocalyptic) America versus Islam narrative his predecessor had so willingly championed.

For many liberals, the statement signaled a much-needed win for cultural tolerance; for British liberal activist Maajid Nawaz, it adumbrated something else — paradoxical and dangerous.

“If the first few years of the Bush administration could be caricatured as an attempt at imposing values at the barrel of a gun,” Nawaz, an ex-radical Islamist, writes in “Islam and the Future of Tolerance,” “then President Obama’s administration ditched the values and kept the gun.” And no matter how sweeping a blow the United States can land on the Islamic State, he insists that nothing will change “until and unless the ideology that breeds these groups is discredited. Islamism must be defeated.”

This is the battleground laid out in “The Future of Tolerance,” co-written by Nawaz and by the American neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. The book, a 128-page dialogue between the two (originally recorded for Harris’s podcast), sets out to start an honest discussion about Islam’s relationship with liberalism. At the outset, both Nawaz (Muslim) and Harris (Atheist) agree that criticizing Islam as a doctrine must be on the table — but must also be done in such a way that doesn’t alienate Muslims and instead encourages them to engage in the conversation.

Harris and Nawaz call the task before them “a tightrope,” one that few dare to walk.

For a British Muslim teen growing up in 1990s Essex, in England, bigotry, discrimination and racist violence must have almost seemed banal. Having suffered his share of the lot, 16-year-old Nawaz found solace and inspiration in Islamist ideology and became an international recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a revolutionary group striving to install Islamic theocracies around the world. In 2002, while on a mission in Egypt, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. There, surrounded by “the entire spectrum of Islamists” and keeping to a rigorous reading diet of Muslim philosophy and Harry Potter, Nawaz began to question the cause to which for years he had pledged himself. After his release he severed ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir and returned to Britain to co-found Quilliam, “the world’s first counter-extremism organization.” The organization was named after a 19th century Englishman who converted to Islam.

With a newfound commitment to human rights (it is an unfortunate omission, in my opinion, that the book leaves this term inadequately defined), Nawaz declared ideological war on Islamist extremism. As he defines it to Harris in “The Future of Tolerance,” Islamism is a worldview that holds secular regimes (both Arab and Western) responsible for the modern oppression and destitution of Muslims. Islamism promises justice and salvation through universal Sharia Law imposed through either political or military coup. According to Nawaz, what’s most pernicious about this ideology, aside from its denial of humanism and personal freedoms, is that it takes its cues from the fascist handbook and ossifies, rather than remedies, the grievances of its supporters.

Neither Nawaz nor Harris seeks to absolve Western imperialism of its part in fueling Muslim resentment. But “The Future of Tolerance” argues that geopolitics doesn’t tell the full story. While imperialism created a fertile ground for insurrection, Islam provided the seeds, its language and principles forming the bedrock of grassroots solidarity. Ignoring the role of doctrine is more than dishonest, it’s patronizing. After all, what can be more paternalistic than refusing to take Islamists at their word? (I’m sorry, dear radical, but your actions have less to do with the tenets you swear by than with an elaborate political game in which you’re but a pawn.)

This insistence on holding doctrine accountable is what brought together the co-authors in the first place. It’s a position, as they have each personally learned, that’s sure to get them under rapid fire — and not from religious extremists, but from their own camp: the secular liberals.

While Nawaz seems quite used to finding himself in media firestorms, for Harris the reckoning came during an interview last year on “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Quite desultorily, Harris ignited a panel pother by suggesting that no idea — and Islam, being a set of ideas, is no exception — should be above criticism. A readily hostile Ben Affleck, who was also on the panel and has since admitted to having never actually read any of Harris’s works, made up with vitriol for what he lacked in attention, and fulminated: “That’s gross! That’s racist!” If loudness is any measure, then Affleck won by a landslide.

Indeed, frustration with the left, a sense of betrayal even, runs throughout “The Future of Tolerance.” The problem, Nawaz and Harris observe, is when liberals, splenetic about a surge of anti-Muslim nationalism in Europe and the United States, neglect (sometimes purposefully) to acknowledge the danger closing in from the opposite direction. High stakes mingled with intellectual laziness has rendered the left too blunt to hear even the most cautious critique of Islam as anything short of bigotry.

As a result, other liberals are wary of joining the conversation. And the worst part? Liberal Muslims, whipsawed between Islamists and actual far-right Muslimphobes, find themselves completely abandoned and silenced. It’s them Nawaz and Harris hope to reach and empower with “The Future of Tolerance.”

A fierce critic of religion qua religion, Harris remains skeptical about the value of reforming dogma from within. Some tenets are flat-out noxious, he believes, no matter how hard you may try to bend them. Nawaz, on the other hand, contends that texts, even the holy ones, are only as powerful and instructive as their interpretations. According to him, when a believer engages Holy Scripture, she does so through the filter of moral and linguistic assumptions — assumptions that can be debated, challenged and modified.

Therein, he believes, lies the key to a truly liberal Islam. Instead of dismissing the power of doctrine like Obama does, or dreading it like Harris does, Nawaz wants to harness it.

Working with reform-minded Muslim theologians, Nawaz hopes to unlock dogma and to discredit malignant interpretations that do condone extremism. On the grand scale, he aims to promote pluralism and tolerance across Islam. But on a more humble yet urgent level, there is a hope for “an escape clause”: A teenager drawn to Islamism won’t be moved by humanistic rhetoric, yet might be given pause if pluralism’s claim to Islam is argued as compellingly and as loudly as the Islamic State’s.

The first step is calling the enemy by its name. “It is crucial to name Islamism so that Muslims like me are confronted with a choice,” Nawaz tells Harris. “Either we reclaim our religion and its narrative or allow thugs and demagogues to speak in its name and impose it on others.”

Which brings me back to Obama. As long as world leaders, armed with the best of intentions, remain willfully blind to Islamism (Nawaz calls this “The Voldemort Effect”), and liberals either too afraid or too morally emaciated to fight it head-on, the war of ideas — between true, open tolerance and the hidebound veneer of tolerance — is lost before it even begins.

*Adaam James Levin Areddy is a NY-based freelance writer and videographer. He currently works at CNN. Twitter @AmsterdamLost





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