ISLAM AND THE FUTURE OF TOLERANCE – Book Sample
Harris Maajid, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation. I think the work that you’re doing is extremely important. I’m not sure how much we agree about Islam or about the prospects for re- forming the faith—and it will be useful to uncover any areas where we diverge—but I want you to know that my primary goal is to support you.
Nawaz That’s very kind of you. I appreciate that. As you know, we are working in a very delicate area, walking a tightrope and attempting to bring with us a lot of people who, in many instances, do not want to move forward. It is very important that we have this conversation in as responsible a way as possible.
Harris Agreed. I’d like to begin by recalling the first time we met, because it was a moment when you
seemed to be walking this tightrope. It was, in fact, a rather inauspicious first meeting.
In October 2010, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate in which you were pitted against my friends Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray. We met afterward at a dinner for the organizers, participants, and other guests. People were offering short remarks about the debate and otherwise continuing the discussion, and at one point Ayaan said, “I’d like to know whether Sam Harris has anything to say.”
Although I was well into a vodka tonic at that moment, I remember what I said more or less verbatim. I addressed my remarks di- rectly to you. We hadn’t been introduced, and I don’t think you had any idea who I was. I said, es- sentially, this:
Maajid, I have a question for you. It seems to me that you have a nearly impossible task and yet much depends on your being able to accomplish it. You want to convince the world—especially the Muslim world—that Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists. But the problem is that Islam isn’t a religion of peace, and the so-called “extremists” are seeking to implement what is arguably the most
honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine. So your maneuvers on the stage tonight—the claims you made about interpretations of scripture and the historical context in which certain passages in the Qur’an must be understood—appear disingenuous.
Everyone in this room recognizes that you have the hardest job in the world, and everyone is grateful that you’re doing it. Someone has to try to reform Islam from within, and it’s obviously not going to be an apos- tate like Ayaan, or infidels like Douglas and me.
But the path of reform appears to be one of pretense. You seem obliged to pretend that the doctrine is something other than it is—for instance, you must pretend that jihad is just an inner spiritual struggle, whereas it’s pri- marily a doctrine of holy war. I’d like to know whether this is, in fact, the situation as you see it. Is the path forward a matter of pretending certain things are true long enough and hard enough so as to make them true?
I should reiterate that I was attempting to have this conversation with you in a semipublic context. We weren’t being recorded, as far as I know, but there were still around seventy-five people in the room listening to us. I’m wondering if you re- member my saying these things and whether you recall your response at the time.
minded me of it. I hadn’t made the connection with you. I’m also grateful you mentioned that al- though we were not on air, many others were pre- sent. To my mind, it was just as important inside that room as outside it for people to take what I was saying at face value. In fact, my desire to impact Muslim-minority societies with my message is just as strong as my desire to impact Muslim-majority societies. Part of what I seek to do is build a main- stream coalition of people who are singing from the same page. That doesn’t require that they all become Muslim or non-Muslim. On the contrary, what can unite us is a set of religion-neutral values.
By focusing on the universality of human, democratic, and secular (in the British and American sense of this word) values, we can arrive at some common ground. It follows that all audiences need to hear this message. Even inside that room, there- fore, the stakes were high.
To lose that audience would be to realize my fear: the polarization of this debate between those who insist that Islam is a religion of war and proceed to engage in war for it, and those who insist that Islam is a religion of war and proceed to engage in war against it. That would be an intractable situation.
Now, moving to the specifics of your question, I responded in the way I did because I felt you were implying that I was engaging in pretense by arguing that Islam is a religion of peace. If I remember correctly, you said, “It’s understandable in the public context, but here in this room can’t you just be honest with us?”
Harris Yes, that’s exactly what I said.
Nawaz Yes. “Can’t you just be honest with us in here?” implied that I hadn’t been honest out there. 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 its 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.1
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.
Harris I understand. My interest in recalling that moment is not to hold you accountable to your original answer to me—and it may be that your thinking has evolved to some degree. But our conversation broke down quite starkly at that point. I don’t re- member how we resolved it.
Nawaz (laughing) I don’t remember that we did re- solve it.
Harris Well, let’s proceed in a spirit of greater optimism than may seem warranted by our first meeting, because we have a lot to talk about. How- ever, before we dive into the issues, I think we should start with your background, which is fascinating. Perhaps you can tell our readers why you’re in a position to know so much about the problems we’re about to discuss.
The Roots of Extremism
Nawaz A comprehensive version of my story is avail- able in my autobiography, Radical, but I’ll summarize it here. I was born and raised in Essex, in the United Kingdom, and grew up in what I refer to as the bad old days of racism in my country.
A case that changed the course of race relations in the UK, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, led to a government inquiry that produced the Macpherson report.2 That report coined the phrase “institutional racism” and judged that it existed in the police forces of the UK. It was a serious indictment.
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