Campus | October 6, 2015 at 11:34 pm

Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, and the Illusion of Knowledge


9.14.15IslamAndTolerance068 copyIt 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.

These fatwas—and the extensive conversations which both produce and constitute them—not only condemn various acts of terror and violence, but they also affirm and reaffirm that these acts are not a product of or even compatible with Islam and its tenets. Furthermore, these conversations are not only on paper—hundreds of notable Muslim scholars such as Tariq Ramadan, Tariq Suwaidan, and Salman Al-Ouda, as well as institutions such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought, have directly addressed these issues in dialogues and programs for Muslim communities. These topics have inspired Muslim conferences and conventions for years, perhaps most notably the Amman Conference in 2005, which produced the Amman Message, and most recently, the Muslim World League’s “Islam and Counterterrorism” 2015 conference in Mecca.

The idea that Harris and Nawaz present (implicitly corroborated by Kayyem with her question about how to get people to actually talk about these ideologies) that these critical conversations have not been taking place and that Muslims “must challenge head-on” extremist voices instead of “obfuscate[ing] and hid[ing] our heads in the sand” holds no water. Instead, it ignores the tremendous effort that Muslim communities have put into their scholarship in recent years—scholarship that directly confronts Islamic extremism using scripture and tradition and refutes its compatibility with Islamic ideology.

But the work put in by Muslim communities—work that Harris and Nawaz continually ignore—is not only limited to scholarship. Muslim communities have been working on initiatives that prevent radicalization on the ground, too. In a 2010 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, researchers identified four ways (in addition to public and private condemnations) in which Muslim communities have been tackling violence: self-policing, community building, political engagement, and identity politics. In fact, the study concludes that “Muslim-American communities are taking a variety of positive steps that help prevent radicalization within their communities.”

This is not limited to Muslims in America, either; a different study conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University in London which looked at British Muslims similarly concluded that an “essential ingredient to the effective prevention of homegrown “terrorism” is to work with the Muslim communities who are often singled out for producing radicalized individuals.”

Harris and Nawaz’s portrayal of their dialogue as novel ignores over a decade of critical scholarship and community engagement on the part of Muslim communities that aims to address the very issues the two speakers claim to be confronting. There’s a painful irony in these two people claiming to have a critical conversation that benefits Muslims while consistently ignoring and speaking over the voices of the very people they claim to benefit. Ultimately, this irony reveals the utter lack of context within which Harris and Nawaz are operating.

Re-forming Reform

9.14.15IslamAndTolerance043 copyIn addition to arguing that their own dialogue is transformative, Harris and Nawaz posit that there are ideas inherent to Islam which make its followers more inclined to violence than those of other faiths—indeed, Harris says, “Fundamentalism is not a problem if the fundamentals of your religion are totally benign…That’s rather obviously not true of Islam as a religion. Islam has a few variables that are uniquely problematic.” He then goes on to call these variables the “dark jewel of religious demagoguery,” and says that society must find a way to “destroy [these concepts] intellectually.”

Nawaz echoes these ideas when he argues that the only path forward for Muslims is to “secularize” Islam. Putting aside the logical impossibility of separating religion from itself, what Nawaz appears to be advocating with this statement and his constant exhortations of the need for liberalism is a reform of Islam in the Western style—that is, the democratization of scriptural interpretation a la the Protestant reformation. In addition to ignoring the massive influence of government policies on radicalization, which is a whole other conversation, this call, although popular in various circles, fundamentally ignores the Islamic jurisprudential structure and its development over the last 1400 years.

As Suzanne Schneider details in her article “The Reformation Will Be Televised: On ISIS, Religious Authority and the Allure of Textual Simplicity,” Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, is incredibly complex. She describes it as follows:

Yet even more important than [other] factors is the tradition of jurisprudence (fiqh) and the principles it long ago established for how to interpret the Qur’an’s sometimes enigmatic passages.

These include foundational principles (usul al-fiqh) that govern the acts of Qur’anic exegesis, without which no authoritative legal rulings can be generated. For instance, one cannot issue a judgment on a particular issue without consulting all of what has been said about it within the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings attributed to Muhammad). Because the Qur’an, like the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, contains passages that seem wildly contradictory, this means that jurisprudence has traditionally entailed acts of textual reconciliation that are far more complex than a simple reading of any single verse might suggest. The Islamic hermeneutic tradition also requires familiarity with the “conditions for revelation” (asbab al-nazul) for each verse, as some are considered historically limited to Muhammad’s Arabia rather than general commands for all times and places.

Beyond these interpretive guidelines, there is a tradition of abrogation in Qur’anic exegesis in which certain verses are understood to overrule others. And we haven’t even mentioned the centuries of commentary that established judicial precedents that impact how contemporary rulings are decided. Oh, and by the way, these commentators don’t necessarily agree with one another on any given matter. If this sounds awfully complicated, that’s because it is. To suggest otherwise is not just foolish, it’s actually quite dangerous.

And while Nawaz rightly invokes a hadith arguing about the validity of different jurisprudential approaches in his argument for reform, he dangerously neglects to mention that these jurisprudential approaches are guided by different legal principles and foundations. The fact is, the Islamic jurisprudential structure is vastly different from the pre-Reformation Catholic Church’s structure, and has produced tremendously different results. Expecting a Christianity-style religious reform (which is the only logical expectation that follows from Nawaz’s argument) to result in the same development that it did for Christianity is not only unrealistic, it’s just flat out wrong. Indeed, as Schneider rightly mentions, reforms of jurisprudential structures like the Islamic one (and, earlier on, the Jewish one) “evolve most successfully within the structure of legal disputation.”

Instead of the development of this structure, however, recent years have seen it break down, spurred on by so-called Islamic reformers and colonial powers. The irony in Harris and Nawaz arguing for a reform that abandons these structures in order to combat groups like ISIS is that it is the neglect of these jurisprudential structures that has produced groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, not their excessive adoption.

What Schneider argues, then, is that if a Western-style religious reform is what Harris and Nawaz are looking for, they need to look no further than ISIS to find it. And if they don’t like that particular result (as no sane person should), then perhaps they should reevaluate the sorts of arguments they’re making to make them more compatible with historical and religious contextual realities.

In reality, modern Islam is no stranger to reform from within jurisprudential structures. In addition to traditional efforts such as those detailed above, Islamic jurisprudence has provided grounds for dialogue for the very groups which Harris and Nawaz claim to be so concerned about, such as “the women and the free thinkers and the gays and the public intellectuals and the apostates” whom Harris claims the West is “abandoning.” For these groups, jurisprudential structures are powerful ways to get their voices heard in Muslim communities. One notable example is the Malaysian group Sisters in Islam, which has used juristic tradition to advance the rights of women and families in Malaysia. Similarly, groups such as Imaan, a self-described LGBTQI+ Muslim support group, are working within the legal tradition to fight for LGBTQI+ rights in Muslim communities. These people do not need a Sam Harris or a Maajid Nawaz to reform or secularize their religion for them; instead, they need people like Harris and Nawaz to understand the nuance inherent in the battles they’re fighting.

“By and For Muslims?”

In her introduction to this event, Juliette Kayyem mentioned that a goal of the dialogue was to create a reform movement “by and for Muslims.” And yet, the two individuals taking part in the dialogue—Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz—have a demonstrated history not only of ignoring Muslim communities, but also of actively antagonizing them. Furthermore, neither Nawaz nor Harris is formally credentialed when it comes to Islam. So if the dialogue really does aim to create a movement “by and for Muslims,” questions regarding both the “by” and the “for” must be raised. Who are the people leading this so-called movement, and for whom are they leading it?

The first glimpse of an answer comes from Maajid Nawaz himself, when he readily admits, “I am not a religious leader. I am not particularly devout.” And while there is certainly nothing wrong with a lack of religiosity, some level of actual commitment to being Muslim ought to be expected of someone who claims to be part of the “by” in this so-called reform movement. But even if religiosity is an unreasonable demand, then perhaps actual engagement with Muslim communities is not. Nawaz demonstrates none of that, either, as his track record of ignoring Muslim communities and their disavowal of him and his work makes clear. So what qualifies him to speak to Muslim communities as an expert? Nawaz would perhaps argue that it is his status as an “ex-radical.”

In his book Radical, Nawaz frames his own former beliefs this way: “once our version of ‘the Khilafah’ [the Arabic term for caliphate] was formed, we advocated an aggressive policy of foreign invasion and expansion, the death penalty for apostates, ‘rebels’ and homosexuals, and a forced dress code for women. Thieves would be punished by having their hands cut off, and adulterous women would be stoned to death.” He portrays these beliefs as emblematic of the group to which he used to belong—Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, a worldwide group that advocates for the establishment of a global caliphate through the gradual infiltration and eventual military overthrow of governments across the world. Estimates of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s membership are around the 1 million mark, representing only one-sixteenth of a percent of the global Muslim population. That’s 0.0625%. In the United Kingdom, there are an estimated 8,500 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which stands at three-tenths of a percent of the United Kingdom’s overall Muslim population.

If the former ideology that Nawaz claims lends him credence does not represent even one percent of the U.K. Muslim community, let alone the global Muslim community, the question of what qualifies him to speak as an expert remains elusive. Indeed, as one Muslim woman mentioned in this 2015 Guardian profile of Nawaz, “People who’ve never been attracted by that ideology don’t need to be lectured by someone who was.”

In addition to being an ex-radical, Nawaz is the co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank which, in its own words, “aims to challenge extremist narratives while advocating pluralistic, democratic alternatives that are consistent with universal human rights standards.” The group is named after Abdullah Quilliam, a 19th century British Muslim leader and founder of the first mosque and Islamic Center in England. A beloved figure in British Muslim circles, Quilliam was a pioneer when it came to civic engagement of Muslim communities in the politics of the Western nations they had adopted as home. Yet this appropriation—which, it turns out, is misrepresentative—of Abdullah Quilliam’s name is emblematic of the Quilliam Foundation’s greater problems; historian Ron Greaves writes regarding the Quilliam Foundation in his Islam in Victorian Britain,

The assumption made by the appropriation of Quilliam’s name is that the members of the Foundation are a direct continuation of a moderate or liberal ‘Western Islam’ espoused by Abdullah Quilliam, which is an integrated part of British life. They directly link themselves with Abdullah Quilliam and state that their Foundation was created in his memory. Their brief biography describes the Liverpool Muslims as, ‘Quilliam’s community of nineteenth century Muslims who were our forebears in British Islam’. None of this is particularly problematic as far as it goes. However, the appropriation of Quilliam would appear to suggest a construction of loyal and moderate Muslims that oversimplifies the complex process of identity formation and the challenge of conflicting loyalties that British Muslims face.

It would appear that Quilliam is being reinvented … to provide narratives of integration … The reality is that Quiliam was deeply enmeshed in the politics of the Muslim world. The Liverpool Muslim community was in touch with a global awareness of a Muslim sense of crisis and felt that it was part of an Islamic revival that was occurring at the time. … When it came to conflict between the West and the Islamic majority world, Abdullah Quilliam would proclaim, ‘harm one Muslim and you harm us all’ … Abdullah Quilliam was not against the idea of citizenship, or as he expressed it, ‘being a British subject’, but he did not confuse citizenship with acquiescence or an uncritical patriotism that declared ‘my country right or wrong.’

The Quilliam Foundation’s—and Maajid Nawaz’s—apparent neglect of what Abdullah Quilliam truly stood for in favor of their own political agenda is a precursor to what was to come: a neglect of British Muslim communities and an embrace of political figures who seek to alienate and antagonize those communities. Indeed, the Quilliam Foundation and Nawaz himself have consistently allied themselves with figures almost universally acknowledged as Islamophobic and bigoted against Muslims.

One example is the successful 2013 effort on the part of Quilliam and Nawaz to pressure Tommy Robinson, the leader of the English Defence League, an organization dedicated to stopping the so-called Islamization of the United Kingdom, to step down. But their work with Robinson didn’t stop with his eventual resignation: Quilliam then decided to apply for government funding on Robinson’s behalf—all while he continued to make bigoted, Islamophobic statements and various calls to combat “Islamic cultural violence.” This alliance with Robinson casts doubt, then, on Quilliam’s supposed commitment to working for Muslims, and accomplishes very little aside from amplifying voices that vilify and antagonize Muslim communities.

Another is Nawaz’s frequent alliance with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-described ex-Muslim and former Dutch politician who had a front-row seat for Harris and Nawaz’s event. Calling Islam the “new fascism” and “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” is regular fare for Hirsi Ali, who also said that Anders Breivik “had no other choice but to use violence” in his 2011 rampage which left 77 people dead because his “views were censored.” And yet Hirsi Ali calls Harris and Nawaz’s collaboration a “gem of a book” that is as “illuminating as it is fascinating,” and Nawaz rejects those who designate her as an Islamophobe. For someone like Nawaz who claims to be working for Muslim communities, this alliance ought to be a suspect one.

Perhaps the most relevant example is that of Nawaz’s alliance with Sam Harris himself—and, indeed, the elevation of Sam Harris’s voice to authority status at all. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist who has no formal training when it comes to Islam and the Islamic world. In fact, his rise to so-called authority occurred when, in the aftermath of 9/11, he decided to write a book titled, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future Reason. From there, he was catapulted to New Atheist stardom and given a voice he has used to criticize religion in general and Islam in particular.

Just like Hirsi Ali, Harris has also made statements like, “We are at war with Islam,” and, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it” (interestingly enough, this is an argument echoed by Quilliam’s own Ed Husain). In fact, Harris is an example of the peculiar intellectual variety of people who have a platform to speak on a particular topic simply because they have a platform, not because they have any formal training in what they are talking about (in this case, Islam). In addition to the saddening implications this has for the state of public discourse on Islam, it is disturbing, although not wholly unexpected, that Nawaz and his Quilliam Foundation would ally themselves with people who profit off such baseless forms of bigotry against Muslims.

But those making bigoted statements aren’t the only ones profiting—the Quilliam Foundation is, too. While the bulk of its funding came from the U.K. government until 2011, the remainder of its U.K. funding history is unclear. While Quilliam claims that it is dedicated to financial transparency, journalists requesting annual reports in 2013 were told that the single print copy of the report had gone missing. In the United States, however, there is slightly more to work with. Formally incorporated as a tax-exempt charity in the United States in 2011, this U.S. branch of Quilliam has received $265,000 a year from Gen Next Inc., an organization closely affiliated with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. Chad Sweet, a member of Gen Next and member of the Quilliam Foundation’s U.S. board of directors (named to the board by Nawaz), was also the chief of staff in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during an era of intense mass surveillance over Muslim and activist communities under the banner of the “war on terror.” Furthermore, Sweet has been an avid supporter and financial backer of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, both of whom are no strangers to Islamophobic rhetoric and violent neoconservative foreign policy positions. Across the pond, members of Quilliam’s staff have links to the Henry Jackson Society, a similarly neoconservative and Islamophobic British think tank.

“They Are Part of the Problem, Not the Solution”

9.14.15IslamAndTolerance134All of this begs the question: what is the value of allying with these kinds of people? It certainly makes no sense in the context of anti-extremist work in Muslim communities. Just like a reform or reevaluation of American politics does not benefit from the input of someone like, say, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly and irrationally expresses his disapproval of everything America represents, so too does a conversation about Islam and extremism decidedly not gain anything from people like Harris, Hirsi Ali, and Sweet, who are equally disapproving of Islam and Muslims. (That’s not to say that they do not have the right to speak, of course—they certainly do. The question is whether they contribute anything of value in this particular context.)

What emerges from these various elements is a picture of an organization that allies itself with people who repeatedly antagonize Muslims and, moreover, profits from these people, all while simultaneously claiming to be working on a movement “by Muslims.” If this is Maajid Nawaz’s claim to legitimacy, then perhaps certain aspersions should be cast upon that legitimacy and its place in this so-called conversation.

The truth is, this is not the first forum in which Nawaz’s legitimacy has been questioned. Leaders and members of the British Muslim community have doubted Nawaz for years. And while Nawaz often brushes this off as a simple reluctance to have critical conversations, the fact is that communities have been having these critical conversations—and they still lend Nawaz and Quilliam no credence. This isn’t an issue of community cowardice; this is an issue of Quilliam’s and Nawaz’s complete lack of grounding in these communities which they claim to be serving.

In a profile of Nawaz in the Guardian, Sadakat Kadri, a lawyer and expert on Sharia law, says that, “the problem with Quilliam is that it just doesn’t have any credibility … it isn’t an intermediary to anyone within the Muslim community.” A senior Liberal Democrat also quoted in the article says “[Quilliam is] not effective. I don’t know quite who they’re influencing—certainly not people in the Muslim community.”

In another Guardian editorial, Jonathan Githens-Mazer, an academic based in the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and Strategy and Security Institute, and Robert Lambert, a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, write:

To fund the Quilliam Foundation is also to undermine excellent Muslim community projects, both [government] funded and unfunded, that have achieved success against al-Qaida influence in the [United Kingdom] without spying on communities and without stigmatising politically active or minority Muslim groups. It is no coincidence that successful community partners in many of these ventures are the very same Muslims Husain [Quilliam co-founder] describes as extremist and subversive.

These sorts of criticisms come from within the community, too. In a Guardian editorial, Ziauddin Sarsar, a Muslim polymath, public intellectual, and chair of the Muslim Institute, writes, “The embrace of former extremists is a slap in the face for Muslims who have worked tirelessly to build a British Muslim identity and foster inclusion by constructive community activity. It’s another attempt at the [marginalization] of the overwhelming majority who never had a moment’s doubt that Islam gives no sanction for such murderous and misguided perversion of belief,” finishing with, “We don’t need neocon ex-extremists [referring to Quilliam] to tell us what extremism is about. They are part of the problem, not the solution.”

In another op-ed, the heads of the Cordoba Foundation, Respect National Council, British Muslim Initiative, and Friends of Al-Aqsa come together to write, “The [Quilliam] foundation has no proven grassroots support within the Muslim community, although it does seem to have the ear of the powers that be, probably because it is telling them what they want to hear.”

In addition to (or perhaps as a result of) enlisting allies that consistently antagonize Muslim communities, it is quite clear that Nawaz and Quilliam hold very little credibility among British Muslims. It appears that the foundation’s audience is not British Muslims, despite assertions that they are fighting extremism in Muslim communities. It also appears that the people leading this so-called movement—Nawaz and his allies—are, at best, not quite what they seem. This so-called reform “by and for Muslims,” then, is anything but.

Illusions of Knowledge

American historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.” In this case, it’s not quite the obstacle to discovery, but it is the obstacle to real, significant progress. Because what Harris and Nawaz brought to the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum last Monday was exactly that: an illusion of knowledge. An illusion that their dialogue was a groundbreaking first, which pushed the words of hundreds of thousands of actual Muslim scholars under the rug. An illusion that their positions actually benefit Muslim communities and that they as such could speak for them, which is not corroborated by their reputations among and reception by these very communities. But most of all, Harris and Nawaz brought an illusion that Islam is inherently problematic and requires Western-style religious reform to truly be palatable, an assumption which ignores any and all religious, historical, or sociopolitical context.

These illusions of knowledge combine to create an intellectual space which seems significant, but really is not. Because of the surety with which Harris and Nawaz present these illusions, the average listener would find themselves intrigued by the argument they make, if not convinced. But like an optical illusion, if the listener were to think a little bit harder, the reality of the situation would appear—that this dialogue is nothing more than an entirely decontextualized echo chamber of conventional neoconservative and anti-Islamic thought.

It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not based in fact, and it’s not what it claims to be. Ultimately, it’s simply illusory. The IOP can do better.

Image credits: Martha Stewart/Harvard Institute of Politics

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