To Irshad, with Love

I met Irshad Manji, the dynamic Muslim reformer, several years ago in Washington when she passed through in between her jaunts to Europe, Asia, and elsewhere to discuss, per the title of her first book, the “trouble” with Islam today and offer what she considers a more modern, more tolerant, more pluralistic interpretation of her faith.

Then, several months ago, I received an e-mail from Roberta Bonazzi, who runs the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), to alert me to a YouTube video of Manji’s frightening encounter with Muslim extremists from“Sharia4Belgium” at an EFD-sponsored event in December in Amsterdam.

There, about 20 angry men burst into the room in which Manji was having a moderated discussion with Tofik Dibi, a member of Holland’s Green Party. They threatened to break Manji’s neck, but she and Dibi refused to leave and, after the police arrested a few of the bullies, the event resumed.

Yes, Manji stirs emotions. She’s not just an ambassador for moderation at a time when militant voices dominate Islam. She’s a gay feminist, so she embodies a lifestyle and beliefs that directly challenge fundamentalist Islamic norms.

Most of all, though, she is a gift – as I was reminded in reading her most recent book, Allah, Liberty and Love – and we would be wise to embrace her.

Here’s why:

If you follow the news about global events, you can find yourself with a very bifurcated, very unsatisfying view of Islam, its teachings, and its relationship to the non-Islamic world.

On one hand, Islam’s most dogged defenders refuse to acknowledge that any anti-Western terror or intolerance has Islamic roots. Even when terrorists quote the Quran or cite other Islamic teachings to justify their actions, their apologists explain the terrorism as a rational response to U.S. colonialism or Israeli misdeeds, or they blame it on the psychological make-up of the terrorists.

On the other hand, Islam’s biggest critics describe the religion as inherently intolerant, one whose central tenets invariably drive its followers to anti-Western intolerance and to violence against Christians and Jews.

What’s an optimist to do? Read Manji.

She offers not a new interpretation of Islam but, more hopefully, an old one. It’s not the fundamentalist call for a return to the Islam of the 7th Century, the time of the prophet, the Islam most closely associated with the stark rule of Afghanistan’s Taliban or the aspirations of Egypt’s Nour Party or Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect.

No, hers is an old, but much different, Islam. It revolves around a big idea that she says can change the world.

“That idea is ijtihad – Islam’s own tradition of dissenting, reasoning, and reinterpreting… It comes from the same root as jihad, ‘to struggle,’ but unlike violent struggle, ijtihad is about struggling to understand our world by using our minds. Which implies exercising the freedom to ask questions – sometimes uncomfortable ones.”

Making her case, Manji quotes from Quranic verses that urge independent thought and that do not ordinarily get much attention.

Here’s one:

“Believers! Conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness before God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your relatives.”

In other words, think for yourselves, even if it makes you or your family uncomfortable.

If not from religion, then, from where does Islamic fundamentalism emanate? The answer, Manji says, is culture. It is tribalism, not faith, that drives the fundamentalism and intolerance of much Islamic society, she says; it’s culture, not faith, that drive notions of family “honor” that lie at the heart of much Islamic society, that puts men in charge of society and relegates women to secondclass status.

With culture as her target, Manji takes aim at Muslims who prefer her more individualistic interpretation of Islam but are afraid to speak out, and at Western liberals who are too blinded by their multicultural sensitivities and moral relativism, and too fearful of being labeled anti-Islamic bigots, to confront the honor killings and child abuse that are all-too-common in Islamic society.

She encourages and pleads, instructs and criticizes. Marx urged, “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” In a very real sense, Manji issues her own call to action, substituting “Muslims” for “workers.”

Manji is trying nothing less than to launch a revolution within Islamic society. With her book, she charts a path out of the heated conflicts that now dominate inter-faith – er, make that intercultural – relations.

If her conversations with, and e-mails from, Muslims around the world – which she quotes liberally in her book – are any indication, she’s got an all-too-silent base of supporters upon which to build.

We should do whatever we can to support her – and them.

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