The Collusion between New Atheism and Neoconservatism’s Counter Terror Industry 12 February 2016
An old Welsh fable from the Mabinogion tells the story of Bran the Blessed, the giant King of Britain, who laid his own body down to allow his men to cross a river, uttering “He would be a leader, let him be a bridge” as he did so. The importance of bridge-building, in any form, is to be commended, and it forms the basis of what Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz aim to do in their latest project, a joint authored book titled “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue”.
Harris, a popular New Atheist, has never avoided controversy. The same can be said of Maajid Nawaz, a self-described former extremist currently active in counter-terror work via the Quilliam Foundation. Both figures are equally contentious.
Sam Harris is perhaps best known for his gung-ho statements regarding Islam and Muslims, writing in a Washington Times op-ed he stated “We are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam”, elsewhere declaring that “all civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.” It is no secret that Harris, though critical of all religion, considers Islam a particularly pernicious threat.
Nawaaz, a Muslim, spent several years in prison in Egypt for his membership and activities with the political revivalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (banned in Egypt) prior to returning to the United Kingdom. After some time, he decided to leave the group and its ideology behind, and founded with colleague Ed Hussain the Quilliam Foundation in 2008 – a think-tank dedicated to countering extremism and funded with seed capital by the British Government.
Given their backgrounds, Harris and Nawaaz seem to occupy to be very different spaces and worlds. Indeed, the blurb on the back of the book reads that “Harris and Nawaaz demonstrate how two people with very different views can find common ground”. Yet despite their differing biographies, Harris and Nawaaz agree on substantially more than they disagree. The resulting conversation feels less like a dialogue and more monologue. More than once I found myself having to track back to see who was speaking, Nawaaz or Harris, since they both argue for the same things. Terrorists should feel the “full force of our global, civilizational consensus, and be crushed” I read thinking that it was Harris – it echoed his often grandiose calls for war – nope, it was Nawaaz.
Take another example, the topic of whether it is piety or politics that motivates terrorism. Harris believes it is piety alone. It is a debate that has been central to both British and American counter-extremism efforts, and clearly is not simply academic but has many real-world consequences. The two discuss the issue at length, but only to agree with one another, the discussion concludes with Harris saying “the problem of ideology is far worse than most people suppose” and Nawaaz responding “Absolutely”. Neither has their views challenged by the other, nor are any new understandings reached, simply an entrenchment of the views Nawaaz and Harris are already known for. The two agreeing is such a common theme throughout the work that it almost feels sycophantic at times. “I think it would be extremely helpful if people focused on the ideas being discussed here, rather on calling you names” Nawaaz tells Harris after the latter complains of being called bigoted.
Nonetheless, there are times the two authors disagree. For example on the issue how to read a religious text. Nawaaz argues cogently for the value of a postmodern reading of religious scripture, dipping into theology and history to show it diversity of religious opinion was the norm rather than the exception through Islamic scholarship, largely by reference to the works of Dr Usama Hasan. Harris puts forward the classic New Atheist insistence on literal and singular reading. The brief section in which Nawaaz and Harris discussed these differing approaches was by far the most engaging. Sadly, it ended before it really got started, and I got the distinct sense that Nawaaz was avoiding this particular confrontation.
The biggest problem of a dialogue with two people who agree is that views are rarely challenged, and when views aren’t challenged, the burden of proof becomes inexcusably low – “Obviously, this won’t be an empirical answer, but I’ll give you my gut reaction” was Nawaaz’s response to a question posed by Harris regarding prevalence of extremist views amongst Muslims – a question that should be answered empirically or not at all.
In fact, when discussing political violence or extremism, no reference is given at all to the work of academics who specialise in the topic. Instead, they are dismissed in a single sentence by Harris – “the humanities and social science departments of every university are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other fields”. The casual dismissal is a curious form of anti-intellectualism, and staggering in its scale. Instead, Nawaaz and Harris both evidence their claims in footnotes through polling conducted by the BBC, CBS News, The Times – never turning to the array of qualitative and quantitative research produced by academia on violence, religion, radicalisation and extremism.
“Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue” is not a bad book. It simply isn’t what it proposes to be. The book is an insight into an emerging consensus between New Atheism represented by Harris, and the neoconservative funded counter-terror industry, represented by Nawaaz. For those seeking to better understand how New Atheism and neoconservatism view Islam, I don’t think I could recommend this book enough. Those who expect this book to mimic the actions of Bran the Blessed as an example of revolutionary bridge-building will be disappointed. Having read the work, most readers would be forced to conclude that if this dialogue is a bridge, it is a very short one.
This article is from Issue 12 of On Religion, published January 2016. Please consider supporting us by subscribing to our print magazine.