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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Is Islam on the cusp of a reformation toward tolerance?

Iranian worshipers recite verses of the Quran, Islam's

Iranian worshipers recite verses of the Quran, Islam's holy book, during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, at the shrine of Saint Mohammad Helal Ibn Ali, some 140 miles south of the capital Tehran, on June 24, 2015. Credit: AP / Ebrahim Noroozi

We enter the holiday season in a year remarkably short on peace on Earth and goodwill toward humans.

The war in Syria pits the evil of Bashir Assad’s brutal regime against the greater evil of the Islamic State and its death-cult version of Islam. The attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California, have starkly demonstrated that jihadist terror in Europe and America is no idle fear — while Donald Trump’s triumphant ride in the polls is a sobering reminder of how easily fear can fuel xenophobic bigotry. On the culture front, racial tensions seem at their highest levels in years, with a new wave of gender warfare adding more acrimony to the mix.

But amid the ugliness, there are points of light, such as the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, black and white, standing together after a white supremacist’s horrific massacre of nine African-American churchgoers. Another such sign of hope is a recently published short book “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue” by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.

The backgrounds both authors bring to this collaboration are remarkable. Harris, an American neuroscientist, philosopher and best-selling author of such titles as “The End of Faith,” is a hard-core atheist who has argued that while all religion is a pernicious delusion, Islam is uniquely dangerous because its doctrines and history — such as the fact that its prophet was also a warrior for faith — make it particularly disposed toward violent radicalism. Nawaz, a British-born Muslim activist and author, joined a radical Islamist group as a teenager, traveled to the Middle East and spent five years in an Egyptian prison. Then he had a change of heart and started Quilliam, a foundation dedicated to combating Islamist extremism.

Five years ago, after a debate in which Nawaz defended the notion that Islam is a religion of peace, Harris challenged him with a question that implied that his defense of a peaceful ideal of Islam was less-than-honest wishful thinking. It was, as Harris notes at the start of the new book, “a rather inauspicious first meeting.” It was, nonetheless, the start of a dialogue that resulted in their book.

Today, Nawaz says Islam is neither a religion of peace nor a religion of war; it is simply a religion, which means that, like any other belief, it is what people make of it. He also agrees that both peaceful Muslims and European and American liberals who rightly abhor anti-Muslim bigotry have often failed to confront Islam’s extremism problem. Meanwhile, Harris cautiously agrees with Nawaz on the possibility — and necessity — of Islamic reformism. As Harris points out, one of the factors driving Islamist fundamentalism is that, unlike Christianity, Islam has never had its beliefs tested in a reformation.

The two men’s conversation in “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” covers vital issues and makes many important points, from the political and theological aspects of Muslim scholars’ condemnation of ISIS to Islamic arguments that mitigate the harsher and more intolerant aspects of the Quran.

Sadly, some anti-Islamophobic “progressive” journalists such as Nathan Lean and C.J. Werleman have attacked Nawaz in shockingly demeaning terms, calling him Harris’ “Muslim enabler” and even “porch monkey.” Yet Harris has stressed that, between himself and Nawaz, he has changed his opinion more.

‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance” is essential reading for anyone interested in the debate about Islam, extremism and the West. And one might also say that this coming together of an atheist and a Muslim is an inspiring example of the Christmas spirit.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.