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Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris
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“No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“The problem is that moderates of all faiths are committed to reinterpreting, or ignoring outright, the most dangerous and absurd parts of their scripture—and this commitment is precisely what makes them moderates. But it also requires some degree of intellectual dishonesty, because moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside. 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. The fundamentalist picks up the book and says, “Okay, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what God wants from me. I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.” Conversely, every moderate seems to believe that his interpretation and selective reading of scripture is more accurate than God’s literal words. Presumably, God could have written these books any way He wanted. And if He wanted them to be understood in the spirit of twenty-first-century secular rationality, He could have left out all those bits about stoning people to death for adultery or witchcraft. It really isn’t hard to write a book that prohibits sexual slavery—you just put in a few lines like “Don’t take sex slaves!” and “When you fight a war and take prisoners, as you inevitably will, don’t rape any of them!” And yet God couldn’t seem to manage it. This is why the approach of a group like the Islamic State holds a certain intellectual appeal (which, admittedly, sounds strange to say) because the most straightforward reading of scripture suggests that Allah advises jihadists to take sex slaves from among the conquered, decapitate their enemies, and so forth.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“The great liberal betrayal of this generation is that in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups. And minorities within minorities really do suffer because of this betrayal. The people I really worry about when we have this conversation are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims—all the vulnerable and bullied individuals who are not just stigmatized but in many cases violently assaulted or killed merely for being against the norm.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“One of the problems with religion is that it creates in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“It really isn’t hard to write a book that prohibits sexual slavery—you just put in a few lines like “Don’t take sex slaves!” and “When you fight a war and take prisoners, as you inevitably will, don’t rape any of them!” And yet God couldn’t seem to manage it.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“The great liberal betrayal of this generation is that in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups. And minorities within minorities really do suffer because of this betrayal.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“More violence does not necessarily equate with greater religious conviction.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“the four factors in radicalization: a grievance narrative, whether real or perceived; an identity crisis; charismatic recruiters; and ideological dogma.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“Rather than support the rights of women and girls to not live as slaves, for instance, Western liberals support the right of theocrats to treat their wives and daughters however they want—and to be spared offensive cartoons in the meantime.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“As you know, the public conversation about the connection between Islamic ideology and Muslim intolerance and violence has been stifled by political correctness. In the West, 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 we’ve been talking about. The humanities and social science departments of every university are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars—deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other fields—who claim that Muslim extremism is never what it seems. These experts insist that we can never take Islamists and jihadists at their word and that none of their declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy have anything to do with their real motivations.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“Critiquing Islam, critiquing any idea, is not bigotry. “Islamophobia” is a troubled and inherently unhelpful term. Yes, hatred of Muslims by neo-Nazi-style groups does exist, and it is a form of cultural intolerance, but that must never be conflated with the free-speech right to critique Islam. Islam is, after all, an idea; we cannot expect its merits or demerits to be accepted if we cannot openly debate it.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“We can’t remain silent on gender rights and personal freedoms.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“The great liberal betrayal of this generation is that in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups. And minorities within minorities really do suffer because of this betrayal. The people I really worry about when we have this conversation are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims—all the vulnerable and bullied individuals who are not just stigmatized but in many cases violently assaulted or killed merely for being against the norm.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“A great liberal betrayal is afoot. Unfortunately, many “fellow-travelers” of Islamism are on the liberal side of this debate. I call them “regressive leftists”; they are in fact reverse racists. They have a poverty of expectation for minority groups, believing them to be homogenous and inherently opposed to human rights values. They are culturally reductive in how they see “Eastern”—and in my case, Islamic—culture, and they are culturally deterministic in attempting to freeze their ideal of it in order to satisfy their orientalist fetish. 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. They claim that their reason for refusing to criticize any policy, foreign or domestic—other than those of what they consider “their own” government—is that they are not responsible for other governments’ actions. However, they leap whenever any (not merely their own) liberal democratic government commits a policy error, while generally ignoring almost every fascist, theocratic, or Muslim-led dictatorial regime and group in the world. It is as if their brains cannot hold two thoughts at the same time. Besides, since when has such isolationism been a trait of liberal internationalists? It is a right-wing trait. They hold what they think of as “native” communities—and I use that word deliberately—to lesser standards than the ones they claim apply to all “their” people, who happen to be mainly white, and that’s why I call it reverse racism. In holding “native” communities to lesser—or more culturally “authentic”—standards, they automatically disempower those communities. They stifle their ambitions. They cut them out of the system entirely, because there’s no aspiration left. These communities end up in self-segregated “Muslim areas” where the only thing their members aspire to is being tin-pot community leaders, like ghetto chieftains. The “fellow-travelers” fetishize these “Muslim” ghettos in the name of “cultural authenticity” and identity politics, and the ghetto chieftains are often the leading errand boys for them. Identity politics and the pseudo-liberal search for cultural authenticity result in nothing but a downward spiral of competing medieval religious or cultural assertions, fights over who are the “real” Muslims, ever increasing misogyny, homophobia, sectarianism, and extremism. This is not liberal. Among the left, this is a remnant of the socialist approach that prioritizes group identity over individual autonomy. Among the right, it is ironically a throwback from the British colonial “divide and rule” approach. Classical liberalism focuses on individual autonomy. I refer here to liberalism as it is understood in the philosophical sense, not as it’s understood in the United States to refer to the Democratic Party—that’s a party-political usage. The great liberal betrayal of this generation is that in the name of liberalism, communal rights have been prioritized over individual autonomy within minority groups. And minorities within minorities really do suffer because of this betrayal. The people I really worry about when we have this conversation are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, ex-Muslims—all the vulnerable and bullied individuals who are not just stigmatized but in many cases violently assaulted or killed merely for being against the norm.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“I think it would be extremely helpful if people focused on the ideas being discussed here, rather than on calling you names—which is an easy way to ignore your ideas.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“So when you say that no religion is intrinsically peaceful or warlike, and that every scripture must be interpreted, I think you run into problems, because many of these texts aren’t all that elastic. They aren’t susceptible to just any interpretation, and they commit their adherents to specific beliefs and practices. You can’t say, for instance, that Islam recommends eating bacon and drinking alcohol. And even if you could find some way of reading the Qur’an that would permit those things, you can’t say that its central message is that a devout Muslim should consume as much bacon and alcohol as humanly possible. Nor can one say that the central message of Islam is pacifism. (However, one can say that about Jainism. All religions are not the same.) One simply cannot say that the central message of the Qur’an is respect for women as the moral and political equals of men. To the contrary, one can say that under Islam, the central message is that women are second-class citizens and the property of the men in their lives. I want to be clear that when I used terms such as “pretense” and “intellectual dishonesty” when we first met, I wasn’t casting judgment on you personally. Simply living with the moderate’s dilemma may be the only way forward, because the alternative would be to radically edit these books. I’m not such an idealist as to imagine that will happen.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“Grievances are not in themselves sufficient to radicalize somebody. They are half the truth. My meaning is best summarized this way: when we in the West failed to intervene in the Bosnian genocide, some Muslims became radicalized; when we did intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq, more Muslims became radicalized; when we failed to intervene in Syria, many more Muslims became radicalized. The grievance narrative that pins the blame on foreign policy is only half the story. It is insufficient as an explanation for radicalization.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“Islamism. It’s an ideology. People are seeking to bring it about, but they differ in their approach.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“But we’re also taught that you’re not a martyr if you blow yourself up in a marketplace, because you’re killing civilians and other Muslims.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
tags: martyr
“After the Islamic State, even al-Qaeda appears ‘moderate’.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“Critiquing Islam, critiquing any idea, is not bigotry.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“We’re currently faced with two entirely different challenges – facing down Islamism and jihadism on the one hand, and advancing human rights and democratic culture on the other.”
Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“I want to be clear that when I used terms such as “pretense” and “intellectual dishonesty” when we first met, I wasn’t casting judgment on you personally. Simply living with the moderate’s dilemma may be the only way forward, because the alternative would be to radically edit these books. I’m not such an idealist as to imagine that will happen. We can’t say, “Listen, you barbarians: These holy books of yours are filled with murderous nonsense. In the interests of getting you to behave like civilized human beings, we’re going to redact them and give you back something that reads like Kahlil Gibran. There you go … Don’t you feel better now that you no longer hate homosexuals?” However, that’s really what one should be able to do in any intellectual tradition in the twenty-first century. Again, this problem confronts religious moderates everywhere, but it’s an excruciating problem for Muslims.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“This is one of the things I find so insufferable about the liberal backlash against critics of Islam—especially the pernicious meme “Islamophobia,” by which anyone who thinks Islam merits special concern at this moment in history is branded a bigot.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“As you know, the public conversation about the connection between Islamic ideology and Muslim intolerance and violence has been stifled by political correctness. In the West, 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 we’ve been talking about. The humanities and social science departments of every university are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars—deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other fields—who claim that Muslim extremism is never what it seems. These experts insist that we can never take Islamists and jihadists at their word and that none of their declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy have anything to do with their real motivations. When one asks what the motivations of Islamists and jihadists actually are, one encounters a tsunami of liberal delusion. Needless to say, the West is to blame for all the mayhem we see in Muslim societies. After all, how would we feel if outside powers and their mapmakers had divided our lands and stolen our oil? These beleaguered people just want what everyone else wants out of life. They want economic and political security. They want good schools for their kids. They want to be free to flourish in ways that would be fully compatible with a global civil society. 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 that 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 so 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. Of course, if he said he did these things because he was filled with despair and felt nothing but revulsion for humanity, or because he was determined to sacrifice himself to rid his nation of tyranny, such a psychological or political motive would be accepted at face value. This double standard is guaranteed to exonerate religion every time. The game is rigged.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“secularism is simply a commitment to keeping religion out of politics and public policy.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“secularism is simply a commitment to keeping religion out of politics and public policy. Your religion is your business, and my religion, or lack of one, is mine. A willingness to build a wall of separation between church and state is what defines secularism—but, as you point out, behind that wall one may be a full-blown religious fanatic, so long as one doesn’t try to impose the fruits of one’s fanaticism on others.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“texts don’t speak for themselves”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
“We Muslims must get used to the fact that people will criticize our religion, just as we criticize everyone else’s religion for not being “true.” Some people will choose to leave the faith, and we Muslims will need to come to terms with this, and to understand how to treat ex-Muslims not just with civility but with the utmost respect. Critiquing Islam, critiquing any idea, is not bigotry. “Islamophobia” is a troubled and inherently unhelpful term. Yes, hatred of Muslims by neo-Nazi-style groups does exist, and it is a form of cultural intolerance, but that must never be conflated with the free-speech right to critique Islam. Islam is, after all, an idea; we cannot expect its merits or demerits to be accepted if we cannot openly debate it. So I’m not one to try to avoid these issues. We have to address them head-on.”
Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

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