Amir is the author of My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul, recommended by Foreign Policy magazine among 25 books to read in 2013. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bloomberg, CBC, and many more.
By now, I’ll assume that you’ve already watched the recent “TV brawl” and high-stakes debate involving Bill Maher and Sam Harris on one side, and Reza Aslan and Ben Affleck on the other.
I sure did, paying particular attention to Reza Aslan and Sam Harris – authors I’ve read and followed closely for years – for two reasons:
- They’re sophisticated scholarly authors (while Bill Maher and Ben Affleck aren’t).
2. They are both responsible for producing work that has positively impacted my journey of spiritual awakening, and changed my life for the better.
As a former Islamist turned freethinking Muslim, I am grateful for the profound influence the epistemological argument in Harris’s book The End of Faith had on me. It helped me free my mind from the dark, stinking, suffocating dungeons of religious dogmatism and unexamined faith.
On the other hand, when I had set out to locate a new evolving identity in the myriads of various “Islams with an ‘s’” out there, I found myself grateful for Reza Aslan’s book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Among various lessons, it taught me more about the complex, diverse, and dynamic history of Islamic thought, and introduced me to the bygone rationalist Muslim thinkers known as the Muʿtazilah.
(Disclosure: Reza Aslan’s blurb and endorsement graces the front cover of my book, in which I also discuss the positive influence that certain aspects of Sam Harris’s work had on me).
Simply put, despite my disagreements with parts of their work (which I’ll address shortly), both Harris and Aslan have important insights to offer.
We Shouldn’t Pick One Over the Other
It Just Isn’t That Simple
This is why I’ve been dismayed to see so many folks passionately dismissing and vilifying one author over the other on the basis of a few minutes of TV time, instead of a thorough understanding of the best of their work in a way that can lead us to a desperately needed synthesis.
But before we get into that, let’s first examine the backgrounds of Harris and Aslan and their motivations to better understand their agendas in a more illuminating light.
Reza Aslan and Sam Harris Have Different Agendas Born Out of Different Concerns That We Should All Share
Any worthy critiques of Harris and Aslan need to factor in the following crucial background facts.
Sam Harris and His Agenda
Sam Harris wrote his NY Times best-seller The End of Faith, (which helped launch the New Atheist movement), as a response to 9/11, and as a call-to-arms to expose the dangers posed by dogmatic religious belief, particularly doctrines within Islam, in order to eradicate such beliefs. Much of his work on this subject is centered on what he sees as the troublesome epistemic relationship between believers and their holy scriptures, and how bad beliefs can lead to bad behavior, as they indeed often do. At its core, this is an epistemological concern and undertaking. Therefore, naturally, his overriding focus is religious faith.
“Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” – Sam Harris
Harris’s View of Islam and Muslims
A simplified visualization of Sam’s argument. (Not a Venn diagram).
Jihadists are at the center in the darkest circle, representing those closest to the holy scriptures, and who take the sacred texts most seriously and literally. Nevertheless, the reality isn’t that simple, and Harris remains way too narrowly focused on seeing things from a purely literalist scriptural perspective.
Reza Aslan and His Agenda
Reza Aslan on the other hand, as he reveals in this TEDx Talk, is motivated by other formative experiences. A lot of which have to do with countering being negatively stereotyped as a Muslim and Iranian in “1980s and post-9/11 America,” as well as his desire to rightly affirm the place of American Muslims in the United States as part of the nation. At its core, his is a fight for inclusivity, equality, and acceptance. As such, naturally, his overriding focus lately is to push back against anti-Muslim bigotry.
“We’re using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That’s actually the definition of bigotry.” – Reza Aslan
Aslan’s View of Islam and Muslims
A simplified visualization of Reza’s argument. (Not a Venn diagram).
In Aslan’s view, different communities have different interpretations that more or less hold the same weight in regards to their truth claims. External factors are rightly included in the picture. Nevertheless, despite the plurality and availability of better interpretations, we’re still left with bad beliefs that are too widely held.
The Main Complicating Factor
Scrutinizing Beliefs Without Scrutinizing Believers
Let’s establish two things and be very clear about them.
- Seriously held bad beliefs can, and often do inspire bad behavior. Therefore, such beliefs, no matter how “holy,” deserve to be scrutinized. Pretending they’re not a problem does us no good.
- Claiming authority to define and then ascribe “bad beliefs” to alleged “believers” presumptively and blatantly in an environment where the alleged “believers” are a target of growing hateful bigotry can have deadly consequences. Literally.
This is especially the case today in the United States, where the charged racialized history of the nation complicates matters further, as succinctly pointed out in this article by Ahmed Benchamsi:
“The widespread use of the expression “Muslim-Americans” (as an equivalent to African-Americans or Indian-Americans, for instance) bears testimony of a deeply ingrained Western belief: when it comes to “Muslims” (understand: people living in or originating from the part of the world spanning from Morocco to Indonesia,) religiosity is not a choice — forced or not — as much as it’s a given. One that is as irrefutable as the color of the skin, or the ethnicity.”
Haroon Moghul goes further to highlight the possible consequences of such ingrained thinking when pushed to an extreme:
“The Nazis and their collaborators went after secular Jews, even Jews who’d become Christian. Did these Germans think of themselves as Jews? Probably a lot of them did not. They were German. Until they couldn’t be. The same thing happened in Bosnia, albeit to Muslims. From religious Muslims to folks who just happened to have “Muslim” names — religion became the same as a race. And then that race was slaughtered, starved, and expelled.”
Now, by no means at all am I saying that this is where the United States is headed in the near, or even long-term future.
The fact is, despite prevalent anti-Muslim sentiments across America, Muslims are still free to worship and live their lives with more liberty than most, if not all, Muslim-majority countries on the face of the earth. Period.
However, other Muslim countries shouldn’t be the standard we hold up liberal democracies to concerning the treatment of citizens. A liberal democracy should be measured by liberal democratic standards.
In this regard, American Muslims are right to be concerned as American citizens and to fight for their dignified place in mainstream culture, so they can be free from discriminatory suspicion and treatment.
Where Harris Flounders
Despite the best commendable attempts by Sam Harris to distinguish Islam from Muslims – i.e. “beliefs” from “alleged believers” – he’s made too many disturbing remarks in the past where he readily supported the so-called “War on Terror” against targets in Muslim-majority countries, (something he seems to have partially changed his mind on here), and even called for the profiling of Muslims as a smarter measure in comparison to profiling “elderly couple.” (Read his full post for context here).
Worse, Harris continues to insist that the Islam of the jihadists is the most valid Islam, because, in his view, it is the logical outcome of a literalist interpretation of the Quran, which he then insists is the most intellectually honest way to understand it.
This is deeply problematic. Here, Harris ironically undermines his project and shoots himself in the foot. In effect, he passionately calls for more Muslim reformist voices to promote a reformed 21st century Islam, and then at the same time proceeds to label them “nominal Muslims,” i.e. “lesser Muslims” following a “diluated” Islam.
If liberal reformists are to win their fellow Muslims over, their reformed Islam, based on modernist reinterpretations of the Quran, will need to be theologically plausible and appealing to Muslims struggling with modernity.
Where Aslan Flounders
It must be said that overall, Reza Aslan has done a commendable job in pushing back against troubling discourse that seeks to paint Muslims with the same broad brush.
In TV interview after interview, framed from the start with very charged questions that stack the odds against him, Aslan has done his best – with very limited airtime – to counter the onslaught.
Admittedly, he did flounder in the way he presented some of his arguments to paint richer diversity, but given the constraints inherent in a platform of sound bytes and short timespans, he’s still done quite remarkably well.
Unfortunately, on the question of bad beliefs, Aslan professed an approach that I strongly disagree with, starting at minute 4:40 in this interview with Chris Hayes, which you can watch here. Aslan explained:
Here’s the problem, is that what I think Maher and Harris are getting at, is that they want to condemn beliefs. Frankly, look, I’m going to be honest with you. If you’re some kind of ultra orthodox Muslim who believes every word of the Quran is literal, and that gays are going to hell, and that anyone who converts should be killed, I don’t really have a problem with you. As long as it’s just your belief. I don’t care what you believe. It’s actions that we should be focusing on.
This is a highly troublesome diagnosis, and one that I invite Aslan to strongly reconsider.
Not only that, but it conflicts with, and invalidates the following which he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed:
On one hand, people of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community, often denying that religious violence has any religious motivation whatsoever. This is especially true of Muslims.
So, which one is it?
Beliefs influence behavior. They heavily matter, and they are far from inconsequential.
Ironically, Aslan seems to intuitively sense this when he so passionately counters discourse reeking of anti-Muslim bigotry, which in itself is a form of bad belief. Otherwise, why bother?
The “Side” You Should Pick
As a former Islamist, I intimately know and understand the power of beliefs from deeply personal experience that I recount in excruciating detail in my debut banned book and searing memoir My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul, (which forced me to seek, and thankfully attain, political asylum in Canada – a story for another day).
Moreover, as a young man of color who’s experienced his share of troubles at airports and during visa proceedings, I know what it’s like to be discriminatorily profiled for no reason other than having a Muslim name.
Change doesn’t and won’t happen in a linear manner. Binary “solutions” are no solutions. It’s time for the best of what Harris and Aslan are advocating. It’s time for a Swiss army knife.
Amir is the author of My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul, recommended by Foreign Policy magazine among 25 books to read in 2013. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bloomberg, CBC, and many more. His last Medium piece is ISIS Isn’t the Real Enemy. The “Game of Thrones” Medieval Mindset That Birthed It Is. Watch his book’s video trailer here.
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