A Liberal Atheist and a Liberal Muslim Discuss the Problems of Contemporary Islam

Reading the Koran at the London Muslim Center. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

When future generations look back at our time, they will marvel at how the most reactionary and clerical forces on the world stage so often found allies among self-styled “progressives.”

Anyone seeking evidence of this need look no further than the debate that broke out on Bill Maher’s Real Time last year concerning the nature of contemporary Islam. Sam Harris, the prominent neuroscientist and “New Atheist,” dared to suggest that an extreme and totalitarian form of the religion has metastasized across vast swathes of the Muslim world, a strain that is fundamentally opposed to the liberal creed.

Harris then called attention to what every informed and honest student of this subject has long noticed: Too many Western leftists prefer to discount the idea that there is any connection between Islamic ideology and Muslim violence. Specifically, Harris elaborated, the neologism of “Islamophobia” dismisses any criticism of certain Islamic doctrines — for instance, the sanctity of armed jihad — as rank bigotry. On cue, bien pensant liberals on Maher’s program — the actor Ben Affleck and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof — sprung to the defense of “1.5 billion Muslims” by alleging that Harris was in the grip of a racist delusion. QED.

Opposition to this unholy alliance between radical Islam and leftist sophistry is the animating spirit of a provocative and profane new book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, co-written by Harris and Maajid Nawaz.

This terse volume — it can be readily consumed in a single sitting — is billed as a “dialogue” between a liberal atheist and a liberal Muslim on the subject of this great, and greatly inflamed, monotheism. The authors’ shared political outlook is of greater import than their divergent religious views, although the latter accounts for much of the heat and light generated in the exchange. The format of the text reads like the transcript of a civil but occasionally fiercely contentious discussion.

What helps make this tutorial so bracing is the fact that Nawaz is himself a former Islamist. (Nawaz defines this political ideology as the desire to foist some interpretation of Islam on civil society, which he helpfully distinguishes from jihadism, the use of violence to achieve this goal.) He introduces himself as a product of having grown up during “the bad old days of racism” in the United Kingdom during the early 1990s. This bigotry alienated Nawaz from British society while the Serbian genocide against Bosnian Muslims simultaneously nurtured his Islamic identity. At sixteen he joined the revolutionary Islamist outfit Hizb ut-Tahrir.

On September 11, 2001, Nawaz found himself in Cairo recruiting for a theocratic “caliphate” in the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak’s secret police did not look kindly upon these activities and detained him, along with a rogue’s gallery of fellow Islamists. During his harrowing stint in Egypt’s most notorious dungeon for political prisoners, Nawaz memorized half the Koran but soon came to doubt that Islam was the solution to society’s ills. Eventually he emerged as a champion of liberal values, helping to found the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation that advised Prime Minister David Cameron on his vaunted counter-extremism program in the U.K.

There can be no true liberal within Islam or beyond it who is not delighted by Nawaz’s trajectory. In contrast to many vociferous critics of political Islam, however, he is not an apostate. This fact makes his refusal to pretend away what he calls the “problematic” elements of his faith all the more remarkable. For his trouble many of Nawaz’s co-religionists now consider him guilty of heresy, which sadly explains his contingent of armed guards. All this merits our ungrudging respect.

The fact that Nawaz’s name is becoming better known is a good sign. Remember, the need to organize a resistance to Islamism in the wake of 9/11 brought Western leaders and officials into contact with a range of Muslim “community leaders,” many of them unsavory. Tony Blair met with the Swiss academic and Islamist apologist Tariq Ramadan, whose beliefs about the religion on any given day seem curiously dependent on the audience he is addressing. The Pentagon arranged an “inter-faith dialogue” featuring a Virginia imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, who would soon flee to Yemen to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We can take great heart from the fact that invitations to such grubby spokesmen have been declining and that Nawaz, a nearly pitch-perfect reformer, has been the honored guest of No. 10 Downing Street. (Although he has yet to be invited to the White House.)

It will come as no surprise that Nawaz and Harris nonetheless find ample room to quarrel. Harris makes short work of Nawaz’s opening contention that Islam is “not a religion of war or of peace — it’s a religion.” Despite Harris’s wearing his disdain for faith-based dogma of any sort on his sleeve, his atheism is of the discriminating sort. Invoking the pacifist creed of Jainism (that so influenced Gandhi), he argues that all religions are not the same — and do not yield remotely similar results. In view of both the theological warrant for cruelty in the Koran and the actual beliefs and practices of many of its adherents, Harris argues that Islam cannot easily be acquitted on the charge of being a religion of war.

Unless one disputes any link between sincere belief and behavior (an unsafe assumption), the contents of scripture matter.

Unless one disputes any link between sincere belief and behavior (an unsafe assumption), the contents of scripture matter. Anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with the Koran and the hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed) would have to know, according to Harris, that “the demonization of infidels” is a core theme of both. Another is “the promise of paradise.” Separately and together, these messages occasionally prove “not merely necessary but sufficient” cause for devout believers to violently spread “the one true faith to the ends of the earth.”

Nawaz pushes back against this argument by contending that the very idea of “literalist Islam” is impossible. It suggests that a piece of text can be plucked from its context without distorting its meaning. Would this crude method of interpretation be applied, Nawaz modestly asks, to a Shakespeare tragedy or the U.S. Constitution? On these grounds, he abjures even use of the word “literalist” because “an insistence on ignoring apparent contradictions is not in keeping with the literal meaning.” He prefers the adjective “vacuous” to signal his dissent from this selective reading of holy text. To wit, Nawaz ultimately believes “the only truth is that there is no correct interpretation of scripture.”

By this latitudinarian approach, Nawaz clearly hopes to establish a scaffolding for pluralism within contemporary Islam: If there is no objectively true interpretation of scripture, then all must be held suspect, and each granted a measure of deference. Harris doubts that holy writ is all that elastic: “You can’t say, for instance, that Islam recommends eating bacon and drinking alcohol.”

Harris wisely stops short of pronouncing Islam to be a religion of war. But it must be said that Nawaz’s formulation — that Islam is neither a religion of peace nor of war — has it exactly backwards: Given its canonical texts as well as its living reality, Islam turns out upon examination to be manifestly both a religion of peace and a religion of war.

Religions are seldom monolithic in how they are practiced, and Islam is no exception. By the end of this century it will be the world’s largest faith, and it would be astonishing indeed if such a capacious and contradictory belief system did not contain multitudes. To convey the diversity of belief in the Muslim world — or, better put, the majority-Muslim world — Harris reverts to a template he proposed in his first book, The End of Faith.

“Picture several concentric circles”: At the center are the most psychopathic and bloodthirsty true believers — the jihadists who “wake each morning yearning to kill infidels and apostates,” many of whom “seem eager to be martyred in the process.” Then there is a larger circle of Islamists who enter the political arena to impose a theocratic order on society by means of the ballot box. Beyond that is a wider circle of conservative Muslims who may well support militant Islam financially or philosophically, but lack the zeal of their brethren. “Finally, one hopes, there is a much larger circle of so-called moderate Muslims.” (Regarding this last group, Nawaz sensibly prefers the label “liberal” Muslims, which, unlike the insipid and imprecise “moderate,” denotes a concrete set of values.)

Harris and Nawaz agree that the blatantly or at least latently violent of these circles contain a much larger tally of followers than is generally understood. Considerable numbers of Muslims are disposed to key Islamist tenets — and not merely those from the more benighted regions of the Middle East. In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London, for instance, polls were taken showing that more than 20 percent of British Muslims felt sympathy for the bombers’ motives; 30 percent wanted to live under sharia law; 45 percent thought that 9/11 was the result of a Jewish conspiracy; and 68 percent believed that British citizens who “insult Islam” should be arrested and prosecuted. Nawaz updates these results by flagging a recent survey indicating that 27 percent of Britain’s Muslims confessed to sympathizing with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Another poll, this one by the London Times, found that one in seven young Britons has “warm feelings” toward the Islamic State. Harris conservatively estimates that jihadists and Islamists make up 20 percent of the umma, or global Muslim community — a figure that Nawaz finds credible.

Few in the West seem to comprehend the essence of this crisis, much less its scale and scope, and some seem all but willfully blind to it. Here the greatest offenders reside on the isolationist left, even though the Islamist project is, to repeat, inimical to everything that liberalism — in both its classic and modern variants — holds dear. Nawaz has no more patience than Harris does for the apologists of a doctrine that is unflinchingly opposed to individual autonomy, freedom of expression, secularism, democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, et cetera.

Although the authors are stalwart foes of anti-Muslim bigotry, they dismiss the trope of Islamophobia as a straightforward category error. Its purveyors regard anything “Islamic” as beyond the reach of criticism, thus eliding the crucial distinction between impugning a system of religious belief and showing malice toward its adherents. As Nawaz writes, in what might serve as his personal motto: “No idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity.”

If Islam is the recipient of a special treatment in Western media, it comes not chiefly from its critics but from its apologists, who exhibit a kind of frivolous Islamophilia (to borrow the locution of Douglas Murray).

These reverse racists satisfy their “orientalist fetish” by assuming that Muslims are not fitted to the rights and responsibilities of the Enlightenment. From this vantage point, “authentic” Muslims must somehow always be the ones receptive to bloody theocracies or at least opposed to liberal democracy. And because liberalism is a Western construct, Muslims who claim association with it must ipso facto be illegitimate interlocutors. In sum, “a great liberal betrayal is afoot,” Nawaz writes. With a few honorable exceptions, the Left shows “a poverty of expectation” for the Muslim world that, wittingly or not, disempowers their liberal number. Building on Pascal Bruckner’s study of Western masochism, The Tyranny of Guilt, Nawaz turns the tables on the Left’s “fellow-travelers” of Islamism — take note, Mr. Affleck — by accusing them of “reverse racism.”

Against the infuriating monologue of Islamist theocrats, abetted by modern liberals too self-loathing to speak in defense of their best values, Islam and the Future of Tolerance exemplifies the virtues of open dialogue.

Thus, “in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups.” Nawaz rightly turns the “progressive” label on its head and dubs this curiously illiberal position as “regressive leftism,” which abandons the most vulnerable members of the Muslim community — women, gays, apostates — to a hideous existence under the shadow, or the sword, of Islamist totalitarianism. It is these regressives, and not those who advocate universal natural rights, who should feel intense pressure to explain themselves in polite society.

Against the infuriating monologue of Islamist theocrats, abetted by modern liberals too self-loathing to speak in defense of their best values, Islam and the Future of Tolerance exemplifies the virtues of open dialogue. The co-authors do not seek the final word — that false consolation they leave to the absolutists believing themselves to be in possession of the one true interpretation of the last revealed religion, and authorized to spread it by force.

All Harris and Nawaz seek is to give voice to the spirit of rebellion and reformation smoldering in the lands of Islam. Forcing it into flame will doubtless be a long time coming, but these two men should be lauded for endeavoring to provide a spark.


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