It’s a conundrum faced on many a political talking heads show.
How do you fight Islamic extremism without violence? How do you have a debate about a faith whose adherents have historically used it for violence (not that they were the only ones) when those adherents are inclined to trot out a “fatwa” or death threat to any “apostate” criticizing it?
“Islam and the Future of Tolerance” is a documentary about the ways debates, collaborations and friendship between a British born former Islamic extremist and an outspoken American atheist may be reshaping the rigid polarization this argument has settled into.
It’s a chatty, thoughtful and hopeful film featuring lots of experts, and centered on two extremely articulate “foes” arguing, thinking and paving the new middle ground upon the fraught intellectual quicksand this conflict has been trapped in forever.
Self-described British-born former Islamic extremist and author Maajid Nawaz and neuroscientist, philosopher and atheist Sam Harris had a testy first meeting in 2010, were chatting like respectful colleagues by 2014 and then produced the book that this documentary is based on and takes its title from — “Islam and the Future of Tolerance.”
The film profiles each man via interviews, clips of their various TV and public speaking appearances and shows how each came to the place where he could listen to the other, hear him out and find common cause — or at least directions for their dialogue to progress that wouldn’t end with them pummeling one another.
Nawaz, a polished public speaker since his days as an activist running for student body president at university and recruiting for Hizb Ut-Tahrir, a caliphate-reviving Islamist organization active worldwide, insists that Islam’s interpretation has been “hijacked by the Bin Ladens of this world,” and advocates debate and breaking “this blasphemy taboo…this idea that people don’t have the right to criticize our faith just like we criticize everything else.”
Harris, already a published author (“The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Search for Reason”) arguing against supernaturalism and religion in general, introduced himself to Nawaz after an Australian debate with “You have the hardest job in the room…Your job is to PRETEND Islam is a religion of peace, when in fact’s it’s not.”
He wasn’t done.
“Is this pretense the remedy, for you? Do you feel if you pretend this enough, that this will be the solution, this will be what modernizes Islam?”
They did not come to blows, though eyewitnesses in the film suggest it was within the realm of possibility.
As Harris says “We live in perpetual choice between conversation and violence,” and Nawaz insists that there is a way for “Islam to reform and adapt to the modern age,” the conversation begins.
An image of a man walking a tightrope accompanies these tentative first steps (a long 2014 recorded phone conversation is part of this process), and they seem to agree that “texts do not speak for themselves” and that “Islam is not Islamists” and “Islamists are a tiny minority” in a religion that yes, has a seriously conservative and intolerant streak towards women, gay rights and other religions built into it.
Nawaz tells a short version of his life story — growing up in Essex, encountering bigotry and outright “Paki bashing” from an early age, radicalized, recruiting for the group he joined far and wide.
On 9/11, he was in Egypt on such a recruiting trip. Within days, he was imprisoned with other jihadists and members of other religious groups. During his four years in jail, the fact that Amnesty International labeled him “a prisoner of conscience” and took up his cause moved him.
In earlier days, he would use the Left’s knee-jerk defense of “tolerance” refusing to consider the extremism that was spreading, with Islam, worldwide, against it.
He echoes Kruschev’s “We will bury you” when he remembers “We would exploit the multi-culturalist tendencies of the left,” free speech “above all,” and use it to make their mark in the West.
He orchestrated a takeover of student government in college, published inflammatory leaflets and made outrageous, sexist women-oppressing declarations. His bodyguard on campus murdered a non-Muslim Nigerian with a machete.
But it took prison for him to see the error of his ways.
Harris is seen bickering with actor Ben Affleck on TV’s “Politically Incorrect” about the violent history, dogma and interpretation of Islam, and recalls the heat he took, among atheists, liberals and leftists, for singling out Islam for special abuse in his speeches and appearances.
Activist author Aayan Hirsi Ali (“Infidel,””Heretic: Why Islam Needs Reformation Now”) chews out Nawaz in a debate about whether the Koran, the Prophet or today’s clerics are the ones who have rendered Islam a violent menace to world peace and civilization itself. Just getting him to admit that “menace” would be a start, she says.
“The sooner you admit that, the sooner I can get rid of my bodyguard.”
Nawaz and Harris unwind the broad spectrum of opinion, devotion and fanaticism within the Muslim world by imagining the layers of concentric circles, starting with the tiny fraction of “jihadists,” working through levels of Islamic conservatism towards the more liberal elements of Islamic society which might be open to “reform.”
Yasmine Mohammed, author of “From Al-Qaeda to Atheism” marvels at the ways this can “build the nuance in the debate” and “stop that polarization” that keeps the opposing sides so far apart.
Ali Rizvi, author of “The Atheist Muslim,” spreads the two thinker’s gospel –“Respect the right of people to believe what they want to believe, but that doesn’t mean we respect the beliefs themselves.”
It’s all a plot, of course, which all these mentions of “Bible Belt” conservatives in America not being that different from the intolerant but not radicalized conservatives of international Islam, buttresses.
They’re suggesting that secularism is the planet’s only hope, that atheists are leading the way.
That won’t play in a lot of places, any more than “Islam and the Search for Tolerance” will play on Christian TV or Fox News in the US.
But co-directors Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro have dangled a little hope in front of us all, presenting a furious, ancient schism and debate often contested with violence as something civilized people can hash out with conversation, ideas and reason.
They’ve made a talkative film in which the very act of talking about this subject is a first tiny victory.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Cast: Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris
Credits: Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:26