No one could accuse Irshad Manji of smallness of scope. Or of being someone who’s lacking in ambition.
Just take a peek at her life: the former Ottawa resident (and columnist for Capital Xtra in the mid 1990s) was the host and producer of Toronto’s pioneering QueerTelevision and then the host of TVO’s Big Ideas. She’s an author, activist, news program pundit, public speaker and fingers-in-many-pies media entrepreneur now developing a television station aimed at age-of-globalization youth. And she’s a fellow at Yale University. This born-in-Uganda, raised-in-Richmond, BC dynamo even manages to run half-marathons in her spare time.
And now — never one to rest on her laurels — she’s fixed her attention on a grand project with transnational reach: the sustained interrogation and reformation of one of the world’s most influential religions.
That’s right. Manji has thrown down the gauntlet to Islam, asking its leaders and adherents to embark on a critical examination of their faith. She’d like them to concede that their religion — a brand of faith that of late has become associated with active oppression, intolerance and persecution of women, homosexuals and Jews — has (a) contradictions, inconsistencies and faults, and (b) needs to make significant changes.
Her perspectives can be found in The TroubleWwith Islam Today. Subtitled A Wake-Up Call For Honesty And Change, this publication is an engaging mixture of coolly logical argumentation and passionate outbursts. It’s written as a long letter addressed to her faith, and asks tough questions that, she hopes, will spark enlightening dialogue–locally, nationally and internationally.
Wearing various hats within her book’s pages — historian, feminist, dreamer, political analyst, critic, pragmatist, true believer and activist — Manji expresses embarrassment and anxiety about the face of today’s Islam. She wonders aloud how the Muslim majority “can stay stone silent” about the direction their religion is being led by “the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah.”
Inside yet outside, believer yet pariah, Manji occupies a singular niche.
A lesbian feminist Muslim, Manji’s complex position is well illuminated by her book’s acknowledgements pages.
At the beginning she states, “I wear two rings, one to symbolize my love for God and the other to convey my commitment to Michelle Douglas, my partner. So I start by thanking God and what I most thank Him for is Michelle.” Toward the end she thanks her mother for “steeling her spine,” and then relates a story of being at a funeral where her mother’s imam (Muslim religious leader) refused not only to shake Manji’s outstretched hand, but even to acknowledge it at all.
Speaking to the firebrand in her downtown Vancouver hotel room during her 2003 tour to promote what was then a new book (and originally titled ‘The Trouble With Islam’ — not yet including the word ‘Today’), it’s clear she’s tired but wired. Though she has already spoken to nearly two handfuls of interviewers on this day alone, she’s got plenty of reserve fuel for another round of questions.
We start off with “madressa casualty,” a term from her book (as in, “I was a madressa casualty”). Manji clearly recalls living in Richmond — “diversity drenched even back then” — and attending madressa (Muslim religious schooling) on Saturdays.
It was there she was informed that, “Women are inferior and Jews are treacherous.” School, in short, was a “haven for indoctrination,” she says, and an experience that led to inner conflict: “I could never quite reconcile the open and tolerant world of multilayered Richmond with the closed and bigoted one I sat through on Saturdays.”
Manji asked questions insistently, though, and they led to results: “My teacher and I reached an impasse over ‘the Jewish question’ that got me booted out of madressa at 14.”
That madressa class incident formed the groundwork for one of her quests as an adult. Imagining that her religious instructor might simply have been a bad teacher, for the next two decades she examined her faith from a variety of angles; she read, talked and listened.
And now what she’s learned has been converted into printed words: The Trouble With Islam.
Manji explains that the current severe face of Islam is the result of changes that took place centuries ago. As she sees it, “literalism has prevailed and become mainstream.” Manji supplies an impromptu history lesson: “It’s not like it has to be that way. Ijtihad, the tradition of independent thinking, thrived from 750-1200 AD. But at the end of the 11th century the gates of independent thinking were slammed shut in response to challenges to the empire’s unity from within.
“In just a few generations it was decreed that [religious] debates, study and interpretation would end. Under the guise of protection, the empire shut down independent thought. Unity came to be confused with uniformity.”
This development led to a rigid reading of the Koran, the issuing of fatwas and the cessation of critical dialogue.
Manji states that religious practice has become “indoctrination instead of education. We’re expected to imitate, not evaluate.” That effective ban on interpretation and the posing of questions produces problems.
“It’s scary,” she says. “There are too many ‘others.’ It is becoming narrower and narrower and narrower about who is acceptable and who is not.”
Her call is for a general return to the tradition of Ijtihad. “Muslims are no idiots,” she exclaims, “but we do not have an appreciation of the need to think critically. Formal schooling is one thing, but are we willing to extend our brain power to the faith itself?”
Switching topics, we talk for a moment of Xtra West’s ongoing difficulty in locating local gay-positive progressive Muslims who are willing to express their opinion in a public forum. Manji agrees that the restrictions and a deep-seated fear of reprisal works as a powerful tool of suppression for the literalist mainstream.
“And it’s not just ostracism, it’s persecution. There’s vilification of your family or you might get booted out of mosque. You could find it difficult to conduct relationships with the family. [For many Muslims] so much of their self-worth, their need for approval comes from Islam that it outweighs the actual truths of their lives.”
Despite the current limitations, Manji believes that her faith has much to offer. And yet, if she sees no signs of a willingness to consider her questions, she feels she has no choice but to leave it.
Adhering to the idea that religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others, she is deeply disturbed by “massive human rights violations in the name of Allah.” She says simply, “As a citizen of the world, I am not willing to be silent.”
Manji’s vision of an omniscient deity meshes with her view of the world as a spectacular, diverse and non-uniform place.
“God has deliberately created multiplicity,” she says. “If the all-knowing, all-powerful God didn’t want to create me, a lesbian, then why did he not make someone else in my place?”
Ever diplomatic, she adds that hers is a question that should be open to discussion: “There is room and reason to ask questions and encourage a healthy exchange.”