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Islam and the future of tolerance is the latest work by Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris. It is a little book (128 pages plus further reading and acknowledgements), and as with both authors’ previous work, is easy to read, inspires dialogue and challenges the readers’ thoughts on the written topic. The book carries an amazing, engaging and insightful message for so short a read (rather reminiscent of Harris’ previous book Lying). Indeed there’s a great many topics covered in this book that will provide hours of discussion for those who are following this debate wherever it goes. It is in this style that the book is written – a discussion between Nawaz and Harris, which winds its way through different topics: ‘The Roots of Extremism’, ‘The Scope of the Problem’, ‘The Power of Belief’, ‘The Betrayal of Liberalism’, ‘The Nature of Islam’ and finally, ‘Finding the Way Forward’. Mohammed Amin, Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, has already written an extensive review on the contents of Islam and the future of tolerance. Rather than produce a similarly extensive review, here I highlight topics and points that I was glad to see raised.

First, the ever important distinction between Islam and Islamism is laid out: Islam is a religion, its peacefulness or violence is determined by the beliefs and actions of its followers. Islamism is the desire to impose any given form of Islam over the rest of society, Muslim or not. Jihad means struggle (used in many contexts), Jihadism is violent Islamism – a violent struggle to impose Islam. This means Islam does not equal Islamism and Islamism does not necessarily equal violence. Both authors agreed on the importance of such distinctions.

Harris and Nawaz both tackle the issue of ‘regressive leftists’: people who, under the mantle of ‘liberalism’, excuse all wrongdoing by Islamists by accusing their critics of racism, asserting that Islam is not subject to the same rules of human rights as the rest of society, and that any attempt to hold extremist Muslims to the same standard is colonialism. These ‘regressive leftists’ or ‘illiberals’ pave the way for Islamists to impose their views on others and cause suffering to the minorities within Muslim communities: feminists, gays and transgenders, among many others. I found this part particularly interesting for the following reason. A common theme amongst both certain ‘liberal’ atheists and Islamists, is that one cannot be liberal, secular (meaning that you desire separation of religion and state), pro-science, pro-democracy AND be religious. As a practising Christian I highly value my religious beliefs, and I highly value all of the fore-mentioned things. However, many atheists will tell me, Nawaz, and other liberal people of any faith, that we are ‘practically atheists’, that we might as well make the final step’, etc. etc. For starters, it is insulting for most people to have a stranger assert that they understand your beliefs and values better than you, whether you are a Muslim, a Christian or an atheist. But more importantly, these assertions only feed the false narrative that liberalism and Islam cannot go together, and that liberal Muslims are not ‘true’ Muslims, that they are really atheists and apostates (a dangerous thing to accuse anyone of in the current climate).

On a related, and critical, point, Harris and Nawaz discuss the fact that the seriousness of religious beliefs and outward behaviours are not necessarily related in the way we might assume them to be. The fact that the 9/11 bombers visited a strip club before carrying out their attacks does not mean they were not sincere in their religious convictions. I find this point very important, because it is used in the same way to accuse liberal Muslims of being ‘fake’ Muslims, especially if they do not hold strictly to traditions of prayer or fasting. A person can be liberal, Muslim, and also be entirely serious about their religion. However, leftists look for ‘pure’ Muslims, designated as those that hold dogmatic, conservative views and that behave in an ‘authentic’ way. This is reverse racism at its most pernicious.

Harris and Nawaz proceed to have many difficult discussions about literalism in Islam and how to encourage grass-roots movements in liberal Islam. There is not a wasted page in this book – read, and be encouraged that dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims can bear much fruit. Some people will be disappointed by Harris stating he does not want to debate God with Nawaz, but that is a debate that does not matter in this conversation. What matters now is the coming together of those who wish to see the global community as all humans, all worthy of human rights and freedom, to fight against those who would rape, torture, enslave and murder anyone who stands against them.

Will you join us?

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