The media's new darling

Islam needs no defence against Manji's book, but perhaps Muslims do

By Dr. MOHAMED ELMASRY*

At shunpiking we hold that all human beings and their beliefs are valid, and we defend the right to conscience. Who can argue otherwise?

But especially since 9-11, an offensive has unfolded against Islam, the Islamic development, traditions and conceptions, portraying them as "uncivilized", all from a Eurocentric point of view. The pressure on people who espouse the Islamic faith to adhere to Anglo-American imperial values is very great. At the same time a version of Christian fundamentalism is being pushed by the White House in which world affairs are being polarized in a messianic fashion as "western values" "against the forces of evil" or "modernity" against "mediaevalism". In other words, Islam and its contribution is not discussed and appreciated on the basis of its own terms and the experience and problems which the people from these countries and the world experience but from a pre-conceived political agenda. "Tolerance" will be allowed you so long as prove you are "fit to be governed".

It is not fortuitous that the monopoly media is raising a hullabaloo about Irshad Manji. The New York Times celebrates Ms Manji, "a Canadian Muslim" whom they call "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare": "an outspoken television journalist who admires Israel and applauds the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. More than that, she has issued a searing critique of her religion in a new book, 'The Trouble with Islam'." (1)

But even before her U.S. publisher had released the book, the National Post -- amongst other Canadian papers -- was issuing sensational provocations that the author needed police protection "because of a feared backlash from fundamentalists". In other words, be silent about Manji, or ye shall be tarred and feathered as a "fundamentalist" and a "religious fanatic". We invited Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, to comment. We are also providing our readers with the views of the Muslim Students' Association at McGill University and a flashback review from 1989, "The Controversay over The Satanic Verses" (Salman Rushdie) by Christopher Coleman.

The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change

Irshad Manji

Random House of Canada 2003

Paperback $22.95 ISBN 0-679-31250-1

It did not happen.

No fatwa against the author. No sudden disappearance into hiding. No public book-burnings. Weeks after its publication, Irshad Manji's The Trouble With Islam still has not drawn even the mildest condemnation from any Canadian Islamic organization.

Prominent Muslim leaders have declined invitations to debate her on TV talk shows. And she has not become the widespread subject of Friday Khotbas (sermons) by Imams in Canadian mosques.

Instead, Manji is freely traveling across Canada to personally promote her new book. As a founding member of a new Toronto-based Muslim group, she has been given the strong support to which she is entitled. And that's as it should be. After all, this is Canada in 2003.

But all this quiet recognition must be a great disappointment to the author, her publisher, and some of this country's sensation-seeking media, who'd predicted a major backlash from hordes of so-called fundamentalists. It did not happen. Not one Canadian Muslim -- "fundamentalist" or otherwise -- bothered to picket any outlets selling the book. It's all been a big yawn, in spite of the media hype, some of which Manji herself encouraged.

"A Canadian Muslim who tomorrow releases a book critical of her religion is drawing a very high level of awareness from police because of a feared backlash from fundamentalists," proclaimed The National Post, which led the Canadian print media in running long excerpts from The Trouble With Islam amid alarmist reports of its supposed volatile effect on the national Muslim community.

In some countries, Irshad Manji would be buried up to her neck and stoned to death," The Ottawa Citizen assured its readers.

"Call her crazy or call her courageous..." said the Toronto Star in an interview with the author.

And the Globe and Mail reported, "Some weeks ago, Irshad Manji suggested to her downstairs tenant that it might be a good idea if she packed up and left." That accompanied a long book review and even a column by one of Canada's leading writers a few days later.

But this is Canada, and it is 2003.

Canadian Muslims are, above all, Canadian. And Canadians are nice folks, with the best sense of decency in the world. Their protests are usually mild, reflecting the hope that people in general are smart enough to decide for themselves if a book like The Trouble With Islam is worth its hype.

More importantly, Canadian Muslims have learned a hard lesson from the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989. It began when British Muslims burned his novel, The Satanic Verses, triggering violent protests in India, Mr. Rushdie's country of birth. The Indian government gave in to international pressure to ban the book. And then a fatwa was issued for Rushdie's death by the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for allegedly spreading hate against Islam, for being blasphemous, and for insulting the Prophet Muhammed. The rest is history, a bitter history for all Muslims, but especially those living in the West.

I have always maintained, however, that Islam doesn't need this kind of negative defense. After all, it is a world religion. It is robust. For more than 1400 years, it has consistently attracted at least 20 per cent of the world's population. It still attracts many millions every year among those who seek, learn, and come to believe that Islam is the best faith for them.

Islam does not have a hierarchical priesthood, nor any provision (like excommunication) for revoking membership. Muslims are forbidden to prejudge others, whether they are of the same faith or not. Islam also teaches that actions, deeds, and the art of persuasion -- including dialogue, debate, logic, and rational argument -- are superior means of proactively engaging those with opposing views. Thus Ms. Manji, a Toronto journalist, lesbian, and active feminist, can go on calling herself a Muslim for as long as she feels like it

Although I believe Islam needs no defense, the same is not true for Muslims themselves, and this tension is vividly illustrated by The Trouble With Islam. Ms. Manji is entitled to speak her mind, but the book's title is misleading. It should have been called The Trouble With Irshad Manji's Life. Now in her thirties, Ms. Manji reveals that she did not enjoy her parent's love and affection in her formative childhood and teenaged years. And like many who've experienced similar disappointments, she blames her religion, its Holy Book and its teachings. She has not found enough reason, however, to leave Islam altogether. Instead, she calls for reform, holding Islam responsible for all the ills she has observed among Muslims.

Fair enough.

But as much as Ms Manji has the right to speak her mind, the religious interpretations of other Muslims must also be defended. No one has ever suggested (successfully, at least) that the Old Testament, holy to both Jews and Christians, be revised so that verses advocating killings and violence, tribal or racial superiority, the suppression of women's or gay/lesbian rights, be deleted. This is because the writings in any holy book are subject to the diversity and fallibility of human interpretation. So it is false and disingenuous for Ms Manji to assume that the Qur'an is somehow different in this regard from other holy scriptures.

I doubt if any reputable publisher would touch a book written by a non-specialist that advocated a revision of the Old Testament, or questioned its divine origin. It would be a risky business, not because of any anticipated furor, but because the media would most likely ignore it. And faith-based groups, if they were to protest such a release at all, would give it mere token attention.

When it comes to anti-Islam, Muslim-bashing, smearing the Qur'an, or insulting the Prophet Muhammed in print, however, both publishers and authors stand to make money from the venture. But here in Canada, the land where decency and sober second thought prevail? I hope not.

(1) "Canada's Irshad Manji -- An Unlikely Promoter of Islamic Reform", Clifford Krauss, New York Times, October 4, 2003

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Waterloo, is the author of several books on Islam, faith and spirituality, including his upcoming The Qur'an: 365 Selections for Daily Reading. His recent work Spiritual Fitness (TM) For Life was aimed for readers of any faith. He contributed the article "Martyrs & heroes: some reflections on suicide bombing" to shunpiking's Dossier on Palestine. He can be reached at np@canadianislamiccongress.com

Students weigh in on Irshad Manji's sophomoric bankruptcy

By the MUSLIM STUDENTS' ASSOCIATION, McGill University*

As an autobiographical account of one woman's spiritual journey and her quest for defining her identity in today's post-modern society, Irshad Manji's book, The Trouble with Islam, is certainly deserving of interest. Unfortunately, what the author tries to do is to present it as a paradigm-shifting manifesto for reform.

Naturally, the moment someone takes on such an ambitious project, she lays her credentials open to examination. It is in this area that Manji's work is completely bankrupt. She tries to present an argument with pretensions of revolutionizing the entire worldview of Islam. Yet her lack of knowledge when it comes to the very creed that she is trying to revolutionize is so evident to anyone who knows something about the history and tradition of Islam, that it becomes difficult to take it seriously. In fact it reads like a sophomoric polemic against the foundation of a sophisticated research tradition by someone whose sensibilities have been offended by something she cannot be bothered to understand.

Constraints of space prevent us from trying to detail each and every flaw in Manji's book, but a few major examples will hopefully illustrate the nature of the problem. First, Manji chooses to resurrect the old myth that "the tradition of independent reasoning," or "ijtihad," came to an end in the 13th century. This idea is a relic of 19th-century Orientalist discourse that has lost credibility even in modern Western scholarship on Islam. Manji's ignorance of the primary sources of Islam is admitted even by herself; but had she bothered to peruse even the secondary scholarship, she would have realized that the idea of the "end of ijtihad" was a discredited fiction.

Manji clearly does not grasp how Islamic scholarship, or for that matter any scholarship, functions. Mainstream positions in Islam are the result of a complex dialectical process of evolution. Positions are taken and disputed among duly qualified individuals. These are subjected to a thorough process of peer-review. Over time, some positions come to dominate and gain the allegiance of the majority of Muslim intellectuals. Interestingly enough, this is analogous to what takes place in modern academia, and is hardly "dogmatic" or "authoritarian". It is simply reiterating the fact that to be taken seriously, an opinion has to be presented expertly.

Manji's knowledge of the principles of Qu'ranic hermeneutics seems non-existent. Possibly, this would explain her bizarre stance on Qu'ranic exegesis. Manji seems to advocate the view that anyone can pick and choose anything from the Qu'ran and give it whatever meaning appeals to him/her. Whatever the appeal of this radical subjectivization of the text to the votaries of postmodernism, it basically makes the text infinitely interpretable and hence, paradoxically, irrelevant. While Manji may choose to do this, traditional Islam has an elaborately developed science of interpretation that fixes meaning and demonstrates the coherence of the text far more firmly than Manji would care to admit. If she chooses to close her eyes to this, then it should come as no surprise if her work is similarly ignored by serious scholarship.

Ultimately, Manji's book amounts to little more than a subjective meditation on Islam by an author who seems to have merely a passing acquaintance with the subject. So who does she speak for? Certainly not for Western academia, since she hardly knows anything about the debates in it. And certainly not the majority of Muslims either, who would find many of her assumptions not just alien but downright unjustifiable. In the end, it seems, she speaks only for herself.

*Reproduced from The McGill Daily, Issue 17, November 3, 2003 courtesy of MontrealMuslimNews.net