Skip to comments.An Unlikely Promoter of an Islamic Reformation
Posted on 10/04/2003 2:55:24 AM PDT by sarcasm
ORONTO As a Canadian Muslim, Irshad Manji never eats pork, never drinks alcohol and regularly reads the Koran. Otherwise she is Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare.
At 35, Ms. Manji, a lesbian intellectual with spiky hair and a sharp tongue, is an outspoken television journalist who admires Israel and applauds the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. More than that, she has issued a searing critique of her religion in a new book, "The Trouble with Islam" (Random House Canada), calling for radical change.
While every religion has its fundamentalists, she notes, "only in Islam is literalism in the mainstream," a recipe for generating hatreds that can spawn suicide bombers.
There are other Islamic liberals who say the Sept. 11 attackers did more than hijack four planes: they hijacked an entire religion. Ms. Manji goes much further, saying that Islam has deep-rooted problems with Jews, women, slavery and authoritarianism that go back centuries. Her goal is a thoroughly liberal reform, started by Muslims living in the West.
"If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it's now," she argues in her book. "If we're sincere about fighting the asphyxiating despotism" that Al Qaeda seeks to spread, she adds, "we can't be afraid to ask: What if the Koran isn't perfect? What if it's not a completely God-authored book? What if it's riddled with human biases?"
As a longtime broadcaster and public affairs talk-show host on Canadian television, Ms. Manji, prominent, articulate and telegenic, with a rapid-fire delivery, has a ready platform for her ideas.
These ideas have already set off a searching debate. In the first weeks after publication of her book, she has made front-page news across Canada and received immediate attention in Germany, where the book was also released. In the next few months the book will reach the United States (St. Martin's Press), Australia, other parts of Europe and most probably Israel.
The book has also provoked death threats.
She takes no chances. Conversing in her Toronto living room, fidgeting, with a cup of spicy Indian tea in hand, Ms. Manji gushes with arguments as a hefty bodyguard stands on the porch. She has put bulletproof glass in some windows. She insists that her house not be described in detail to avoid giving a hint of where she lives.
Her central call is for Muslims to join her in critical thinking.
"If Mohamed Atta, who was well educated in Germany, had grown up with questions rather than just glib answers," she said, "maybe then he would have stepped back before immolating himself and committing mass murder" on Sept. 11, 2001, in the attacks that he helped organize.
As much as anything, she emphasizes, her thirst is for inquiry, something she says she admires in Israeli society. The goal is to "create conversations where they have never occurred before."
It is working. The immediate reply is as fiery as her own high-octane critique.
"The book title should be `The Trouble with Irshad Manji,' " said Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, dismissing her as a "media darling."
"She calls herself a good Muslim even though she is a lesbian and a feminist," he added. "She will have a shadow over her interpretation."
Written in essay form as a conversational letter to "my fellow Muslims," Ms. Manji tells of her "personal clash of civilizations," beginning with her family's flight to Canada in 1972 from her native Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the local East Indian community.
She comes from an upper-middle-class family (her father and brothers ran a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Uganda), but also a troubled home in which her father once chased her with a knife.
A questioning child, she had repeated run-ins with the teacher of her Islamic school in a Vancouver suburb. She finally became so disgusted with his anti-Semitic rants, she wrote, that she bolted from the class.
From that adolescent confrontation came more profound questions that have grown in urgency to the point where she admits being on the verge of giving up on Islam. But she hopes her doubts can help fuel a reform that in turn will bolster her faith and propel Islamic reform.
The Islam she desires, she says, is akin to the one in which dissent flourished in the 10th through 13th centuries, when "poets caricatured religion with court approval," and Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together in prosperity and cross-fertilized their cultures.
Indeed Ms. Manji is a product of the expanding diversity encouraged by Canada's immigration policy. About 600,000 Muslims now live in Canada, nearly half 24 years old or younger, according to the 2001 census. "There is a hunger among younger Muslims for debate and discussion," she said.
Living in a free society like Canada's has allowed Ms. Manji to raise questions and form her own understanding of Islam, she says. But even as she applauds Canadian tolerance, she is critical of liberals who are not tough enough on fundamentalism. She voices concern that some Islamic schools in Canada are spreading a brand of intolerant Islam, taught in parts of the Middle East and Asia, that could breed terrorism here as well.
But if Islam presents a special challenge to the West, Ms. Manji argues, Western liberalism can also challenge and change Islam. She says that young Muslims living in the West are bound to push for more diverse expressions of the religion. "It is imperative that somehow, some way, people begin to understand that the West and Islam are not mutually exclusive," she said.
A freer trade in ideas, she suggests, can be encouraged by investment in small loans to women living in Muslim countries to help them break from male domination.
"When I see a woman in Nigeria getting sentenced to 180 lashes for premarital sex, despite the fact that she's produced several witnesses confirming that she was raped, it is my responsibility as a Muslim to speak out," she said.
While her critics take special offense at her suggestion that the Koran itself may be flawed, she does not exclude herself from the possibility as well. Only God knows the truth, she said.
"If I am wrong," she smiled, "I will pay a price on the day of judgment."
Reasonable questions. considering it was penned by scribes to a blood-thirsty, pedophilic con artist.
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