I have just finished watching both Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz discuss their book Islam and the Future of Tolerance and was pleasantly surprised.
I don’t recall reading anything by Maajid Nawaz but my introduction to Sam Harris was his 2005 book The End of Faith, a book that disturbed me for reasons I explained in my review back in 2006. Since then I have written a few times in response to anti-Muslim bigotry that has sometimes referred to Harris for its backing. But after viewing the above video I really do hope for something more positive to be coming through Sam Harris in this wider discussion. Harris continues to struggle with his painfully ill-informed views on the nature of religion and the relationship between beliefs and behaviour but — and this is a major step I think — he has moved in his understanding of the difference between Islam and Islamism.
Thanks to his dialogue with Maajid Nawaz. As I said, I don’t recall reading anything by Nawaz but I have from time to time heard negative things. If anything I suspected Nawaz may have been one of those ex-religionists/ex-cultists who turns on his erstwhile faith with as much venom and ignorance as any other bigot could possibly muster. But no, — without knowing any of the background or reasons for criticism, I have to say I agreed with almost everything Maajid Nawaz said in the discussion with Sam Harris. (I maintained my reservation on one detail that I am currently exploring through wider reading.) (Jerry Coyne, sadly, has not moved forward very much, it seems, and is still preoccupied with the negatives of his “apologists for Islam”…. Still, there is hope…. a little…?)
As I listened to the video I took a few notes. The minute markers are only a rough guide — Where I write, say, 12 mins, the relevant section could appear anywhere between 12 and 13 mins or even a little later.
Here are my notes for anyone who wants to see a reason to watch the video for themselves …
My own comments are in [ ]. Notes are rough and ready.
0 mins —
Harris is self-taught in religion, from reading various religious traditions in his 20s.
[Not really understanding how religion works but critical modern studies were not being undertaken and published until around 2000 e.g. Boyer’s Religion Explained]
Harris was pulled up when “people started flying planes into buildings on the basis of explicitly held religious beliefs.”
[Still speaks of this act and its reason as an explanatory fact. Not a good start… but wait…]
3 mins —
Harris decided it doesn’t make much sense to talk about religion generally. There are specific beliefs in specific religions that need addressing — problems are not all just because of U.S. adventures in the Holy Lands.
[Harris’s “doesn’t make much sense” leap has not been informed by the studies. Perhaps he really hasn’t read anything of the research and advances being made in this field since 2001.]
5 mins —
Harris’s views have been more modified by the conversation with Maajid Nawaz than Maajid’s have been modified.
[Yes. Here is where the movement has happened…. watch what follows…]
6 mins —
Harris admits to different instincts from Maajid — “My instincts are to defer to Maajid” . . .
Responding to the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or war. Harris explains that the aim of the conversation with Nawaz was to see a way forward. Maajid says it’s neither a religion of war or peace. If we only listened to Nawaz at this point we would think he is indistinguishable from apologists like Reza Aslan — but Maajid doesn’t stop there and admits there is a link between specific ideas and what follows.
12 mins —
Maajid Nawaz [MN] speaking: For some it’s a religion of war, for others it’s a religion of peace. It’s like the US constitution. Today, by majority view of adherents, it’s a religion of peace. But the concern is about a very vocal and organised minority…..
15 mins —
MN: Sam doesn’t stigmatize all Muslims
[These words from MN surprised me; it’s not the message of
End of Faith — as I noted in my review. Has SH changed since his discussions with MN?]
18 mins —
Reference to ideas and their consequences
[?Yes and no…?]
19 mins —
MN: The meme of Islamophobia has been thrown up to shut down this necessary conversation.
20 mins —
MN: The moment you try to shine a light on “Islamism” for the purposes of this conversation…. people are upset.
[Is MN talking about a conversation I am not very aware of? My experience has been that Islamophobia applies to bigotry and those who are more interested in angry denunciations — not real discussion of the actual issues from an informed base.]
22 mins —
MN: Emphasis of the book is on reasserting liberalism and civll liberties and human rights – … (majorities to respect minorities but minorities have responsibility to respect majority too)
23 mins —
SH: MN took some time to convince me — But through this keyhold aperture he finally led me to see that there is no true Islam. Islam does not have a pope, etc. …. Such and such a rule or understanding doesn’t apply to all Muslims throughout all time.
24 mins —
MN: the way forward from is secularism
26 mins —
MN: Sometimes out of the most conservative interpretation can come a very liberal result. An example to illustrate– ancient Muslim interpreter took a very literalist meaning of the word for “alcohol”. This originally meant only grape wine. Therefore the ruling was that all other alcohol was legal. There was much greater pluralism in the early years of Islam. The only way forward is to recognise that, and that no-one has the right to claim they have the definitive view on any text.
[This flies agains what many critics of Islam have said in the past, including SH — e.g. that the text can be interpreted only one way and this means that Islam is violent/ ]Muslims will . . . . etc.]
28 mins —
A hope SH has recognized as well
29 mins —
Mention was made of a “straight line in Islam from grievance to violence” — the question raised whether radicalization is caused by western policies and therefore we need to change our policy, or is it caused by ideology or something else?
30 mins —
MN: Humans are all different – MN lists 4 factors that usually combine to lead to radicalisation. In the book he lists them as
1. angry grievance,
2. identity crisis,
3. charismatic recruiter,
4. role of ideology
31 mins —
MN’s own political biases are on centre to centre-left. It’s a terrible explanation to say that a person who is angry at a policy wants to blow something up. — Al Qaeda peddles this myth in order to change policy so they can overthrow the Arab regimes.
32 mins —
What caused ISIS? It is too simplistic to put all blame on foreign policy and Invasion of Iraq.
34 mins —
SH is against religion because religion speaks of this knowledge that has a taboo on clear thinking, based on false claims to evidence. A religion believer tells me there are certain things you know to be true but the way you know them is not based on any publicly available mode of evidence or reasoning. And you say these are the most important things in your life — this is divisive in society— bad.
[Harris’s understanding of religion and religious thinking is not informed by studies since 2000, I think.]
SH: But not true of all religions that they are divisive — we are not going to see Jain terrorists.
SH: “Fundamentalism” is a red-herring — fundamentalism is not a problem if your fundamentals are totally benign…. — the crazier you get as a Jain the less anyone has to worry about you.
[Problems here — but this is another discussion.]
35 mins —
SH: But this is not true of Islam; we have to admit that some grievances are just born of religion.
[Again — this is simplistic. One thing to have an intellectual grievance; but another to act violently on it. SH cannot see this.]
36 mins —
SH: drawing a cartoon leads to threat to be killed — This is not based on foreign policy but only on specific religious ideas. — Liberals confused here. We do not want a society where we cannot draw cartoons because that is living under a theocracy.
[Again — SH cannot discern the difference between an intellectual idea/belief and the generation of personal hostility and actions to violence. Still a long way to go. Keep talking with NM… Keep talking…. and with others who have even more updated understanding….]
38 mins —
MN: Islamophobia is an unhelpful as a term– shuts down the debate, confuses critiquing the religion with critiquing the people — I prefer the phrase “anti-Muslim bigotry” which is real….. and a problem — No idea and no people are beyond scrutiny.
[If Islamophobia is being bandied about to cover something other than bigotry then that’s a problem I am unaware of. If that’s the case “over there” then certainly, “anti-Muslim bigotry” is fine as the term of choice.]
40 mins —
MN: Sam not a bigot because likes Sufi music
[Okay….. mmm….. but I take MN’s point, and SH’s own words at beginning of the video, that SH is no longer confusing Islam and Islamism. That’s a big and important step forward — however far there is to go in the other strands of the discussion.]
44 mins —
MN: I don’t say “the Muslim world” — but “Muslim majority countries” – important to respect the minorities and differences…
49 mins —
SH: Why does a British doctor go off to join ISIS and saw off heads — “that goes back to the texts…. not purely economics and politics”. MN adds, “though it includes that (i.e. economics and politics)”…
[SH still can’t see beyond the idea of text putting an idea in a head and that idea then making people go off and join ISIS and cut off heads! MN fortunately did add his own point there– I sense room for a much deeper discussion to be ongoing here. Does MN himself really understand — or is he even aware of — the current research into religion and Islamism and terrorism etc?]
50 mins —
Someone in audience said the Koran teaches that violent jihad is last resort or the lowest form of jihad….
53 mins —
SH: Protests against those who try to put benign spin or interpretation of Koran. Because Koran doesn’t say anything like that– Muslims are struggling to do acrobatic theology — to labour to find a benign interpretation — SH says MN thinks Muslims have the tools to do this. —
[SH doesn’t see it himself, but he at least acknowledges the views of a Muslim (MN is a Muslim) who says this can and should be done. That’s progress.]
54 mins —
MN: you don’t want to doctor/change/rewrite a historical text…. But the problem is that there are others who read passages in Koran to cut off a limb or flog for punishments, etc. and there are regimes who take these passages vacuously. We need to open up that debate as Muslims…
[This is great — that the moderate and liberalising voices within the Muslim religion are being encouraged and supported. And it’s great that SH is hearing this argument and engaging with it.]
56 mins —
MN: Example of what can be done. In the Ottoman caliphate the sheikh of iIslam announced that “through religious reasoning we are not going to use these (Islamic) penal codes anymore” …. So historically there have been attempts to do this, to interpret and enact a benign Islam.
MN: Islamism for me is the attempt to enforce any version of Islam over society, and the other force of concern is fundamentalism — those Muslims conservative in practices even if don’t want to enforce on others — We need to confront these head on…. We need to engage their own societies and how to improve them. The focus on cartoons in foreign lands is a distraction from the real place to wage the fight.
SH: you can reason people out of their deeply held beliefs…. It’s just based on conversation …. If they don’t change it’s a failure of conversation….
[Oh my! Really? Still a way to go for SH!]
MN: “If we don’t name the problem it increases the hysteria. . . . “
[I think this must be talking about those who want to say Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. . . . . I spoke of this well-intentioned but counterproductive tactic recently….. Apparently this is a bigger issue in Europe/North America than here?]
[See last paragraph of this post– afterthought added there.]
MN on Whether we should use term Islamism or not… –
— [I quoted this bit carefully so can put it in the quote box….]
If we as Muslims don’t isolate Islamism from Islam and then define what we mean by Islamism and then say that Islam by definition isn’t definable because it’s a religion like any other — it has all the denominations and sects and interpretations and disputations that all other religions have.
But Islamism is this thing here and we define it as a desire to impose any version of Islam over society. And that’s what we’re worried about, and that’s what we’re challenging. If that’s a Muslim led conversation you will find eventually that that understanding spreads . . .
MN: “I’d like to think Sam’s conversation around this has developed more nuance since we began our dialogue”
Somewhere in there MN made another point I somehow missed in the above notes. He was stressing the need (as at the end in the quote above) to allow the Muslim moderate/majority voices to be heard. This was the reason he was stressing the need to name and identify the enemy- — Islamism — We can’t just say the evils have nothing to do with Islam — we need to identify what we are talking about — otherwise the hysteria is all the greater — — see the point at 1:05:00 above.
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