These highlights were taken the Kindle version of Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.
I was born and raised in Essex, in the United Kingdom, and grew up in what I refer to as the bad old days of racism in my country. A case that changed the course of race relations in the UK, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, led to a government inquiry that produced the Macpherson report.2 That report coined the phrase “institutional racism” and judged that it existed in the police forces of the UK. It was a serious indictment.
Naturally, my generation became disgruntled, disillusioned, and disconnected from society. Into that grave identity crisis came the Islamist ideological group that I eventually joined. The group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, is of the revolutionary variety, remains active across the world, and is still legal in the West. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem during an earlier Muslim identity crisis after the creation of Israel, Hizb ut-Tahrir was the first Islamist group to popularize the idea of creating a theocratic “caliphate,” or an “Islamic state.” Rather than terrorism, its members use recruiting and winning over Muslim public opinion, with the eventual aim of inciting military coups in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan in order to come to power.
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.
Saddam Hussein was the perfect example: he was a universally hated secular tyrant. But the moment a coalition of non-Muslim states attacked him, much of the Muslim world was outraged that “Muslim lands” were being invaded by infidels. Of course, there were many perfectly sane reasons to be against the war in Iraq, but that wasn’t among them. 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.
In 1999, midway through my law and Arabic degree at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), I took a year off and went to Pakistan on the instructions of Hizb ut-Tahrir to help cofound the Pakistani branch. Pakistan had just tested its atomic bomb a year earlier, and the global leader of our group aspired to a nuclear caliphate.
Anywhere we laid the foundations of this organization, we very specifically targeted army officers so that we could incite military coups. In 2000, after my return from Pakistan, I was personally involved in conversations with Pakistani cadets who had come to study at Britain’s Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. Since then, Pakistan has witnessed aborted coup plots by my former organization, some of which have been reported in the press.
In 2001, my studies took me to Egypt for my Arabic-language year. I arrived one day before the 9/11 attacks. Not fully comprehending the significance of those attacks, I continued recruiting across Egypt for my cause. In April 2002, my Alexandria residence was raided by Egyptian state security officers. I was blindfolded, had my hands tied behind my back, and was taken to state security headquarters in Cairo, where I witnessed other prisoners being tortured by electrocution. I was twenty-four years old.
It was a combination of my lengthy revisionist conversations with other prisoners and Amnesty’s outreach that started me on the long journey toward a liberal, human rights–based secular perspective. In 2006, I was released from prison and returned to London. In 2008, while completing my master’s degree in political theory at the London School of Economics, I cofounded and went on to chair Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism organization.
So that there’s absolutely no confusion for our readers, when I say “Islamism,” I mean the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam on society. When I say “jihadism,” I mean the use of force to spread Islamism.
Islamism and jihadism are politicized, contemporary readings of Islam and jihad; they are not Islam and jihad per se. As I’ve said, Islam is a traditional religion like any other, replete with sects, denominations, and variant readings. But Islamism is the desire to impose any of those readings on society. It is commonly expressed as the desire to enforce a version of shari’ah as law.
One group analyzed the past forty years of parliamentary elections in Muslim-majority countries and found that on average, Islamist parties have carried 15 percent of the vote. This suggests that 15 percent of the world’s Muslims are Islamists. However, poll results on the topic of shari’ah generally show much higher levels of support for its implementation—killing adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, and so forth. I’m not sure what to think about a society in which 15 percent of people vote for an Islamist party, but 40 percent or even 60 percent want apostates killed. If nothing else, that would seem to nudge the proportion of Islamists a little higher. I’ve been saying that the number is probably around 20 percent worldwide—an estimate I consider fairly conservative, whereas Muslim apologists consider it an outrageous fiction that testifies to my bigotry and paranoia.
Whether one looks to Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, or the Gulf, the majority of Muslims are currently conservative—some would call them fundamentalists. Let’s call them conservatives, because they don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to contemporary liberal human rights.
Most traditional Muslims consider Islamism an errant politicization of their religion. These people are extremely conservative in their own families and lifestyles—they do pose certain core human rights challenges—but they generally don’t want the state to impose their religion, because they want to retain the right to have their own understanding of what this religious conservatism means.
The vast majority of Muslims in, say, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt are conservative. This complicates matters, because 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. Conservative Muslims may be our allies for the former but not the latter.
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.
After the Islamic State, even al-Qaeda appears “moderate.” The term is so relative—juxtaposed against increasingly worse atrocities—that it has become meaningless. It doesn’t tell us which values the person in question holds. This is why I prefer using terms that denote values, such as “Islamist,” “liberal,” or “conservative” Muslim.
Tolerance in Britain
Polls that were done in Britain immediately after the 7/7 bombings in London revealed that more than 20 percent of British Muslims felt sympathy for the bombers’ motives; 30 percent wanted to live under shari’ah; 45 percent thought that 9/11 was the result of a conspiracy between the United States and Israel; and 68 percent believe that British citizens who “insult Islam” should be arrested and prosecuted.
One of the most alarming polls reported recently by the London Times found that one in every seven young Britons has “warm feelings” toward the Islamic State. Whether or not this is accurate, it suggests a level of grassroots sympathy that is too high for comfort. An ideological undercurrent within communities fosters these numbers. Britain has become a net exporter of Islamism and jihadism. My former Islamist group didn’t exist in Pakistan until we exported it from Britain.
Of course, jihadists believe in taking direct action; they have an entire theory around that. I’d argue, in fact, that the rise of the so-called Islamic State under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does somewhat vindicate Osama bin Laden’s strategy and his belief that making the West intervention-weary through war would lead to a power vacuum in the Middle East and that the West would abandon its support for Arab despots, which would lead to the crumbling of despotic regimes. From the ashes of that would rise an Islamic State. Bin Laden said this eleven years ago, and it’s uncanny how the Arab uprisings have turned out.
It is not necessarily accurate to assume that, say, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are somehow less pious than the leaders of, say, the Islamic State. More violence does not necessarily equate with greater religious conviction. Each group is deeply convinced of its approach to achieving Islamism in society, and both face much danger in pursuit of that goal. But they differ in methodology, and they very much despise each other, just as Trotsky and Stalin eventually did. That didn’t mean one was less a communist than the other; they had a factional dispute within their ideology. Some people misunderstand such disputes within Islamism. They argue, “What do you mean Islamism? There’s no such thing.” The Muslim Brotherhood hates groups like the Islamic State, and the Islamic State would kill members of the Muslim Brotherhood. I always remind them, that’s like saying there’s no such thing as communism just because Stalin is said to have killed Trotsky. It’s an absurd conclusion to reach. Of course there’s a thing called communism. And there’s a thing called Islamism. It’s an ideology. People are seeking to bring it about, but they differ in their approach.
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.
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.
Among the left, this is a remnant of the socialist approach that prioritizes group identity over individual autonomy.
I once wrote an article titled “The End of Liberalism?” in which I observed that these “fellow-travelers” have made it nearly impossible for well-intentioned, pluralistic, liberal people to speak honestly on this topic—leaving only fascists, neo-Nazis, and other right-wing lunatics to do the job. On some occasions the only people making accurate claims about the motivations of Islamists and jihadists are themselves dangerous bigots. That’s terrifying. We have extremists playing both sides of the board in a clash of civilizations, and liberals won’t speak sensibly about what’s happening.
The first stage in the empowerment of any minority community is the liberation of reformist voices within that community so that its members can take responsibility for themselves and overcome the first hurdle to genuine empowerment: the victimhood mentality. This is what the American civil rights movement achieved, by shifting the debate. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their own communities and acted in a positive and empowering way, instead of constantly playing the victim card or rioting in the streets. Perpetuating this groupthink mind-set is both extremely dangerous and in fact disempowering.
Now, as to the view that this is how anyone who had suffered imperialism or colonialism would behave: no, it’s not. Entire countries such as India, were colonized.
I believe that indulging identity politics can be dangerous. It usually leads to division. It doesn’t lead to communities’ standing together.
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.
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.
Imagine that a literalist and a moderate have gone to a restaurant for lunch, and the menu promises “fresh lobster” as the specialty of the house. Loving lobster, the literalist simply places his order and waits. The moderate does likewise, but claims to be entirely comfortable with the idea that the lobster might not really be a lobster after all—perhaps it’s a goose! And, whatever it is, it need not be “fresh” in any conventional sense—for the moderate understands that the meaning of this term shifts according to the context. This would be a very strange attitude to adopt toward lunch, but it is even stranger when considering the most important questions of existence—what to live for, what to die for, and what to kill for. Consequently, the appeal of literalism isn’t difficult to see. Human beings reflexively demand it in almost every area of their lives. It seems to me that religious people, to the extent that they’re certain that their scripture was written or inspired by the Creator of the universe, demand it too.
We definitely have to acknowledge that anything we say could apply to Judaism and Christianity. But a particular strand of a politicized version of the Muslim faith is causing a disproportionate share of problems in the world, so there are good reasons to focus on that strand.
It can sometimes be very hard to make a mental leap and put yourself into the mind of the average Pakistani. I know many Pakistani atheists who—alongside liberal Muslims—are trying to democratize their society from within Pakistan. You and I can have this discussion without fear, but for them such open discussions can result in death.
I’m well aware that millions of nominally Muslim freethinkers are in hiding out of necessity. 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. What worries me is that so many moderate Muslims believe that “Islamophobia” is a bigger problem than literalist Islam is. They seem more outraged that someone like me would equate jihad with holy war than that millions of their co-religionists do this and commit atrocities as a result.
In recent days, the Islamic State has been burning prisoners alive in cages and decapitating people by the dozen—and gleefully posting videos attesting to the enormity of their sadism online. Far from being their version of a My Lai massacre, these crimes against innocents represent what they unabashedly stand for.
A sensible way forward would be to establish this idea that there is no correct reading of scripture. This is especially easy for Sunnis—who represent 80 percent of the Muslims around the world—because they have no clergy. If a particular passage says “Smite their necks,” to conclude, despite all the passages that came before it and everything that comes after it, that this passage means “Smite their necks today” is to engage in a certain method of interpretation. If we could popularize the understanding that all conclusions from scripture are but interpretations, then all variant readings of a holy book would become a matter of differing human perspectives.
The best way to undermine extremists’ insistence that truth is on their side is to argue that theirs is merely one way of looking at things. The only truth is that there is no correct way to interpret scripture.
When you open it up like that, you’re effectively saying there is no right answer. And in the absence of a right answer, pluralism is the only option. And pluralism will lead to secularism, and to democracy, and to human rights. We must all focus on those values without worrying about whether atheism is the most intellectually pure approach. I genuinely believe that if we focus on the pluralistic nature of interpretation and on democracy, human rights, and secularism—on these values—we’ll get to a time of peace and stability in Muslim-majority countries that then allows for conversations like this. Questioning whether God really exists would become a choice, open to all.
The second central message—the other side of the same coin, really—is the promise of paradise, which explicitly devalues life in this world. Obviously, that isn’t unique to Islam either, but the belief in martyrdom, and in jihad as a way of achieving it, is primarily a Muslim phenomenon. Islam teaches that dying in defense of the faith is among the surest paths to paradise—and the only one to reach it directly, bypassing the Day of Judgment. Some teachings suggest that a martyr can bring seventy of his dearest friends and family in after him. And we all know about the virgins who seem to guarantee that eternity will be spent in an open-air bordello. 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.” Again, you and I both know that these people aren’t bluffing. 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’ve been having this dialogue there was an especially horrific attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, where members of the Taliban murdered 145 people, 132 of them children. The details are gruesome—and I don’t intend to dwell on them—but it is important to understand the irrationality and horror that these numbers conceal. We are talking about a group of young men who were willing to burn a teacher alive in front of her pupils, butcher every child they could get their hands on, and then blow themselves up to maximize the carnage and avoid being captured. It is very difficult for most people to understand how this behavior could be possible, and they generally imagine that only madmen could act this way.
Here is an excerpt from an online conversation that Ali A. Rizvi had with a Taliban supporter in the aftermath of the massacre in Peshawar (translated from Urdu and annotated by Rizvi; the speaker is the Taliban supporter):
“Human life” only has value among you worldly materialist thinkers. For us, this human life is only a tiny, meaningless fragment of our existence. Our real destination is the Hereafter. We don’t just believe it exists, we know it does. Death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of existence in a world much more beautiful than this. As you know, the [Urdu] word for death is “intiqaal.” It means “transfer,” not “end.” Paradise is for those of pure hearts. All children have pure hearts. They have not sinned yet … They have not yet 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. After all, we also martyr ourselves with them. The last words they heard were the slogan of Takbeer [“Allah u Akbar”]. Allah Almighty says Himself in Surhah Al-Imran [3:169–170] that they are not dead. You will never understand this. If your faith is pure, you will not mourn them, but celebrate their birth into Paradise.
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.
My view is that no idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity. As Ali A. Rizvi points out, if I say “smoking is bad,” this does not mean that I believe all smokers to be bad people.
Most of human history is a bloodbath, of course, so Islam is not unique in this. But it is misleading to suggest that the problems of Muslim triumphalism and intolerance are modern ones. I know that modern Islamism learned a trick or two from European fascism, but when Muslim armies were stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the world had witnessed a thousand years of jihad—which had spread the faith from Portugal to the Caucasus to India to sub-Saharan Africa. Islam was spread primarily by conquest, not conversation. Infidels were forced to convert or die.
It seems to me that a politically correct mythology is replacing history on many of these topics. Consider the Crusades. The Christians are often depicted as barbarian aggressors and the Muslims as their highly cultured victims. But the Crusades were primarily a response to 300 years of jihad (whether the crusaders were aware of the Islamic doctrine or not). They were a reaction to Muslim incursions in Europe, the persecution of Eastern Christians, and the desecration of Christian holy sites. And few people seem to remember that the crusaders lost all but the first of those wars.
Muslims, too, practiced slavery in Africa, and Western slavers appear to have learned a good deal from them. In fact, Muslims regularly enslaved white Christian Europeans. For hundreds of years, to live or travel anywhere on the Mediterranean was to risk being captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery. It is believed that more than a million Europeans were enslaved and forced to work in North Africa by Muslims between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
One of the most prolific and (in)famous jurists, whose ancient writings are held responsible for the revival of Wahhabism today, is Ibn Taymiyyah.
Any given subject has multiple interpretations, which demonstrates that there’s no correct one. If we can understand that, then we arrive at a respect for difference, which leads to tolerance and then pluralism, which in turn leads to democracy, secularism, and human rights. This is the approach we should take with religion generally. Of course, this approach only works if our adversaries are prepared to talk. Those terrorist groups that wish to willfully target and slaughter children en masse in order to “send them to paradise” should face the full force of our global, civilizational consensus, and be crushed.
One regularly hears Muslims saying, “Yes, we must follow the laws of England because our faith tells us that we should follow covenants.” But many of these people want the laws to change—indeed, many want shari’ah established in the UK. Hand-waving displays of tolerance often conceal some very ugly truths—which puts one in mind of the doctrine of taqqiya, wherein it is said that Muslims are encouraged to lie to infidels whenever it serves their purpose.
It seems to me that no matter how carefully one speaks on this issue, there is a problem of Muslim perception that keeps arising on the basis of two factors that we’ve already discussed. The first is the problem of identity: many Muslims feel a reflexive (and religiously mandated) solidarity with other Muslims, no matter how barbaric their commitments, simply because they happen to be Muslim. The second is the problem of ideology: scripture, read in anything but the most acrobatic, reformist way, seems to be on the side of the barbarians.
ISIS & Recruitment
As a result of these two factors, we find that any action we take against jihadists—bombing the Islamic State, killing Osama bin Laden, and so on—seems to increase recruitment for extremist organizations and a more generalized anger toward the West. No matter how surgical or well-intended our actions, some number of Muslims will conclude that they must now defend their faith against infidel aggressors rather than recognize that groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are the common enemies of all humanity. Again, their inability to recognize this appears to come from those two factors: it is taboo for a Muslim to side with non-Muslims who are killing or subjugating their “Muslim brothers and sisters”; and groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are enacting very literal (and therefore plausible) interpretations of Islamic doctrine.
Moving on to the Islamic State, this scourge must be militarily and culturally defeated. Nothing but total defeat will suffice for a group that is so certain that it speaks for God. The Islamic State being able to claim victory against the entire world order is their biggest recruitment sergeant. It “proves” that God is on their side against all the odds. Defeat will demonstrate to the world’s Muslims that the Islamic State speaks for nothing but medieval depravity. A military defeat will be but a short-term success. It must be coupled with a cultural defeat of what they stand for.
This fundamental misdiagnosis and the US government’s failure to recognize the jihadist insurgency led to jihadist groups metastasizing as the ideology continued to grow entirely unchecked. Recently, and only after the Islamic State’s lightning successes in Iraq, did President Obama come to recognize the role ideology plays, and again this was in his last two years. Yet, in an almost comical twist that I have come to label the Voldemort effect,21 as of the time of this dialogue, President Obama still cannot bring himself to name this ideology.
The Voldemort effect in this context entails not naming Islamism, nor distinguishing it from the multifaceted religion. By highlighting the need to “tackle the Islamic State’s ideology” but refusing to name it, President Obama only increased the public’s fear and made it easier for Muslimphobes, who will naturally assume the ideology Obama refers to is “Islam,” to blame all Muslims
Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Jihadist terrorism is the use of force that targets civilians to spread Islamism. The Islamic State is merely one jihadist terrorist group. The problem was never “al-Qaeda-inspired” extremism, because extremism itself inspired al-Qaeda, and then inspired the Islamic State. It is this extremism that must be named—as Islamism—and opposed.
A 2013 PEW poll conducted in eleven Muslim-majority countries showed that support for suicide bombing against civilians in defense of Islam has declined in recent years. Nevertheless, the numbers of people who still think that this form of violence against noncombatants is “often” or “sometimes” justified are sobering: Egypt (25 percent), Indonesia (6 percent), Jordan (12 percent), Lebanon (33 percent), Malaysia (27 percent), Nigeria (8 percent), Pakistan (3 percent), the Palestinian territories (62 percent), Senegal (18 percent), Tunisia (12 percent), and Turkey (16 percent). There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. If even 10 percent support suicide bombing against civilians in defense of the faith, that’s 160 million supporters of terrorism.