Jeff Tayler reviews a new documentary on Islam

JAC note: You’ll remember the writer and author Jeff Tayler, a contributing editor at The Atlantic whose atheist-oriented pieces used to grace the pages of Salon before they decided that atheism wasn’t woke. Jeff has also written many books, and I’m reading a brand new one cowritten with Nina Khrushcheva (Nikita’s great grand-daughter): In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. I quite like it; it’s a great travelogue and a portrait of a people and their politics.

Jeff sent me a contribution in which he reviews a new documentary about Islam (released December of last year), featuring commentary by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, whose dialogue in a book gave rise to this eponymous movie. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray appear as well, and I’ll leave it to Jeff to say the rest below.

I’ve put a trailer for the movie at the bottom.


Islam and the Future of Tolerance

An Honest, Brave Film that Should Have Been Made Years Ago

 By Jeffrey Tayler

In the modern-day West, no issue generates obfuscation, doublespeak, and rank intellectual cowardice the way Islam does. No other religion spurs supposed progressives to beclown themselves by indulging in fits of specious apologetics in defense of misogynistic customs. And no other faith evokes such trepidation—fear, even—among those who dare speak honestly about some of its more troubling doctrines. With good reason, of course, as apostates from the faith (and even some Muslim reformers) know all too well, whether they dwell in Muslim-majority countries or in the United States.

Yet a paradox reigns: the number of Americans who affiliate with no religion whatsoever is rising rapidly and much of Europe is essentially nonbelieving, but Islam has become a topic of urgency on both continents. Muslim immigration—decades old in France, say, but more recent elsewhere—and the recurrent phenomenon of Islamist terrorism are responsible. Just before I wrote these words, in fact, a jihadist attacked a Christmas market in Strasbourg. Violence of this sort serves to underscore the point: now more than ever, the need for truth-telling and unhindered dialogue about Islam presses upon us.

Arising to meet that need is Islam and the Future of Tolerance, a full-length documentary that takes its name from a 2015 book by the neuroscientist New Atheist Sam Harris, and Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim who has trod the path from Islamism to a moderate version of the faith and who founded Quilliam, a London-based organization the business of which is countering Islamist extremism. Both Harris and Nawaz feature prominently in the film and their analysis and personal stories make up much of it. For those who believe Islam is not a topic that interests them, the Iraqi-born secularist Faisal Saeed Al Mutar (the founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, which, in the U.S., aims to “prevent extremism before it takes root”) offers, toward the movie’s end, a sobering admonition: “If you’re not interested in the Middle East, the Middle East is interested in you. If you’re not interested in Islamists, the Islamist is interested in you.” Make no mistake about it: he is talking about Islamists in the West. The film opens and closes in the West, with scant footage from the Middle East.

Islam remains a potentially deadly issue, as a clip shown early on from a debate about whether it is a “religion of peace” makes clear. Nawaz (still defending Islam unreservedly at the time) argues that it is, whereas the famed ex-Muslim public intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the British author Douglas Murray present the opposing case. It quickly emerges that both Nawaz and Hirsi Ali are facing death threats from Islamists. Murray, in an interview shot later for the film, sums up the absurdity of the debate’s proposition: “How come if this side of the debate’s got death threats hanging over them, and [the other] side has death threats hanging over [it], why are we even discussing whether this is a religion of peace or not?” Audience polls conducted before and after the event demonstrated a resounding shift of opinion in favor of reality, with Hirsi Ali and Murray winning a crushing victory over Nawaz and his colleague.

Yet by no means does Islam and the Future of Tolerance lead its viewers to one-dimensional views of the issue; nor does it preach to the converted. Using graphics showing circles of gradually increasing sizes, Harris points out the proportional differences between the (relatively few) extremists (say, those of ISIS and Al Shabaab), devout Muslims who reject the use of violence, and Muslims who are only nominally, or culturally, Muslim. Of greatest concern, of course, are Islamists committed to establishing an Islamic society and jihadists willing to kill to bring it about. What counts, we understand, is that all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, respect the pluralistic values that undergird a civil society. Whence the title of both the book and the movie.

Nevertheless, the problem, as Harris points out, is that the ISIS version of Islam is all too plausible, if you just read the Quran and the Hadith and take them at face value. Words, after all, are supposed to correspond to the realities they signify. Harris posits how unacceptable the inverse would be in other areas of life, asking us to imagine ordering lobster from a restaurant menu, yet being brought everything from poultry to a lobster-shaped chocolate desert instead. What Harris calls a “heroic task of bowdlerization” is necessary to prove that Islam is a “religion of peace,” whereas such is certainly not the case with, say, Jainism. The filmmakers also interview the Canadian oncologic pathologist Ali A. Rizvi, the Pakistan-born author of The Atheist Muslim. Rizvi asks whether “extremists are corrupting Islam” or “moderates are sanitizing it.” The answer is obvious to those who engage in an honest reading of the texts and confront their calls to jihad and martyrdom in its cause.

The issues Islam and the Future of Tolerance deals with bear on us all. The remedy surely lies not in vilifying Muslims as people or in labeling those who voice legitimate concerns about Islam “Islamophobes,” but in fact-based free speech about the faith so that we can better confront the problems Islam poses for the modern world, and, most vitally, support those working to reform the faith in the interests of nonviolence.

The film succeeds in rescuing forthright discussion of Islam from the clutches of the right and placing it in progressive hands. Progressives should not shy away from the topic.

Had we taken it up earlier, Christmas shoppers in Europe might have been spared yet another tragedy.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyTayler1.


JAC: Jeff wrote this shortly after the Strasbourg Christmas Market attack on December 11, 2018, when an Islamist terrorist killed five people and wounded 18. He (the terrorist, not Jeff!) was later hunted down and killed in a shootout with police.

The trailer is below . You can download the movie from iTunes for $5 here.  There are only four critics’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes but all are positive.


  1. GBJames
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 9:48 am | Permalink


  2. rickflick
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Nawaz’s current position, I think, is that although Islam is not a “religion of peace”, the best way forward is to persuade the moderates withing Islam, to get a grip on the extremist. He would do that by giving support to liberals and isolating the Islamists. I’ve been thinking this is a little too optimistic, but on the other hand, I’m not sure there are other options.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Looks to be a very interesting documentary. It is doubtful in our polarized society today that we have learned anything over the past 15 years. It will be a long time fixing this mess but there are a few out there working on it. Maybe we will have more time for it after we fix our current internal mess.

  4. merilee
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks. I’ve always liked Tayler’s pieces in The Atlantic.

  5. BJ
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Just for everyone’s information, the documentary can also be rented on Amazon.

    I definitely want to read that book by Tayler and Khrushcheva. Russia is such a fascinating place considering all the different people from different lands its borders encompass. Some areas are completely untamed and are basically their own city-states because Russia can’t govern them. There are so many different ethnic groups, beliefs, landscapes, and cultures. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on this book.

    • merilee
      Posted March 27, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Darn, not available on Canuck version of Anazon Prime.

      • BJ
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Well, I guess not everything can be better in Canada 🙂

        • merilee
          Posted March 27, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink


      • David Evans
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        That’s interesting, it is available on the UK version.

        • merilee
          Posted March 27, 2019 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

          The offerings seem to vary by country. I often can’t find things recommended by my American friends, and vice versa.

  6. Posted March 27, 2019 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    It is hard to tell where religion stops and plain old greed and hatred take over. Motives are complicated, complex and hard to unravel.

    I think a great source of the problem is inside Saudi Abrabia with the extreme beliefs they teach.

    • Andrew
      Posted March 27, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Certainly not. The doctrines of Islam are the problem, not greedy Saudi Arabia. In Indonesia, a man was just sentenced to 4 years in prison for insulting Islam on Facebook. Brunei has just made it legal to stone homosexuals to death because they have been given “special guidance from God.” Canada just stopped a terrorist attack in Kingston this year. Germany just arrested 10 Jihadists this week. The recent attack on the Belgium metro was an Islamic terror incident. Asia Bibi may not make it out of Pakistan alive, and on and on.

      • Posted March 27, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Just so.
        I have said it before and I reiterate, I am unashamedly Islamophobic but not irrationally so. The evidence against this dreadful religion is much too strong to ignore.

      • Posted March 27, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Nowhere in my comment did I say that Saudia Arabia was greedy.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        The basic problem is indeed the doctrines of Islam, but Saudi Arabia has a lot of money to help spread that faith -in its most backward, evil form at that- around the world.
        Getting rid of fossil fuels, oil in particular, would do more than any expensive war in eg. Iraq to curb it’s spread. With just a quarter of the trillions spent on that war the ‘West’ -and much of the rest of the world- could have gone solar.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Always a pleasure to read anything from Jeff Tayler. If there’s a contemporary heir to Mencken, it’s he.

    Lookin’ forward to watching the Harris-Nawaz doc, too.

  8. max blancke
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    This has been going on for over 1300 years. Part of the issue is that we are a people who easily forget the lessons of history.
    We have a large painting in our living room, a version of “The Ascension of the Virgin”, painted in Spain in the 1670s. A significant feature is that she stands on a crescent moon. I have read several interpretations about what that means, but it’s popularity in the Reconquista supports the view that it is a reminder of centuries of conflict with Islam.

    Even while we talk about integration of Islamic immigrants into our countries, a significant number of Muslims are using the same language and justification that their ancestors used when they colonized and subjugated India, North Africa, and Europe centuries ago. They speak of the social benefits they receive in western countries as the religious taxes they are owed by infidels in conquered lands. A number of girls who have been raped have related that their rapist explained almost apologetically that the their religion allows them to rape infidel girls in countries that Islam is at war with. It is not even rape, in their minds.

    Whether this is “real Islam” is irrelevant to us. What matters is that some percentage of modern Muslims believe it is, and they are acting on it.

    The fact that you can purchase a slave in such diverse places as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Mauritania. at an actual Slave Market, says something about the issue.

    • Posted March 27, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like a ban on Muslim immigration would be in order.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Nativist American xenophobes gave similar historical excuses when trying to ban immigration by Papists and Jews, too.

        • Posted March 27, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          Nowhere near the same.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

            “Now, what do we find in all our large cities? Entire sections containing a population incapable of understanding our institutions, with no comprehension of our national ideals, and for the most part incapable of speaking the English language. Foreign language information service gives evidence that many southern Europeans resent as an unjust discrimination the quota laws and represent America as showing race hatred and unmindful of its mission to the world. The reverse is true. America’s first duty is to those already within her own shores.”

            – US Representative Grant Hudson, 1924

            “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they …”

            New York Times editorial, 1899

            I dunno, sounds somewhere near the same, doncha think? Plus ça change …, man.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            And, while we’re at it, here’s an excerpt from Madison Grant’s 1916 tome, The Passing of the Great Race, on the menace posed by newly arrived Slovaks, Italians, Syrians, and Jews:

        • rickflick
          Posted March 27, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          And Irish and Italians and Germans. I’m pretty confident the USA would homogenize, blenderize, integrate, and normalize Muslims in the same way they do all immigrant groups. I think it makes sense to have balanced and fair immigration policy, but I don’t particularly fear any group. Fear among the electorate, though, is the thing that makes conservatives politicians dominate much of today’s politics.

          • Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            I still don’t understand why the USA insists so much to implement a policy that is opposed by a large part of the population, has already proven disastrous in every other place where it has been implemented, and will make life worse in the short term (just remember Ilhan Omar’s performance), with the hope that things will be smoothened within a generation.

            As for the alleged success of earlier immigration policies, my opinion is that the history of organized crime in 20th century America was shaped by the decision of policy-makers to keep wages low by allowing massive immigration from Italy, a country with well-known organized crime problems. In this whole affair, I see little to be proud of and no good precedent to follow.

            I am not implying that organized crime is as bad as Islam. They cannot be put on the same balance. Many societies have recovered from organized crime – and none (so far) from Islam.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 27, 2019 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

              Yes, immigration is massively disruptive in the short term, but it works well in the USA because we are almost all immigrants, and proud of it. Yes, they often require some taming. Without immigration, the USA would be a third world country of family farms eking out a living on the rocky Eastern seaboard. We’d have no jazz, no Nobel prizes, no space program, no baseball, no rock and roll, etc. Bony and Clyde were, to some degree, cultural heroes. The railroads were built, between rounds of beer, by the Irish. Mexican immigrant societies have lower crime rates than the dominant culture. The USA can absorb millions of new people every year and be better for it. Economically and culturally.

              • Nicolaas Stempels
                Posted March 27, 2019 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

                I think, Rick, that Maya considers not migration (nor race) the problem, but Islam.
                I tend to agree with her.

              • rickflick
                Posted March 28, 2019 at 12:08 am | Permalink

                I too am not a fan of Islam. But, let’s not isolate Muslims and limit their numbers simply because you fear there influence. Syrian refugees, for example, need support because of civil war. Should we turn them away because of Islam? So far this year the US has only accepted 11 refugees from Syria. This is because DT has frightened Americans into thinking Muslims are a serious threat.

      • max blancke
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        I don’t like that idea at all.

        I think we should base our immigration policies on real, unbiased research into costs/benefits of different groups, and sustainable numbers that can be integrated.

        A blanket ban on people following a major religion seems wrong and probably unworkable.

        If the Islamic communities in the west were committed to proactively stamping out extremism, I think Islamic terror attacks would mostly disappear.
        It does not even seem like immigrants are the main problem, at least in the US. Children and Grandchildren of moderate Muslim immigrants are often the ones being radicalized.
        And converts.

        • GBJames
          Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          Islamic terror attacks in the US are dwarfed by attacks by home grown right wing extremists.

    • Posted March 27, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      We talk about integration of muslims but my experience is that this is wishful thinking. The reality of integration such as that experienced with immigrants with differing beliefs is quite different than that with muslims.
      The religion does not encourage it.
      There is a marked reluctance to ask “difficult” questions about the religion particularly when muslims are on the receiving end of physical violence. I have yet to see a Muslim religious leader asked the difficult questions regarding the intolerance and hatred contained in their religious texts let alone heard any meaningful answers as to how this could change. No doubt someone will accuse me of victim blaming but this is just untrue and deflecting the questions.
      Will secular countries just continue to avoid the problem? Is resistance futile and assimilation inevitable either directly or indirectly by stealth?
      It could end badly.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 27, 2019 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    the ISIS version of Islam is all too plausible, if you just read the Quran and the Hadith and take them at face value.

    (my emphasis)
    The same could be said of any religion and it’s “Holy Book”, which is why education and more particularly introduction to a diversity of opinions is anathema to all religions, no matter how much they try to mask their fear of education.
    That said, I’ve never met anyone who actually takes the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may Sauce Be Upon Her Meaty Balls) either seriously, or at face value. I’d be very disturbed if I did
    I can’t see the point in having a jihad against Islam specifically, when the whole nest of thieves needs destroying, utterly.

    • Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      However, few people today interpret literally the holy books of other religions, while the number of Islamic fundamentalists shows no downward trend. And why should it, after the West embraces them as they are?

      • GBJames
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        Just making sure I understand you here… the West is responsible for the number of Islamic fundamentalists in the world?

        • Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

          No, the West is responsible for encouraging Islamic fundamentalism in a myriad ways, notably allowing fundamentalists to immigrate and not pressing them to assimilate after that (actually, pressing Westerners to bend over backwards to appease the fundamentalists).

          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted March 27, 2019 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

            Yes, Maya, exactly, and by buying lots of oil, allowing the wahabbists to export their fundamentalism world wide.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 28, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        Nobody literally interprets the holy books of another religion. The poison is in the existence of religion and the unquestioning mindset that it absolutely requires.

    • Posted March 27, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Your last comment would be the ultimate goal. In the meantime we are stuck with a slow death of a thousand cuts (is that your jihad?) over a frustratingly slow passage of time, enormous effort / energy and waste.
      We are human after all and not anything special to the Universe, knowing that fact would help but imo, if your not ready for it it could make things worse.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 27, 2019 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      “I can’t see the point in having a jihad against Islam specifically, when the whole nest of thieves needs destroying, utterly”
      The thing is that it is Islam that has a jihad with the ‘West’, and the values of Enlightenment in particular, not the other way round, and it does not appear the ‘West’ is winning that jihad.
      The war against Christianity is not over, but much of it has been pacified and it is in full retreat. Not so Islam, it has hardly been pacified (on the contrary, large swats have been roused over the last decades) and it is fully on the offensive.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 28, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        The war against Christianity is not over, but much of it has been pacified and it is in full retreat.

        That is not the message that the Americans scream at the tops of their voices. A poisonous philosophy being exported to the rest of the world. Being in Africa, you’ll be seeing the poisonous exports of American Christianity on a regular basis. As do Indians and the Chinese, I’m told, and I’ve seen it myself in Russia.

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted March 29, 2019 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          Yes, I admit I might be a bit too optimistic about the retreat and pacifying of Christianity. Yet (cf the post about Brunei) I think fundamentalist Islam is even more on the rise.

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