Questioning Islam

The Trouble With Islam by Irshad Manji, St. Martin’s Press, 229 pages, $22.95

When Irshad Manji was 11 years old, already clad in a white chador for modesty, she began asking questions during her Saturday madrassa classes.

“Why can’t girls lead prayer?”

“Why would the prophet Muhammad have commended his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe when the Koran supposedly came to him as a message of peace?”

Her irate teacher wouldn’t give her answers and instead told her to read the Koran. When she tried to look elsewhere for help, the school did everything it could to keep her out of its library, where women didn’t belong.

Manji, it may surprise some readers to know, grew up in Canada, not Kabul. And so when she couldn’t find answers to her questions about Islam from other Muslims, she went to the mall bookstore instead.

Now, in her own book “The Trouble With Islam,” a jolting look at the faith she has held on to since childhood, Manji, who has since become a prominent lesbian television host in her home country, offers some answers to those questions she asked as an adolescent and many more that have puzzled her along the way.

Like “Why did the [Canadian] madrassa, set up by immigrants to this land of rights and freedom, choose autocracy?” Why, in other words, is mainstream Islam, even in the West, such an oppressive faith, lacking the “humanity” that the other Abrahamic faiths “enable”?

Manji has concluded that the problems with modern Islam – its oppression of women, virulent anti-Semitism, lack of serious scholarship and endemic violence, to name a few – are the result of tribalism born in the Middle East that has spread, with the help of Saudi Arabian money, around the globe.

Manji finds no Islamic mandate, for instance, for bowing to Mecca or praying in Arabic or covering women from head to toe. These are the exports of a desert culture, she concludes, that has become irrelevant and dangerous in the modern world.

One solution she offers for halting (and reversing) the infection of Islam is providing “micro-loans” to impoverished Muslim women. Allowing them to start small businesses, Manji argues, could shift their place in society and, ultimately, transform the culture as a whole.

Manji’s more important message, though – the one that has earned her the need for the constant protection of a bodyguard – is that Muslims themselves are the ones to blame for these problems. “We can’t pin our basest ills on America” or Israel or the West. “The cancer begins with us.”

Under the guise of multicultural tolerance and keeping the peace, Westerners have accepted such outrages as female circumcision, honor killings of rape victims, suicide bombings and the execution of dissident scholars. The next time they are in a conversation about Islam, Manji encourages both Muslims and non-Muslims, “Dare to ruin the moment.” Brave advice from a brave woman.

Naomi Schaefer, an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is writing a book on religious colleges.

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