In reaction to the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by Islamists in January 2015, I wrote “The difference between my culture and Islam is not relative. It is absolute.” Reading the new book “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” i, a discussion between leading American atheist campaigner Sam Harris, and British ex-Islamic extremist Maajid Nawaz, has made me rethink a bit.
The book starts with Harris recollecting his first discussion with Nawaz, in which he said 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.
It’s difficult to argue with Sam Harris, but Nawaz rises to the challenge.
He starts with how he became an extremist. He claims there was a lot of “racism” against people like him when he was young. This caused an “identity crisis”, which led Nawaz to join a group which tried to persuade army officers in Muslim countries to stage coups. As luck would have it, he landed in Egypt to campaign for this group on September 10th, 2001. He ended up being tortured, and serving five years in jail, after which Amnesty International rescued him, and he founded Quilliam, which tries to persuade young British Muslims not to blow themselves up on trains.
At this point, it’s time to define some terms. Nawaz lists four rough categories of Muslims:
1. Jihadists, who want to impose strict Islamic law by force
2. Islamists, who want Islamic law, but won’t use force to achieve it
3. Conservative Muslims, who believe in Islamic law, but don’t want to make everyone else obey it
4. People who just happen to have been born into Muslim families, and have a “Muslim” identity
Nawaz and Harris agree that the majority of the world’s Muslims belong to group three. Though they don’t plant bombs, they do consider it may be right to cut off the hands of thieves.
Harris adds the statistic that, in the wake of the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, a poll found 68% of British Muslims believed that citizens who “insult Islam” should be arrested and prosecuted. Harris seems unaware that that is not far from existing British law against “incitement”. At least as shocking is a poll in 2009 which could not find a single British Muslim who thought it was OK to be homosexual ii.
Nawaz believes “Islamism must be defeated”. He says he’s trying to persuade all people, Muslim and infidel, to adopt secular values. He makes it clear that “secular” doesn’t mean “atheist”, it means “the strict separation of state and religion”. He wants to end the mutually-reinforcing trap whereby Western people think that Islam is a religion of war, and make war against it, and Muslim extremists use this to promote their view that the West is against Islam.
Despite Harris having once insulted Nawaz by saying he was being dishonest about the nature of Islam, Nawaz was big enough to answer politely that Islam is a religion neither of peace nor of war. He says
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 of interpreting religious scripture.
But Harris has no difficulty demolishing this argument. Islam can’t be interpreted to mean it’s OK to serve bacon sandwiches at a gay wedding reception. Personally, I have found Muslims have more difficulty in understanding secularism than any other religious people I’ve come across.
Before that, Harris takes another detour into exposing Islamic chutzpah. He points out that Muslim extremists complained when the West didn’t intervene to save Bosnian Muslims from Serbian militia, but when they attacked secular dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, they said this was an attack on Muslims. I’d add that the perpetrators of September 11th forgot the aid they’d received from America in “liberating” Afghanistan from the Russians in the eighties. Harris says there were many good reasons to oppose the Iraq War – but “the West is attacking Muslims” was not one of them.
Harris and Nawaz both reject with contempt the “social justice warrior” apologists for Islamic extremism. They say the p.c. left is exercising a form of racism – it says that non-white people can’t help reacting to oppression irrationally. Unlike the left-wing apologists, Harris argues for taking the extremists at face value – when Muslims say they are murdering cartoonists for insulting the prophet Mohammed, they are not really protesting against drones or “white privilege” iii.
Western apologists for Islamism aren’t limited to the p.c. left. The problem goes right to the top. President George W Bush said “Islam is peace” six days after 9/11 iv, and more recently, Barack Obama said “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.” v.
Nawaz admits that, though most Muslims oppose the Islamic State, many of them believe in “honour killings”, where a girl can be murdered for flirting with someone not chosen by her parents. There are thousands of examples of “honour violence” each year in the UK alone, several of which result in death.
But Nawaz points out that, in fact, religious people draw any number of conclusions from the scriptures. Which would mean that some Muslims interpret the scriptures as saying “rape under-age kufr girls”, and some think they say “don’t rape under-age kufr girls”. Islam is a broad church.
There are Islamic theologians undermining the worst aspects of Islamism by re-reading scripture. For example, Nawaz’s ally in Quilliam, Dr Usama Husan, has managed to argue plausibly that apostasy from Islam is not a crime. If a large number of Muslims can be persuaded that that’s what the scriptures mean, then that is what they mean.
I’ll admit that until reading this book, when I heard Islamic “moderates” downplaying the least palatable aspects of their faith, I just thought it was “taqiyah”, or lying. Having skimmed various Muslim religious books, I thought I’d detected that Islam leads to
– violence toward non-believers
– the oppression of women
– hatred of homosexuals
“Islam and the Future of Tolerance” made me slightly moderate my opinion.
There are four reasons for this.
1. If it’s good enough for Sam Harris, it’s good enough for me
2. Nawaz is such a good arguer, if you kept calling his arguments “taqiyah”, you’d have to be impervious to reason
3. Like most religions, Islam is so vague and contradictory, it’s possible to draw a wide range of conclusions from it
4. Other religions also advocated crimes against humanity, but their modern followers have given up most of them.
Even if Islam did “logically” lead to throwing gays off buildings and crashing aeroplanes into them, since religious people are, by definition, illogical, why should they follow the logical consequences of their religion? The Church of England hasn’t done that for decades, and even the Pope of Rome has been forced to make concessions to the achievements of the more advanced societies of the global north.
In short, maybe Islam can be reformed. This will not be achieved by bombing Middle-Eastern countries. Nor by statements like my “The difference between my culture and Islam is not relative. It is absolute.” Neither will it be achieved by apologists such as 9/11 truthers and left-wing fellow-travelers.
This reform, if it can be achieved at all, will be achieved by rational unbelievers listening to the fearless criticism of people who know what they’re talking about, such as Maajid Nawaz.