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Muslim author urges reform

Toronto Star, Canada
Sep. 17, 2003
Leslie Scrivener, Faith and Ethics Reporter
www.thestar.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday September 19, 2003

Tells faithful to `take responsibility’ for what ails Islam
Cancelled as speaker because of fears she’d offend too many

Call her crazy or call her courageous, Toronto journalist Irshad Manji is calling for reform in Islam targetting what she calls its oppression of women, its tribalism and its attitudes toward Jews.

In a book published yesterday, Manji questions the divine authorship of the Qu’ran and urges Muslims to freely ask questions about Islam and adopt the ages old tradition of independent reasoning.

“Grow up! And take responsibility for our role in what ails Islam,” she said in an interview.

The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-up call for Honesty and Change is beyond controversial. It may ignite a firestorm of protest.

She isn’t the first to call for a reformation in Islam. There are stirrings of it in other places, but her easy conversational style, addressed to “my fellow Muslims,” makes it accessible to a wide range of readers.

“Muslims have been bludgeoning each other’s freedoms well before European colonialism, well before the state of Israel and well before MTV,” she said. “You can’t blame intellectual stagnation or complacency on the White House, the Jews, even the house of Saud. We have only ourselves to blame.”

Manji, 34, said she received as many supportive responses, especially from young Muslims, as angry ones.

“Muslims need to change their anti-Semitic and anti-female and other bad habits,” said a reader who had fled Afghanistan.

Critical letter writers have accused her of propagating lies and being in the pay of Zionists.

“Will we remain spiritually infantile, shackled by expectations to clam up and conform, or will we mature into citizens, defending the very pluralism of interpretations and ideas that makes it possible to practice Islam in this part of the world?” she writes.

Manji is a practising Muslim who observes the month-long fast at Ramadan and prays daily, though no longer in the proscribed times and style mandated by the faith. “When it becomes rote, a ritual, it easily translates into submissiveness. Discipline is one thing, but when it becomes mindless am I truly conscious of communicating with my Creator?” she writes.

Yet some readers will not see her criticism of Islam as an act of love. Though she hasn’t been the target of a fatwa as Salman Rushdie was for his fictional The Satanic Verses she does have a sleek, imposing-looking man wearing black with her when she goes out. He’s a “personal assistant,”not a bodyguard, she insists. They’ve known each another for years. He checks the board room at her publisher’s before a conversation begins. He looks around as she walks to a park to have her photo taken.

She has had bullet proof glass installed in some rooms in her house. Better safe than sorry, she said. And she’s been consulting with the police on security measures, though she has not received any threats she considers serious.

At least one multicultural organization has cancelled her as a speaker because they’re afraid she’ll offend Muslims.

The ideas in the book have evolved over her lifetime, but became more urgent after 9/11, when she read of Muslim suicide bombers leaving death notes citing the Qu’ran and the joys that awaited them in the afterlife.

Manji, with spiked and streaked hair and her intense way of locking eyes in conversation, is startlingly direct. She has never hidden the fact that she’s gay. After years in broadcasting her latest program is Big Ideas on TVO she answers questions quickly and fluently.

She is astonished by how people in the west, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, practise a form of self -censorship when it comes to critiquing Muslim issues.

“What I am about to say may sound wrong, out of context, but Osama bin Laden had it right on one score we are spoiled in this society, we have gone soft. As the philosopher Arthur Koestler said, the problem is that we have ceased to be aware of the values we are in danger of losing freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. They are taken for granted as magical, as a birthright, but we immigrants can tell you, you need to exercise these freedoms every day lest they atrophy.

“Bin Laden is counting on this, on non-Muslims being cowed by fear of being called racist. It’s as if they feel they are doing us a favour by refusing to have faith in us Muslims to push for reform, as someone called it, the soft racism of low expectations.

“However, I believe we can transcend this moment.”

She urges Muslim readers to adopt the Islamic tradition of ijtihad, which allows Muslims to update his or her religious practises in light of contemporary circumstances. She proposes a movement to encourage women entrepreneurs. Then, she writes, priorities will change: “from tribalism to trade, from the honour of husbands as sole providers to the dignity of reciprocity between men and women.”

Manji’s family fled Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s regime in 1971. She said her free-spirited questioning of convention started at an early age at a babysitting service offered by the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, where at age eight she received the Most Promising Christian of the Year award.

She attended Saturday afternoon classes in Islam until she was 14, when she was kicked out. At 23, she was an editorial writer for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. She has debated current events regularly on TVO and hosted CITY-TV’s QueerTelevision. Ms. magazine called her a “Feminist for the 21st Century” and Maclean’s named her a “Leader for Tomorrow.”

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