It’s not hard to see why people react strongly to Irshad Manji. At 35, she’s become a ubiquitous fixture on Canadian television, the smartest, hippest, most eloquent lesbian feminist Muslim you could ever hope to meet.
Manji, who is in the Bay Area today and Tuesday to talk about her new book, “The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change,” leaves no stone unturned in her attack on the fault lines of her faith. She berates “sclerotic contemporary Islam” for turning its back on human rights, stifling freedom of thought and expression, oppressing women, encouraging slavery and fomenting anti-Semitism. She accuses the religion of standing silent in the face of terror and derides her fellow Muslims for becoming “brain-dead” and “automatons.” She calls for an Islamic reformation, replacing jihad, or religious war, with ijtihad — independent critical thinking for Muslims. And she says this reform most probably will come from places where Muslims are free from the stifling totalitarianism of the Islamic world.
“The major reform for which I am calling is all about questioning the divinity of the Koran. This is still the great unspoken taboo within Islam,” she says.
Manji argues that crimes are being perpetrated under the banner of a religion which claims more than a billion adherents who have lost the ability to question their leaders.
“Amnesty International has documented that Pakistan sees honor killings at the rate of two per day, often with the name of Allah dripping from the lips of the murderers; that children are hustled into slavery in God’s name in Mali, Mauritania and Northern Sudan; that women have to ask permission to travel from the men in their lives in Iran,” she says.
“I acknowledge that every faith has its share of literalists but I do not believe that any society, culture, ethnicity or religion should be immune from scrutiny about human rights. I have so much faith in my faith and my fellow Muslims that I believe we are capable of being more humane and more thoughtful than we give ourselves credit for. This book is an act of faith, not a repudiation of it,” she says.
Manji says she is driven to voice these concerns by her “passion for universal human rights and discontent with Islam on the basis of the way Muslims around the world continue to violate human rights, particularly for women and religious minorities. “It’s not enough to chant that Islam is about peace,” she says. “Prove it.” She says she has been surprised by the passion – – for and against — which the book has aroused.
“I have long suspected that there is a latent hunger, a craving for honest talk about Islam,” she says. “Not everybody agrees with what I’m saying, but many people across the political and faith spectrum are telling me that they’re breathing a sigh of relief that finally someone has stepped up to the plate from inside the faith to say ‘We’ve got to let some air in.’ ”
But not everyone is inhaling. There is talk of a fatwa. She receives hate- mail and death threats by the megabyte and glories in posting them on her Web site, www.muslim-refusenik.com. She is accompanied by bodyguards at public appearances and has been denounced by her co-religionists for “poor scholarship” and “Muslim bashing.” Critics have denounced her reading of Middle East politics. She says the Palestinians have been “betrayed by their own leadership” and accuses prominent Arab Muslims of working with Hitler to destroy the Jews.
In this post-9/11, era, Manji accepts that Muslims face increased problems but argues her book is timely and perhaps part of the solution.
“Muslim apologists suggested that Islam was some kind of a plane that was on its way to a human rights haven and were it not for the 19 terrorists of Sept. 11, Islam would have reached its wondrous destination with nary a bump,” she says. “We know that is not the case. If anything, we Muslims have ceded the ground to these terrorists and then belatedly protested that Islam is about peace, love and harmony.
“I don’t want to deny that the book may very well be feeding into some anti-Muslim stereotypes among some people, but I have heard from no shortage of non-Muslims who say, ‘Thank you for stopping me from becoming a racist. I was on the verge of writing off your people, and your book comes along and reminds me that there are liberal thinkers within Islam. Thank you for pulling me back from the brink.’
“Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, it wouldn’t have nearly the chance of getting published as it would now. Much more of the world is now listening. I will not apologize to anybody for taking the opportunity presented to me to write the book now.” Manji, a tiny woman with a quicksilver tongue and a lightning intellect, arrived in Canada at the age of 4 as a refugee from Idi Amin‘s Uganda. She says that even as a child she realized Canada was a society that celebrated difference and encouraged debate.
“I know every day when I wake up that as a Muslim woman there aren’t too many other places in the world in which I could dream big dreams and tap much if not most of my potential,” she says.
But the dreams went unappreciated at her madrasa, the religious school she attended every week from the age of 8 for instruction in the teachings of Islam. She says she was shocked to realize the anti-democratic messages being taught in the middle of Vancouver.
“Attending the madrasa for several hours at a stretch every Saturday, I routinely imbibed the two major messages that women are inferior and that the Jews are treacherous. Neither of those messages made much sense to me,” she says.
When she was 8, she said she asked her first “wrong question” and carried on until they kicked her out of the madrasa at age 15. But she continued to study Islam, and even continued to pray in the traditional manner until her mid-20s.
By that time, she had graduated as a star student from the University of British Columbia, begun a career as a writer and broadcaster and discovered she was not, despite her childhood fantasies, a heterosexual.
“It came as a shock to me when I fell in love with a woman,” she says. But she came to celebrate her sexuality. In 1998 she conceived, hosted and produced QueerTV, one of the world’s first commercial TV programs to explore the lives of gays and lesbians. It was syndicated through the San Francisco- based Web portal Planetout.com and became one of the few programs anywhere to be streamed entirely on the Internet, circumventing state-sanctioned censorship and rapidly reaching a global audience.
The book is written as a letter, which she signs off “faithfully — for now.” She says the book’s reception has halted her alienation.
“I’m very much still struggling from the inside, and if anything the response from individual Muslims has to some extent assured me that there is an appetite for reform,” she says.
“Whether a reform version of Islam has a hope in hell, and how much support we as Muslim reformers can count on for a sustainable reformation, is all fluid at this point.”
Note- This article was first published in SFGate.com