Irshad Manji Challenges Islam

LIKE THOUSANDS of Muslims originally from South Asia, Irshad Manji's parents fled Uganda in the early 1970s to escape the wrath of dictator Idi Amin.

Irshad Manji Challenges Islam

LIKE THOUSANDS of Muslims originally from South Asia, Irshad Manji's parents fled Uganda in the early 1970s to escape the wrath of dictator Idi Amin. They found sanctuary in Canada and enrolled their daughter in a madressa, an Islamic religious school, in suburban Vancouver, where they expected her to dutifully memorize her lessons. But she began asking questions about her faith - and has never stopped. Manji, at 34 the host of TVOntario's Big Ideas and writer in residence at the University of Toronto's Hart House, continues her search for answers in her book The Trouble With Islam, released last week. In it, she calls on Muslims to question the insularity of their faith, the harsh treatment of women, and what she describes as Islam's deep-seated anti-Semitism. She spoke with Maclean's Foreign Editor Tom Fennell.

In your opinion, what's wrong with the Muslim faith today?

When people are told that you must pray at assigned times of the day, wash prescribed parts of your body and face, and recite only selected verses, you don't have to think. If you are told over and over that because the Koran comes after the Torah and the Bible and is therefore the final and perfect manifesto of God's will, then critical thinking skills need not apply. So we Muslims have no clue how to challenge Islam when abuse happens under the banner of our faith. That's why it's important for us to be able to question the Koran, and sometimes ignore our imams.

Islam was once at the vanguard of civilization. What has changed?

Toward the end of the 11th century the unity of the Muslim world was being challenged, from Iraq to Spain. In the guise of protecting the Muslim empire from division, debate froze. Since then, scholars have been recycling each other's prejudices without reflection. Since then, Islam has undergone one reformation after another, but they have all been such conservative reformations that they have taken Muslims and Islam in general back further and further, until we get back to the mores of the seventh century, the mores that women are temptation and evil, the mores that see Jews and Christians as infidels, that see vendettas against Islam around every corner.

Your critics would argue that the problem stems not from Islam but from poverty, and that the West has done its share of damage by propping up outrageous dictators.

The West may have imposed borders on the Arab world, but that in and of itself has not imposed poverty, backwardness and oppression. Saudi Arabia, from where the majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers came, has never been colonized. And let's also remember that most of the so-called martyrs in Islam were actually pretty well off - some even had Western formal education. What that suggests is that what motivates today's suicide bombers and hijackers is not so much that which the material world has failed to deliver, as what the Koran promises.

Some see the struggle in Iraq as part of a gathering battle between the West and Islam.

There is a sterling opportunity now to begin eating away at the oppression that dictators - but also Islamic dictators - have imposed on people in this part of the world. I asked so-called anti-war activists in the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion, "If not military action, then what?" Nobody had an answer for me. Instead, they had epithets and they had slogans. Sorry, that's not thinking. How do brutalized people manage to overthrow their own dictator if not with outside help?

Perhaps reform will come out of Iran, where its Muslim rulers are under pressure to allow democratic changes?

The young people of Iran are in fact leading the way for the Muslim world, and I actually don't know too many Iranians who do defend Islam. If you scratch the surface, you find there is a great antipathy, a great resentment against what many Iranians call Arab imperialism. Iran, well before Islam came on the scene, had a religion of its own, and had traditions of its own.

In your book, you depict Israel as an example of what a modern Islamic state could look like. For a Muslim, that's pretty courageous.

Why is it that those who bash Israel don't want to acknowledge Israel's multi-ethnic, pluralistic, democratic nature? Is it an insecurity about the fact that the Arab Muslim world still hasn't created such a country? Is it a sense of inadequacy that Muslims have before Israel? Is there jealousy? What is it? All I'm asking for is honesty. And I know that Muslims crave what we in the Western world already have, and it would be the height of ideological arrogance to deny masses of people the very thing that we take for granted. That is neo-colonialism.

If there is going to be a reform movement, where will it spring from?

The West is the signpost of the Islamic reformation. Why? Because in the West we already enjoy the special freedom to think, debate, challenge and be challenged, all without fear of state reprisals. But what in God's name are we doing with this opportunity? So far we've squandered it.

To reform the Muslim world, you want to launch Operation Ijtihad - Independent Reasoning. As part of that, you would like to see Muslim women given loans to create businesses?

The Koran says that men, by virtue of spending their wealth on women, are superior. So unleashing the entrepreneurial talent of women may well lead to a situation in which women, by virtue of earning their own money, can say, "Because I earn this money you, my husband, are not spending your wealth to maintain me, and therefore cannot claim superiority over me." And as a result of questioning their lot, maybe they will consider that, "What I've been told all my life about the Koran is actually more complex than I've been led to believe."

What else are you proposing in Operation Ijtihad?

I am calling first and foremost for a very vigorous debate on campuses across the West about Saudi Arabia and not just about Israel. I want those who consider themselves such great champions of human rights to focus on the Saudi mouthpieces. I want students to see the value in challenging Saudi insularity by organizing trips to Mecca, which is deemed off limits to non-Muslims. If Jerusalem is not off limits to Christians and Muslims, what makes Mecca so special?

Are you worried that you might become the poster child for right-wing Christians by endorsing their views on Islam?

I'm not a johnny-come-lately to the need for religious reform. But I ask non-Muslims why it had to take Sept. 11 for us to wake up. And I ask Muslims: if the depth of illiteracy, poverty, oppression, violence and intellectual backwardness that we're seeing today is not enough to compel you out of your complacency, what will?

Maclean's September 29, 2003