Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz contains a discussion between Harris and Nawaz about the role of Islam and Islamism in human rights issues. I will try to summarize some key points of these complex issues.
To better understand the complexities, consider questions of whether water is a solid, liquid, or gas and whether water is harmful or beneficial. The fact is that water takes many forms and comes with both risks and benefits. It’s complicated. A serious risk in discussing Islam comes not from failing to be “politically correct” but from oversimplifying in ways that are irrational, counterfactual, and ultimately self-defeating.
Discussing Islam is complex because Islam involves around 1.6 billion people and over 1,300 years of history. It is not enough to say that there are different Muslims. We must also recognize that there are contradictory elements within the tradition itself. Those differences have been debated for centuries, and people now claim different versions of Islam. Some are conservative and some liberal. Some claimed Islam as their excuse for war and some as a reason for peace. Some authoritarian governments have given Islam as excuse for violating human rights while their often silenced victims hold to Islam as a way to claim their rights. To help clarify the conflicts, Nawaz suggests the term “Islamism” for attempts to impose a version of Islam on the rest of society.
Nawaz’s strategy of recognizing conflicting parts of a tradition should be familiar to nonbelievers who thrive on recognizing ambiguities and contradictions within texts, among beliefs, and between beliefs and practices. Those differences show that all texts and traditions require interpretation and that there’s no simple way to resolve who has the most authentic interpretation or practice. While I cannot say who has the most authentic interpretation of Islam, I do see that some interpretations give more support to human rights than others.
That leaves the question of how to challenge bigotry. Harris finds Islam as a whole unconvincing and risky and remains eager to criticize in hope that people would come together around secular values. Nawaz is Muslim and aims to further open the doors to doubt and differences within Islam that could lead to more secularism and human rights. This effort toward independent thinking is known among Muslims as “ijtihad.” Nawaz suggests that in the short term, Muslims would find Islamic reasons for secularism and human rights to be more comfortably convincing.
By having a face-to-face discussion of their differences, Harris and Nawaz set a valuable example. By addressing Harris’s concerns, Nawaz provides useful information and proves to be an ally in the struggle against bigotry. Islam and the Future of Tolerance is a useful resource for Humanists who value critical thinking, compassion, fairness, and human rights.
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