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
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
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.
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:
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?
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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