Book Review: Islam and the Future of Tolerance
by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
Harvard University Press, 2015
Whether by chance or design, Harvard University Press has given Islam and the Future of Tolerance, the latest book by neuroscientist and renowned public atheist Sam Harris, the same dimensions as his devastating 2006 polemic from Knopf, Letter to a Christian Nation: both are slim, pocket-sized hardcover editions in the neighborhood of 100 pages, and read in a certain way, Islam and the Future of Tolerance could easily be construed as a Letter to the Muslim World.
The book is billed as a dialogue and consists of speaking parts alternating between Harris and his co-author Maajid Nawaz, author of Radical and founder of the “think tank” Quilliam, which bills itself as focusing on “religious freedom, extremism, and citizenship” and which Nawaz describes as “the world’s first counter-extremism organization” (a claim that might cause the Quakers to frown in his general direction). The description is general, but the extremism is very specific: Harris and Nawaz come together in this book to discuss Muslim extremism, Harris from his familiar drumbeat warning-call that a plain-text reading of the Koran licenses all Muslims to extremism, and Nawaz from a more nuanced stance that shifts the basis of discussion away from texts and onto interpretation. The clear intention here is to represent the book as a handshake across a table, a manual of hope for conversation in the face of a surging global tide of Muslim religious mania.
The authors finished their work on the book and sent it to the press after the extremist Muslim group ISIL had begun threatening the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra but before they had beheaded Khaled Asaad, the internationally-respected 82-year-old archaeologist working on the ruins there and hanged his body from a column to let birds peck at it. The two authors were having their conversation and finalizing it for publication against a backdrop of sex slavery, beheadings, crucifixions, and conquest carried out by groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and Boko Haram in the furtherance of a rigidly conservative interpretation of Koranic dogma. Such a backdrop leaves little doubt about Harris’s contention that “beliefs matter,” and, since the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims don’t behave like those groups, it throws a bright spotlight on Nawaz’s insistence on the centrality of interpretation.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what’s so deeply unsatisfying about the exchange captured in this book. Part of the problem might arise from the interlocutors; although Nawaz comes across as very personable and the deeper thinker of the two, both men have a tendency to perorate, and Harris can’t shake the whiff of doctrinal priggishness that clings to everything he writes. Part of the problem could also come from the participants’ extreme wariness about disagreeing with each other; the book is crammed with variations on “I agree with you completely,” “you raise a very interesting point,” or, in Harris’s favorite formulation, “that clarification is very helpful.” So much insistent obsequiousness tends to obscure the question of the very barbarism that’s presumably motivating the conversation in the first place.
But the deeper frustration comes from the fact that nothing these two public intellectuals say in the confines of their book can be anything but irrelevant to their chosen topic. Harris sticks to his strengths as a gadfly of organized religion, returning over and over again to the West’s unwillingness, in the face of all evidence, to credit jihadists with the courage of their convictions:
As you know, the public conversation about the connection between Islamic ideology and Muslim intolerance and violence has been stifled by political correctness. In the West, there is now a large industry of apology and obfuscation designed, it would seem, to protect Muslims from having to grapple with the kinds of facts we’ve been talking about. The humanities and social science departments of every university are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars – deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other fields – who claim that Muslim extremism is never what it seems. These experts insist that we can never take Islamists and jihadists at their word and that none of their declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy have anything to do with their real motivation.
(He can also, despite approaching the ripe age of 50, still be a bonehead, prone to making howler-style comments like “The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside” – the Quakers would have a hairy eyeball for him too, and they wouldn’t be the only ones)
And Nawaz’s implicit role in his half of the dialogue, representing a cultural viewpoint very different from Harris’s, is completely undermined by the fact that in order even to have such a discussion with Harris, it was necessary first that Nawaz completely adopt a Western cultural viewpoint. Take his name off it, and this quote – one among many in the book – could come from Harris without alteration – and could, one suspects, come from only a very small percentage of the world’s practicing Muslims:
In the absence of a right answer, pluralism is the only option. And pluralism will lead to secularism, and to democracy, and to human rights. We must all focus on those values without worrying about whether atheism is the most intellectually pure approach. I genuinely believe that if we focus on the pluralistic nature of interpretation and on democracy, human rights, and secularism – on these values – we’ll get to a time of peace and stability in Muslim-majority countries that then allows for conversations like this. Questioning whether God really exists would become a choice, open to all.
What results is a dialogue in a bubble, barred from outrage by pre-arranged agreement, thwarted of relevance by insularity, a ready fit for the pockets of the like-minded and a calmly-worded death warrant for the millions who would see no point in reading it.