Interview: Irshad Manji
Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam(St. Martin’s Press) has enraged dogmatic Muslims worldwide since it appeared in 2004; it has also encouraged untold numbers of Islamic reformers. Manji’s call for the reform of her faith raises core questions about Islam’s very nature and future. The journalist and television personality is a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto.
Q. Your pleas for greater tolerance in Islam are stirring, but how rooted is your argument in Islam itself?
A. The concept of ijtihad is Islam’s lost tradition of critical thinking. It comes from the same root as jihad, or holy war, and the common root is struggle. Unlike violent struggle, ijtihad is all about struggling to think independently. During the early decades of our faith, there were no fewer than 135 schools of thought flourishing in this spirit. In Muslim Spain, scholars taught their students to rely more on their own ideas if they found evidence that outweighed the accepted expert opinions.
Q. Your primary call is for Muslims to explore ijtihad?
A. The beauty of emphasizing this wonderful concept is that…I am reminding and educating them that Islam once had a progressive pluralistic tradition. There is no reason, except for politics, that we cannot have this again.
Q. Critics say your call is naïve; sweeping change like this will come only from the top down.
A. The jury is out on that. The Afghan example can be used to prove both positions. Muslim women there are starting schools, guided by the thought: Educate a boy and you educate one person, educate a girl and you educate her entire family. They are beginning to become literate, to teach their children how to read and write. Yes, it only happened since the Taliban fell. I think it’s happening because many women are taking loans from nongovernmental organizations and empowering themselves.
Q. Economic independence is the key then?
A. A broad and inclusive business class and a stable middle class are vital for change. Today’s dictatorial regimes have no incentive to clean up corruption and 50 percent of their talent pool—women— are underused. The more wealthy Islamic countries direct a tiny sliver of their resources to help empower women, the faster and more significant change will be throughout these societies.
Q. Do you feel comfortable continuing as a reformer?
A. I am a stakeholder in Islam and a faithful Muslim—secure enough in my faith to deal with tough questions. Dogma is threatened by questions, not me. I look to the West first and foremost for reform because that is where Islam today enjoys the precious freedoms to think and express and challenge and be challenged without fear. I am more optimistic about the prospects for liberal reform than when I wrote the book. I anticipated the death threats, the anger and vitriol. But I didn’t anticipate the flood of support and affection and even love from two sources in particular: Muslim women and young Muslims. This is my source of hope.
Q. At its heart, is Islam a tolerant or repressive faith?
A. I wish I had clarity about that. I know it would make many Muslims feel a lot better if I beat my chest and shouted into a bullhorn proclaiming that, in essence, Islam really does exude peace. The problem is that history doesn’t bear this out. During the Golden Age of Islam, Muslims, Jews and Christians worked in relative harmony to preserve and expand knowledge. I would love to believe this is the core of Islam. Yet the reality is that even during that period, Jews and Christians were considered and treated as second-class citizens. It remains a huge struggle for me, and I have to be true to my conscience, which means holding the possibility that I might leave the faith should I become convinced that the global [Islamic] community is not willing to experiment with more thoughtful and humane approaches. [But] as a loud voice of reform, it would be irresponsible for me today to walk away from the faith, because it would be running away.
Q. There’s a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie. Theo van Gogh was murdered. Are you afraid?
A. My latest death threat came when we released the Urdu version of my book for Pakistanis. Most threats suggest it would be best for me to die, a few actually promise to do the deed themselves. I don’t minimize the danger, but I also do not live my life in fear. Young Muslims need to know it is possible to dissent from orthodoxy and live.
Q. You discussed this with Rushdie himself, right?
A. Yes. I had a great conversation as I prepared to write the book. He taught me that a book is more important than a life. Published thoughts can be disagreed with vigorously, even violently, but they cannot be unthought.
Q. When did you first question your faith?
A. I began asking questions at religious school from the age of 8. Why couldn’t girls lead prayers? Why did the Prophet Muhammad command his army to slay an entire Jewish tribe if the Koran was a message of peace and so on. I didn’t even know what anti-Semitism was when a few years later, at 11 or 12, I rejected the teachings about how the “Jews worship moolah, not Allah,” meaning they worship money rather than God. That juxtaposition really tickled [my teacher]. But I looked around my multicultural suburb in Richmond, British Columbia, and I saw most of the business signs bearing Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian names, not Jewish ones. His preaching did not match the reality on the ground. I grew suspicious that if he couldn’t even get it right about the Jews today, then maybe he was wrong about the Jews 1,300 years ago, too.
Q. When did you leave the madrassa [religious school]?
A. Our ultimate impasse came from my annoying, ignorant questions such as: Where is the evidence for the so-called Jewish conspiracy against Islam? It was that question, at 14, that got me booted out. You won’t be surprised to hear that the most typical reaction from many Muslims is to say I am actually a closet Jew myself. Shockingly, the earliest dissenters of Islam were also accused of being in the pay of the Jews. This is important to remember for two reasons. The first is that by simply being a freethinker, I am considered part of the so-called Jewish conspiracy. The second is that history proves that Muslims cannot blame hatred of Jews on the creation of the State of Israel, since these theories predated that event by centuries.
Q. How would you describe your first visit to Israel?
A. Israel is a multiethnic, multiracial, multifaith country with a ferociously free press, where Arab citizens have not one but five political parties representing them in the Knesset. Israel has an independent judiciary, which is a cornerstone of democracy. Muslims should in their heart of hearts acknowledge that we have a great deal to learn from Israel about how to balance democracy with faith. Israel has issues with religion, even theocracy, but somehow it has moved forward. What I appreciated most was its reminding me that there is no shame in being many things at once, because in doing so we are actually paying tribute to the multiplicity that is God Himself.
Q. Which Israeli do you most admire?
A. Natan Sharansky. That is obvious when you realize that I call myself a Muslim refusenik [www.muslim-re fusenik.com]. I may disagree with many who blindly oppose Israel’s actions toward the Palestinian territories, but I defend and respect the conscientious dissenters within the Israeli military who call themselves refuseniks. I love that they live in a country that allows them to be democratic dissenters. Of course, their dissent comes not without consequence. But their tongues are not ripped out, their hands are not chopped off, their parents and families are not targeted for murder by the state. Such individuals will not be loved for a long time by their communities, yet they create a climate in which there eventually is more legitimacy and understanding for their positions.