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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-02-02 22:38
Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue - Maajid Nawaz,Sam Harris

'Liberals imagine that jihadists and islamists are acting as anyone else would given a similar history of unhappy encounters with the West. And they totally discount the role that religious beliefs play in inspiring a group like the Islamic State - to the point where it would be impossible for a jihadist to prove he was doing anything for religious reasons. Apparently it's not enough for an educated person with economic opportunities to devote himself to the most extreme and austere version of Islam, to articulate his religious reasons for doing so ad nauseam, and even to go as far as to confess his certainty about martyrdom on video before blowing himself up in a crowd. Such demonstrations of religious fanaticism are somehow considered rhetorically insufficient to prove that he really believed what he said he believed.' - Sam Harris page 47-48


I think that one paragraph sums up my frustrations with the debate on Islamic terrorism. Imagine if you went back in time to see the Knights Templar not give an inch in battle, driven by their religiously inspired, fervent belief in martyrdom. The conclusion you draw from this is that this was at root a frustration garnered from hundreds of years of eastern foreign policy in the form of Jihad and the knights' reaction has nothing to do with religion. Surely you'd have to be at least dishonest in that scenario to discount the role of religious conviction? And yet as Harris demonstrates, this has almost become a mainstream political opinion amongst so called liberals. Harris continues -


'The belief that a life of eternal pleasure awaits martyrs after death explains why certain people can honestly chant "we love death more than the infidels love life." They truly believe in martyrdom - as evidenced by the fact that they regularly sacrifice their lives, or watch their children do so, without a qualm. As we have been having this conversation there was an especially horrific attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, where members of the Taliban murdered 145 people, 132 of them children. Here's an except from an online conversation with a Taliban supporter in the aftermath of the massacre - Human life only has value among you worldly materialist thinkers. Death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of existence in a world much more beautiful than this. Paradise is for those pure of hearts. All children have pure hearts. They have not sinned yet... They have not been corrupted by their kafir parents. We did not end their lives. We gave them new ones in paradise, where they will be loved more than you can imagine. They will be rewarded for their martyrdom."


I think that speaks for itself. You would have to make the claim that the Taliban supporter is lying, in order to undermine the idea that extreme religious conviction plays some part in the terror debate and I personally think the weight of evidence rests against you if you do.


But anyway that's not even the debate that people should be having, the debate should be how do you deal with the tide of Islamist and jihadi groups around the globe? Maajid Nawaz argues that Islamism, the political belief of fundamentalism and the spreading of Islamic law and customs across all nations, must be defeated at grass roots levels within the Muslim community. They estimate that Islamist groups make up between 15 and 25% of the world's 1.6 billion strong Muslim population. He sees The Obama administrations refusal to name Islamism as being at the root of groups like IS as a failure. He believes that naming the problem instead of avoiding it, gives Muslims a choice to either 'reclaim our religion and its narrative, or allow thugs and demagogues to speak in its name and impose it on others. Calling it extremism is too relative and vague and sidesteps the responsibility to counter its scriptural justification.' He means scriptural justification here in the sense that one may interpret many things from the Qu'ran and ahadith and one of those readings is the skewed beliefs of Islamic State. He also mentions however that another essential thing that needs to happen is for there to be an acknowledgement that there are many different interpretations possible, each to the person who reads the scripture. Essentially if the Muslim community can get to the stage where the interpretations are personal to the person and there is no right answer, this is the first step on the way to pluralism and secularism. 


I've done rather a hatchet job here of what is a short, at 128 pages, yet valuable conversation in which the intricacies and problems of the debate are analysed in such greater depth. Despite its small length, it is definitely a worthy addition to the field and a good discussion between two respectful men, one a liberal Muslim, the other a liberal atheist. The more this is talked about and the less it is approached with apprehension and shame the better for our society. 

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review 2015-12-19 00:00
Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue - Maajid Nawaz,Sam Harris I've been wanting to read an informative book about the politics of Islam for a while now, and I'm ready to assume (perhaps somewhat lazily) that this slim volume was the thing. It does not offer an analysis of Islam as such, it does not present the religion; instead, it gives a view of its place in today's world, and a more-than-basic explanation of why Islam, in its traditional form, does not agree with many aspects of modern Western culture. It also discusses some of the more (indirectly) problematic responses to Islam on the part of Western liberals.

1. I really appreciated the explanation of the breakdowns and divisions Maajid Nawaz gave - I think it is really hard for Christians to envisage the complex divisions among Muslims, especially as the ratios of what we perceive as 'radical' to 'liberal' are very different in the two faiths (the term used here in the widest meaning possible); also, more importantly, the very understanding of 'liberal' and 'radical' is different (this is also discussed).

2. Coming from one of the major Antemurales Christianitatis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antemurale_Christianitatis ), I find it refreshing to see a text on Islam which isn't written from a Christian perspective or with an implied Christian context. Instead, the focus is on Islam versus human right values, or, which I find more patronizing, but nevertheless real, 'progress'.

3. Harris makes a few major points; that Islam is, in its traditional (is this a proper word?) form, a religion of conquest, to a greater degree than Christianity (I still wouldn't like to meet Cortez, though). That reformers of Islam - and, to be politically correct, other religions - are essentially unfaithful to their primary messages (but he also claims it's better to live with this dilemma than to not attempt reform). Longish quote ahead, hidden under spoiler tags:
In the twenty-first century, the moderate’s commitment to scientific rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value—values that, as you say, are potentially universal for human beings—comes from the past thousand years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern, ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there. Moderates seem unwilling to grapple with the fact that all scriptures contain an extraordinary amount of stupidity and barbarism that can always be rediscovered and made holy anew by fundamentalists—and there’s no principle of moderation internal to the faith that prevents this. These fundamentalist readings are, almost by definition, more complete and consistent—and, therefore, more honest.

4. Harris makes an interesting point about Western liberals trying to justify Islam as 'oriental' (I'm using this word to signal postcolonial, yet still patronizing perception/ white guilt; I don't remember whether Harris used it), and being tolerant of the worst aspects of the unreformed Islam. According to him,
[while] they rightly question every aspect of their “own” Western culture in the name of progress, they censure liberal Muslims who attempt to do so within Islam, and they choose to side instead with every regressive reactionary in the name of “cultural authenticity” and anticolonialism.
He also says that worringly, radical Muslims are more likely to be represented in the media than the 'reformed' ones also due to the fact that in the West, it is felt that the former are somewhat more genuine, and thus - representative of the faith. (This is scary; I can imagine my reaction to being 'represented' by a traditionalist Catholic - which is quite easy, since my country is currently ruled by people who represent such views. And, as Harris implies, the distance between reformed and traditionalist Muslims is greater than between liberal and traditionalist Catholics.)

Probably it is a simplification - but a more intelligent one than the ones I've encountered so far. I cannot help being worried by the fact that all top positive reviews seem to be written by Americans (American atheists?)
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