I am well aware that writing anything at all about the recent attacks in Paris (and Turkey, and Beirut, and wherever else attacks may have occurred by the time this goes to web) is to walk into a rhetorical snake pit. People, not surprisingly, have strong opinions about religion, mass murder, and geopolitics. Here is just a sampler of opinions I have heard expressed by pundits and friends in the week since the Paris attacks:

  1. This is an attack on all humanity, all values of human decency, and all people who aspire to be rational should condemn it in the strongest possible terms.
  2. People should not express solidarity with Paris because they did not express similar solidarity with other countries that have experienced similar tragedies.
  3. People should leave other people alone and let them mourn however they want to.
  4. France provoked this by attacking Daesh (ISIS)* first.  
  5. The West created Daesh through wars and political partitions.
  6. The West has nothing to do with it. Daesh is the expression of pure Quranic doctrine.
  7. Daesh has nothing to do with "real Islam."

People stake out these positions and defend them, and more often than not, end up attacking others who disagree with them, ad hominem. I’m not noting anything new here, but I would like to add mine to the chorus of voices calling for a return to civil discourse, even (especially!) about difficult and painful subjects. We need to be able to talk about things that affect us directly and indirectly without being “shamed” (as the kids today like to say) for speaking up. White or brown, male or female, Western or Eastern, we need to talk openly about the world we live in because evil thrives on silence and secrecy. I’d go so far as to say that it can’t exist without them. The moment you drag evil out into the public square and demand that it have a normal, rational conversation, it starts to look very small and silly indeed. I’m thinking here of classicist Mary Beard, the Cambridge don who responded to her horrific internet trolls (who did things like superimposing an image of a vagina on a picture of her face) by writing back to them. Hundreds of them. And ended up getting a surprising number of sincere, heartfelt, abjectly human responses. It doesn't excuse what they did. But it deflates the power of these "monsters" significantly. 

For all of these reasons, the best thing I have read this week is a short book by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz called Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. The former, an author of books on ethics, religion, and spiritual practice, has more recently become known as a pundit on the subject of Islam as an inherently violent religion. Because of his strong views on the matter, he’s been attacked by Ben Affleck (on Real Time with Bill Maher) and others as a “racist” and an “Islamophobe.” Nawaz is a former Muslim extremist and author of the book Radical, who now runs Quilliam Foundation, a think tank dedicated to promoting liberalism and human rights among Muslims, and understanding between East and West. It's also dedicated to counteracting Muslim extremism, a phenomenon he insists (and he should know) is very real, very virulent, and in need of formal recognition by Muslims and non-Muslims a like as a deadly problem to be solved. 

For these two guys to sit down, as they have here, with the explicit intention of demonstrating how people with opposing views can find common ground on these very divisive topics, is in itself a big thing. Nawaz points out that there are many in the Muslim communities he works with who will consider him a traitor just for talking with Sam. Sam, on the other hand, has become an unlikely darling of neoconservatives. Needless to say, they’re not likely to be thrilled about this conversation, either.

The two of them dive right into it, Harris asserting that core tenets of Quranic doctrine advocate things like beheading infidels, and Nawaz countering, with specific examples, that there is no one interpretation of any text, and that the meaning of any religion or belief system belongs to its practitioners. That said, Nawaz takes a very firm position for human rights, separation of church (or mosque) and state, and liberal, democratic values. He argues that democratic and human rights values mustn’t be seen as belonging to the West, and that it is a form of reverse racism to deem Muslims culturally incapable of embracing them and at the same time remaining “authentically” themselves.

Things get a little slippery on the subject of Western intervention in the Middle East, mainly because they ARE slippery. Nawaz repeatedly takes Western "apologists" to task for treating Muslim extremism as a natural, understandable response to Western imperialism, pointing out that both Western intervention in and Western indifference to the problems of the Middle East are used as recruitment propaganda by groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda. At the same time both men acknowledge that even among those Muslims who despise Daesh, deep suspicion of Western motives exists, meaning that an act like France's recent retaliatory bombings in Syria may simultaneously aid the short-term goal of destroying Daesh and harm the long-term goal of ending radical Islam for the sake of stability and human rights in the Middle East. I should point out that both Harris and Nawaz want to see Daesh destroyed, one way or another. But Nawaz makes one thing very clear: Without a long-term strategy for winning the "war of ideas" against extremism, the grass roots will remain. And if recent history is any guide, Daesh's successor will be even worse. 

If there's anything to criticize about this refreshingly humane and intelligent dialogue, it might be the fact that these two men have much more culturally in common than they have to argue about. Nawaz' history allows him to move fluidly between worlds, acting as a kind of intermediary between conservative Islam and its critics. But in the end, he wants peace, civility, democracy, and human rights for all, which are core values for Harris, too. And he levels criticisms that might very well face serious backlash not only among politically correct Western leftists, but also among the majority in the Muslim world. The key difference is that Harris sees all religion as dangerous, unredeemable nonsense, while Nawaz does not. 

Still, Islam and the Future of Tolerance is a great start, a more sincere and carefully reasoned attempt to bridge these cultural divides and talk openly about the issues than anything I've yet seen. And it's a powerful advertisement for the need for more intermediaries like Quilliam and Nawaz in these conflicts that divide us all.


*Recently, many media outlets have begun referring to the organization as Daesh, for reasons I also support. For the short explanation, see here. For the exhaustive one, here

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I'm @jgots on Twitter

You might also enjoy: Think Again - A Big Think Podcast. Jason Gots hosts. This week: Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk teaches a valuable lesson on how to live as a writer (or anything).