Salon: There are few get-rich-quick schemes left in modern publishing, but one that persists could be called Project Islamic Reformation. Writing a book that fits in this category is actually quite easy. First, label yourself a reformist. Never mind the congratulatory self-coronation the tag implies; it is necessary to segregate oneself from all the non-reformists out there. Second, make your agenda clear at the outset by criticizing what is ailing Islam and Muslims. The Qur’an is a good place to start because Muslims, especially in the Middle East, surely treat their holy book more like a military instruction manual than anything else. Third, propose a few solutions. Lest you be accused of nuance, the more vague and generic these are, the better. Fourth, soak up the inevitable publicity that awaits, and with it, your hard-earned cash. Voilà!
The books that make up Project Islamic Reformation are not works of scholarship or even well-crafted popular texts. They are almost exclusively political pamphlets of a very personal nature that often begin as biography and end as self-help, except the “self” in this case includes a quarter of the world’s people, and the “help” may or may not come at the end of a missile. Ayaan Hirsi Ali—who deserves empathy for her personal ordeals but not her conclusions—released such a book earlier this year with neat, Manichean categories delineating good and bad Muslims, as well as the expected checklist of proposed reforms. More tracts will certainly follow because publishers love a good Reformist, and the affluent Western audience that consumes these books loves having most of their pre-existing beliefs confirmed rather than challenged.
It is in the context of Project Islamic Reformation that the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris and the redeemed radical Maajid Nawaz have published their latest book, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance,” put out by no less a publishing house than Harvard University Press. The book is structured as a conversation between Harris and Nawaz, who go back and forth over issues ranging from polling data suggesting Muslims support corporal punishment to the Islamic justifications for jihad. Compressed into its 128 pages is the entire Reformation Project, except that the book’s contents are as thin as its subject is grand. For a work whose title includes the words “Islam” and “future of tolerance,” the Harris-Nawaz pamphlet consistently veers from the ahistorical into the nonsensical and back again, almost always at Harris’s urging.