Book 36: Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz

I picked this book up on a whim the week before my classes started (violating my no-buy for the third or tenth time) at the campus bookstore. It’s assigned reading for some lower level undergraduate class from what I could tell, (it seems to be a new requirement to take a course that helps acclimate you to college life via higher thinking skills etc.) and it sparked my interest.

I’m very much against the rampant Islamophobia that is sadly dominating American culture today, and this looked to be a brief discussion on the subject of approaching tolerance. I was, however, quite skeptical when I got the book home and read the back jacket only to find that the authors are “a famous atheist and a former radical,” seeing as how there didn’t seem to be any moderate viewpoint that would be expressed, but it proclaimed to “make progress,” so I decided to persevere.

The style that this book is written in is quite casual; it’s literally a dialogue between two men. There are footnotes to help make the topics more accessible to the average reader. It seems almost like the transcript for a talk show, aside from the footnotes. Harris begins by asking Nawaz many questions, and the dialogue continues.

Harris and Nawaz definitely have different backgrounds and arguments. They’re both published authors with books on their respective subjects, atheism and radicalism. I can’t help but wonder how the publication of this text affected their sales.

I definitely appreciated that Nawaz had the perspective of a former extremist. His experiences help put the theoretical extremist into a real view, and shows the never-ending cycle of change that we as humans go through. Though I was skeptical about the extremist vs. atheist dynamic, I can certainly understand how that sort of opposition would foster in intense and meaningful dialogue. Overall, I enjoyed Nawaz for his willingness to explain the difference between a Muslim extremist and a conservative Muslim, something that seems to be a common area of confusion for the masses.

Harris can come off as arrogant at times, and certainly speaks with a tone that leads me to believe that he’s a bit full of himself, but those observations are hinging on baseless insult so I digress. I specifically have an issue with his choice to often interject in the dialogue and over-explain Nawaz’s points and vocabulary; treating the reader like they’re an idiot is never the best route to take. If the reader chose this book, they likely knew the definition of the word “secular” and did not need a paragraph of Harris patronizing them with a definition. Keeping in mind, I read as a writer, and I call total bullshit on the approach used here; always trust your reader’s abilities to grasp arguments, understand jokes/symbolism/etc.

I also heavily disagree with his choice to call Islamophobia a “pernicious meme,” and can’t get past his choice to continuously argue the concept of “literalism” when reading scriptures. The pages that delve into this concept as well as the argument that follows are tiring; there’s no singular literal interpretation of a religious text and the concept that there is does nothing but validate the thought process behind the development of extremist groups, as Nawaz discussed at multiple points in the dialogue.

I definitely see Nawaz as the more valuable resource here; he has the background and lived experiences that Harris lacks. Harris has plenty of data, but still an overall etic perspective. Nawaz’s writing/speaking flows well, is based on fact and lived experience, though it doesn’t seem heavily biased.

The use of the term “reverse racists,” on p. 49 was quite confusing, and different from what I’ve heard before but all the same quite alarming. Its definitely not being used in the same context as the faux sociological term, but it still made me a bit info mortals. Nawaz later calls it “reverse bigotry,” which I find far more palatable. It’s also in this section that Nawaz somehow predicts the failures of the UK’s liberals (what now could be argued as having come into fruition through Brexit).

It’s a quick read coming in at 128 pages, and it’s a decent one at that. It also includes an index and a list of further reading, should the reader wish to continue learning on the subject and in hopes to better explain their stances. Both authors’ books are listed as further reading. I might consider delving into Nawaz’s book, but this is undoubtedly my last book with involvement from Harris.

I give the book a 5/10.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

Happy reading,


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