TORONTO (AP) — Irshad Manji has plenty of enemies among her fellow Muslims. Her critique of Islam is frank and fierce. She defends the invasion of Iraq. She sympathizes with Israel. She’s a lesbian and doesn’t try to hide it.
“Then there is the hair,” she adds, referring to the spiky highlights that sharpen her live-wire manner.
What has brought this Uganda-born Asian-Canadian to prominence is her book, “The Trouble With Islam Today,” just out in paperback in the United States where she has been touring and talking.
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It isn’t easy to publish a book like this when the religious establishment you’re taking on already feels besieged by the West and is hypersensitive to criticism. She still feels pain at the memory of her 60-year-old mother at prayer in her mosque in suburban Vancouver, hearing the preacher declare her daughter to be “worse than Osama bin Laden.”
Still, at least the preacher also said a few nice things about the book.
Not so some of the fierce and usually anonymous reactions posted on her Web site, www.muslim-refusenik.com : “I swear by Allah that some brothers are planning to take action against you … Just as Van Gogh was taken care of. This is your last warning.”
Theo Van Gogh was the Dutchman who made a film criticizing the treatment of women under Islam and was stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in November. His killer left a note threatening others in the name of radical Islam. Manji’s Toronto home now has bullet-proof windows.
Among those Muslims who since the Sept. 11 attacks have been calling for Islam to reform itself, the 36-year-old Manji’s voice is one of the loudest and least compromising.
“Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves,” she writes. “We’re in crisis and we’re dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now.”
Manji maintains that centuries of dark dogma have silenced many followers of Islam, putting them behind veils while mullahs and terrorists claim to speak for Allah.
In an interview at her home, Manji says 9/11 offered “a historic window of opportunity.”
“Because of the debates that have emerged out of 9/11, those of us who have been working for years for the liberal reformation of Islam, we finally have a voice that is being heard outside of our communities.”
The events that shaped Manji’s views date to her childhood.
She was born to parents of Indian and Egyptian descent who were among thousands of Asians expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972, who saw them as outsiders imported by the country’s British colonialists.
Her family landed in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, where her mother first sold Avon products and then worked as a cook for an airline. Her father was a carpenter, then a real estate agent. The parents divorced 19 years ago and she has had no contact with her father since. In her book she describes him as physically abusive.
Manji was 4 when her father put her in a free baby-sitting service at Rose of Sharon Baptist Church. She said her stream of questions about Jesus were met with encouraging smiles by the woman who supervised the Bible study.
“She made me believe my questions were worth asking,” Manji writes. “Maybe that’s what motivated me, at age 8, to win the Most Promising Christian of the Year award.”
The irony held no amusement for her father. He moved her from the church to the madrassa, the mosque’s religious school, where she spent every Saturday from age 9 to 14. Her questions were no longer met with smiles and encouragement, however, and the library was off-limits to girls.
She writes that she asked her teacher why women couldn’t lead Muslims in prayer.
“Girls can’t lead prayer,” the teacher replied. “Allah says so.”
“What’s his reason?” she demanded to know.
Read the Quran, Islam’s holy book, he replied. So she did, and says she found nothing to suggest the Prophet Muhammad ever barred women from leading prayers.
But it’s an idea that mainstream Islam rejects at least as forcefully as does Roman Catholicism or orthodox Judaism. That was evident in the angry response from Middle Eastern Muslim leaders after Amina Wadud, a woman professor of Islamic studies, led a mixed-gender prayer service in New York in March.
She recently showed off her two-fisted style on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” going up against liberal co-panelists to defend the invasion of Iraq as a human rights issue — the only way Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime could be toppled. To the argument that Iraq was never a threat to the United States she replied that this was the kind of reasoning that ignores the suffering of people living under Middle East dictatorships.
“In the last 100 years alone,” she says, “more Muslims have been tortured and murdered at the hands of other Muslims than at the hands of any former imperial power.”
Her book has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and she says a publisher wants to release an Arabic-language version in Baghdad. “The symbolism makes my heart soar,” she said.
Her mother recalls her daughter warning her that life would be tough when the book appeared.
“She said, ‘Mom, you have to be very strong for the sake of me and the book,” Mumtaz Manji recalled. ‘”You are going to hear so many nasty things about your daughter.’ And I said, ‘One piece of advice that I give you: You can make the whole world mad, but don’t make God mad. Just keep a good relationship with God, the creator.”
Still, she worries for her daughter’s safety. “My heart is always in my throat.”
Irshad Manji says one of her inspirations is Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British novelist who spent a decade in hiding after the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran ordered him killed for supposedly insulting Islam in his book “The Satanic Verses.”
She says that when she met Rushdie in Toronto, he told her: “Whenever a writer puts out a thought, it can be disagreed with — vigorously, vehemently, even violently. But it cannot be un-thought. And that is the great, permanent gift that the writer gives to the world.”
Irshad Manji is no Salman Rushdie, counters Mohamed Elmasry, the president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, which represents many of the 750,000 Muslims among Canada’s 33 million inhabitants.
He says Manji’s work is simplistic, that she lacks the academic credentials to write about Islam and is a self-loathing Muslim who doesn’t properly observe her religion. Elmasry called her a book a “big yawn” that has had little impact on Canadian Muslims.
“It’s not really of any value in terms of research, academics or even literature,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is unfortunate that she has become a darling of the media and anybody who wants to smear Islam and bash Muslims.”
Manji acknowledges she doesn’t follow all the rules of Islam, only the ones that engage her mind, such as praying several times a day — “spontaneous conversations with my creator” — and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Among her Muslim defenders is Professor Khaleel Mohammed, who teaches religion at San Diego State University. He wrote the prologue to the U.S. edition of her book.
“Let us face a simple fact,” he begins. “I should hate Irshad Manji. If Muslims listen to her, they will stop listening to people like me, an imam who spent years at a traditional Islamic university.
“She threatens my male authority and says things about Islam that I wish were not true. She has a big mouth, and fact upon fact to corroborate her analysis. … She is a lesbian, and my madrassa training has instilled, almost into my DNA, that Allah hates gays and lesbians. I really should hate this woman.
“But then I look into my heart and engage my mind, and I come to a discomfiting conclusion: Irshad is telling the truth.”
Manji has analyzed the preacher’s “worse than bin Laden” complaint that so deeply hurt her mother. She thinks she sees the logic behind it — that her book, like 9/11, has sowed discord in the Muslim world.
“What’s truly revealing,” she says, “is the very notion that my call for reform has done more than al-Qaeda’s terrorism to get Muslims angry and arguing with each other. Kind of makes my point for me.”