The End of Tolerance
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz can’t tolerate each other. They don't need to.
Posted Dec 08, 2018
“Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in” warned Alan Simpson in his eulogy of President George H.W. Bush. Maajid Nawaz knows this better than most. A former extremist who was born and raised in the UK, Nawaz describes his initial attraction to Islamist extremism in Islam and The Future of Tolerance, a documentary film premiering in Los Angeles on December 10. The film follows Nawaz’s ongoing conversation with prominent atheist Sam Harris, their implausible friendship, and how they came to co-write a book of the same name while providing a model for an uncommon method of disagreement.
After encounters with violent racists that began with a bigoted schoolyard bully punching the pre-teen Nawaz in the stomach, Nawaz was a prime candidate for radicalization. He joined Hizb ut Tahrir, a revolutionary Islamist group seeking to establish a global Muslim Caliphate, and quickly rose through the ranks. While in college, Nawaz recruited other students for Hizb ut Tahrir, and along with his recruits, swept the student government elections. Having a keen understanding of students' and administrators' general inability or unwillingness to distinguish Islamist extremists from mainstream Muslims, this new Islamist student government flagrantly set out to “Islamicize” the college (as he put it). They put on talks with titles like “Women of the West, Cover Up or Shut Up,” and according to Nawaz, used public prayer as propaganda and a means of intimidation. Tragically, he says, in an effort to be “tolerant,” the school’s uncritical acceptance of misogyny and intimidation resulted in the murder of a student at the hands of another young Islamist extremist.
“The instinct to hate is part of who we are,” cautions Ken Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate. “Most people who act on their hatred,” he says, “seem to have one single aspect of their identity that becomes supercharged and all-important.” Perhaps that is why narratives of the escape from “hate groups,” regardless of the type of extremism, often turn on relationships with the very people that extremists have been encouraged to hate. Nawaz describes his transformation as beginning during his four years in an Egyptian prison when he met a diverse group of other prisoners, as well as people from Amnesty International. With little to do in prison but read, Nawaz chose books by diverse thinkers, and this shifted his thinking, too, guiding him in a new direction.
Today, he is the founding chairman of Quilliam, a UK-based counter-extremism organization that works to promote pluralism, civil liberties, and human rights. But after having been a victim of familiar kinds of racial and religious intolerance, in his new role as Muslim reformer and civil liberties advocate, Nawaz has become a target of intolerance of a different kind.
It comes as no surprise that he is hated by the extremists whose ideology he rejects. But because he is willing to articulate the unspeakable, he is also a target of people who claim to be tolerant pluralists. Nawaz publicly names Islamism as a cause of violent, Jihadist terrorism, but he says too many others are constrained by what he calls “the Voldemort effect.” Just as the characters in the world of Harry Potter refer to the villainous Voldemort as “he who must not be named,” even many of those who agree with Nawaz fear to say the things he is willing to say. As long as people remain too fearful to openly differentiate between a religion (Islam) and a fundamentalist political program (Islamism)—lest they be branded intolerant—violent extremist groups will flourish.
Nawaz is equally troubled to see good-hearted, tolerant people uncritically accept behavior in people from other cultures that they would easily recognize as immoral in their own. This seems to stem from a false intuition that we can never understand a culture to which we do not belong well enough to make judgments about behavior within it. This is moral isolationism, and from its perspective, according to philosopher Mary Midgley, moral judgment “is a kind of coinage valid only in its country of origin.”1 But this is not respect, Midgley argues. “Nobody can respect what is entirely unintelligible to them.” In order to respect someone, we have to understand them well enough to be able to make favorable judgments. And if we can do that, Midgley contends, then we can make unfavorable judgments, too.
In Islam and the Future of Tolerance, filmmakers Jay Shapiro and Desh Amila invite the viewer into an ongoing conversation between an atheist and a Muslim reformer; “a philosophical mind” and “a political mind,” as Shapiro describes Harris and Nawaz. What is immediately apparent about the success of Nawaz and Harris’s partnership is that despite their uncomfortable first encounter (detailed in the film), their relationship is grounded in a profound respect for one another, and an understanding that they share a common humanity. Their conversation, therefore, is not about tolerance—which has a certain quality of holding one’s nose in the presence of something vaguely fetid—in fact, George Washington spoke of “toleration” as a paradigm within which it was only “by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”2 Instead of tolerance, Nawaz and Harris’s relationship relies on what Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain referred to as fellowship.
Maritain preferred the word “fellowship” to “tolerance” because, he wrote, it “conjures up the image of traveling companions who meet here below by chance and journey through life—however fundamental their differences may be—good-humoredly, in cordial solidarity and human agreement, or better to say, friendly and cooperative disagreement.”3 It is this type of disagreement that the Rabbis of the Talmud referred to as Machloket L'shem Shamayim: argument for the sake of heaven. It is only with the help of those who see things differently, the Rabbis knew, that it is possible to effectively search for truth. But argument for the sake of heaven does not come naturally. Tribal thinking and enmity—especially within today's social media landscape—are far simpler.
The essential dialogue that Nawaz and Harris invite us to have is about more than the first part of the film title suggests. It is about the principles of pluralist liberal democracy, the ability to have a friendly and cooperative disagreement, and the courage to speak — out loud — about highly charged topics of all kinds—across cultures, across ideologies, and across other divides.
Arguments for the sake of heaven are conversations among equals within which each of us must treat each other with the same dignity and respect we offer those whose opinions we share. And as Harris advocates, we must each be open to seeing where we are wrong — and to changing our minds. ♦
Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.