I've been wanting to read an informative book about the politics of Islam for a while now, and I'm ready to assume (perhaps somewhat lazily) that this slim volume was the thing. It does not offer an analysis of Islam as such, it does not present the religion; instead, it gives a view of its place in today's world, and a more-than-basic explanation of why Islam, in its traditional form, does not agree with many aspects of modern Western culture. It also discusses some of the more (indirectly) problematic responses to Islam on the part of Western liberals.
1. I really appreciated the explanation of the breakdowns and divisions Maajid Nawaz gave - I think it is really hard for Christians to envisage the complex divisions among Muslims, especially as the ratios of what we perceive as 'radical' to 'liberal' are very different in the two faiths (the term used here in the widest meaning possible); also, more importantly, the very understanding of 'liberal' and 'radical' is different (this is also discussed).
2. Coming from one of the major Antemurales Christianitatis
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antemurale_Christianitatis ), I find it refreshing to see a text on Islam which isn't written from a Christian perspective or with an implied Christian context. Instead, the focus is on Islam versus human right values, or, which I find more patronizing, but nevertheless real, 'progress'.
3. Harris makes a few major points; that Islam is, in its traditional (is this a proper word?) form, a religion of conquest, to a greater degree than Christianity (I still wouldn't like to meet Cortez, though). That reformers of Islam - and, to be politically correct, other religions - are essentially unfaithful to their primary messages (but he also claims it's better to live with this dilemma than to not attempt reform). Longish quote ahead, hidden under spoiler tags:
In the twenty-first century, the moderate’s commitment to scientific rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value—values that, as you say, are potentially universal for human beings—comes from the past thousand years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern, ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there. Moderates seem unwilling to grapple with the fact that all scriptures contain an extraordinary amount of stupidity and barbarism that can always be rediscovered and made holy anew by fundamentalists—and there’s no principle of moderation internal to the faith that prevents this. These fundamentalist readings are, almost by definition, more complete and consistent—and, therefore, more honest.
4. Harris makes an interesting point about Western liberals trying to justify Islam as 'oriental' (I'm using this word to signal postcolonial, yet still patronizing perception/ white guilt; I don't remember whether Harris used it), and being tolerant of the worst aspects of the unreformed Islam. According to him,
[while] they rightly question every aspect of their “own” Western culture in the name of progress, they censure liberal Muslims who attempt to do so within Islam, and they choose to side instead with every regressive reactionary in the name of “cultural authenticity” and anticolonialism.
He also says that worringly, radical Muslims are more likely to be represented in the media than the 'reformed' ones also due to the fact that in the West, it is felt that the former are somewhat more genuine, and thus - representative of the faith. (This is scary; I can imagine my reaction to being 'represented' by a traditionalist Catholic - which is quite easy, since my country is currently ruled by people who represent such views. And, as Harris implies, the distance between reformed and traditionalist Muslims is greater than between liberal and traditionalist Catholics.)
Probably it is a simplification - but a more intelligent one than the ones I've encountered so far. I cannot help being worried by the fact that all top positive reviews seem to be written by Americans (American atheists?)