Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz continue their charade of a “conversation.” These two are not having a conversation, they are just two individuals with shallow ideas who’ve mastered PR and media manipulation to claim an out-sized importance and ability to effect change.
The whole frame that pin points “extremism” as uniquely “Islamic” or even more dangerous than other “extremisms” needs to be challenged.
It is not an unreasonable expectation of the Harvard Institute of Politics’ John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum that it host events that produce critical, informed, and productive dialogue. Unfortunately, an event hosted on September 14 titled, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance,” did anything but that. This panel discussion between Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and atheist activist, and Maajid Nawaz, a self-professed former radical and U.K. politician—moderated by Juliette Kayyem of the Kennedy School—was instead an echo chamber of conventional anti-Islamic and neoconservative thought, rife with the traditional claims that Islam is inherently violent and that the only way to remedy this is via Western-style religious reform.
The dialogue between Harris and Nawaz, one which they claim is a groundbreaking effort to solve the issue of Islamic extremism, is in fact counterproductive because it ignores actual Muslim communities and their efforts on these fronts and fundamentally misunderstands the Islamic tradition and its relationships with reform. It also engages people who either have no formal training in what they’re talking about, or just have very little to do with the conversation (like Sam Harris himself), thus creating a space of illusory significance which ultimately produces nothing of lasting value.
A Contextual Vacuum
Listening to Sam Harris talk about “how depressing the state of the [anti-extremism] conversation is,” one would think that the discussion of Islamic extremism and how to prevent it is practically non-existent, both within and outside Muslim communities. Indeed, Kayyem’s question about how to get people to talk about ideology and begin to rethink it places the listener in a world in which Islamic extremism has never been confronted and these sorts of discussions never had, thus making the dialogue between Harris and Nawaz a groundbreaking effort. Unfortunately for Harris and Nawaz, however, that is not the world in which we live.
Instead, we live in a world that has seen Muslim communities engaged in vigorous, critical conversations that address the issues of Islamic extremism head on, in both scholarship and community activity. One need only google “Muslims condemn” to find a plethora of statements from Muslim organizations of all sizes condemning various acts of violence committed in the name of their faith (there’s even a Tumblr blog about it).
Furthermore, many of these are not merely condemnations; they are in fact fatwas, or non-binding legal rulings that assert a position supported by Islamic texts and tradition, often while refuting the opposing side’s position via a discussion of its own evidence. Perhaps, if Harris and Kayyem are looking for these sorts of conversations, they could look to the 20 North American Imams who issued a fatwa against terrorism in 2010, or the 18 American Muslim scholars who issued another (co-signed by over 130 Muslim organizations) against terrorism in 2005. Or maybe they want numbers in the hundreds, like the 120 Muslim scholars who wrote a fatwa as an open letter to ISIS in 2014 which responds to each of ISIS’s religious claims in detail, or the 165 Somali religious leaders who issued one condemning Al-Shabaab. Still not enough? They can have this fatwa issued by the British Muslim Forum on behalf of over 500 scholars in 2005, or, if they really want a big one, this 2008 fatwa endorsed by 6,000 Indian scholars that declares “all forms of terrorism against the spirit of Islam.”
And if these several-page fatwas are not quite scholarly enough for them, they can also have this comprehensive 512-page Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, written by Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri in 2011, which refutes claims of an ideological basis for violence and condemns terrorism in the starkest terms.