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Week of 8.18.06

Irshad Manji: The Trouble with Islam Today

Irshad Manji In the following essay, author and lecturer Irshad Manji discusses the driving philosophies of her book "The Trouble with Islam Today" as well as the need and historical basis for independent, progressive thinking in Muslim culture.

It's an open letter

"The Trouble with Islam Today" is an open letter from me, a Muslim voice of reform, to concerned citizens worldwide — Muslim and not. It's about why my faith community needs to come to terms with the diversity of ideas, beliefs and people in our universe, and why non-Muslims have a pivotal role in helping us get there.

The themes I'm exploring with the utmost honesty include:

  • the inferior treatment of women in Islam;
  • the Jew-bashing that so many Muslims persistently engage in; and
  • the continuing scourge of slavery in countries ruled by Islamic regimes.

I appreciate that every faith has its share of literalists. Christians have their Evangelicals. Jews have the ultra-Orthodox. For God's sake, even Buddhists have fundamentalists.

But what this book hammers home is that only in Islam is literalism mainstream. Which means that when abuse happens under the banner of Islam, most Muslims have no clue how to dissent, debate, revise or reform.

"The Trouble with Islam Today" shatters our silence. It shows Muslims how we can re-discover Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking — a tradition known as "ijtihad" — and re-discover it precisely to update Islam for the 21st century. The opportunity to update is especially available to Muslims in the West, because it's here that we enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged without fear of state reprisal. In that sense, the Islamic reformation begins in the West.

It doesn't, however, end here. Not by a long shot. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves. So "The Trouble with Islam Today" outlines a global campaign to promote innovative approaches to Islam. I call this non-military campaign "Operation Ijtihad." In turn, the West's support of this campaign will fortify national security, making Operation Ijtihad a priority for all of us who wish to live fatwa-free lives.

That's the book. The question now becomes: What possessed me to write it? Once I tell you a little about me, I think you'll see where my own passion comes from.

Why I'm struggling with Islam

As refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda, my family and I settled just outside of Vancouver in 1972. I grew up attending two types of schools: the secular public school of most North American kids and then, for several hours at a stretch every Saturday, the Islamic religious school (madressa).

I couldn't quite reconcile the open and tolerant world of my public school with the rigid and bigoted world inside my madressa. But I had enough faith to ask questions — plenty of them.

My first question for my madressa teacher was, "Why can't girls lead prayer?" I graduated to asking more nuanced questions, such as, "If the Koran came to Prophet Muhammad as a message of peace, why did he command his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe?"

You can imagine that such questions irritated the hell out of my madressa teacher, who routinely put down women and trashed the Jews. He and I reached the ultimate impasse over yet another question: "Where," I asked, "is the evidence of the 'Jewish conspiracy' against Islam? You love to talk about it, but what's the proof?" That question, posed at the age of 14, got me booted out of the madressa. Permanently.

At this point, I had a choice to make: I could walk away from my Muslim faith and get on with being my "emancipated" North American self, or I could give Islam another chance. Out of fairness to the faith, I gave Islam another chance. And another. And another. For the past 20 years, I've been educating myself about Islam. As a result, I've discovered a progressive side of my religion — in theory.

But I remain a hugely ambivalent Muslim because of what's happening "on the ground" — massive human rights violations, particularly against women and religious minorities — in the name of Allah.

Liberal Muslims say that what I'm describing isn't "true" Islam. But these Muslims should own up to something: Prophet Muhammad himself said that religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others. By that standard, how Muslims actually behave is Islam, and to sweep that reality under the rug of theory is to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our fellow human beings.

That's why I'm struggling. That's why I'm passionate. And that's why I call myself a Muslim Refusenik.

A Muslim Refusenik is...

By Muslim Refusenik, I don't mean I refuse to be a Muslim. If I did, why would I care enough to write a book that puts me on the front lines of anger, hate, even death threats? By Muslim Refusenik, I mean I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah. Many Muslims applaud Jewish Refuseniks — those soldiers who protest the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In the same spirit of conscientious dissent, we've got to protest the ideological occupation of Muslim minds. An occupation perpetrated by our own mullahs, imams and civic leaders.

In that spirit, I'm asking Muslims in the West a very basic question: Will we remain spiritually infantile, caving to cultural pressures to clam up and conform, or will we mature into full-fledged citizens, defending the very pluralism that allows us to be in this part of the world in the first place?

My question for non-Muslims is equally basic: Will you succumb to the intimidation of being called "racists," or will you finally challenge us Muslims to take responsibility for our role in what ails Islam?

"The Trouble with Islam Today" is a wake-up call for honesty and change on everybody's part. Through the book and this website, let's create conversations where none existed before.