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Review of "Islam and the Future of Tolerance — A Dialogue" by


9 August 2015

This short book (128 relatively small pages) is due to be published by Harvard University Press later this year. I was sent an advance copy by Maajid Nawaz and found it very easy to read.

Overview of the book

The entire book consists of a long dialogue between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, with each person’s words prefaced by their name, as in the script of a play.

Sam Harris is an author, neuroscientist and philosopher, whose website is He is an atheist, a critic of religion and a proponent of the "New Atheism", a movement closely associated with him, Professor Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Maajid Nawaz is a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who now chairs the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam. As stated in my review of his autobiography “Radical” I first met Maajid Nawaz along with his colleague Ed Husain in October 2009 when I attended the Quilliam fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. We have stayed in touch since then.

The book is one continuous dialogue, but there are some sub-headings to help readers navigate it. However the copy sent to me did not have a table of contents.

  • [Introduction – not present in the book, but added by me for ease of reference, as the initial exchanges constitute an introduction to the rest of the book.]
  • The Roots of Extremism
  • The Scope of the Problem
  • The Power of Belief
  • The Betrayal of Liberalism
  • The Nature of Islam
  • Finding the Way Forward

The dialogue is followed by a short (10 book) list of Further Reading and Acknowledgements.

Despite the short length, the book covers a lot of ground. I have given extensive quotes below to ensure readers get a flavour of the dialogue style, and to allow the protagonists to speak in their own words. However this is only a small selection and the book covers a great deal more material in much greater depth than these quotes can convey.


Harris begins by referring back to his first meeting with Nawaz, in October 2010 at an Intelligence Squared debate.

That debate (video and transcript) is available on the Intelligence Squared website. Nawaz and Zeba Khan were speaking for the motion “Islam is a Religion of Peace” while Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray were speaking against.

Nawaz reminds Harris that in the 2010 meeting Harris had implied Nawaz was being disingenuous in speaking for the motion and that Harris had said to him “It’s understandable in the public context, [that Nawaz argues Islam is a religion of peace] but here in this room can’t you just be honest with us?”

Nawaz goes on to explain his views in more detail:

“My honest view is that Islam is not a religion of war or of peace – it’s a religion. Its sacred scripture, like those of other religions, contains passages that many people would consider extremely problematic. Likewise all scriptures contain passages that are innocuous. Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice. I subscribe to this view whether I’m interpreting Shakespeare or interpreting religious scripture.

So I wasn’t being dishonest in saying that Islam is a religion of peace. I’ve subsequently had an opportunity to clarify at the Richmond Forum, where Ayaan and I discussed this again. Scripture exists; human beings interpret it. At Intelligence Squared, being under the unnatural constraints of a debate motion, I asserted that Islam is a religion of peace simply because the vast majority of Muslims today do not subscribe to it being a religion of war. If it holds that Islam is only what its adherents interpret it to be, then it is currently a religion of peace.

Part of our challenge is to galvanize and organize this silent majority against jihadism so that it can start challenging the narrative of violence that has been popularized by the organized minority currently dominating the discourse. This is what I was really trying to argue in the Intelligence Squared debate, but the motion forced me to take a side: war or peace. I chose peace.”

The Roots of Extremism

Harris looks at the general subject of foreign intervention:

“This topic of foreign intervention and Muslim grievance is very tricky – and I trust we’ll come back to it. But it seems to me that two things made the West’s intervention in Bosnia unique – and uniquely inoffensive from a Muslim point of view. We didn’t have to invade a Muslim country to do it, and the operation involved bombing non-Muslims. As we’ve seen from recent conflicts, if either of those variables changes, a large percentage of Muslims will view the operation as a sacrilege – no matter how evil or secular the target of Western power happens to be.

Saddam Hussein was the perfect example: he was a universally hated secular tyrant. But the moment a coalition of non-Muslim states attacked him, much of the Muslim world was outraged that “Muslim lands” were being invaded by infidels. Of course there were many sane reasons to be against the war in Iraq, but that wasn’t amongst them.

One of the problems with religion is that it creates in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths. I would add that when we did eventually intervene in Bosnia, for purely humanitarian reasons, we didn’t get much credit for it.”

In response, Nawaz explains his own journey to becoming an extremist and then gives a succinct summary of the four components he considers are involved in radicalisation. I have added the numbering in the extract below.

“I mention it only because where grievances [1] are relevant is in priming young, vulnerable individuals who are experiencing a profound identity crisis [2] to receive ideological dogma [3] through charismatic recruiters [4]. Once that dogma has been received, it frames one’s worldview, the lens through which others are perceived, the vehicle by which others are recruited; it becomes the language we speak.”

The Scope of the Problem

In response to a question from Harris about the classification of Muslims into different categories, Nawaz explains how he looks at it:

“Obviously this won’t be an empirical answer, but I’ll give you my gut reaction. Continuing your concentric-circles imagery, in the center, as you have rightly said, are the jihadists. Beyond them is a larger group of Islamists. So that there’s absolutely no confusion for our readers, when I say “Islamism,” I mean the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam on society. When I say “jihadism,” I mean the use of force to spread Islamism.

Islamism and jihadism are politicised, contemporary readings of Islam and jihad; they are not Islam and jihad per se. As I’ve said, Islam is a traditional religion like any other, replete with sects, denominations and variant readings. But Islamism is the desire to impose any of those readings on society. It is commonly expressed as the desire to enforce a version of shari’ah as law.

Political Islamists seek to impose their views through the ballot box, biding their time until they can infiltrate the institutions of society from within. Revolutionary Islamists seek change from outside the system in one clean sweep. Militant Islamists are jihadists.

It is true that no traditional reading of jihad can ignore the idea of armed struggle, and it incredibly naïve to insist that Muslims ever held jihad to mean an inner struggle only. However, any and all armed struggles, in any or no religious contexts, can be defensive or offensive, just or unjust, reactive or preemptive, and terroristic or conventionally militaristic. My usage of jihadism refers only to a particular armed struggle, regardless of which sub-category it fits into above: that which seeks to spread Islamism.

These are only my definitions; in my life working in this field I have yet to come across any that seem more accurate. Others will have their own.”

In this section, Harris and Nawaz go on to discuss the categorisation, and specific examples of it, in much more detail.

My view is that the terminology Nawaz uses above may be valid for a 1-1 discussion, but it is politically unhelpful in the public space.

In my pieces “Why we need to stop using the word ‘Islamism’” and “Time to retire Islamism?” I argue that the word “Islamism” is not useful because it has become too elastic. Furthermore many grass-roots Muslims fail to look past the first five letters, and think that if you attack Islamism you are attacking Islam.

Similarly a little while after I wrote my website page “Calling terrorists jihadis helps them” Maajid and I had a Twitter exchange which I added lower down on that same page. Even more strongly than with the word Islamist, I do not believe that the Muslim in the street understands the [perfectly logical] distinction that Maajid draws between a “jihadi” engaged in “jihad” [jihad is always good in my view, as explained in my piece “Calling terrorists jihadis helps them”] and a “jihadist” engaged in “jihadism” [I agree with Maajid that jihadism is a bad thing.]

Accordingly I think it is sensible that Prime Minister David Cameron consistently uses the term “Islamist extremism” and as far as I am aware has not used the term “jihadist”.

The Power of Belief

This section has an extended discussion in which Nawaz explains that differences in the actions and policies of different Islamists (using his definitions) cannot be attributed to different levels of religious observance (although all of them share a similar ideology). He also reminds Harris that “ideology is but one of four factors, [listed earlier] albeit the one most ignored."

In response, Harris vents his frustration with those who deny any role for religious belief in explaining the actions of terrorists who are Muslims.

I have reproduced below only part of a long exposition on this by Harris:

“I would generally agree – although there certainly seem to be many cases in which people have no intelligible grievance apart from a theological one and become “radicalized” by the idea of sacrificing everything for their faith. I’m thinking of the Westerners who have joined groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, for instance. Sometimes, religious ideology appears to be not merely necessary but sufficient to motivate a person to do this.


The truth is that some people appear to be almost entirely motivated by their religious beliefs. Absent those beliefs, their behaviour would make absolutely no sense; with them, it becomes perfectly understandable, even rational.

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 a now a large industry of apology and obfuscation designed, it would seem, to protect Muslims from having to grapple with the kind 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 motivations.

When one asks what the motivations of Islamists and jihadists actually are, one encounters a tsunami of liberal delusion. Needless to say, the West is to blame for all the mayhem we see in Muslim societies. After all, how would we feel if outside powers and their mapmakers had divided our lands and stolen our oil? These beleaguered people just want what everyone wants out of life. They want economic and political security. They want good schools for their kids. They want to be free to flourish in ways that would be fully compatible with a global civil society. Liberals imagine that jihadists and Islamists are acting as anyone else would given a similar history of unhappy encounters with the West. And they totally discount the role that religious beliefs play in inspiring a group like the Islamic State – to the point where it wold be impossible for a jihadist to prove that he was doing anything for religious reasons.

Apparently, it’s not enough for an educated person with economic opportunities to devote himself to the most extreme and austere version of Islam, to articulate his religious reasons for doing so ad nauseam, and even to go so far as to confess his certainty about martyrdom on video before blowing himself up in a crowd. Such demonstrations of religious fanaticism are somehow considered rhetorically insufficient to prove that he really believed what he said he believed. Of course, if he said he did these things because he was filled with despair and felt nothing but revulsion for humanity, or because he was determined to sacrifice himself to rid his nation of tyranny, such a psychological or political motive would be accepted at face value. This double standard is guaranteed to exonerate religion every time. The game is rigged.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the same liberal apologists I am. Some are journalists, some are academics, a few are Muslims – but the general picture is of a white, liberal non-Muslim who equates any criticism of Islamic doctrines with bigotry, “Islamophobia,” or even “racism.” The people are very prominent in the US, and their influence is as intellectually embarrassing as it is morally problematic. Although they don’t make precisely the same noises on every question, they deny any connection between heartfelt religious beliefs and Muslim violence. Whole newspapers and websites can now be counted on to function as de facto organs of Islamic apology – The Guardian, Salon, The Nation, Alternet, and so forth. This has made it very difficult to have public conversations of the sort we are having.”

I sympathise with Harris’s concerns. As long ago as 2008 when I wrote my piece “Terrorist + Muslim = ‘Muslim terrorist’?” I have accepted that sometimes a terrorists religious views are not relevant at all (e.g. PKK Kurdish terrorists) while at other times (e.g. the 7/7 London bombers) the religious views are extremely relevant.

The Betrayal of Liberalism

Nawaz confirm that arguments of the type Harris criticises above are regularly found in the UK as well.

“Unfortunately, many “fellow-travellers” of Islamism are on the liberal side of this debate. I call them “regressive leftists”; they are in fact reverse racists. They have a poverty of expectation for minority groups, believing them to be homogeneous and inherently opposed to human values.”

Harris points out that one consequence is that often the only voices willing to identify the religious motivations of the terrorists are from the right, and sometimes from the bigoted far right.

The Nature of Islam

A question from Harris about “fundamentalist” shows just how careful one has to be with language, since applying the word to Muslims in the way that Harris uses it below does not seem quite right to me:

“In English, the term “fundamentalist” has been inherited from a specific branch of American Christianity. In that context, it means someone who believes in the divine origin and inerrancy of scripture. When we use this term with reference to Islam, we may lead people to believe that mainstream Muslims do not consider the Qur’an to be the literal word of the creator of the universe. I want to ask you about this, because my understanding is  that basically all “moderate” Muslims” – that  is, those who aren’t remotely like Islamists , or even especially conservative, in their social attitudes – are nevertheless fundamentalists by the Christian standard, because they believe the Qur’an to be the literal and inerrant word of God.”

I believe Harris is correct. For example I regard myself as a mainstream Muslim and I do believe that the Quran we have today is literally what the Archangel Gabriel revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him.)

However the consequence is that the word “fundamentalist” as defined by Harris is not useful in categorising Muslims. Knowing that a Muslim is a fundamentalist under this definition does not tell you anything worthwile about his views on issues such as tolerance.

In response Nawaz outlines different ways that Muslims engage with the text of the Quran, and distinguishes between literalism (“…in many instances, some of which we will address, a purely literal interpretation will lead to a surprisingly liberal outcome.”) and what Nawaz calls “vacuous literalism”:

“For me, vacuousness in itself is a method of approaching a text. I use the word “vacuous” because an insistence on ignoring apparent contradictions is not in keeping with literal wording. When you pick one passage of any text, and I demonstrate that it appears to contradict another passage, the insistence on being comfortable with those apparent contradictions and effectively arguing for both positions at the same time is a method. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s a method beyond mere literalism, as would be the method of attempting to reconcile such contradictions. Even agreeing on what the literal wording is requires a method.”

Nawaz the proceeds to tackle Harris’s question about fundamentalism by outlining the created / uncreated Quran controversy between the Mu’tazila and the Asha’ira.

Unfortunately readers who are not already familiar with this controversy risk being misled by Nawaz’s comments. My understanding is that the key point of the controversy was whether the Quran came into existence when God conveyed it to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) via the Archangel Gabriel, or whether the Quran has existed for all eternity. However neither group doubted that the Quran came to Muhammad (pbuh) verbatim from God.

Harris lays down what is almost a standard atheistic challenge to sensible believers of any religion:

“The tensions you’ve been describing are familiar to all religious moderates, but they seem especially onerous under Islam. The problem is that moderates of all faiths are committed to reinterpreting, or ignoring outright, the most dangerous and absurd parts of their scripture – and this commitment is precisely what makes them moderates. But it also requires some degree of intellectual dishonesty, 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. In the twenty-first century, the moderate’s commitment to scientific rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value – values that, as you say, are potentially universal for human beings – comes from the past thousand years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern, ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception.

The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there.

Moderates seem unwilling to grapple with the fact that all scriptures contain an extraordinary amount of stupidity and barbarism that can always be rediscovered and made holy anew by fundamentalists – and there’s no principle of moderation internal to the faith that prevents this.

These fundamentalist readings are, almost by definition, more complete and consistent – and, therefore, more honest. The fundamentalist picks up the book and says, “Okay, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what God wants from me. I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.”

Conversely, every moderate seems to believe that his interpretation and selective reading of scripture is more accurate than God’s literal words. Presumably God could have written these books any way He wanted. And if He wanted them to be understood in the spirit of twenty-first-century secular rationality, He could have left out all those bits about stoning people to death for adultery or witchcraft.”

My own reaction to Harris’s challenge above is that it demonstrates woeful ignorance of the ways religious scholars from all three religions mentioned have had multiple ways of interpreting the religions’ sacred texts. Such ignorance is not a surprise, since few atheists will want to spend time studying the history of the interpretation of religious texts. However the consequence is that Harris ends up believing that the simple literalism of religious extremists, many of whom have no grounding in theology, is somehow more honest and closer to the text than the readings of religious scholars such as Mohammad Hashim Kamali or Michael Mumisa.

After several intervening exchanges, Nawaz sets out his thoughts on interpretation which I have quoted in full as they are so important:

“This raises an intellectual point and a pragmatic point. Intellectually, I don’t accept that there’s a correct reading of scripture in essence. Now, you can point to many passages in the Qur’an and in ahadith (and I’ve certainly read them, because I memorised half the Qur’an while a political prisoner) that you would find very problematic, very concerning, and, on the face of it, very violent.

But, as I’ve said, to interpret any text, one must have a methodology, and in that methodology there are jurisprudential, linguistic, philosophical, historical and moral perspectives. Quentin Skinner, of the Cambridge School, wrote a seminal essay called “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas.” This essay addresses the danger in assuming that there is ever a true reading of texts. It asks the question, does any piece of writing speak for itself? Or do we impose certain values and judgments on that text when interpreting it?

I personally do not use the term “literal” readings, because this implies that such readings are the correct, literal meaning of the texts. I would simply call it “vacuous.” Similar to the printing press’s influence on the Reformation, increased Internet access has facilitated a more patchwork, democratized, populist approach to interpreting Islamic texts.

Now, the key for me (and this is only the intellectual point; I’ll move on to the pragmatic in a minute) is that if we accept that texts are, in fact, a bunch of ideas thrown together and arbitrarily called a “book”, then nothing in a vacuous reading of a text makes it better than other interpretations.

The question is, do we accept a vacuous approach to reading scripture – picking a passage and saying that this is its true meaning regardless of everything else around it – or do we concede that perhaps there are other methods of interpretation?

It comes down to our starting point: If one were to assume that a correct, unchanging reading of Islamic scripture never existed and that, from inception until now, it has always been in the spirit of its times, then the reform approach would be the intellectually consistent one. Indeed we would expect it to be the majority view today.

This approach stands in opposition to that of the very organized, vocal, and violent minority that has been shouting everyone else down. If, on the other hand, we start from the premise that the vacuous reading was the original approach to scripture, then the reform view stands little chance of success. There may be no answer here. I don’t think this question has been resolved when it comes to interpreting the US Constitution, or Shakespeare, or indeed any religious scripture.

So, pragmatically speaking, what can be done? If somebody in Pakistan were to raise with me the issues you have raised, they could be killed. In such a stifling atmosphere, what is the solution? (I don’t want our readers to think that all Muslim-majority countries are the same. For instance, in the middle of Ramadan 2014, Turkey witnessed a gay-pride march.)

A sensible way forward would be to establish this idea that there is no correct reading of scripture. This is especially easy for Sunnis – who represent 80 percent of the Muslims around the world – because they have no clergy. If a particular passage says “Smite their necks,” to conclude, despite all the passages that came before it and everything that comes after it, that this passage means “Smite their necks today” is to engage in a certain method of interpretation. If we could popularise the understanding that all conclusions from scripture are but interpretations, then all variant readings of a holy book would become a matter of differing human perspectives.

That would radically reduce the stakes and undermine the claim that the Islamists are in possession of God’s words. What is said in Arabic and Islamic terminology is: This is nothing but your ijtihad. This is nothing but your interpretation of the texts as a whole. There was a historical debate about whether the doors of ijtihad were closed. It concluded that they cannot be closed, because Sunni Muslims have no clergy. Anyone can interpret scripture if she is sufficiently learned in that scripture, which means that even extremists may interpret scripture. The best way to undermine extremists’ insistence that truth is on their side is to argue that theirs is merely one way of looking at things. The only truth is that there is no correct way to interpret scripture.

When you open it up like that, you’re effectively saying there is no right answer. And 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.

Currently that focus is an impossible task in most Muslim-majority contexts. I’d also argue that we don’t approach any other text, whether it be literature or anything else, with a deterministic understanding.”

In my view, for any text some readings will be preferable to others. However pragmatically I accept that when dealing with someone who is undecided and waveringly attracted to Islamist extremism, it is easier to sell the message that there are many possible ways to read the Quran, and to challenge the argument of the Islamist extremists that theirs is the only correct reading.

In the dialogue Nawaz goes on to outline some of the theological material Quilliam publishes written by Dr Usama Hasan,  such as “No Compulsion in Religion: Islam & the Freedom of Belief”. The discussion also covers a number of other currently controversial issues. Nawaz mentions his creation of the organisation Khudi in Pakistan “a grassroots social movement that seeks to popularize democratic culture there.”

Finding the Way Forward

In response to Harris’s assertion that the deplorable behaviour of modern Islamist extremists is rooted in Islamic history, Nawaz points out that Harris is not historically accurate. Many aspects of the behaviour of Muslim extremists today are very different from the conduct of Muslims in the past.

“…I bring up the history [detailed earlier in the statement being quoted] simply to highlight a relative point. Islamist and jihadist refusal to cohabit with non-Muslims is relatively worse today than in the past. Witness the Islamic State’s desire in Iraq to slaughter Yazidi men and enslave their women wholesale because they do not fit a narrow definition of “people of the book.” However, the area known today as Iraq has been Muslim-majority for centuries; India, too, was ruled by Muslims for centuries. Yet in the former, Christians and Yazidis remained a minority without wholesale slaughter, and in the latter, Hindus remained a majority. This jihadist inability to reconcile anyone but Jews and Christians as protected people (if that) is a modern twist on our worst medieval prejudices.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s theories, and the view of followers of Imam al-Ash’ari that only malicious, arrogant rejection was deserving of the label kafir, practically do away with the concept of infidel,  to be honest. I’m arguing that these debates were mostly settled. But they’ve been revived for various ideological, socio-economic, and postcolonial reasons.”

Later on in response to Harris Nawaz explains how it is a great challenge to talk about secularism in most Muslim majority countries.

“What you have raised is a real challenge. If I argue that the solution to Islamism and Muslim fundamentalism lies in encouraging pluralism, which leads to secularism, which leads to liberalism, then how do we de-stigmatize secularism when it has been so abused by Arab Ba’thist dictators?

The stigma is so bad that there is not even an accurate word for secularism in Urdu. The word used is la-deeniyat, which is derived from the Arabic, meaning “no-religionism.” I’ve often suggested introducing ‘almaaniyyah into Urdu, which is a more neutral Arabic equivalent for the word secularism. The situation has deteriorated even more since the Arab Uprisings because democracy led to Islamists gaining a majority in Egypt, and this led to another secular Arab coup taking matters back to square one.”

The book concludes with Harris and Nawaz, who bring radically different perspectives to the subjects under discussion, thanking each other for the open and honest exchange of views.

Concluding comments

I found the book very easy to read, and extremely absorbing, finishing it in a couple of sessions. The issues discussed are probably the most important challenges faced by Muslims living in Muslim majority countries and can be summarised in a single question. “What does it mean to be a Muslim today?”

The issues discussed are also very important for Muslims living as minorities who see their children being attracted by the bloodthirsty nihilistic fantasies cloaked in Islamic language promoted by organisations such as the so-called “Islamic State”. Maajid Nawaz has been thinking about these matters for many years, and this book offers an excellent insight into what he has learned.

Accordingly I recommend it to anyone who cares about these issues.



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