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Book review – Islam and the future of tolerance.

From the moment when the 11/9 attacks inevitably changed the way in which a number of issues were communicated to and perceived by the general public, Islam has been at the heart of many discussions at every level. It’s extremely striking, though, that fifteen years after those tragic events, despite all the changes that the world experienced, the debate on the issue seems to have made few progresses.

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The implicit question that opens Islam and the Future of Tolerance, recently published by no less than Harvard University Press, is a clear sign of that. Neuroscientist Sam Harris, in fact, immediately questions the assumption of his co-author and interlocutor, Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation, that “Islam is a religion of peace”. To an attentive reader, this should ring as a warning bell. In fact, the whole book seems to follow the same path of countless other debates that have taken place in the last years, which means that it shares the same fundamental flaws.
What one would expect from a text having Islam as its focus is a plurality of views from within the Muslim communities, or at least a prominence given to the opinions of the Muslim discussant, with the interviewer in the position of the one who asks questions and seek for explanations and clarifications, trying to get the best out of his interlocutor’s thoughts for the benefit of the audience. Harris does exactly the opposite, putting his own position (which happens to be that of a self-defined “rational atheist” whose ideas on the issue have often been associated with those of right-wingers) at the centre of the debate. This means that quite often Muslims as a whole are depicted as prone to extremism and possibly even violence, even when Nawaz uses good arguments to demonstrate the opposite.

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A good example is the issue of shari’ah law implementation: Harris repeatedly mentions polls according to which a large minority of the British Muslim respondents is favourable to its application, despite Nawaz’s caveat that such an answer might make no sense at all, since “live under shari’ah can mean different things to different respondents”. The impression given to the reader is that Nawaz, which is actually right, is perpetually on the defensive and the same can be said in many other cases, for instance when he tries to underline that religious motivation do not automatically lead to violence and that other factors must be taken into account, or that human interpretation of a text (even of a holy book) is more important than its literal content.

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Harris’s attempt to reduce to a handful of ready-made theories the complex object of this debate, is paradoxically made easier, in some way, by Nawaz’s presence. The co-founder of Quilliam, in fact, is not a neutral figure, despite the interesting insights he gives, from time to time, on both history and current events. Once an imprisoned radical Islamic activist, his aim is now to counter radical ideology through his organization and to advocate for a reform of Islam. Even without taking into consideration the fact that his approach has been sometimes questioned, he appears exactly the most appropriate person to confirm a deeply rooted misconception: that narratives and ideologies are far more important than, for instance, concrete grievances when coming to the causes of violence, at least in the sense that they are the only side of the question that can be addressed. “The grievances themselves will always be there. It’s the nature of life. What we can change is the ideological lens”, Nawaz says for instance during the conversation.

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Perhaps, Sam Harris’s assumption – that probably finds its roots in his neuroscience studies – that a violent mind is not the result of a social context but rather of its own internal proceedings, would have been cast in a very different light by another interviewee. Moreover, despite Nawaz’s vast erudition, he cannot be regarded as the only valid representative and interpreter of a religion which is practised by over 1.6 billion people in countries as culturally different and geographically distant as, for instance, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia. In particular, Nawaz’s personal history, although fascinating, distances him from those ordinary people who fully live their culture and religion but are neither violent nor tempted by extremism and who are the vast majority of all Muslim believers. It’s precisely their voice that has almost never be heard in these years of heated ideological debates, nor – despite Nawaz’s efforts – it is in this conversation.
In the end, despite its ambitious title, one can say that Islam and the future of tolerance is another missed occasion to start a truly fruitful debate on both issues. Indeed, it gives at least a less sketchy vision of some issues but – also due to its shortness – does not really go beyond this: the average reader, whatever his positions are, will surely find in this dialogue a confirmation of some of his or her pre-existing beliefs, rather than some reasons to further analyze them. (D.M.)   

Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the future of tolerance. A dialogue, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA – London 2015, 138 pp.

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