[Watch] An atheist (Sam Harris) and a Muslim (Maajid Nawaz) on the future of Islam

[Watch] An atheist (Sam Harris) and a Muslim (Maajid Nawaz) on the future of Islam

Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes
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Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Lateline  – Broadcast: 28/10/2015 – Reporter: Tony Jones

This is really a must watch and read especially after the shootings in Paris (13/11) and Beirut (12/11), and the more than approximative analyses that have been flowing in their aftermath. That interview was conducted as heads were still cool. Tony Jones speaks with the co-authors of ‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue’, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, about the future of Islam and how to combat the rise of extremism.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue is a collaboration between that famous atheist Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a one-time radical with Hizb ut-Tahrir who went on to found the anti-extremist think tank Quilliam Foundation. Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz joined me earlier from Los Angeles and Washington.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

SAM HARRIS, NEUROSCIENTIST & AUTHOR: Thank you, Tony. It’s a pleasure to be here.


TONY JONES: Sam Harris, first to you. One of the interesting things about your dialogue with Maajid is that you, the famous atheist, refused to question his belief. So what is the purpose of the dialogue?

SAM HARRIS: Well it’s really to find a pragmatic strategy for moving forward. I think we both recognise that there’s really an excruciating problem both within the Muslim world – with the Muslim community worldwide and within open civil society in speaking about this problem. And so we’re dealing with really a failure of conversation about how to engineer a spirit and program of reform within Islam and this problem is immense and many-layered. And, you know, one impediment to remove at the outset is to – from my side, to not try to engage the debate about atheism versus religion or reason versus faith because, you know, I’ve had that debate more or less ad nauseam in other contexts and under no illusions that I or anyone else is gonna convince 1 .6 billion Muslims to become atheists. Certainly not in any timeframe that coincides with a single lifetime. So, the challenge really is to find moderating voices who can credibly sketch a path toward reform where we can have a real spirit of secularism and liberalism within the Muslim community.

TONY JONES: Maajid Nawaz, what is important about this dialogue from your point of view?

MAAJID NAWAZ: I’d like to make two points, Tony. First of all, I think Sam’s absolutely correct. The – it’s a second-order question for both Sam and me as to what his beliefs are and what my beliefs are and the reason that is is of course that the intellectual battlelines have been drawn not along the belief or the metaphysical belief basis. So, you know, there are atheists who are on the side of the Islamists defending – I call them the regressive left – defending Islamism and defending regressive values in the name of cultural tolerance. So the issue isn’t whether one is an atheist or a believer. The issue is whether one subscribes to the universality of human rights, liberal, secular, democratic values. And that’s where Sam and I agree and that’s the way forward. Less so about what I call the second-order question about one’s metaphysical beliefs.

The second point I’d like to make is that actually, for my atheist friends out there who often say that its incredibly unrealistic to believe that Islam can be reformed in this day and age, what I’d say is actually it’s even more unrealistic to believe that, as Sam said, that 1.6 billion Muslims are going to magically somehow overnight apostatize. So the only realistic, pragmatic and intellectually sound way forward is for all of us to unite around secular, liberal, human rights, democratic values and believe in their universality and call for them whether we’re calling for them to be applied upon non-Muslim white men or brown Muslim people. These values apply to everyone equally.

TONY JONES: Sam Harris, let’s go to one of the first points that Maajid made this there and it picks up on one of your main gripes with your left liberal critics who you accuse of being led over a cliff by Noam Chomsky. Tell us what you mean.

SAM HARRIS: There’s a kernel of truth to what Chomsky says about the missteps of the US and other Western powers. We have not created this phenomenon of global jihad. This is a phenomenon that is, on some level, over 1,000 years old and now we’re dealing with the modern variant of it. But what we have to recognise is that there are specific ideologies that are delivering us what we’re calling Islamism and jihadism here and until those – until we win a war of ideas against these ideologies – a belief in martyrdom, a belief in paradise – we are going to continue to confront this evil, a kind of evil which should really be unimaginable in the year 2015.

TONY JONES: Maajid, can you talk to us about the reluctance of many to actually have this debate openly and to talk clearly about what may or may not be wrong in Islamic teachings and in terms of what happened in Britain, you talk about the Voldemort effect? What do you mean by that?

MAAJID NAWAZ: Yes, for anyone who’s read the Harry Potter series of books, they’ll understand that the evil man, the baddie in those books is a man named Voldemort. Now the problem in those books, of course, is that Harry is one of the only people that’s able to both name this evil person by name and also insist that the person exists and isn’t dead. The rest of the community, the wizarding community are unable to do those two things. They are so petrified, so scared of this evil that they’re unable to name it and in fact, they also insist that the evil doesn’t exist. Now, I drew an analogy from that to talk about Islamism, the ideology that I briefly defined in one sentence as the desire to impose any version of Islam over society. Now for me, that’s an inherently theocratic tendency and theocracies have absolutely no place in this modern day and age. So, when we’re dealing with the challenge that faces us which I call Islamism, if we get to a situation where the President of the United States of America cannot even bring himself to name this ideology, we cannot even begin to tackle it. So what we’ve been doing and of course you may – your viewers will be able to tell from my accent I’m from London – what we’ve been doing with the British Government and with the Prime Minister there is focusing on getting the British Government and the Prime Minister to recognise that there is an ideology. This ideology is called Islamism. It needs to be isolated from whichever interpretation of Islam Muslims may happen to subscribe to and then it needs to be challenged because we are indeed engaged in an ideological war. And PM Cameron has actually done that and I think it’s about time that the American President did the same too.

TONY JONES: Sam Harris, do you see something distinct in the nature of Islam as opposed to other religions that gives rise to the particular brand of brutality practised by the adherence of Islamic State?

SAM HARRIS: Yeah, I do, I do. Unfortunately, I do, both theologically and as a matter of just historical accident. As a matter of history, Islam has not had a proper collision with modernity and secularism and science the way Christianity has. So Christianity over the course of centuries really has been humbled by secular politics and a much larger ethical and political conversation about how we all should live together and it’s – its pretensions to govern all of the concerns of humanity have really been beaten back and that’s all to the good. So that is one difference: Islam has been isolated from these trends and now is I think quite shocked to suddenly find itself trying to live in a global, a truly global and pluralistic world. But there are theological differences between Islam and Christianity and Judaism and other faiths that I think make Islam more difficult to reform. Now, that doesn’t change the project before us, which is we have to find some way to carve out a genuine respect for secularism and liberalism and tolerance and a respect for free speech above all within the Muslim world and we have to find a theological basis that’s credible by which Muslims can repudiate this creeping theocracy of Islamism. But it is a challenge and I would argue and have argued – I argue to some degree in my book with Maajid and elsewhere that it’s a challenge that is particularly difficult for Islam.

TONY JONES: Sam, briefly on specifics, you maintain pretty much that everything a jihadist needs to justify their beliefs and their actions can be spelled out unambiguously in the Koran and the Hadith. Give us just a quick sense of that and I’ll throw to Maajid to get his response.

SAM HARRIS: Yeah and I would add to that the biography of Muhammad. It’s simple to describe this way, unfortunately: if you ask the question: what is ISIS doing? ISIS being the – or the Islamic State being the worse case now of jihadism run amok. What is ISIS doing that Muhammad didn’t do or wouldn’t have approved of? That is actually a – unfortunately, not the easiest question to answer. And the example of Muhammad is, as just an exemplar of the faith, is – doesn’t square very well with modern, cosmopolitan, secular, tolerant values. He was not a hippy who got crucified. He was not a meditator, an ascetic who sat cross-legged under a Bodhi tree. He was a warlord who did many of the things that you see members of ISIS doing and that’s why they can kind of paint by numbers and justify what they’re doing with a very literalist, and as Maajid would say, a vacuous reading of Islamic theology. And that’s a very inconvenient fact which we have to confront head on and find some way to disavow the intolerant readings of these passages in scripture.

TONY JONES: OK. Maajid, do you agree that this is an inconvenient truth about Islam, about Muhammad?

MAAJID NAWAZ: Yeah, see, what I say in my dialogue with Sam in this book is that the Islamists, those who want to impose a version of Islam over society, and the jihadists, those who use force to bring about Islamism, have a plausible reading of scripture. It’s incorrect for we, as Muslims and generally, actually, I’d say, those on the left of centre in this debate, to insist that Islamists and jihadists have nothing to do with Islam. That’s actually an exercise in dishonesty. Of course they have something to do with Islam. I would argue it’s equally incorrect to say that they are Islam per se because of course I’m a Muslim and I’m not ISIS, I’m not an Islamist. And so I think the answer is somewhere in the middle and that is that they have something to do with Islam. And the something there is that they are using certain passages in the scriptures. As Sam correctly mentioned, there are passages that they can resort to. So they have a plausible reading of scripture. The challenge, and this is more a plea that I make here on your show to my fellow Muslims in Australia and that is that we, as Muslims, have a task ahead of us, a monumentous task ahead of us and that is to begin the process of adapting, of reinterpreting our scriptures for the modern day and age. Now, I think the task ahead of is summarized best in one sentence and that is that Islamism, this ideology I refer to, must be intellectually terminated, whereas Islam the religion simply must be reformed to adjust to modernity and that’s something we’ve had for centuries known by Muslims as the process of ijtihad, or reinterpretation of the scripture. The scripture itself can cater for that process. Unfortunately, many Muslims today, instead of rising to that challenge are incredibly defensive when it comes to this.

TONY JONES: Sam Harris, of course this still leaves us with confronting – the world in fact with confronting the virulence of jihadism that’s already taken root. And you use in the dialogue or use the dialogue to confront one of the worst forms of depravity. One in particular stays in my mind. It was a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan where 132 children were murdered for which the jihadists gave a very grim justification. First of all, just set out what that justification is and we’ll move on.

SAM HARRIS: Ah, yeah. This was a discussion with a Taliban supporter who after this massacre at the school in Peshawar justified it to a friend of ours, Ali A. Rizvi, a ex-Muslim online, and he said, “You don’t understand. You’re a materialist. You think death is the end of everything and so this is why you think something bad happened here. But those children are in paradise. We did them a favour. And the last thing they heard was “Allahu Akbar” and they will be at the right hand of God. And what you see in this justification, and I’ve been worrying about this for years, is that a sincere belief in paradise really takes the guard rails off of civilisation. If – you become undeterrable by death and you think that it’s impossible to kill the wrong people because if you blow up a crowd of even Muslim children as a Muslim, well you’ve sent the children to paradise and you’ve sent all the bad people to hell, which is where God wants them, so you’ve done – it’s impossible to kill the wrong people, it’s impossible for anything to go wrong and this world is just fit to be destroyed because there’s nothing about it that matters in light of eternity. Now there are obviously other religions that have this – a problematic conception of paradise, in particular Christianity, but within Islam it’s married to a notion of martyrdom and a notion of jihad in defence of the faith that I think really is almost the perfect recipe for the kind of death cult behaviour we’re seeing in the Muslim world.

TONY JONES: Maajid, can I get you to respond to that and can you do it from the point of view – I’ll pose this question: how should the world confront evil of that magnitude, because even if you are to reform the intelligent, sensitive side of people’s minds, you’re still going to have to confront ISIS?

MAAJID NAWAZ: Yes, absolutely. And we’ve been advocating in the United Kingdom what we call a full spectrum approach to this, a whole-of-society approach. And I draw the analogy and we’ve given advice to the British Government by using such analogies that if you consider the question of racism, if you consider the issue of homophobia and anti-Semitism, full-on civil society campaigns have, within my own lifetime, within one generation, turned these debates around to a point where if you asked me at 15 years old if I would ever imagine an African-American President of the United States, I would have laughed you out of the room, but that’s something we’ve seen within our own lifetime. In the United Kingdom we have a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who has introduced gay marriage equality laws whilst he’s serving as Prime Minister, yet I grew up under Margaret Thatcher, and again, I would have walked you – I would have laughed you out of the room if you asked me whether that would be possible under a Conservative Prime Minister.

So, we’ve arrived at a situation where in the issues, in the debates around racism and homophobia, these have actually really been turned around. So what we argue is that likewise for Islamism, we need a full spectrum, civil society approach to challenge this, not to shy away from it, to break away from this Voldemort effect, the taboo of not being able to name the ideology for what it is and then to actually employ or deploy all of the institutions within society. So whether that be the schools, whether that be media, whether that be politicians, civil society campaigners, all to start challenging and calling out Islamist theocratic tendencies wherever they see them. Now that full spectrum approach will also include, where necessary, a military approach. So of course ISIS is waging war on civilisation and it needs to be met with force where necessary. So we’re not restricting any other approach, whether it be military or legal, but what we’re saying is what’s been missing up until now, because of course there has been plenty of war and there have been plenty of laws – what’s been missing up until now has been the recognition that this is actually an ideas war, this is a civil society campaign and Islamism needs to be named and shamed. And it’s not just Muslims who are responsible, by the way, for doing this. All of society, as was with racism, as was with homophobia, because all of society’s affected by this, everyone’s responsible for taking on this challenge. But that includes Muslims as well, and unfortunately, many of my fellow Muslims are a bit defensive these days when it comes to facing this challenge.

TONY JONES: Maajid, that still leaves us with the problem of Syria and northern Iraq and – well particularly Syria at the moment. And you mentioned military intervention, but I understand from the dialogue that you actually would oppose a kind of Western-led military intervention into Syria, but can you see a Muslim army trying to stop ISIS? It’s just not going to happen, is it?

MAAJID NAWAZ: Well, I’m somewhere in the middle there. I don’t oppose air strikes. What I oppose is putting boots on the ground, whether American, British or Australian or any Western boots on the ground because I think what that does is it provides ISIS with a perfect opportunity to galvanise even more recruits from across the world. What I argue is it’s the responsibility of the Arab regimes and the Turkish Government next door to step up to this challenge and actually to take responsibility for policing their own backyard, and unfortunately they haven’t been doing that too well up until today. And in fact, it’s like, you know, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. On the one hand these governments and these societies complain when Western regimes invade or intervene, and yet on the other hand, when nothing’s done, they also complain. Well actually I think it’s a bit – it’s high time that they took responsibility for some of this. What we really need is an Arab Sunni force to challenge ISIS, and America though by the way needs to lead in organising and galvanising that coalition, but there needs to be Arab Sunni troops on the ground.

TONY JONES: We’re sort of drawing towards an end, but I’ve got to bring Sam Harris in to respond to that. The problem in Syria is profound. The expansion of ISIS, or Islamic State, across not only states but continents is continuing. What do you think is the answer there?

SAM HARRIS: Well I think we just have to keep the big picture in view because locally, yes, it’s easy to see or it’s not easy to see that there’s a solution that is gonna come any time soon to the Civil War in Syria. There are many, many pieces in play there. And I agree that American or British or other infidel boots on the ground there is so provocative and is essentially doing the public relations of ISIS for them that you want to avoid that if at all possible. But we need to recognise that we are inching our way towards a global civil society and that free speech simply has to win and that self-censorship that we have all practised after the Danish cartoon controversy or even before after Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a kind of self censorship that has been urged upon us by liberals for the most part, on the one hand, but then also our own religion demagogues who are worried about their own cases of blasphemy on the other, that’s – it’s a dead end. It’s a cul-de-sac ethically and politically that we have to find our way out of and we have to treat the Muslim community worldwide as adults who have to tolerate satire and have to tolerate free speech and have to tolerate pluralism and human rights. And we have to oblige them with every tool at our disposal, whether it’s economic or whether it’s military or whether it’s a matter of police enforcement. It depends at what level of society we’re encountering this problem. But these principles have to be non-negotiable and we really are not even at the starting line in our liberal discourse about this and that’s what my collaboration with Maajid is hoping to kindle in us, a – an understanding of what the first step forward is.

TONY JONES: OK, Maajid, a final thought. What happens if the reformist Islam that you and a relatively few others are promoting is simply ignored? Could we be heading for a genuine clash of civilisations, to use that hackneyed term?

MAAJID NAWAZ: Well I think this is a clash within civilisation. I mean, there are Arab democrats, there are secular liberal Arabs. We saw them overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in what was the country’s largest protest in its history. So, it’s a clash within civilisations. There are Muslims and non-Muslims – in fact we began the interview on this point. There are Muslims, non-Muslims, atheists, theists on the liberal, secular, universal side of this debate and there are atheists, Islamists and all forms of regressive leftists on the authoritarian or fellow travellers-to-theocrat side of this debate and actually they are the dividing lines. To answer your question, I don’t think there’s an option. This cannot fail. In fact Islamism, when implemented, without exception leads to nothing but misery, leads to nothing but darkness and gloom over those societies upon which it’s implemented and eventually people do want their own freedom and they want their own choices to make for themselves. So actually I think this is the only way forward. It’s just it’s gonna take us a while to get there. It’s inevitable that religions go through this form of reform process. The reason when people ask is: where is Islam’s reformation?, to put aside the problems with using that exact phrase because it has historical connotations, but people ask: where is the reform of Islam today? And I say to them, “Well actually what we see with ISIS, what we see going on around the world, we’re in the thick of it. We can’t see the wood for the trees because we’re in the middle of it.” But I believe that there is absolutely no other choice but for us to actually get through this and to continue this process of reform, but it does require people to speak up.

TONY JONES: Gentlemen, it’s a profound discussion and we thank you for joining us to continue it here. Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, thanks to both of you.

MAAJID NAWAZ: Thank you.

SAM HARRIS: Thank you, Tony.