Thursday, June 02, 2016

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz (Book Review #24 of 2016)


Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
This "book" is a dialogue on Islam that started after Harris witnessed an NPR Intelligence Squared (one of my favorite shows) debate on Islam between Ayan Hirsi Ali and Nawaz. Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, 1 star) and Ayan Hirsi Ali (Infidel 4.5 stars, Heretic 4) are friends and compatriots. This dialogue attempts to find common ground and eliminate misconceptions. I find it does little of either.

The dialogue is of little help to anyone wanting to seriously study Islam or even engage with modern "reformers." The audio version contains a postscript conversation about the book that is also unhelpful. You cannot engage in what Islam is without deciding how you approach the Quran and the hadiths: Are the words of the Quran truly eternal and uncreated from an eternal language (Arabic), or (even if divinely inspired) are they a product of an author(s) of a particular context? Both authors seem more ignorant of the history of the religion and research into it than the positive reviews on Amazon would suggest, particularly Harris who knows no Arabic. While they list Tom Holland as a reference, I find they do not engage in a contextual analysis of where the Quran came from the way Holland does in his Shadow of the Sword (4 stars). You can learn much more about Islamic history and the Quran in Oxford University Press' Very Short Introduction series, which I highly recommend. Also helpful in thinking about this dialogue was Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise (4.5 stars), Hoyland's In God's Path (4 stars), and Reza Aslan's No god but God (2.5 stars), among others. Please don't criticize my low esteem of this one until you've read those books.

Harris and Nawaz rightly begin their dialogue with clarifying definitions: "Islamism" is the attempt to impose Islam on the rest of society; "jihadism" is the spread of Islam by violent force. The authors contend, and I agree, that political correctness is stifling the conversation about the role of religion and violence, particularly in regards to Islam. They reference a "tsunami of liberal delusion" that criticizes anyone who speaks harshly of religion, leading to the result that some of the only people "telling the truth about Islam" are dangerous right-wing neo-Nazis who are generally untrustworthy. Meanwhile, "moderates" are "willfully ignorant" about all religions and assume they're the same.

The authors engage in textual criticism to an extent, but not in looking at the book's origin but rather acknowledging their biases in reading the text. This is a silly trick of those on the Left who contend we can't even attempt to understand any text because of the problem of distanciation. Harris admits reading the Quran with his Western mindset in order to condemn it. Nawaz notes that "no text speaks for itself," rightly so, but neither seem to know anything about basic exegesis or hermeneutics. At least Reza Aslan admits that if the text is eternal and unchanging, as is orthodox doctrine, then there can be no interpretation; and you can also quote from it out-of-context because there is none. This central point is missing from the debate, so the debate is useless. Both also ignore Holland's point that when early Quranic manuscripts were discovered in Yemen in the 1970s, scholarly study was quickly forbidden after initial researchers reached a conclusion that they differed substantially from what is now the accepted version. This differs from, say, biblical studies or classical literature where thousands of manuscript fragments are constantly discovered, compared, and critiqued by a wide variety of scholars.

Nawaz is a native Urdu speaker of Pakistani descent, and I have not yet read his autobiography. He claims to have some expertise in Quranic Arabic. Nawaz acknowledges that the archaic nature of the words are difficult to interpret correctly. Do verses seemingly forbidding alcohol consumption literally mean "alcohol" or a specific type, and is it really "haram"? Possibly not (a casual Google search reveals a variety of thoughts on this subject). Harris rejects some Muslims' claims that violent jihad is relatively new. He may be relying on Holland for this point, although there are others; the early Arab-Islamic "civil wars" are largely ignored in modern discourse. That is what makes Hoyland's book on the subject so enlightening. Both authors are making moral judgments on what is "good" and "bad" without identifying the authority each appeals to. As an avowed atheist, Harris has a real logic problem when it comes to "evil." If there is no final arbiter, then who decides whether the violence he condemns is wrong? Ultimately, himself, which he does not admit. (I recently listened to Harris on a podcast talking about how abortion makes him "uncomfortable" because maybe those fetuses really are viable and living baby humans, and if he acknowledged that was the case then it would logically mean it is murder. But he didn't want to dwell on that subject too long, seemingly falling under his own critique above of willful ignorance...) However, Nawaz criticizes the US in particular for failing to make the "values debate." Who determines what is valuable, exactly? They don't say. Why do Nawaz and Harris have more authority than, say, ISIS?

Harris and Nawaz close with thoughts on how to deal with secularism as an attack on religion. In their post-script conversation they deal with the book's reception, their hopes for starting conversations about reforms, and push back on the "New Left" criticism of bigotry to anyone who tries to deal honestly with what religious texts say and religious people do. Unless you just want a better view into these two authors' thinking and their own logical fallacies and contradictions, I cannot recommend this dialogue. 1.5 stars.

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