Sam Harris is a highly polarizing figure that people usually associate with controversy. He isn’t afraid to voice his opinions on controversial subjects such as religion, terrorism, the ethics of torture, nuclear war, gun control, morality, and free will to name a few. Harris views these hot-button topics as some of the most important obstacles of our time, where sober thinking should be indispensable. Unfortunately, the volatile nature of these subjects more often than not stands as an impediment to reasoned discourse. In his latest book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Harris once again fearlessly swan dives into controversy. In it, he and former revolutionary Islamist Maajid Nawaz (coauthor) sit down for a nuanced discussion about the complexity of religious belief in the Muslim world and its relation to violence and extremism.
SPOILER ALERT: I discuss specifics of the book below and my opinions on various aspects of it.
This book was a fascinating read, and I began learning from the very start. For instance, I had not known the subtle differences between things like Islam, Islamism, political Islamism, revolutionary Islamism, etc. There are many breakdowns and disagreements within the Muslim world (that I knew) but hearing Nawaz break it down was very enlightening and refreshing, especially given his inside experience. Most praiseworthy, I feel, is the tone throughout the whole exchange. These are two men that have many disagreements, and voice their positions strongly, articulately and, most importantly, cordially. There is no hint of rhetoric or hyperbole. Only facts. Contentious points are not let go, but are delved into until both parties understand the issue. I have never read anything by Nawaz before, but his writing here has made it clear that I need to read more of his work–much more. It is difficult to find things not to like in this exchange, but Nawaz’s views during a discussion about steps to take in order to quell religious violence left me a bit disappointed.
My main criticism is focused at Nawaz and his position that no text speaks for itself. Rather than argue for the superiority of secular ethics and attempt to dissuade people that faith-based thinking is problematic, Nawaz’s solution to dampening religious violence in the Muslim world is to try to convince extremists that there are nonviolent ways to interpret certain, or even all, passages in scripture. I agree with Sam that simply giving alternative interpretations of scripture is perhaps not the best method for quelling extremism. By offering alternative innocuous interpretations for certain passages, it is possible that some will adopt this less violent interpretation over the violent alternatives. However, what are we to say to the Muslim who favors the more violent interpretation? What tools do we have available to us to convince them that their interpretation is wrong? The answer: nothing. Indeed, Nawaz admits to the view that words no not speak for themselves. Harris is correct to point out that, while words ultimately have to find meaning within the reader’s brain, certain passages have more or less plausible interpretations over others. Rather than get people to take on alternative interpretations of scripture, where disagreements can never truly be reconciled, our stance should be that scripture shouldn’t matter. Once we admit that these books were written by humans, we can put scripture aside and ask ourselves what we feel is right or wrong in any given situation. Nawaz seems content in treating mere symptoms, rather than the true ailment that is faith-based thinking.
However, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a leap from faith to reason may be too large for many. Offering alternative interpretations of scripture may represent intermediate baby steps on the path to true secularization. However, I must take Nawaz at his word, and his words suggest that he truly believes that offering nonviolent alternative interpretations is the best way to go about reforming the faith. However, it is difficult to know if that really is his position since, according to Nawaz, the meaning of his words is purely subjective and I may have merely interpreted it that way. My apologies for the sarcasm, but I find it hard to believe that the clear and nuanced discussion Nawaz had with Harris in this book would have even been possible if language were as flexible and ultimately meaningless as he suggests it is.
Words do have meaning, if not alone then in context. If this were not true, then any sort of communication would be quite literally impossible. In fact, by engaging in discussion with Harris at all, Nawaz tacitly admits the folly of his own position on the meaninglessness of language. Nawaz must assume his claim to be false the moment he attempts to advance his claim. This type of reasoning is known as the fallacy of the stolen concept, and occurs when one must, by necessity, assume their conclusion to be false a priori. In other words, one must simultaneously disprove their thesis in order to prove it, which results in an irreconcilable contradiction. Sam Harris should have pressed more here.
While I found Nawaz’s position on language flawed and perhaps naïve, that didn’t detract much from the overall quality of the exchange. This book was by and large an exhilarating read, and should be read by anyone with even a passing interest in understanding Islam and the various forms of Islamism, and the link between religious belief and violence. This is a bold book, and we must applaud Harris and Nawaz for sticking their necks out so that we may gain a better understanding on this complex and volatile subject. In the short time the book has been released, they have already caused quite a storm. I believe it is our moral duty to help defend these two when their views are twisted and people write misleading articles about them, which is a common occurrence. Indeed, I have had to stand up for Harris several times when personal friends have posted uninformed and misguided attacks on their views on social media. And though I fear losing friends in such occasions, I believe that the work produced by people like Harris and Nawaz is so important as to be worth the cost. This is an immensely important book, and should serve as a how-to guide for civil, yet unrelenting, discourse. This is how progress is made.
Buy this book.