Maajid Nawaz (twitter: @MaajidNawaz) is a man with an extremely fascinating life story, full of drama and fluctuations. As detailed in this book, Islam And The Future Of Tolerance: A Dialogue, a collaboration with famed neuro-scientist and atheist Sam Harris (twitter: @SamHarrisOrg), Maajid went from being a young radical recruiter in the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates for an Islamic caliphate without the overt use of violence, to the man he is today, an Islamic reformer and moderate fighting to reduce extremism through his foundation, the Quilliam Foundation. Maajid’s rise and fall in the world of Islamic radicalism is outlined in the early pages of A Dialogue.
Over the course of his career, Maajid has been subject to criticisms from all quarters. In 2013 he became involved in politics, and ran as a Liberal Democrat in the London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, coming third. He later created more controversy in the political world when he was revealed to be an adviser on David Cameron’s recent speech concerning extremism, which some saw as a slippery slope towards intolerance directed at Muslims. Comments he made that God is strong enough to weather criticisms in the form of cartoons also drew some ire from Muslims and Islamists. “Liberal” Muslim activist Mohammed Shafiq attempted to have Nawaz removed as a parliamentary candidate through a petition signed by over 20,000 people.
More pertinent to A Dialogue and my review, is Maajid’s recent association with Sam Harris. To some, this is more questionable than anything he has done previously.
Sam Harris is one of the most well known and controversial atheist writers in the world. Starting from his book The End Of Faith in 2004, his style of thinking has become representative of a wider movement of atheistic thinking. Far from representing the simple dictionary definition of an atheist: a person with a lack of belief in God or Gods, atheists like Sam Harris hold a wide range of opinions on many related subjects, such as how to deal with Islam through foreign-policy, how we should treat religious people and religion, airport security, the nature of war and collateral damage, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and so on.
Yes, dear reader, I understand fully that Sam Harris does not talk of these things because of his atheism. Atheism does not necessarily spur these political and ethical ideas forth. But when one looks at the beliefs of his colleagues and followers, who are extremely forthright about their atheism, they tend to align with many of these ancillary ideas. It is clear we have a movement that is about more than just disbelief in God. It is a many fronted assault on the concept of religion as a whole. From how the west deals with it globally, to how it is dealt with domestically.
I’m fine with that, but let’s please call it what it is.
That’s where the term “New Atheism” comes in. It was an attempt to find a name for this style of atheism, which seems to connect itself to many other (sometimes controversial) ideas. It appears murky where the term was first used and how, but some point to columnist Andrew Brown and his 2008 definition. I’m not sure what Brown’s religious status is himself, but the label was coined in distaste.
“New Atheism” is now seen as a pejorative by many who have been pigeon-holed thus, but many of them, ironically, see no problem using this movement’s own new slur, “regressive left” (which I have still never seen adequately defined). I’ve been called a “regressive leftist” many times, usually for disagreeing with Sam Harris. I still don’t know what this means. From what I can tell, it means I blame radical Islam on more than just radical Islam, but also the actions of the west. It is odd to be seen as ‘regressive’ for acknowledging there are multiple factors at play.
It seems like “New Atheism” is having a play at it’s own defensive form of ‘identity politics’.
It strongly reminds me of when the entire political establishment attacked liberals as being ‘anti-America’, ‘against the troops’ and ‘against freedom and democracy’, when they opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The current use of ‘regressive left’, to describe people who ‘blame America first’, is the same old politics. Nothing has changed. The only thing progressives want is to avoid wars and conflicts. Progressives were right back then against all the mindless vitriol and condemnation, and they are still right.
Enter Maajid Nawaz.
As a (non-devout) Muslim and Islamic reformer, Maajid has been met with a great amount of pushback and sometimes vitriolic criticism for his association with Sam Harris.
Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept contributor Murtaza Hussein referred to Maajid as Sam Harris’s “well-coiffed talking monkey”, and later “porch monkey”, a racist slur. “Porch monkey” is derived from white people’s perception that black people spent their lives hanging around on porches, adding ‘monkey’ to imply blacks are primitive and un-evolved.
Murtaza was either well aware of the racial nature of this slur, or ignorant to it’s history. Whatever the case, no apology was forthcoming.
Why has there been such a counter-reaction to Maajid? In the years following 9/11, Sam Harris’s views on Islam were much welcomed. Having been attacked by a barbaric and vicious strain of fundamentalist Islam, America and the world was reeling, confused and damaged.
The “New Atheist” movement pushed back against this extreme Islamism at the level of doctrine and belief, at a time when the public was well suited to hearing it.
Harris’s books, as well as Hitchen’s, Dawkin’s and others, explore the suspension of reason known as ‘faith’, through the lens of these believers and their relationship to doctrine. The overall thesis on Islam, as characterized by Harris’s comparisons of it with the peace-loving faiths of Jain and Buddhism, is that the doctrines of the Quran and Hadith are barbaric, and allow for pedophilia and rape, murder, Islamic triumphalism and conquest, hate crimes against gays, the stoning of women to death (as this recent horrific case attests), so and so forth.
Further to this, Harris has attempted to explore the relationship of the believer to these doctrines, leading him to claim in Letter To A Christian Nation that: “Many Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”. (edit, 11/11/2015 – I accidentally quoted it as most Muslims, so I’m correcting it now)
Utterly deranged?? Sounds intense! How many of these utterly deranged people are Al Qaeda? How many of them are Muslims living alongside the 2.7 million others in the USA? Or do we mean the theocratic, radical regime of Saudi Arabia?
Such vagueness of language has landed Harris in many intense rhetorical battles with a range of writers, journalists, commentators and thinkers. It seems to be a hallmark of “New Atheist” thinking.
Before we go on, it is important to note that I am straw-manning Sam Harris and mis-characterizing what he said. Or I’m failing to understand the depth of his thoughts. Not because I have, or am, but that this is often assumed in the minds of many Sam Harris fans (at least the ones I’ve talked to online).
Harris is one of the trickiest thinkers to have a genuine disagreement with, because he is often not saying what he is saying. He does this through ‘thought-experiments’ and talking abstractly like a philosopher, despite discussing real-life policies ideas. This style of rhetoric prevents him from being pinned down on the disturbing implications of his views on a range of topics, from profiling Muslims in airports, to collateral damage by Israel and the West.
Against this backdrop, we come to Maajid Nawaz’s and Sam Harris’s collaboration on Islam And The Future Of Tolerance.
I must be honest, as a progressive liberal used to being unfairly maligned as ‘regressive’ by people online, I’m probably far from the intended audience of this book. Both Harris and Nawaz have spent a lot of time painting people like me as enabling terrorists through a regressive, politically correct point of view, unwilling to paint Islam as the death cult it apparently really is, and therefore being somehow responsible for the growth of ISIS, gays being murdered in Saudi Arabia, etc.
Personally I still do not understand what the fuck a ‘regressive’ is, but that’s just me.
I’m proudly progressive and liberal, and I do believe the biggest problems are geo-political and related to foreign policy, vis-a-vis terrorism.
Before you give me shit about what I believe, here’s a drawing of Mohammed I just did:
So fuck you.
As a non-believer, Muhammed is not my prophet. He is not a holy figure to me. He’s just some guy. He might have been a good guy, or a terrible guy, it doesn’t matter to me. He’s just another human. Based on this, why can’t I depict him? Why can’t I depict a human being? I’m not a moral relativist, and don’t believe all cultural practices are equal. If I’m told I can’t draw a human, I ask: why?. If the answer is, “he’s holy”, all I can say is…he isn’t holy to me. Therefore I have no problem depicting him.
I have not often depicted Jesus or any other religious figure in my life. I’ve never had any reason to.
I only depict Muhammed now to say: stop accusing me of being ‘regressive’, or ‘politically correct’. I’m not. I’m staunchly progressive and left-wing and make no apologies for it, we just have a disagreement about the extremist problem we are dealing with.
I believe the world is more complex than just ‘religion bad, atheism good’. I believe people do things for reasons, and people believe radical doctrines for reasons. To some these are proclamations to live by, to some, a background hum in the back of their mind. That’s not apology, that’s reality. That’s not equivocating, that’s being reasonable and not painting 1.6 billion people as equivalent to ISIS. If that makes me an apologist…fuck you.
So I may have gone into this book with a mild sense of resentment.
In the opening chapters of A Dialogue, Nawaz outlines his fascinating life story (which can be read in greater detail in his memoir, Radical).
Nawaz was born in Essex in the UK. He was eventually radicalized by what he saw as systemic racism against minorities, evidenced in the murder of (black British man) Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
Nawaz said he experienced racism himself, and was further radicalized by witnessing the Bosnian genocide playing out overseas. This lead Nawaz to join Hizb ut Tahrir, which some see as an Islamist front group working towards an international caliphate under a guise of public outreach.
So begins the main sticking point of A Dialogue.
After hearing Nawaz’s personal story, Harris is incredulous. His entire narrative is that religious faith and fervor trumps all terrestrial grievances. This is the narrative he has presented in all of his works since The End of Faith.
“This topic of foreign intervention and Muslim grievance is very tricky”, says Harris. He then claims the Bosnian genocide was “…uniquely inoffensive from a Muslim point of view”, because the West did not invade a Muslim country, nor did the operation involve bombing Muslims.
Ok…interesting, but Nawaz just said the Bosnian genocide contributed to his radicalization. From Maajid’s lips to Allah’s (non-existent) ears. But Harris seems content to simply ignore Nawaz’s explicitly stated personal experience, and wax lyrical about what he thinks caused it.
As I said earlier, I was suspicious about what I might learn from A Dialogue. I’m glad to say however I actually learnt a lot. But all of it was from Maajid Nawaz.
From Harris, I learned that he doesn’t listen, and is content to spew talking points. Harris repeats the tired point that Muslims don’t condemn radicals enough. I contend that they do, but are rarely listened to (for example, CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) regularly condemns terrorism, only to to be condemned itself as an Islamist ‘front-group’).
Harris randomly asserts that Muslims always support other Muslims (“One of the problems with religion is that it creates in-groups loyalty and out-group hostility”), which is wonderful news to the Sunni and Shia sects that have been viciously trying to destroy one another for centuries, or the Baathist government in Syria battling Salafist ISIS militants, or the outright contempt between the Muslim majority nations of Iraq and Iran. Harris makes these assertions based on nothing except his own prejudices.
Nawaz reveals himself to be a very agreeable dialogue partner, and agrees generally with Harris’s conclusions…before utterly contradicting them, a pattern followed throughout the entire book.
I got the impression he was too polite and desirous of a useful exchange to really go after Harris’s ideas, choosing instead to make this own case.
Maajid talks further about his capture by the Egyptian authorities and his harrowing stay in Mazra Tora prison, where he was eventually de-radicalized by exploring ‘Islamist’ ideology with his fellow prisoners. This word, “Islamist”, is important, because Nawaz uses Islamist/Islamism as being a desire to forcibly spread Islam in the world, distinguishing it from Islam/Muslim, which simply connote the religion and follower isolated from action.
At first, I was doubtful about the validity of these distinctions, but Nawaz’s concise explanation was highly convincing.
He also provides useful distinctions between Jihadists, Islamists and Muslims, and explores the dimensions of Harris’s ‘concentric circles’ of belief.
Nawaz explains that conservative Muslims tend to see Al Qaeda as a scriptually illiterate embarrassment, and other details, such that “Sharia law” means different things to different Muslims. He also mentions the existence of Muslims who don’t define their lives by their “Muslim-ness”.
I couldn’t help but feel almost everything Nawaz was saying seemed in direct opposition to the talking points of the “New Atheist” movement, and had not expected to find his views so entirely reasonable.
Throughout A Dialogue, Nawaz provides a detailed, nuanced view of the various schools of historical thought within Islam. Nawaz’s thesis is that emphasizing moderate interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, based on the traditional schools of scriptural interpretation, is a powerful de-radicalization tool.
His idea is to use the intellectual and scriptual tools available to de-radicalize Muslims, and it won’t be seen as a western inquisition against Islam. It became increasingly clear reading further in A Dialogue, religious beliefs such as martyrdom, and scriptural justifications for pedophilia and bigoted hate crimes, are come upon by radicals as a tool to inflict their sadistic goals, not as the primary inspiration.
These scriptural tools are harmful in and of themselves, obviously, and could conceivably radicalize those who read and believe them, but it is the interpretation they are compelled towards which determines how they are used.
It is entirely true that unlike Jainism and Buddhism, the texts of Islam are violent…but this is precisely why Nawaz takes the view he does. He wants to encourage moderation, hence why he posits his Quilliam foundation as the world’s first anti-extremism foundation.
Harris, on the other hand, wants to…umm.
Well…I don’t know what he wants to do about the problem. In A Dialogue he cycles through a litany of Islamic be-headings, terror attacks (9/11, Charlie Hebdo, 7/7), violent scriptures, backwards Islamic regimes, and an occasional verge towards clarity: “The only conclusion I can draw from everything you’ve just said is that the problem of ideology is far worse than most people suppose” (yessss Sam, good! You’re learrrrning! A+!) …”…although there certainly seem to be many cases in which people have no intelligible grievance apart from a theological one…”
In totality, I was pleasantly surprised by A Dialogue, and I learned a lot more than I expected to.
Nawaz greatly improved my understanding of the Quran and Hadith, particularly in regards to the various Islamic traditions of interpretation.
I even learned a fascinating new word that itself speaks against the entire “New Atheist” narrative: ijtihad. The meaning? “…the decision-making process in Islamic law (sharia) through personal effort (jihad) which is completely independent of any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence” (wikipedia).
In other words, the use of reason to interpret the theology.
Now, we may believe these are unreasonable texts, but as Nawaz rightly argues, perhaps only through liberal interpretations of these texts might they be made reasonable, and thus used to de-radicalize (which after all, should be the main goal).
As for Sam Harris, well. If you are a fan of his, I’m sure you’ll like what he has to say.
If you don’t like him, you know what to expect. Whatever the case, I would highly recommend this book based on the contribution of Maajid Nawaz alone.
It is with some wonder that I see the “New Atheist” movement tolerating his presence, considering that what he is saying in A Dialogue seems like an outright contradiction of their narrative.
The reason for this is surely his agreeable nature, and ability to reach people who seem unreachable.
Other people with conflicting views such as Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan have taken a highly combative approach to “New Atheism”, resulting in an ever escalating flame war and collection of grievances.
Nawaz on the other hand diplomatically acknowledges the views of his opponent, before offering a saner alternative.
This bodes well for the future of his foundation, and I hope he succeeds in this endeavor.Here's my social media! Support and follow. 🙂