This short book is about a dialogue between Sam Harris—a prominent atheist—and Maajid Nawaz—a former radical—about certain problematic aspects of Islam and the likelihood of reforming the practice of this religion for the betterment of not just Muslims but all humankind.
Discussions about Islam often tend to get mired in conceptual confusion about the meaning of various commonly bandied about terms. Given this state of affairs, Nawaz admirably assists the reader by clearly explaining the meaning of several germane terms. In particular, we learn that although Islam is just a religion, Islamism “is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society” (p. 120). Similarly, Jihadism is “the use of force to spread Islamism” (p. 120). Finally, Jihadi terrorism is “the use of force that targets civilians to spread Islamism” (p. 120).
With these definitions out of the way, let us now focus on the substantive aspects of the Harris/Nawaz dialogue. Harris begins by asking Nawaz how he could credibly defend the position that Islam is a religion of peace and that it has been hijacked by extremists. Nawaz responds to this opening salvo by pointing out that “Islam is not a religion of war or of peace—it’s just a religion” (p. 5). He goes to note that since a religion does not speak for itself, it is very important to comprehend the sense in which he thinks Islam is a religion of peace. Specifically, Islam is a religion of peace to Nawaz because the vast majority of Muslims today do not see it as a religion of war. This notwithstanding, Nawaz acknowledges that even if Islam is primarily what Muslims make of it, we still need to critically comprehend the lamentable fact that noteworthy numbers of Muslims think that suicide bombings against civilians are “often” or “sometimes” justified.
The next point taken up by Harris relates to a group of individuals he calls “liberal apologists.” As he rightly explains, in the West in general and in the United States in particular, there is “now a large industry of apology and obfuscation designed, it would seem, to protect Muslims from having to grapple with the kinds of facts...[he and Nawaz have] been talking about” (p. 46). In particular, these apologists, claims Harris, are problematic because they are quick to equate any criticism of Islamic doctrines with bigotry, Islamophobia, and even racism. Nawaz agrees with this perspective and goes on to discuss what he calls the “betrayal of liberalism” (p. 49). The key problem with “liberal apologists,” contends Nawaz, is that they are “reverse racists.” What he means by this animadversion is that while these individuals question every aspect of their own Western culture in the name of progress, they reprimand liberal Muslims who attempt to do the same in their culture, and prefer to side with regressive, reactionary elements in the name of “cultural authenticity” (p. 49).
When it comes to the apposite interpretation of Islamic scripture, a point made repeatedly by Nawaz is that “[t]he only truth is that there is no correct way to interpret scripture” (p. 77). Although this may be true in principle, one needs to recognize that groups like the Islamic State who commit mass murder in the name of Islam clearly believe that their way is the correct way to read and interpret scripture. This point is not developed in sufficient detail although Nawaz does go on to say, perhaps accurately, that if there is no right answer to interpreting scripture then “pluralism is the only option” (p. 77).
A crucial point made by Harris relates to what he believes are the two central messages of the Quran. As he justifiedly points out, the Quran repeatedly demonizes infidels. In addition, it dwells excessively on the hereafter, i.e., on life in paradise. He asks Nawaz whether he agrees with the idea that any reform of Islam will have to squarely address these two odious messages. Nawaz acknowledges the gravity of these two issues and agrees that they pose serious problems for Muslims in contemporary times. Even so, he reminds the reader that one simply cannot approach scripture “by imposing upon it meanings that words have come to acquire today while ignoring what they meant then” (p. 91).
To conclude, this brief book contains a lively exchange between two individuals with very different points of view about Islam in general and the scourge of radical Islam in particular. As such, readers who are interested in learning more about whether it is possible to reform Islam in a meaningful manner will profit by perusing this book.