An atheist and a Muslim reformer walk into a bar may sound like the start of a bad joke, but it isn’t too dissimilar from the dialogue between Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris which produced “Islam and the Future of Tolerance”. A dialogue between the two men, it briefly examines the role of Islam in contemporary western society. In some ways Nawaz and Harris make an odd couple. The former is a reformist-minded Muslim and previous leading activist of an Islamist group, while the latter is a militantly anti-religious atheist. Nevertheless, they are sharing a journey towards a common goal of better understanding Islam.
Their book isn’t that long at around 150 pages, but feels more lengthy. Presented like a play script (it is, after all, a dialogue), Nawaz and Harris move between a variety of subjects: the differences between Islam and Islamism, why Islamism thrives in both the Islamic world and west, and how Islamism can be prevented.
Nawaz certainly knows his stuff, and Harris pushed the arguments presented in a good direction as well as streched them beyond what could have been a possible comfort zone. The questions he asks are seldom easy, but Nawaz responded well throughout.
In many ways, their dialogue opens up more questions than it started with. Their book may not provide hard or conclusive answers, but it’s a good starting point. Whether or not Muslim leaders will take heed of it or not, though, is an entirely different question.