At a moment in time when many are concerned about the rising wave of intolerance around the world, a conversation between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz serves as a reminder that there is still a possibility to build bridges when it comes to religious conflicts. Their dialogue is primarily about Islam and its ability to find common ground with other religions and with the values of human rights and democracy. Nawaz speaks of his experience of being recruited by what both men refer to as Islamists with a political ideology. He stressed the attractiveness of an Islamist narrative not only for younger men without a future, but also for those like Nawaz himself who was recruited as a student in London. (He now runs Quilliam, an organization countering violent extremism.) He names four sources of that recruitment: a narrative of grievance generated by the interpretation of alleged Western repression and colonialism in Muslim countries; an identity crisis among younger cohorts; the impact of charismatic recruiters reaching out to such groups; and the framing of an ideological vision for both the present and future.
The threat of violent jihadism perpetrated by ISIS or al-Qaeda has been countered by conservative Muslims. But Nawaz reminds Harris that conservative Muslims may not be in accordance with gender rights as an equality issue as practiced in Western secular society. Indeed, secularism might even be seen as a threat to some followers of Islam. On one hand, the notion in Western societies that individuals are first citizens and then members of a religious affiliation, so often referred to as the division between church and state in the West, is not part of the narrative in conservative Islam. On the other hand, because there is no clergy in Islam as defined in the Christian tradition, there is in Nawaz’s interpretation plenty of room for reforms.
Harris is articulately agitated by the failure of the liberal left in Western countries to call out the extremists in Islamist circles. He blames them for underplaying the role of religious motives in supporting terror in the name of Islam. Yet Nawaz points out the rising danger of right-wing ideologues in Europe who feed the vicious circle of conflict with Islam. There are, in his view, a great deal of Muslim moderates who are interested in a reform of Islam but who often focus on what they see as a Western phobia against Islam which undercuts their efforts. The irony is that the hate crimes directed toward Islam in the U.S., for example the burning of a Koran by an obscure American zealot, become more obsessive than the sadism of the ISIS troops beheading hundreds of Muslims and non-Muslims. Harris argues that there is a need to address the texts of all religious documents, which he says deliver all sorts of rationale for extremists in any religion. Moreover, he points directly at the texts in the Koran as a source justification for jihadism and wonders how they can be countered effectively.
The basic core of this debate revolves around the tension between confronting the problems of Islamism and its extreme jihadist version, and strengthening the narrative that the West is somehow at war with Islam.
Nawaz concludes with this comment:
“We must name ideology behind the Islamic State so that we can refute it. It is crucial to name Islamism so that Muslims like me are confronted with a stark choice. Either we reclaim our religion and its narrative or allow thugs and demagogues who speak in its name impose it on others.”
Harris offers the challenge to encourage a more pluralistic approach to the interpretation of Islam. Yet as long as that pluralism is associated with the secular approach of the West, it may remain suspect in the eyes of conservative Muslims who may see this as an assault on religious identity.
This book is a highly intellectual exercise between two well-educated individuals who fundamentally agree on the need for more tolerance. Yet the problem is how extensive this approach can be envisioned in a world that is so conducive to intolerance on all parts of the spectrum.
But it is a beginning.