Desh Avila and Jay Shapiro’s Islam & the Future of Tolerance isn’t so much a debate between Atheism and Islam as it is a debate about the debate between Atheism and Islam, an important nuance in this age of ceaselessly escalating discourse on cultural and identity politics. Anyone can wrangle a group of talking heads in front of a camera or audience to bloviate on the merits of religious belief, but Avila and Shapiro’s purposes are more urgent and pressing, belonging to the immediate, pragmatic now of early twentieth-first century modernity than any generalized epistemological discourse on spirituality and belief. The central questions of the existence of God and the authenticity of Islam are never addressed. The matter, then, is how we should ask these questions.
The documentary focuses on the relationship between two prominent liberal writers, the first noted neuroscientist and “New Atheist” Sam Harris, the second ex-Islamist and religious reformer Maajid Naway. The first third of the film recounts their respective upbringings, giving particular attention to Maajid: his happy, middle-class childhood in Essex, England; his induction into violent extremism as a young man after being recruited by pan-Islamist organization Hizb Ut-Tahrir; his subsequent ideological deprogramming after being sponsored by Amnesty International while a prisoner of conscience in Egypt. (This emphasis is unsurprising since, through no fault of Harris, his story as a young Californian with a knack for debate and skepticism isn’t anywhere near as compelling.) The film transitions to their originally contentious relationship, beginning with their first meeting in 2010 when a slightly tipsy Harris rudely confronted Maajid at a dinner party after he’d suffering a humiliating defeat in a televised debate with activist/apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali. An emotionally bruised Maajid lashed out at Harris and two remained adversaries until four years later when they attempted to bury the hatchet via a lengthy phone call.
It was during this phone call that something amazing happened: the two discovered that not only could they have a respectful debate, but they agreed on several crucial issues. It’s these agreements that occupy much of the documentary. The first is the necessity for reform within Islam—Maajid sees it as a necessary transformation to help bring the faith more in line with its original spirit, Harris believes it will encourage a fake-it-until-you-make-it mentality among believers so they purposefully ignore explicitly worded passages within the Quran condoning violence, slavery, and the repression of women. (This self-regulated censorship of holy scriptures by believers is a reoccurring theme with Harris, emphasizing his unusual opinion among the New Atheist set that the human need for religious transcendentalism isn’t inherently harmful, it just needs to be carefully managed.) But the more shocking similarity Maajid and Harris share is their cautious disdain for Western liberalism, particularly the knee-jerk reaction shared by many people on the left to ignore or excuse misogynist behavior. In one telling example, Maajid recalls how once in college his Islamist allies put up posters shaming Western women for not wearing veils. When the college authorities demanded they remove them, Maajid scared them off by accusing them of racism and Islamophobia.
If there’s any hope in Islam & the Future of Tolerance, it’s that it suggests a world where the kind of dialogue that’s torn the world apart for centuries may one day be used to heal it. The film ends with Maajid still a Muslim and Harris still an Atheist. But it also ends with them as friends—cautious ones, perhaps, but ones willing to listen and learn with open minds and earnest hearts. May we all one day follow suit.