Can an American atheist who has said that “the West is at war with Islam” and a secular, former Islamist Muslim find common ground?
This book is written as a “dialogue” rather than a debate between the bestselling Harris (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, 2015, etc.) and the activist author Nawaz (Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism, 2013, etc.), who went from imprisonment for his extremist recruiting to co-founding and directing the London-based Quilliam, “the world’s first counter-extremism organization.” The exchange is civil and marked by mutual respect, more informative (particularly from the latter) than argumentative. The two agree on far more than they don’t, seeing pluralism and secularism as the paths to tolerance and condemning “liberal apologists [who equate] any criticism of Islamic doctrines with bigotry, ‘Islamophobia’ or even ‘racism.’ ” Those are the words of Harris, frequently tagged as such for his criticisms of Islamic violence. Nawaz calls such apologists “regressive leftists” and “reverse racists.” The primary illumination of the exchanges in the book are Nawaz’s clarifications for those who—like Harris, perhaps—tend to paint Islam with too broad a brush, to see the religion as monolithic and bent on war against Western values. “Islam is just a religion,” he explains. “Islamism is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society. Islamism is, therefore, theocratic extremism. Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism.” He further explains how conservative Muslims may in fact be anti-jihadis while still opposing the liberal freedom of the secular West and how al-Qaida was the result of Islamic extremism, not the cause. Even when Harris offers a surprising semidefense of the Crusades, Nawaz refuses to take the bait, seeming more concerned with promoting understanding than winning points.
A wider range of viewpoints might have made this discussion even more valuable, but readers with a knee-jerk opinion of Islam will learn a lot.