Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
Sam Harris &
Harvard Business Publishing
A conversation on political Islam, which inhabits the bog-like territory of what the layperson deems ‘radical’ (often used interchangeably with ‘extremist’), should have been interesting. But Harvard University Press’ Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue is a rather unsatisfying read. The book’s text is a transcript of a conversation between public atheist and author Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, author of Radical. But it is not the form that pushes the reader away, it is the content. The discussion on ‘Muslim’ extremism—in the post-9/11, post-ISIL era, it is all too easy to associate Islam with extremism and, from there, it is a short road to conflating it with terrorism—emanates from, and ends with, Harris’ dogged insistence that somehow a textual reading of the Quran licenses all Muslims to carry out extreme acts in the name of faith.
Though Nawaz tries to draw the conversation on to the interpretations espoused by different schools of thought on Islam—which, more often than not, shroud a political agenda than further a religious one—there are enough instances to make the book seem like a polemic against organised religion. Sample, for example, what Harris says: “As you know, the public conversation about the connection between Islamic ideology and Muslim intolerance and violence has been stifled by political correctness. In the West, there is now a large industry of apology and obfuscation designed, it would seem, to protect Muslims from having to grapple with the kinds of facts we’ve been talking about.”
How easy it is for him to pass off as a liberal, juxtaposed against the Charlie Hebdo killings or the Paris attacks! Saba Mahmood, social cultural anthropologist at University of California at Berkeley, writes in Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?: “To begin with, this dichotomous characterisation depends upon a certain definition of ‘religious extremism,’ often amassing together a series of practices and images that are said to threaten a secular liberal worldview: from suicide bombers, to veiled women, to angry mobs burning books, to preachers pushing ‘intelligent design’ in schools. Needless to say, this diverse set of images and practices neither emanates from a singular religious logic nor belongs sociologically to a unified political formation.” Islam and the Future of Tolerance is a perfect bubble, with Nawaz playing a non-confrontationary conversant, for Harris and like-minded to paint Islam as a religion of extremism—thereby necessitating a discussion on how it must achieve congruence with tolerance. The majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims would, however, beg to differ.