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Taking notice of Irshad Manji

Canadian lesbian author asks Muslims and non-Muslims to reform

Irshad Manji was one of the early contributors to Xtra's Ottawa edition, then called Capital Xtra. Credit: Jimmy Jeong
The last time I met up with Irshad Manji, she was on the promotional tour for her 2004 book, The Trouble with Islam Today. And because of the attention that tome was bringing her – including a large number of death threats – that she was accompanied by a husky bodyguard.
 
But for all the negative feedback, Manji’s book certainly brought her a degree of celebrity. Oprah gave her a Chutzpah Award. The New York Times declared Manji “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” She penned op ed pieces for The New York Times, The Advocate and The Wall Street Journal. She was invited to teach at Yale, and then, subsequently, has become the inaugural director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University.
 
Her new book, Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, is in part an answer to many of her critics, whose angry emails she excerpts. She also steps up her call for an exhaustive reinterpretation of Islam – in particular, she chastises moderate Muslims for not challenging extremists more often and more adamantly.
 
Despite her university postings, it’s a decidedly accessible book, one that addresses some complex and heavy ideas but does so in a very non-academic manner. Manji quotes a broad range of historical civil rights figures (King and Gandhi, for example), other Islamic reformists, but also skates across pop culture (at one point she recounts a plotline of an episode of Will & Grace to bolster her argument). 
 
Manji says the new book comes out of “gratitude. My family and I are political refugees to Canada. We didn’t fight for these freedoms, we didn’t shed blood, we didn’t take up arms. These freedoms that you and I enjoy are gifts.”
 
And then there was the mail. Thousands of letters and emails and Facebook messages. And no, not all of it was full of bile. “The fact that The Trouble with Islam Today got such response – much of it grateful feedback from young Muslims around the world – I realized, okay, you’ve really tried to make the most out of the platforms you’ve been given in this country, now here’s your opportunity to amplify the voices of those who typically don’t have the megaphone that you do. This book has truly been inspired by the wider community that’s out there.”
 
Much of Allah, Liberty and Love reads like an odd dialogue between Manji and her supporters and detractors. One passage is quite humorous, in which Manji responds to a death threat in verse; the angry reader fires back in verse, and the two have a back-and-forth, all in poetry. He eventually gives up and stops responding.
 
While wading through issues like identity politics, Manji looks to shake up assumptions about how people discuss Islam, and argues that too many Muslims use the charge of Islamophobia as a way of avoiding talking about uncomfortable truths within their faith. This, of course, has brought her great criticism, in particular from many on the left, who argue she is dangerously simplistic, and that her book sounds like, well, something that’s been endorsed by Oprah.
 
But Manji is actually engaging with a broad range of complex ideas and attempting to make arguments for how people of different faiths can challenge each other to create much-needed dialogue. She rejects relativism, which would allow many to write off sexism and homophobia in other cultures, and instead calls herself a pluralist, meaning people of different cultures should share certain ethical beliefs. “It’s a high-wire act, for sure,” says Manji. “And it’s not about avoiding offending this group or community. It’s about recognizing that diversity is not merely about race, sexual orientation or gender; it’s about diversity of thought. You and I may reach different conclusions about the same topics, and well we should, because we’re unique. The diversity I’m referring to is – I hope, I think – is a much more challenging diversity. It propels us to see each other as individuals, not mere mascots of one culture or another. That’s the problem with multiculturalism, in that it can emphasize groups over individuals.”
 
A funny thing happened as Manji was working on completing the book: the Arab Spring sprung. Not surprisingly, she says she was elated. “I can now tell people that I’m not a voice in the wilderness. Sure, I may be more vocal than most, and again I’m privileged to have access to platforms to be more vocal than most, but look at all those secular democrats who started these uprisings. They’re the people I’m talking about in this book. There’s a much bigger market for these ideas than the skeptics have allowed themselves to believe.”
 
Some critics of Manji argued she had no right to make many of the arguments she did about Islam, as she lived in the West. But Manji says her book caught on in the Middle East, thanks to the internet. “At one point, my inbox was full of messages from people who asked when it would be translated into Arabic so they could share it with their friends. My standard industrial-era response was, ‘Please – what publisher in the Arab world is going to have the guts to translate and circulate a book like this in a fragile post-9/11 world?’ Most of the kids wrote back to say, ‘So what? Get the book translated into Arabic, post the translation on your website, and then we can share those ideas.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened. When I get accused of being in this, as I often do, only for the money, I ask my detractors very nonchalantly, ‘What do you make of the free downloads of my book in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi?’ Do I ever hear back from them again?”
 
Manji is somewhat puzzled by the Canadian government’s response to the Arab Spring. On the day Egypt’s brutal dictator, Hosni Mubarak, announced that he was stepping down, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a press conference, “Well, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
 
“It was an ill-chosen metaphor, wasn’t it?” says Manji. “There are some conservatives, not all, but some, who want to put all Muslims in a box. They want to make the claim that in order for Western civilization to be safe, we must treat it as if it’s singularly superior. I’m not for a second denigrating Western society or culture – I know how lucky I am to have the freedoms I have. I think some believe other cultures are somehow inferior, that they can not have the things we have. If that’s what some on the right believe, I think they’re wrong.”
 
While picking apart some of what she sees problematic about identity politics, Manji has never been shy about the lesbian label. “I believe that if I wasn’t gay, I’d still be advocating for the changes that I’m talking about – pluralism, universal human rights and individual liberty. I started asking uncomfortable questions as a kid, and I didn’t know my sexual orientation then. I can say that the fact that I talk about being openly gay more in this book than the last one has, of course, made it more difficult to reach some mainstream Muslims. But I will say this: there is a wide ambit of Muslims who may not be gay but appreciate the fact that I’m out. For them, it’s a huge plus, because they feel it’s high time we heard those voices, too.
 
“Some mainstream and moderate Muslims say to me, ‘Oh Irshad, you shouldn’t have come out. If you hadn’t been out, your message could have reached so many more people.’ My argument is, people who are threatened by change will always find an excuse to dismiss your arguments. If it’s not the gay thing, it’ll be the woman thing. If it’s not the woman thing, it’s the fact that you were brought up in the West. Or it’s the fact that you’re South Asian and not Arab. It’s always something! So you know what? Thank you, God, for gifting me with all kinds of identities, of baggage, that I happily tote, because that baggage opens up new vistas and worlds, which allow me to think about issues in new ways.”
 
Manji says her experiences as a trailblazing lesbian TV personality had a profound impact on her. “When I was hosting Queer Television at City TV, I got death threats. I was then part of an institution, so I had big burly bodyguards, and people were always looking out for me. When I left City and began writing about Muslim reform, I didn’t have the privilege of institutional protection. But the spine I had been eased into developing when I hosted Queer Television, that came from the context of being openly gay and advocating for the dignity of gays and lesbians. Now I’m advocating for the dignity of reformist Muslims in a completely different context – though they’re all part of the same universe of human rights. So it all started with a gay TV show. It’s a real full-circle story, isn’t it?”
 
Which reminds me: this time around, Manji has no bodyguard. (Which is too bad – he was quite hot.) “I told the bodyguard that it really wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t about physical intrusion at all. Speaking from within the faith of Islam, I knew there would be young Muslims watching what I do. If I’m constantly surrounded by 24/7 security, I would be sending them the message, inadvertently, that this is the only way you can speak up. And it’s simply not true.
 
“I say this to my mother when she asks about the latest death threats: I know there are people out there who would like to kill me. But if they did, the cause would be more alive than ever. My bodyguard once said to me, ‘I can try to anticipate things, but if a nutter snaps, that’s probably it — I’m not sure I can protect you from it.’ All I can do is remind myself of the integrity of the work. I’m not afraid to die, if need be. I’m not courting it, but I’m not afraid. In not being afraid, I’m saying to the enemies of reason and humanity, You are not going to have more power than you already claim.”
 
 
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The trouble with Manji

An author as polarizing as the issues she discusses

 
Whenever I’ve written about Irshad Manji and her work, I’m struck by the vast gaps in responses she evokes. People either send me notes of appreciation (“Love her courage,” “Powerful stuff”) or serious anger.
 
“Oh god, that woman is so fucking annoying,” one person emailed me, after an interview ran in the Montreal Mirror recently. In the piece, I brought up criticisms of Manji but took a mainly positive tone about the new book. A friend of Egyptian descent was put off by the way I’d written it, calling it “a John and Yoko love-in.”
 
Manji certainly has her boosters; the back flap of her book lists an impressive array of endorsements. There are the flakes (Deepak Chopra, Oprah), the quasi-flakes (Gloria Steinem), but then there are also the heavyweights, including journalists Bill Moyers and Fareed Zakaria, who praise Manji at length.
 
Author Norman Finkelstein is one of Manji’s detractors. A staunch critic of Israeli policies, he is the author of the hugely controversial book The Holocaust Industry. “She’s a useless idiot,” Finkelstein says of Manji. “A complete fraud. With only a BA from UBC she lands a position at Yale and then NYU? What kind of system creates freaks like this?” In particular, Finkelstein takes issue with a 2006 op ed column Manji wrote in The New York Times, “How I Learned to Love the Wall,” in which she defended the security wall the Israeli government was building. “Her research appeared to be talking to one Palestinian. It was such a bad joke.”
 
Finkelstein argues that “there are libraries full of serious scholarship by Muslims who are trying to reconcile their faith with a modern world. Manji’s work isn’t serious; theirs is. She’s heading a department in moral courage? At NYU? Calling for reform of Islam at NYU takes about as much courage as calling for reform of capitalism at the Kremlin!”