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Islam The trouble with Manji

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    The Trouble With Manji

    Irshad Manji walks a dangerous path, claiming her right as a believer to criticise and interpret Islam. SALIL TRIPATHI talks to her after the release of her new film

    Irshad Manji moved to Canada when she was four, a refugee from the tyranny of Idi Amin's Uganda, when Asians were given sixty days to pack up and leave the country. The daughter of an Indian father and an Egyptian mother, Manji settled into her new home, her family seeking the migrant's comfort from the familiar certainties of the community and the faith.

    But Manji was a spunky child (and now she is a spunky adult), and she was quick to notice the contrast between her secular, public school, and the religious madrasa which she attended on weekends. Early in her controversial best-seller, "The Trouble With Islam Today," she notices a contrast. A senior teacher disapproves of her locker displaying stickers supporting the Ayatollah's revolution in Iran. He bristles at her insubordination, but does not stop her, or discipline her, grudgingly respecting her right to defy. And then there is the religious teacher, who sternly admonishes her each time she questions particular religious passages that bother her. Hers was not to reason why; hers but to obey and cry. Or else.

    When Manji persisted, wanting to know more about a class in which the teacher cites particularly venomous passages criticising the Jews, and insisted on seeing the original text, she was admonished. The mosque had a library but it was accessible only in one part of the mosque (which was of course segregated between

    men and women) and as she had passed the age of puberty – she had just entered her teens – she could go to the library only at particular hours, after the menpresent there had vacated the area. And there, she found books in an alien tongue, and an undecipherable script.

She continued to question, and her teacher gave her an ultimatum – accept his command or leave. And she left, seeking refuge yet again in her life, this time in a public library. There, she found an English translation of the Koran, and as she read more into the book, she also came across a concept that her teacher never mentioned. And as she was to discover later in life, it was not only that teacher who denied the existence of that term; so did, it seems, most maulvis and imams and scholars who spoke in the name of Islam.

    It was the concept of ijtihad, a term that means you arrive at an independent interpretation of the faith, applying reason. It means yanking Islam from the 7th century to the 21st, fast-forwarding it, making it relevant in present times, removing it from the siege mentality that views the non-believer as an enemy, dividing the world between the unbeliever and the apostate, treating the words in a book as divinely-ordained, and putting to sword anyone who challenges its supremacy. "What was relevant a thousand years ago is no longer relevant today," she says disarmingly.

    She is in London promoting her film, "Faith without Fear," about her quest to capture the essence of Islam. She is a senior scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy, and writes extensively on Islam and modernity. At the New York University, she is launching a new project on moral courage, where, she says, her inspiration is the non-violent civil disobedience and passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi.


Manji's central thesis is ijtihad, as the heart of spiritual and intellectual inquiry that Islam not only permits and tolerates; it even encourages. The noted – and controversial – scholar on Islam, Bernard Lewis, has argued that the central problem with Islam today is that it hankers for the Caliphate, the period when Islam reigned. The humiliation that followed the loss of Spain has left deep scars, and instead of emerging out of that morass through the Renaissance and the enlightenment, as the West did, Islam is trying to fight its way out of it, using the sword, bemoaning what it does not like. So every criticism is viewed as treason, and every critique, from a harmless Danish cartoon, to a serious work of fiction like Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," appears to destabilise the essence of the faith. The one who questions, then, must be punished violently, not debated. 

"This is utterly ridiculous," Manji argues. Drawing on the Rushdie controversy, she says that the Koran is divinely inspired, but not necessarily written by God.

    This is dangerous terrain, as Rushdie discovered: Rushdie used his imagination to question the source of the divine inspiration. There is indeed the controversial episode in Islamic history, when the Devil, and not God, dictated verses that the Prophet briefly believed to be true, leading him to think that idol-worship was permitted, only to renounce those verses as inspired by the Devil later. Rushdie highlighted the moral ambiguity, of an individual's temporary inability to distinguish between the good and the evil. For the believers, this was blasphemy. For Manji, such intellectual query is perfectly fine within Islam.

In this, she differs from Rushdie – who, for a while, embraced Islam again, only to renounce it – and radically so from the Somalia-born former Dutch parliamentarian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who struggled to engage with the faith, then repudiated it, and is now among its bitterest critics. Manji, on the other hand, wants to reclaim her faith, and wrest it back from the clergy which has appropriated the authority to interpret the holy book as the unalterable word of God; from the suicide bombers who blow up pizza parlours and town squares, killing innocent civilians, in the hope of wreaking vengeance upon the unbelievers; from the unthinking hotheads who burn books, flags, and effigies, every time someone even remotely appears to criticise the faith or its messenger; from the militants who convert airplanes into missiles and seek to destroy the emancipated modern life that she values and in whose liberated, free atmosphere she can live her life – as a liberated, spiky-haired, lesbian Muslim.


For her troubles, she has received all sorts of responses. American liberals adore her, precisely because she articulates what they'd like to believe are values respected mainly in the West, while staying within the faith. European liberals are uncomfortable with her, because she forces them to confront the perils of multiculturalism – the creation of Islamic ghettos within Europe. (She is herself a critic of the European model, pointing out how she and Hirsi Ali have found home in America, not Europe, because American melting pot identity includes Muslims far more than the ghetto mentality Europe's multiculturalism perpetuates, and which worried the late Oriana Falaci enough to turn her into one of the harshest critics of Islam in Europe.)

    Manji's own coreligionists are perplexed by her: why can she not accept things as they are, rather than stirring things up? Why should she bring internal conflicts in the open? 

After the screening of her film, an attractive young woman from Egypt, wearing figure-hugging stylish jeans but with her head covered, asks Manji: why did you pick on Yemen, of all the Islamic countries in the world, to demonstrate the backward status of women in Islam? Why didn't you go to Egypt, where you can see women in swimsuits on beaches? Manji retorts: I'd love to film in Egypt, if only the government would allow me to enter there with my camera! 

In underscoring the gap between the cocoon in which expatriate tourists might live, and what Manji's prying camera might find, a reality her questioner refuses to acknowledge, Manji drives a sword through the hypocrisy of modern Islam, where its adherents become its apologists, instead of confronting the problems facing the faith.


"It irritates the hell out of the people I talk to, but I always begin by saying that more Muslims have been killed, and more human rights of Muslims have been abused, by other Muslims, than by other people," she says forcefully. In this, she is of course right: if one adds up the number of Shias Saddam Hussein's regime killed, the number of Bangladeshis Pakistani army put to death, and more recently, the number of civilians killed in Darfur by the Janjaweed, that toll makes the number of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the Gulf War of 1991, appear small. And yet Muslim activism against the atrocities in Darfur is not as visible as Muslim protests against the war in Iraq, or the problems of Kashmir and Chechnya, where Muslims are shown as victims of abuses committed by a powerful, non-Muslim state.

Manji wants to challenge this spirit of denial. For only after facing up the facts can Islam rediscover its true meaning, of peace. For her troubles, Manji has attracted her share of threats. Her address is known only to a trusted few; she is described as living in an anonymous apartment block in a nameless North American city. During her trip to London, too, where she has come to show her film, there is discreet but certain presence of intelligence officers. Her life is indeed in danger, but not without its moments of hilarity: one angry fundamentalist has sent her an email, saying: "May you eat rotten goat and get painful diarrhoea.


There is much to admire about Manji. She is undoubtedly incredibly brave. She wears her guts on her sleeves, and never shirks an opportunity to debate – in public meetings, it is her questioners who often feel apologetic and couch their words in polite language. But her courage notwithstanding, she is not the only woman to stand up to Islam's male hierarchy.

First, there is Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian, who now lives in the United States. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, where her father was an opponent of Siad Barre's regime, and moved to Kenya as a refugee. While in transit in Germany on a flight to Canada, where she was being forced into a marriage she did not want, Hirsi Ali fled for the Netherlands, where she sought asylum. She embellished her story – claiming to be fleeing from political persecution (when patriarchal arranged marriage should suffice as a form of political persecution), and for that apparent sin, a hard-nosed Dutch minister threatened to strip her off her citizenship. Theo Van Gogh, who made a film on Islam, "Submission," quoting verses from the Koran which perpetuate women's submissive status, was killed; she was next on the target.

Some Dutch even questioned the cost of protecting her. (Hirsi Ali did not help matters by reminding the Dutch that they had failed to protect Anne Frank once). Now she has moved to the United States.

Even if Hirsi Ali is set aside, because she has renounced the faith, Asra Q Nomani, a Bombay-born former reporter of the Wall Street Journal, is doing her own bit, challenging segregation in the mosque in her home town in Virginia, insisting upon her right to pray with men. A close friend of the slain reporter Daniel Pearl, she was stunned by his execution in Pakistan, and explored her faith, trying to understand what could prompt such cruelty. It resulted in a book, "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." Back in her home town, Morgantown in West Virginia, she fought the mosque hierarchy.

    Then there are other women, such as Sisters of Islam in Malaysia, Women Against Fundamentalism in Britain, and, as Moroccan writer Laila Lalami points out, other critics like Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, Mohja Kahf, and Nawal Saadawi, who have challenged the unequal aspects of Islam. Fair point, but many Muslim fundamentalists have tried their best to reinforce the image of Islam as an unenlightened faith stuck in the dark ages.

    Lalami's point is that Manji and Hirsi Ali are not alone in reinterpreting Islam.

But even so, there are young Muslim women who go out of their way to perpetuate the stereotype of the Stockholm Syndrome – the hostage who identifies with the abductor. There was Shabina Begum, a schoolgirl from Luton who challenged her head-teacher over the school's dress code, insisting upon wearing the full jilbab, placing self-righteous guilt upon the families of other Muslim girls who'd wear a less orthodox and yet culturally-appropriate uniform. (She lost her case in the end). And then there was Samina Malik, a 23-year-old sales assistant in London was recently prosecuted for possessing material that could aid terrorist acts. She had written poems praising terrorist acts of martyrdom. The blog site of "The Guardian" has several Muslim women writers, like Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, Fareena Alam, Ruqayyah Collector, Yusra Khreegi, and Laila El-Haddad, who wear their Islamic identity on their heads: even though their writing is moderate, their tone does not have any of the stridency of Manji or Hirsi Ali. They are not about to change the world. They appear content with it; Manji is not. With their in-your-face western attire and manners, Hirsi Ali, Manji and Nomani adopt a take-it-or-leave stance that forces confrontation.

Lalami has a deeper issue with Manji and Hirsi Ali: that they are selective in their critique, and may even have misinterpreted aspects of it. Manji denies that: she derives her approach from verse 4:135 of the Koran, which calls upon the believers to "conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your kin."


The charge of selectiveness against is not a new one. When Hirsi Ali wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune, criticizing moderate Muslims for doing little when the British teacher Gillian Gibbons faced lashings in Sudan after one of her students called a teddy bear Mohammed, or when a woman in Saudi Arabia was to face harsh punishment for being in close proximity with men who were not related to her, Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Swiss scholar shot back, saying how he had been critical of these and other incidents. Hirsi Ali has a lot of valuable things to say, he added; by distorting the words of those she disagreed with, or selectively interpreting verses from the Koran, she did her argument a disservice. Islam is about compassion, he added.


But just when that seemed like the final word, a reader wrote in, proving Hirsi Ali's point: who are we, mere mortals, to question the word of God? Whether or not to be compassionate to these women was a decision for God to make, not for us humans, in effect approving the cruel punishment the women faced.


Manji says such letters prove her point, of the hard struggle ahead, and more importantly, how irrelevant scholars like Ramadan are, in this debate. "Ramadan is learned and scholarly, and what he says matters in academic circles. But he is not relevant to the young, modern Muslim," she adds. It is that constituency that needs to be won, and while the odds against her are stacked high – you only have to look at the image of thousands of bearded men wanting to burn something – she is also winning. She claims the Arabic version of her book has been downloaded from her website some 300,000 times, and an Urdu edition has been downloaded another 100,000 times. A western reporter researching a story in Jordan told her recently that young people there were reading her book, and she was acquiring a cult-like samizdat status.


By casting herself as distinct from Ramadan, Manji loses many who would otherwise be her allies, because Ramadan has star appeal, not only on the Arab Street, but also among a certain class of Western intellectuals. Grandson of Hassan al-Banna, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, for many Muslims, Ramadan has a rock star status. His speeches are usually well-attended, and he is very good at projecting himself as the bridge between Islam and the West. While admiring many
aspects of the Western society, he also questions some interpretations of Islam. To his critics, though, he does not go far enough, and often falls prey to easy anti-Semitism. In France, he picked on several Jewish intellectuals, and blamed them for supporting Zionist ideas. In the list he added one scholar who sounded Jewish although he was not, leaving himself open to charges of anti-Semitism. A few donations he made to Palestinian charities deemed illegal in the United States but
operating within the law in the Europe were sufficient for the State Department to revoke his visa, preventing him from taking up an academic position in the United States.


Ramadan's connection with the Muslim Brotherhood may appear problematic today, where the Brotherhood is more known for the moral radical interpretation given to the movement by Sayyid Qutb, who took over the movement after al-Banna, but Ramadan takes pains to distance himself from absolutist statements of the Brotherhood, like: "God is our goal, the Prophet our model, the Koran our law, holy war out way, and martyrom our desire."


Qutb is an interesting figure in this context: just as Alexis de Tocqueville travelled across 19th century America and marvelled at its democracy, Qutb spent two years as a student in Colorado after World War II. He did not like what he saw; and in the liberated, modernised world, he saw glimpses of jahiliya, the pre-Islamic city of ignorance, where hedonism ruled. For the fundamentalist believer in the Brotherhood's ideas, Manji and Hirsi Ali personify the worst that the West has to offer – liberated, in-your-face women who challenge male superiority, question hierarchy, and, in various ways, defy notions of sexuality: Manji, through her orientation, Hirsi Ali, through her powerful opposition (drawn from personal experience) of female genital mutilation.

I ask Manji whether clinging to the faith has been worth it, after all the trouble.

    For the fundamentalist, there is no difference between the one who questions from within, the one who leaves the faith, and the one who has never been part of the faith. In other words, for the fundamentalist, Manji, Hirsi Ali, and Falaci are the same; the punishment he'd like to visit upon them is identical. The subtle point she tries to make – of reform from within – is too nuanced. Is it?

    She reflects upon the question, pauses, and responds: "I understand the choices Ayaan made. Those are not my choices

    This is my faith, I belong to this faith. I want to claim it back, I want it to be true to its meaning. They are distorting the faith. They have a case to answer, not me.


Manji's glorious age of Islam ended a thousand years ago in what is now Andalusia, and what Islam knows as Al-Andalus, the time of the Moorish conquest of Southern Europe, when religions intermingled, scholars of all faiths explored science and reason, libraries were stacked high, and in the intricate and masterly designs of Alhambra we see glimpses of that culturally-rich and diverse period. In "The Moor's Last Sigh," Rushdie captures that mood evocatively.

    Many within Islam would like to recapture that spirit. The Spanish imam who declared a fatwa upon Osama bin Laden for the bomb attacks on the trains in Madrid in 2004, is clear on this point.

    In Manji's film, he says: "We have a sense of responsibility; this was an attack on us. We want to recover the spirit of Andalus; we cannot blindly follow the faith of our ancestors. It is a command to ijtihad, a command to reason."

It is the path she has chosen. She is inspired by Gandhi, she says. Then she must live the Tagore song, and walk alone.

    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 6, Dated Feb 16, 2008

    Tehelka:: Free. Fair. Fearless
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