November 22, 2019

Religion and The Poetry of Order

The evening before I watched the new film “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” — a dialogue between religion critics Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz — our Yemenite neighbor, Saya, came to our apartment to light our seventh-night Hanukkah candles. I told her how the menorah had been in our family for more than 100 years and that the Hebraic script on it spelled out “Israel.” My 9-year-old son, Alexander, taught her how to use the shamash. “Everything has an order,” he told her rabbinically.

Having lived through a strict Muslim upbringing that included two arranged marriages, Saya now calls herself an atheist — as does Harris, who was born to a Jewish mother. In many ways I feel closer to Nawaz, who calls himself a liberal Muslim and sees no contradiction between maintaining a tough, rational mind and having a love for the poetry of religion.

At its core, that’s what the film, based on Harris and Nawaz’s 2015 book of the same name, is about: How to move forward so that both Muslims and non-Muslims can see that there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between the two. Saya rejected much of what she was taught as a child, including a fierce hatred of Jews, and therefore can come to our home to light our candles with an open mind and heart. Nawaz got to his place of understanding via a stint as an Islamist and his near-execution in an Egyptian jail. 

But instead of rejecting Islam flat-out, he seeks to reform it. How? First, by distinguishing between Muslims and Islam (conflation leads to bigotry); second, by distinguishing between the four types of Muslims: jihadis, who seek to create an Islamic caliphate through violence; Islamists, who seek to impose a caliphate through nonviolence; strict religious Muslims, who believe in following the Quran but don’t want to impose Sharia law on others; and secular Muslims. Most of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Nawaz says, fall into the third group.

It is when the conversation turns to scripture that things get dicey. “Words are not infinitely elastic,” Harris says. You cannot simply ignore or reinterpret the more barbaric parts of the texts. “There will always be a temptation toward literalism, as well as a link between belief and behavior.”

“Dialogue is the only remedy. Without conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views.”

— Maajid Nawaz

Nawaz, who started the group Quilliam in 2008 to help make Islam compatible with liberal democracy, counters that Islamic texts should not be read literally: “I don’t accept that there’s a ‘correct’ reading of scripture; it’s open to myriad interpretations.” In some ways, Nawaz is trying to do for the Quran what the Talmud did for the Torah: show, for example, that some passages are metaphorical, not to be followed literally. 

“Nawaz is borrowing the very ancient (and very Jewish) tradition of interpretation,” said Rabbi Eli Fink, adding that Talmudic interpretation did not begin in earnest until 200 BCE and continues today. Still, though I am rooting for Nawaz wholeheartedly, he clearly faces an uphill battle.

Sadly, the battle is not just from Islamists and jihadis. “I was expecting pushback from Islamists,” Nawaz says. “But most disappointing is the opposition from those who call themselves liberal.” Nawaz coined the term “regressive leftist” to describe liberals who are so mired in identity politics that they end up losing all sense of morality, let alone rationality. 

Nawaz talks about how Islamists, when he was among them, would purposefully exploit the multiculturalism of the left. They once put up a poster on a campus in the UK that read: “Women of the West: Cover Up or Shut Up.” They snuffed out all opposition to the poster by calling university administrators “racist.” The poster stayed up — and spurred a murder. 

That tale alone makes this documentary worthwhile, although neither Nawaz nor Harris is under any illusion that it will solve every problem. But it provides a much-needed beginning. Their hope is to inspire nuanced dialogue.

“Dialogue is the only remedy,” Nawaz says. “Without conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views. And we need to give people permission to talk across ‘identity’ lines — you don’t need to be Muslim to challenge Islamist theocracy. That alone will lead to a less identity-driven — a more rational — conversation.”


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.