This blog won't make much sense if you don't read this article first. It's a review of book that is a discussion between an anti-religion atheist and a progressive Muslim. It just came out so I haven't read it yet, but I'm familiar with one of the authors. I’m not familiar with Irshad Manji, or her TED talk, but I don’t deny she’s accurately describing uncivil behavior. I’m sure her positive assessment of Harris’ new book, co-authored by Maajid Nawaz is also accurate.
The article begins where the book does and where the world is at, that is “interpretation is everything”, and there are a lot of people who believe their interpretation is the only correct one. They don’t even accept that their's is an interpretation, but simply a statement of truth that has been revealed and is beyond question. A world with enough weapons to destroy all living things can’t survive with that sort of thinking.
It falls on non-Muslims from secular nations to understand all the distinctions of political, revolutionary and militant Islam and how discrimination exists even in liberal Democratic states and how that affects Islam. I’m less qualified on Muslim culture, but don’t think it is beyond reason to expect Muslims to understand how their own culture is incubating the misinterpretations that lead to what Nawaz calls “Islamism”. Harris, a product of a secular liberal democracy, has no problem pointing out the influence of religious beliefs on a group like the Islamic State, and wonders why more liberals don’t join him.
At this point, Manji goes a bit off the rails of reality and says Harris and other atheists don’t make enough noise about hatred toward Muslims. From what I know of Harris, he has standards and values and he applies them evenly. When Manji says, “The caricature of faith to which some atheists resort is proof positive” (of the irrationality of humans), I think she is pulling the cover back over Islamist extremism. That cover has been used to gain sympathy for decades. It’s one thing to get sympathy for oppressed people, yet another to expect sympathy of cultural differences that break universal norms.
There are clear differences between a violent act that draws attention to the plight of the oppressed and the acts of an oppressor attempting to gain or maintain power. People use faith to justify violence, that’s not a caricature. Manji needs to clarify what she is talking about, because it doesn’t work as support for her argument here.
Manji really fails in her analysis of Nawaz’s solutions. She says “ideas are abstract, a feeble bulwark against the emotional comfort of belonging to tribes”. The “ideas” of human rights and democracy, are much less abstract than believing in a savor or worshiping a prophet. She admitted it’s all about interpretation earlier, but now seems willing to say that’s fine as long it’s comforting. Se commits the fallacy of caricature that she just put down when she says by “secular” Nawaz meant “American separation of church and state”. That is hardly unique to America and hardly the definition of secular. Again she needs to explain what the problem is here, beyond simply saying it can become dogma.
Manji attempts to explain herself using quotes from Jonathan Sacks, a poor choice in my opinion. The quote from him, “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” ignores the historic context of what religion has been and why it has had such staying power. There are many people finding meaning and identity and participating in something larger than themselves without reciting a creed that they don’t fully believe every Sunday or Friday or whatever their holy day is. Society has not just survived, it has thrived because we stopped allowing Kings to tell us who to worship and who to kill because they worshiped differently.
She goes on to explain Sacks’ new rereading of Genesis. Something I have grown so tired of I can no longer find the energy to even address. A rereading of ancient scripture does not erase all the other readings. It doesn’t remove the more obvious meaning of the words. Whether or not the obvious meaning is the correct interpretation is not the point. If you continue to treat an ancient story of unknown origin, passed through multiple languages as if it contains a truth that overrides more contemporary philosophy, we’ll continue to have the same problems we’ve always had. We’ll continue to have these cryptic messages lying around waiting to be misinterpreted.
Somehow, Manji admits this while saying Harris is missing the point. She quotes Sacks, “fundamentalists and today’s atheists” both ignore “the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident.” Trying to interpret the Bible better is not a solution, that’s the problem. The problem is a rabbi can obfuscate a discussion about being civil by saying we should read the Bible, but we should read it the way he says instead of the way a million other people say, and that should end the argument. I don't know why Manji doesn't see this is just starting a new argument.
And that is not the low point of the article. I hang my head when I read stuff like this. Manji continues to say Sacks has the solution, which is teaching more people about his interpretation of the Bible. Although she (Manji) admits, “But as he (Sacks) admits early on, ‘decades of anti-racist legislation, interfaith dialogue and Holocaust education’ have not prevented the mess we are in. Why would it be different now?” What messes are they talking about? The Berlin wall is down, more and more people can vote, I can travel to Iran, there are whole organizations where Jews and Palestinians work together, and fundamentalists are increasingly disparaged. Perhaps the problem is Manji is doesn’t know what success looks like.
If people are reading scripture and finding peace in it, great, but they should do it on their own time and make no demands of others to participate in their study beyond the normal marketplace of ideas. That is, their ideas should stand or fall on their merits. They don't get special considerations because of their age, their cultural acceptance, and certainly not for their claimed divine source.
She does end on a positive note and reminds me to be respectful of her ideas, so I’m open to feedback. I have seen other more supportive statements from her of Harris and Nawaz's work. She also reminds us of how Western Christianity went through brutal wars before it was reformed. That’s a lesson that I think we have forgotten and are learning it again alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters. We can sit idly by and hope they work it out or we can share our stories and work together toward a more peaceful world.