Islam And The Future Of Tolerance– A Harvard Discussion Between Sam Harris & Maajid Nawaz


Ahead of the November 3rd release of ‘Islam and the Future Of Tolerance: A Dialogue
a book collaboration between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz – both men sat down in conversation before a Harvard audience a little while ago.

I’ve always admired both men’s willingness to seek out dialogue with those who hold different, or even wildly opposing worldviews. Actual dialogue mind you, not point scoring and inflammatory rhetoric, but a genuine, civil exchange of ideas. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with the typical debate format over the years. Often, a truly valuable opportunity can be sacrificed in the pursuit of victory. The debate format is engineered around ‘winning’, not investigating truths or finding common ground.

In fact, people can (and often do) win debates with objectively wrong arguments – proving it’s about the packaging, rather than the contents. Whether or not you agree with what either Harris or Nawaz have to say on this topic, I think credit is due for bringing this pertinent discussion to us in a constructive way, and to Harvard for providing the platform.

UPDATE 15 Sep: Someone has now posted the video on YouTube (below)

I followed the live video stream of the event provided via Harvard and below are some notable highlights:

  • Harris now rocks a beard.
  • Harvard changed hash tags more times than Gaga changes clothes. See #HarrisNawaz and #ToleranceJFK
  • Maajid Nawaz explains his name is pronounced like ‘Magic’ but with a ‘D’.
  • “We have to talk about specific consequences of specific beliefs” – Sam Harris.
  • Sam and Maajid take a moment to shine a light on the usual liberal regressives who refer to Maajid with terms such as ‘lapdog’ and ‘Muslim validator’.
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in attendance
  • “The real purpose of our collaboration is to figure out some path forward” – Sam Harris
  • Maajid Nawaz on being called an ‘Islamophobe’: “The day you have had to dodge neo-nazi hammer attacks is the day you get to talk to me about Islamophobia”
  • Maajid Nawaz uses “Check your privilege”. We’ll let that slide
  • Maajid takes a swing at the ‘racism of low expectations’.
  • “I read all the Harry Potter books in prison” – Maajid Nawaz, talking about his ‘Voldermort Effect’ analogy: “by not naming Islamism & distinguishing it from Islam, you only increase hysteria & make it easier for haters to blame all Muslims”.
  • Apparently, Maajid Nawaz gets more blowback for engaging with Sam Harris than for engaging with extremists.
  • Sam Harris highlights the plight of minorities in Muslim majority countries. Nawaz bangs the drum about Raif Badawi.
  • Maajid reiterates that he never claims to be a religious leader, or speak for Muslims: “I’m not a religious leader, I’m not devout. Some of you may see me doing things…I won’t elaborate”. The crowd laughs.
  • Maajid Nawaz makes some interesting points on the prohibition of alcohol in Islam.
  • “The logical conclusion of this debate is secularism” – Maajid Nawaz
  • Nawaz reels off a number of horrors in the name of Islam that can’t be pinned on foreign policy.
  • “The crazier you get as a Jain, the less we have to worry about you” – Sam Harris
  • Apparently, Sam Harris trains listening to Sufi Music, specifically Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  • “No idea is above scrutiny, no person beneath dignity” – Maajid Nawaz
  • Sam Harris explains for the millionth time that it’s not *only* Islam that plays a role in extremism.
  • Maajid dubs Harris ‘Apollo Creed’.
  • Some people at Harvard mistake the question section for an audition.
  • Harris, on the use of footnotes: “You could improve the Bible and Qur’an in five minutes”
  • “You have to keep putting pressure on bad ideas” – Sam Harris
  • Maajid mentions an article he wrote in The Daily Beast. Read it here

An excellent and pertinent discussion.

I’ll post the video of the full conversation when/if it becomes available. In the meantime, you can listen to my discussion with Sam Harris here and my discussion with Maajid Nawaz here.

What did you take away from the conversation? Let me know in the comments section.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  • The discussion was a breath of fresh-air in a space so often polluted by the likes of Control + CJ Werleman and his ilk. I was particularly interested to hear Sam say that through his dialogue with Maajid he believes it’s he who’s opinion has changed most. I think this is testament to Sam’s intellectual honesty and I’m very keen to see how this unfolds in the book. I’m hoping that my own opinions will be refined in a similar fashion!

    I was perhaps *slightly* disappointed by the near total lack of disagreement between the two of them. While I increasingly share you disillusionment with the traditional debate format, I do think that a little more time spelling out where their views depart would have be well-spent. That said, it might well be that most of the disagreements that they had going into this collaboration were resolved throughout the process. I guess I’m nit-picking!

    I loved this, by the way:

    “Some people at Harvard mistake the question section for an audition.”

    The first guy in particular – the “Arab journalist” – certainly seemed to like the sound of his own voice!

  • Pretty typical, though it looks like Maajid Nawaz has simply adopted new techniques to dodge certain criticisms which pair well with his appeal to emotion to his (self-inflicted) imprisonment and torture.

    But what else do you expect from an apologist?

    Bigotry is going up because population is going up, resources are being stressed, and the divisive, ID politics you attack you also employed earlier in the speech, Maajid.

  • Excuse me, did you just refer to someone’s torture as “self-inflicted”? That’s pretty reprehensible.

  • My problem with Maajid Nawaz is that he claims to be a Muslim, but not a devout Muslim. What exactly does he mean by this? Is he a cultural Muslim, but no longer a believer? If he is a believer in the fearsome god Allah, I find this very strange indeed especially on account of Maajid’s intelligence and in-depth knowledge of Islam’s many flaws. For this reason, I struggle to believe him whenever he utters the incongruous blessing, ‘peace be upon him’ after naming the warmongering ‘prophet’. This little aside, within an otherwise interesting discussion, made me cringe to be honest.

    Surely, in trying to be all things to all people, he’s not being entirely honest. This is why he meets with a great deal of opposition from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Many practising Muslims regard Maajid as an apostate or atheist; whereas others (mostly on the political right) are wary of his attempt to define and separate ‘Political Islam’ (Islamism) from the religion of Islam. I understand the reason why this is necessary – that is to say, to help prevent ‘non-Islamists’ from feeling persecuted.

    Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the fact that most Muslims regard their religion as a totalitarian ideology. They respect Sharia Law (supposedly Divine law) and express disdain for the ‘man-made laws’ of non-Islamic nations.

    Whilst I applaud Maajid for his tireless efforts to educate Muslims into the ideology of secularism (separation of religion from the state), it’s a monumental task. It could take a century or more of such consciousness raising effort before substantial progress can be made.

    In the meantime, we are witnessing a truly alarming mass exodus of people moving from Islamic countries into Europe. Most will have no intention of modifying their 7th Century mindset to accommodate the ideology of secularism. Rather, they will hope to change the mindset of host nations. Although the majority of Muslims have no intention of becoming killers, nor even stealth jihadists; nevertheless we can’t pretend that none will slip through net. Undoubtedly, Europe is at risk of Islamisation due to non-integration of newcomers. Already Saudi Arabia has offered to build 200 mosques in Germany to accommodate the influx of Islamic migrants and refugees.

    None of this bodes well for the future of Western democracy, freedom of thought and universal human rights. Additionally, Western democracies are being undermined by certain Leftists and their suicidal belief in cultural relativism. Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind. I shudder at the thought of him becoming Prime Minister of the UK. David Cameron is bad enough, but things can only get worse!

  • Yes, the questions weren’t great, especially the twat who tried to equate reluctance to accept the fact that Islam leads to terrorism with “global warming” deniers (at least I think that was what he meant). I for one see very clearly that, as Harris never tires of saying, some religious ideas have real consequences in the real world. I also have difficulty believing that a minuscule amount of CO2 (and the equally minuscule temperature rise) is going to end civilization.

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  • @ Pyewacket

    Your point about what kind of Muslim Maajid Nawaz actually is bothers me (not that you are the only person who is asking such a question – I even found myself wondering the same thing). We are immersed in a society that, due to the concerted efforts of a few groups of people (Islamists, leftists AND far right conservative xenophobes), sees Islam as a fairly strict and consistent set of propositional beliefs to which basically all “true” Muslims subscribe. And yet, when it comes to a religion we are vastly more familiar with, Christianity, we are able to recognize that the best way to identify whether someone is a Christian is whether they call themselves a Christian. There are Christians who believe that Jesus lived on Earth, died and was resurrected, and those who believe he is entirely mythical and who treat the Bible as a sort of guidebook from which they cherry-pick the good moral advice (*which is identified as “good” because it aligns with their 21st century sensibilities). Some Christians believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, and that life (including humans) was created in 6 days, others accept the modern scientific consensus of 4.5 billion years, with life created through purely natural means (natural selection and the other aspects of modern evolutionary theory). Catholic doctrine (straight from the Pope) dictates that a few magic words of Latin can change ordinary crackers and wine into REAL human flesh and blood each and every Mass, and there are millions of people who truly believe that they are committing an act of cannibalism every time they undergo this ritual of transubstantiation. Of course, the majority of their less conservative peers see just how ridiculous such a proposition is, viewing the ritual as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with their savior. The only necessary belief one must have to be a Christian, in my estimation, is a belief in some sort of god (deistic or theistic). Now many others in the most conservative sects will say that Unitarian Universalists aren’t real Christians or whatever, but from a societal perspective, they generally count (pollsters call them “liberal Christians”). We need to start seeing Muslims in exactly this same way.

    Who are we to judge whether someone who says he’s a Muslim actually is? Do you have to subscribe to all 5 Pillars of Islam to be a Muslim? Is prayer mandatory? Is drawing a picture of Muhammad okay? Even fundamentalists don’t have this right, because you can be sure that they are also cherry-picking from the Koran, and discarding certain interpretations that are no less valid than their own. It is not surprising that we have such a narrow view of what a Muslim must be – we are forced to rely on other peoples’ claims (since we have little direct experience with this religion), and other people have agendas that motivate them to make sweeping generalizations. Islamists want to fabricate a united front so that they appear more numerous than they are, so they monopolize the conversation and claim to represent the true Islam. Far-right xenophobes need an enemy to hate so they have someone to blame for the negative things in their countries, and so they are blind to the fact that a large percentage of Muslims are perfectly content to live modern, secular lives, because that would disrupt their narrative that foreigners are deliberately “Islamifying” their countries, causing every social ill imaginable. And leftists tend to see US foreign policy as the cause of all strife in the world today, while believing that all Muslims are peaceful, non-violent people with no religious reason to resort to terrorism and campaigns of conquest; instead, they see people rising up against American hegemony for purely political, totally legitimate reasons. All of these views ignore the possibility that there is the same degree of nuance in the Islamic religion as there is in the Christian one. While there are only a fraction of the official sects that Christianity has, within sects there is vigorous debate and disagreement, and certainly there are a large minority of Muslims today who are the equivalent of Christmas-Easter Christians, for whom the religion is really irrelevant in their daily lives, and who only observe and practice their faith on major holidays. There are LGBTQ Muslims, feminist Muslims, Muslims who drink alcohol, Muslims who never pray or embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca, etc. We want to make it safe for people like Maajid, the liberal, secular Muslims, to speak out en masse, to show both the anti-Muslim bigots AND the more conservative members of their religion that their interpretation of Islamic scripture is possible, valid and consistent with modern secular values. It then becomes possible for others to preserve their religious identity without living the barbaric elements of their holy texts.

    I applaud Maajid and Sam for embarking on this journey together and sincerely hope that their efforts start a cascade of change within the Islamic faith. It’s a daunting task, but since the only alternative is accepting a future of war and theocracy in the Middle East, I see it as a worthwhile project.

    • So basically just “cherry-pick” from an ancient religious text and be a theist? I wasn’t aware people weren’t allowed to do this.

      • Dear Chris de Vries,

        The problem for me is that Maajid’s comments are ambiguous. Often I’ve heard him say in interviews that he’s ‘non devout’ and even ‘non religious’. And in other interviews he talks of ‘my faith, Islam’ (check out his various video interviews on Youtube). Most cringewrothy is his utterance, ‘peace be upon him’, immediately after naming Muhammad. This suggests he’s still a believer in the murderous prophet. Or maybe he thinks if he says it often enough, it will encourage extremist Muslims to ease up a bit, albeit they are not that easily fooled.

        As I said before, with Maajid’s in depth knowledge of Islam, I find it hard to understand where he’s really coming from. He performs like a typical LibDem (the UK political Party) by trying to be all things to all people, depending on his audicence. This is why he endgenders feelings of mistrust in certain individuals from all poltical and religious persuasions.

        So perhaps he’s a nominal or cultural Muslim? To the fanatically religious Islamist, this means that Maajid is an apostate and should therefore be killed. Of course, it’s the Islamic fanatics who need to be enlightened.

        Another issue, this time relating to freedom of speech, he tends to demonise and label as ‘bigots’ so-called ‘Far Right’ counter jihad campaigners like Robert Spencer, who has also been banned from speaking in the UK. A case of ‘no platform’ issued from the highest level of governement – a fact which Islamic lunatics like Mo Ansar use to justify their own dubious positions.

        In my view, no one has the monopoly on truth. Anyone who is working to counter violent and covert Islamic extremism (Islamism) is worth listening to, no matter what their personal beliefs. Indeed, countering the threat of Islamic extremism should be a unifying force right across the political and religious spectrum. After all, Islamism in its many guises is a threat to everyone, including Muslims – especially Muslim women.

        • Just noticed lots of keyboard errors in my post to Chris , but forgot to edit my post before hitting the Submit button. Believe it or not, I can actually spell ‘government’ and ‘audience’ and other words which shot from the keyboard incorrectly…!

  • why do so many people keep repeating the obvious statements without realizing the most important difference in Islam. If you ask any Muslim whether he be moderate, Jihadi or whatever whether he believes the entire Koran is the unalterable word of Allah he will say yes. THAT IS WHAT MAKES ALL MUSLIMS FUNDAMENTALISTS!!!!!!! They CANT cherry pick they have to accept the whole deal or nothing. The only reason they say its a religion of peace is either they havnt read the bad bits or they just accept the Imams teaching on the subject regardless of the actual words. Until they have the courage to admit that Islam is no more the direct word of God than any other religion we well never get anywhere in this discussion.

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