Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Discordant Dialogue

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by Neil Godfrey

harris-nawazTowards the end of the discussion between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Islam and the Future of Tolerance Nawaz says to Harris:

I appreciate your recognition that your wording has often contributed to this “clash of civilizations” narrative. . . . [W]e are duty bound to try and minimize it [i.e. the tendency of many people to hear only what they expect to hear from a given speaker] through careful wording, so thank you. (pp. 115-116, my own bolding in all quotations)

It appears that Maajid Nawaz has just heard Sam Harris admit that he has carelessly fanned the popular myth of the “clash of civilizations” scenario, the popular view that Islam and the West are incompatible and conflict is inevitable when they meet. Unfortunately it seems to me on reading this dialogue that Nawaz himself has at times tended to hear “only what he expected to hear” from Harris in his sincere efforts to establish a constructive dialogue.

But first, note that Harris truly did admit that sometimes he had contributed to that unhelpful “clash of civilizations” narrative:

Another thing I think we should discuss is the tension between honestly confronting the problems of conservative Islam, Islamism, and jihadism and feeding the narrative that “the West is at war with Islam.” I admit that I have often contributed to this narrative myself, and rather explicitly. (p 113)

Perhaps Harris is recollecting what he wrote in The End of Faith on pages 109


We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. . .



and 130:


Samuel Huntington has famously described the conflict between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations.” Huntington observed that wherever Muslims and non-Muslims share a border, armed conflict tends to arise. Finding a felicitous phrase for an infelicitous fact, he declared that “Islam has bloody borders.” . . . .

One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.


That is an unambiguous assertion that (1) we are at war with effectively the entire Muslim world and (2) bloodshed is (with near mathematical certainty) the inevitable consequence when our Western culture meets a Muslim culture.

But no, that’s not what Sam Harris says he meant when he is talking with Maajid Nawaz — and that raises the question of whether Maajid, with the very best of intentions, was too eager to stop hearing after he heard what he wanted to hear. Here is how Harris followed his remarks in Islam and the Future of Tolerance:

Of course, whenever I worry out loud about “the problem of Islam,” I’m talking about a more or less literal (you would say “vacuous”) reading of the Qur’an and ahadith. And I’m careful to say that we are not at war with all (or even most) Muslims. (pp. 113-114)

So nope, Sam Harris appears not to have recalled what he wrote in The End of Faith after all. In fact, on page 108 in that book he did speak of moderate Muslims, yes, but hardly in a way that is consistent with his above recollection:


While there are undoubtedly some “moderate” Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion, Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.” . . .

Moderate Islam—really moderate, really critical of Muslim irrationality—scarcely seems to exist. If it does, it is doing as good a job at hiding as moderate Christianity did in the fourteenth century (and for similar reasons).  (p. 110-111)


So even those tiny few moderate Muslims hidden away like a tiny needle somewhere in that big haystack are only moderate for the time being — they differ from the majority only in the time schedule they have for when they kill all unbelievers.

Is it fair to bring up these unambiguous “clash of civilizations” statements by Sam Harris when reading his dialogue with Maajid Nawaz? Shouldn’t we be looking for the best and a change of heart so that the ex-radical, the one with the experience of being a leader of an extreme Islamist movement, might positively enlighten Harris to some extent? Would not such a shift be a positive step forward for a more informed way of publicly discussing today’s problems with Islamist extremism and jihadism? That was what I really was hoping and even to some extent expecting to see.

The sad fact is that since this book has appeared we have seen Harris repeat some of his worst “incomplete” information, his denial that he has ever said anything controversial — those who attack him have misrepresented him, he says, because, he says, he was really meaning only the most banal of truisms that everyone takes for granted anyway! —  and that he does not resile from anything he has said in the past.

And after reading the new book I’m not surprised. Despite the high hopes expressed by Maajid Nawaz . . . . or rather, there is something amiss, something ajar, when those hopes are expressed in the same book that continues to advertise The End of Faith on the front cover (okay, that may have been a publisher’s decision over which neither author had any say) but then again we read a recommendation for the same work (as “suggested reading”) at the end of the book along with the approving signatures of both SH and MN. Did MN really commend that book as “suggested reading”?



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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Discordant Dialogue”

  1. End of Faith was, in a sense, deeply reactionary, as was almost all American culture in the five years or so after 9/11. This mania is what lead the otherwise not-to-be-fooled Chris Hitchens to wholeheartedly embrace the Bush foreign policy. This is not an excuse, but mere contextualization.

    1. Actually, American culture in general was not reactionary at all towards Islam in the early years after 9/11. I think Bush 43 does deserve some credit for this. Recall the Iraq War had nothing to do with Islam at all. Even the New Atheists took several years to gather steam in demonizing Muslims. The End of Faith was published in late 2004 and didn’t hit the best seller list until mid 2005. Islamophobia didn’t pick up a full head of steam until Obama was elected.

      1. Let me jog your memory.


        Remember this one?

        • Sept. 15, 2001 – Mesa, Arizona
        Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh and native of India, was fatally shot outside his gas station by Frank Silva Roque, who mistakenly believed Sodhi was Muslim. Roque then allegedly fired shots at a man of Lebanese descent working at another gas station, and at an Afghan family’s residence.

        One of the reasons the invasion of Iraq enjoyed strong support among working class conservatives is the underlying hatred of Muslims and the belief that one nation of “sandni—-rs” is the same as any other.

        1. No I don’t, honestly, thank you. But the claim was “all of American culture”. Of course there were many instances of individual reactionary and violent behavior.

          There was general xenophobia and racism involved in support for the Iraq War. But it was marginal in actually causing the US to invade Iraq.

          1. Mark: “But the claim was ‘all of American culture’.”

            Oh? I thought the claim was: “American culture in general was not reactionary at all towards Islam.” And I was simply reminding you that large parts of American culture were and are Islamophobic, anti-Arab, and anti-Iranian. They hate “ragheads.”

            Mark: “. . .general xenophobia and racism. . . was marginal in actually causing the US to invade Iraq.”

            Recall that the main reason for the yellow cake lie and the mobile bio-weapons lab lie. The Bush/Cheney administration wanted the American public (and the world) to believe that Iraq would develop these weapons and share them with Islamic extremists who would deliver them to targets in North America and Western Europe.

            For those lies to achieve their full effect they needed to make us afraid that these weapons would fall into the hands of Al Qaeda. And for that to make any sense they had to push the lie that there were operational ties between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda. So the ultimate threat that they were pushing (i.e., what they were trying make us terrified of) was WMD used by Islamic terrorists.

            Whether the power elites in the U.S. and U.K. who pushed for the war really believed any of their own lies is unclear. I remember one administration official at the time being quoted as saying that they were “creating reality.” They thought they were going to remake the world in their image. What a mess they made.

            1. I was referencing HoosierPoli’s comment. As for mine, “in general” is a qualifier. But I’ll take back “at all” to be more circumspect, if that works better for you.

              My claim is America got more Islamophobic especially, but also more anti-Arab, the farther we got from 9/11. Where the starting point was is debatable. And I was referring to the culture expressed in public, not inherent racism under the surface. Your “large parts of American culture” is just as nebulous a meaning and as hard to prove as my comments have been. I’d leave anti-Iranian off the discussion entirely. I think it would be hard to find even much anecdotal evidence for that in the early 2000’s.

              The main reason for the lies were to invade Iraq, a goal of neo-cons since the late 1990’s and a decision made well before any public attempts at linking Saddam to al-Qaeda. After the fact PR is not relevant to just how racist and Islamophobic America was in 2003. And recall there were half a million people marching in the streets opposed to the war and not scared from government propaganda.

  2. It’s also worth recalling that in Letter to a Christian Nation he said that reform was difficult because most Muslims are utterly dernged by their faith

    ‘It is now a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognize why this is so— most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith. Muslims tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with Islam. And Muslims who don’t view the world in these terms risk being branded as apostates and killed by other Muslims.” (Letter to a Christian Nation, 27)https://luptaanticapitalista.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/sam-harris-letter-to-a-christian-nation.pdf

    “So even those tiny few moderate Muslims hidden away like a tiny needle somewhere in that big haystack are only moderate for the time being — they differ from the majority only in the time schedule they have for when they kill all unbelievers.”

    Recall also his remarks about Muslims in the West:

    “Zakaria observes that Muslims living in the West generally appear tolerant of the beliefs of others. Let us accept this characterization for the moment—though it ignores the inconvenient reality that many Western countries now appear to be “hotbeds of Islamic militancy.” Before we chalk this up to Muslim tolerance, however, we should ask ourselves how Muslim intolerance would reveal itself in the West. What minority, even a radicalized one, isn’t generally “tolerant” of the majority for most of its career? Even avowed terrorists and revolutionaries spend most of their days just biding their time. We should not mistake the “tolerance” of political, economic, and numerical weakness for genuine liberalism” (End of Faith, 115)

  3. Most Muslims again:

    ‘A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.’ (End of Faith p 110)

  4. Finally a discussion about what Sam said and did not say. Thank you for leaving out the Greenwald-like personal attacks. We need more discussion like this.

  5. By the way, in principle one could posit a Clash of Civilisations between the Western world and the Arabs (or “and the Arabs and Turks” or “and the Arabs and Turks and Persians”). “Islam” then would simply be a very imprecise shorthand for groups of people that the West would find equally clashy even if they converted to Christianity or Zoroastrianism or Juche. Not sure if Huntington addressed whether or not Muslim religion is necessary for The Clash in his view. Harris doesn’t seem to have a lot of interest in secular group conflicts.

  6. Can one say that demonizing Muslims/Islam is the only recourse if one is endorsing war?…after all, how is one supposed to sleep at night if one’s nation is killing off good, noble, civilized, people?…it just makes you the bad guy!…..

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