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Anwar Omeish: Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, and the Illusion of Knowledge

9.14.15IslamAndTolerance068 copy

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.

By , Harvard Politics

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.

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  • Mehdi

    “People should be free to *think* whatever they like. I care what they actually *do*.” I couldn’t agree more with this, and I overall agree with the rest 🙂

  • Mehdi

    Agreed, too bad he doesn’t have a long nose stretching every time he lies. Reminds me of Jon Stewart playing all his past statements about Iran.

  • Yausari

    He has done it before. Remember when he claimed that “Iran was close to developing nuclear weapons”, even though the MOSAD said that it was a lie – and right wingers believed him anyway?

  • Mehdi
  • Mehdi

    Spot on, my opinion is that Bibi is too smart and knew he was uttering pure BS for political purposes.
    The IP conflict draws passions, including the war of narratives and the willingness to “nazify the other”, that includes Godwin point comparisons with between Zionism and Nazism on one side, and attempts to sketch some kind of Arab/Muslim complicity within the Holocaust.
    Not only are these comparisons completely untrue from a historical perspective, but they imply a sense that there can’t be any common ground: if Bibi says that Husseini convinced Hitler to exterminate (or burn) the Jews, then we can’t negociate or talk to Palestinians as they are Nazis. Similarly if zionism = nazism then why talk to zionists??? Mm why would I talk to you JSB as you’re a zionist? 🙂

  • moraka

    Another vermin Nazi-boy who thinks he is to good for anti-psychotics.

  • moraka
  • Sam Seed

    Please, you are really making a fool of yourself. The Dr will see you shortly.

  • Sam Seed

    Netanyahu may well be evil personified. If there is one Nazi that’s glaringly obvious it’s you. ” Islamonazi lies with some of their classic swine-vermin Islamopropaganda.”

    Go and see a doctor, do we have a doctor here at LW?

  • Just_Stopping_By

    First, Netanyahu’s charge was that the Mufti of Jerusalem inspired or convinced Hitler to move from wanting to expel Jews to wanting to kill them. Get your facts right.

    Second, Netanyahu clearly had his facts wrong. (Prof. Meir Litvak, a historian at Tel Aviv University, called the speech “a lie” and “a disgrace.”; Professor Zimmermann, the Hebrew University historian, said on Israel Radio that Mr. Netanyahu was “doing something he must not do,” and that in “the protocol” of the 1941 meeting between the mufti and Hitler, “the text that Netanyahu speaks of does not appear.”; Professor Litvak of Tel Aviv University said the speech was “the height of the distortion of history.”)

    That’s important because if we want to evaluate evil, what people or groups do matters. (And, we also should not attribute any actions by one individual to a group.) The Mufti was clearly Judeophobic and violent, but the fact is that he did not do anything like what Netanyahu said he did. Again, what people or groups do matters, and anyone who would say Group X is evil or more evil than Group Y independent of the actual actions of the group(s) is not only an intellectual moron but a moral moron. The only question here is whether Netanyahu knew he was telling a falsehood or whether he was so blinded by his political hatred that he actually believed the nonsense he was spouting.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    “maybe you can explain to me how the Koran is perfect, yet so misunderstood?”

    Hey, that’s actually not a terrible question, though I think it would have been better if it were a bit less snarky: “Can a religious text be perfect yet also subject to misinterpretation?”

    I’ll give this a bit of a shot, though I’ll caveat this by saying that these will be my views and not necessarily those in accord with Islamic thinking. And, I’ll also point out that I don’t think the Qur’an is perfect — if I did, I’d have to think of that as miraculous and become a Muslim. In fact, I don’t think of any religious text as perfect. (Now excuse me while I check that I am not near any trees or other tall objects that are prime targets of hurled lightning bolts from the sky.)

    First, could a religious text like the Qur’an be perfect in the sense of incapable of misinterpretation, as well as be comprehensive? Possibly, but it would be voluminous and probably have to give away the future. “Thou shalt not steal, and by the way, making unauthorized digital copies of music still counts as stealing and you can’t say it’s not because the artist still has their original copy and you haven’t taken that away from them.” Think of the religious text like the Qur’an as more like the Constitution rather than all of the laws — it should cover broad topics but not every single law.

    Second, I do see a clear reply to my first point: fine, the text can be broad, but shouldn’t it still be clear on broad topics like not killing someone because of what they think or believe? That’s a great hypothetical question you have there, Mike; I don’t think I could have come up with a better one myself. I doubt anyone would object that a religious text is too clear on such topics. So, why might someone find a text that is more subject to misinterpretation still to be perfect? Well, let’s actually go back on being too clear. If the text is really clear on every topic, then what is left for human beings to think about in terms of morality? If the text lays out every moral answer, then there is really no point to thinking or philosophizing about morality. Maybe some people think that is fine, but others might think that a perfect text provides enough guides to get to the right answers, but still allows people to have the freedom to think, and to be wrong. Could a text be perfect if it effectively takes away free will?

    Of course, when we are wrong in interpreting a text by condoning morally poor choices, people may suffer. So, perhaps perfection involves some balance of guidance and freedom. Plus, that freedom also allows us to gain insight into a religious figure or group taking a position. Look, if a religious leader or group highlights the hadith with “Whoever changes his religion, kill him” as a guiding principle (and assuming they are taking that literally rather than somehow reversing the obvious meaning), I have a pretty good idea where they stand. In contrast, I also have a pretty good idea about the openness of a religious leader or group who highlights the hadith about Muhammad forgiving and caring for the woman who threw garbage on him daily. Perhaps part of a perfect text is that it helps shine a light on the hearts of those who use it by allowing them to highlight different statements.

    Finally, I can see the argument that my explanation is so broad that it would allow almost any morally contradictory text to be considered perfect. Guilty. But, as I said, I don’t think any religious text is indeed perfect. (One more check for storm clouds.) But, it doesn’t bother me if Muslims think that of the Qur’an or if members of other religions think that of their texts. I do care about what interpretations they take. If the text leads them to want to commit violence rather than make peace, then I want someone to be convincing in providing them with a different interpretation. And if the text leads them toward peace instead of violence, then I want them to follow its guidance as they see it, and I will celebrate that, even if I don’t agree with their view, if they hold such a view, that the text is perfect.

    Again, this may not be a true Islamic perspective, but I hope I at least provided one possible answer for you.

  • Yausari

    Yeah, but did you notice that he actually admitted that Palestinians exist before Israel?
    You just can’t pileup lies, they contradict 😀

  • Yausari

    You’re right we should post this story:

    Historians reject him 😉

    Israeli PM’s comments about Palestinian mufti’s influence on Hitler dismissed by Holocaust experts.

    But in a speech at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu gave a different account.

    “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time – he wanted to expel the Jews,” the Israeli prime minister said.

    “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’

    “‘So what should I do with them?’ he [Hitler] asked. He [Husseini] said: ‘Burn them.'”

    However, the chief historian of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Professor Dina Porat, said Mr Netanyahu’s statement was factually incorrect.

    “You cannot say that it was the mufti who gave Hitler the idea to kill or burn Jews,” shetold the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “It’s not true. Their meeting occurred after a series of events that point to this.”

    Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the prime minister’s remarks played into the hands of Holocaust deniers.

    “This is a dangerous historical distortion and I demand Netanyahu correct it immediately as it minimises the Holocaust, Nazism and… Hitler’s part in our people’s terrible disaster,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

  • Ralph Adamo

    Notice that Loonwatch is silent on Netanyahu’s charge that Muslims were key players in the Holocaust of Jews. Why? Because Netanyahu tells the truth about Muslims. Their just a cult of Islamonazis and they know it. However, after some time, I’m sure that they will figure out some way to tell some more of their Islamonazi lies with some of their classic swine-vermin Islamopropaganda.

  • HSkol

    Thanks for talkin’ about me again. We all do things differently. I’m online all day long, early morning often until late at night. I’m typically running 3 computers at a time – 1 of them for this terrific fun. You can believe I’m employed and doin’ pretty well; or, you can think I’m in my parents’ basement eatin’ hot dogs. Doesn’t matter to me really. Wow, I actually got a bit defensive … cool, or meh.

  • ShunTheRightWhale

    That’s “Nein, ich spreche kein Deutsch.”
    The sole reason I’m posting here again is the actual situation in Germany:

    Wonderful new word creations!
    “Moslemmüllhalde”= Muslim garbage dump, a metaphor for the growing number of Muslims (refugees)
    “Moslemsaft”= Muslim juice, according to Pirincci pumped by Muslims into infidels

  • Just Saying

    ‘concerns’, that is right, you have no concern about the 100s of millions of muslims who believe you should kill an apostate.
    see, rather then attack my points you turn to your, ‘sincere discussion’ and ‘trolling’ defense. facts don’t care about sincerity or trolling. a strong argument isn’t based on my lack of knowledge of Arabic, or what your 20, 100, 1000 muslim friends say. the numbers are there for every one to see. the facts on the ground remain. and sharia has proven its self t be bad law, time and time again. the Koran is clearly flawed, and I mean that with total sincerity.

  • Just Saying

    tru dat.

    “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
    ― Socrates

  • Just Saying

    ok. jsb said:
    “So, basically you’re complaining that some Muslims believe, say, or do bad things just like some other people?”

    then ilisha said:
    “You’re complaining about Muslim thought crimes? Really?”
    so I am asking what is the difference between my complaining and the site’s complaining about this event with harris and the other guy talking, I think maybe he is the Libyan who claims he was a terrorist. Nawaz. maybe he is just a brit.
    are these guys committing ‘thought crimes’?

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