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Trouble Begins With I
by Aaron Goldstein
28 January 2004The Trouble With Islam

Since 9/11 Irshad Manji has become increasingly well known for her criticisms of radical Islam and her praise of the West. A review of her book, The Trouble With Islam – A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.


Irshad Manji may the unlikeliest heroine of the Right in North America. After all, Manji is openly gay, Muslim, a feminist and Canadian. Not that those attributes automatically disqualify one from subscribing to the Right but if one reads Manji she does sound substantially different in form if not substance from most of the Left. Indeed, a few short years ago, Manji was arguably the leading light of the Canadian Left. It was not unusual to see her on the CBC or TV Ontario forcefully yet eloquently articulating the Left perspective on any given issue of the day.

However, since 09/11, Manji has become increasingly well known for her criticisms of radical Islam and her praise of the West, even, heavens to Betsy, America and Israel. These thoughts have been put together in a book titled The Trouble With Islam – A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (published by St. Martin’s Press).    The Trouble With Islam is an open letter to her follow Muslims calling for nothing short of the reformation of Islam. Consequently, Manji is drawing praise from unusual quarters such as FrontPageMag and National Review.

Although Manji is only 35 it is clear that she has been asking questions almost as long as she has been alive.  Originally from Uganda, her family was forced to flee the notorious Idi Amin after he began expelling South Asians from the country in the early 1970’s.  Manji and her family journeyed to Canada and settled in Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver.    

While growing up in Richmond, Manji attended a madressa and was full of questions her teacher was not prepared to answer.    When Manji asked her teacher why girls can’t lead prayer she was simply told to read the Koran. To this day, Manji said she cannot find the passage in the Koran that prohibits this practice.  Manji also questioned her teacher’s statements concerning Jews:

I certainly managed to disrupt Mr. Khaki’s passionate history lessons with questions about Jews. I remember asking why Prophet Muhammad would have commanded his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe when the Koran supposedly came to him as a message of peace. Mr. Khaki couldn't cope. He shot me a look of contempt, gave an annoyed wave of the hand, and cut short history class, only to hold Koran study next.  Me and my big mouth.

Manji was eventually given an ultimatum -- either believe or leave.  Not surprisingly, she chose the latter.  Her critical thinking seems at odds with a religion that leaves little or no room for thought, discussion and debate.  After September 11th, Manji challenged Muslims to think for themselves and embrace pluralism.  Most of the responses were less than kind.  However, one respondent informed Manji there was a tradition of independent thinking in Islam called Ijtihad:

Learning about ijtihad spurred me to ask: Who are these religious authorities?  I mean, does Koran recognize a formal clergy? Nope.  Do the Koran’s wild mood swings make any interpretation of its text selective and subjective?  Yep.  So, could it be that the right of independent thinking, the tradition of ijtihad, is in fact open to all of us?  That by arrogating this right to themselves, the follow-my-fatwa ayatollahs are the actual heretics?

Just as an aside: When I looked for this book at Barnes & Noble I could not locate it in the New Releases or Current Affairs section.  I then looked for the Religion section and could not find it.  When I asked a saleswoman where I could find the Religion section she replied, “Go all the way to the back of the store and turn left.”    You can feel free to draw your own conclusions from here.

The one weakness in Manji’s book is her vision of Ijtihad which is centered on female fueled capitalism. Manji does talk at length about micro loans as has been practiced by the Grameen Bank founded by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh twenty years ago.    These institutions have been successful in increasing accessibility to capital for women.   

There is no doubt that the subjugation of women by Sharia law has been a significant cause of Islam’s ongoing troubles and this particular remedy might very well reduce poverty and dependence among Muslim women.  But greater access to markets does not necessarily promote democracy and liberalism.  One only need look to Communist China.  More to the point, the Tony Blairs of the world think that if you eliminate poverty you eliminate terrorism. But terrorism’s foundation of hatred is something that transcends wealth and poverty. Indeed, many of the September 11 hijackers were from well to do, moderate, Westernized families.    Organizations like CAIR might adopt the language of liberalism in theory but in practice they espouse the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah.   

Sure you can have a roof over your head and satellite TV, but when government run TV shows, music videos and children’s programming that proclaims the virtues of suicide bombers and martyrdom, somehow a micro loan hardly seems sufficient.   However, to be fair Manji acknowledges that this alone won’t do.  But when addressing the issue of the media she suggests that women ought to own and manage TV stations in Islamic countries. Again, not a bad idea unto itself but what makes Manji think it will bring about the outcome she desires?  If contemporary Islam has impaired the ability of its adherents to think independently why does Manji think women will suddenly think independently and not men?  Amongst the many problems with feminism is the underlying assumption that because women have historically not been in positions of authority they are somehow inherently more virtuous than men.   To quote former Ontario Premier Bob Rae (who was paraphrasing Lord Acton), “Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.”  Indeed, many of Manji’s harshest critics amongst Muslims are women. Manji, like most liberally minded people, does not seem to fully appreciate the law of unintended consequences and that even the seemingly most well thought out solutions create even bigger problems.  For example, after achieving independence from Britain, Burma embarked upon land reform.  Instead of land being inherited by the eldest son it was divided up equally.  Within a few short years, Burma was right in the thick of a civil war because of the very reform that was intended to modernize Burma. To quote Shakespeare, “The primrose path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Nonetheless, Manji’s book is an important work.   Indeed, one must not underestimate the personal risks Manji has taken in writing this book.   Manji has a full time bodyguard and recently installed bulletproof glass in her home in Toronto.  David Horowitz called her “Canada’s Salman Rushdie.”   If Islamic terrorism is to be defeated it will have to come as much from the willingness of a critical mass of Muslims to stand up and say, “Enough!  Now let’s talk.”  In the long run that will count every bit as much as any military response put forth against terrorism.  If this comes to pass Manji’s book will in no short part have played a significant role in both defeating terrorism and reforming Islam.

The Trouble with Islam is available at Amazon.com.

Aaron Goldstein, a former member of the socialist New Democratic Party, writes poetry and has a chapbook titled
Oysters and the Newborn Child: Melancholy and Dead Musicians. His poetry can be viewed on www.poetsforthewar.org.

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