Saturday, August 16, 2008
In the name of Islam and Mohahmed women are tortured and degraded and denied human rights in the Arab and Muslim world.
Irshad Manji is bravely fighting to change this discredited and atavistic "religion".
She's a Canadian feminist Muslim whose book The Trouble With Islam Today has become an international bestseller, but is banned throughout the Middle East. A fierce critic of her religion, she lives behind bulletproof glass. Geraldine Bedell meets the woman being compared to Martin Luther.Geraldine Bedell The Observer, Sunday August 3 2008 Article history
Canadian Feminist Muslim Irshad Manji. Photograph: Andrew Testa
She is a lesbian feminist Muslim whose ambition is nothing less than to reform Islam. She has been compared by the New York Times to Martin Luther; by others to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and, when I met her, casually, by herself, to Vaclav Havel.
Irshad Manji, a spiky-haired, opinionated, mouthy Canadian Muslim, lives in New York behind bulletproof glass and doesn't use a mobile phone because it would make finding her too easy. She has a lot of enemies: her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is banned across much of the Middle East. But it is also a bestseller in many countries, including the US, and has been downloaded in its Arabic, Farsi and Urdu translations more than half-a-million times. In the last couple of weeks, she has been in Washington advising Democrats on Capitol Hill about a potential Obama administration's policy towards the Muslim world and reminding the National Organisation for Women to speak out against human-rights abuses perpetrated under cover of religion. Her recent documentary, Faith Without Fear, has just been nominated for an Emmy.
I meet her at her office at New York University in downtown Manhattan, where she has recently become a professor. Manji is slight, dynamic and blazingly articulate, the words pouring out in a stream of rhetorical tropes for two-and-a-half hours. I feel like I'm at a public meeting.
What she has to say - that Islam has become calcified and that in its name millions of people around the world are being denied human rights - is offensive to many and troubling even to progressive Muslims and non-Muslims who agree with her but wouldn't say so out loud, for fear of provoking what she calls the beards and the veils. She can't seem to move without annoying someone; she is also loathed by those ghastly, blogging Christians who prefer Muslims to be the enemy and think they should be converted or stay in their 'own' countries.
Where has she got it from, this nice-looking, petite girl (she was born in 1968 but appears much younger) from suburban Vancouver? How did she get the nerve to become one of the leading voices demanding reform of one of the world's great religions, at a time when Islam has become so controversial?
Irshad Manji arrived in Canada at the age of four as a refugee from Idi Amin's Uganda. One night, when she was 10, her father chased her through the house with a kitchen knife after she threatened to report him to the police and social services for his violence towards her mother. Hiding on the roof, out of reach, she had an epiphany - or that's how she tells it now: 'I realised I was grateful because there were people I could go to, talk to, whereas if we'd still been in East Africa that may not have been the case. I realised I lived in a society where the story of who we are as a people was not finished, which meant that I, as an individual, mattered. I could be a partial author of this grander story.'
Aged 14, she was thrown out of the madrassa, her religious Saturday school, for asking too many questions. Why couldn't girls lead prayers? Why couldn't they read the Koran in a language she could understand? What was this Jewish conspiracy they kept going on about?
She could easily have walked away, but with typical pugnacity she refused to give up on her religion. In her book, she makes a rational case for the role of religion in her life. Her faith is in tension with the materialism of the modern world, she says; religion encourages her to keep thinking, 'to avoid lapsing into a fundamentalism of my own, be it feminist, nationalist or multiculturalist. Religion has compelled me to bow to no one but the God dwelling restlessly in my conscience, a precious skill to develop in an era of boundless spin'.
She read up on Islam at her local public library but otherwise got on with growing up, studying the history of ideas at the University of British Columbia, from which she emerged with the governor general's medal as top humanities graduate. She worked for a feminist politician, on the editorial board of a newspaper, and then in television, both as presenter and producer of a programme called Queer TV. She met her first girlfriend in her twenties, came out to her mother a few weeks later and has been an out lesbian ever since.
She prefers not to think that her sexuality, deplored by most Muslim religious leaders, or her childhood, with a father who believed abuse of his wife and three daughters was sanctioned by culture and religion, were determining factors in her desire to reconfigure Islam. She would much rather see that as the logical conclusion of rational thought.
'There will always be people who assume that my trouble with Islam has to do with my childhood,' she says with ferocity. 'Nothing could be further from the truth. People who say that give my experiences too much power. The fact that in the last 100 years more Muslims have been tortured and maimed in the name of Islam than by any other people - can that be laid at the feet of my childhood?'
Her parents eventually divorced, some seven years after the knife incident, and Manji has not seen her father since. 'There was a time, years ago, when I hated my father because of the abuse to which he subjected us, but I didn't want to hate him for the rest of my life. I made a decision to keep a critical distance from him, so as to develop a measure of indifference and perhaps, eventually, empathy.'
As for her sexuality, it seems absurd, to me at least, that it wouldn't have sensitised her to the contradictions in religion. (She acknowledges that she wondered quite early why if God has made everything excellent, as it says in the Koran, but hates gays, he had allowed her to be born lesbian.) But she is keen to downplay its influence on her work. 'There are bigger issues here, and I don't make a big deal, much to the consternation of many gays and lesbians, of being gay and a Muslim. It's not very interesting to me, because I haven't achieved it.'
She believes Islam needs to revive its tradition of critical thinking, ijtihad, if it is to avoid what she sees as its current fate of ossification and glorification of its founding moment in the 7th century. (Some Muslim scholars dispute that ijtihad was ever the wide-ranging, inquiring tradition of intellectual ferment that Manji maintains, arguing that it was a narrower, more legalistic issue. She dismisses this interpretation as restricting and self-serving. But whatever the details of scholarly debate, they obviously do not invalidate her point that Islam needs to find a way of accommodating itself to the 21st century.)
The moment Manji identifies as revelatory came when she was working at a religious television station and her (Jewish) boss placed a newspaper cutting on her desk. The cutting concerned a young woman in northern Nigeria who had been sentenced by a sharia court to 180 lashes, even though she had rounded up seven male witnesses to testify that she had been raped. 'Irshad,' her boss scribbled in the margin, 'one of these days you'll tell me how you reconcile this kind of insanity, and female genital mutilation, with your Muslim faith.'
She recalls being initially offended by the question, but also gradually realising that, in asking it, her boss had been showing respect for her maturity and intelligence. Feeling offended, she observes, is not the same thing as being discriminated against. This seemed to her to lead to some rather topsy-turvy situations. If, she says, she were to ask similar difficult questions of her fellow Muslims - to treat them as adults, rather than as over-sensitive potential terrorists - she would be accused of racism or of being a self-hating Muslim.
She started asking the questions anyway, first in her book, then on her website, where she launched Project Ijtihad, 'which exists to create the largest network in the world - sorry, let me be more humble - which hopes to create the largest network in the world of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies who come from a human-rights perspective, rather than an anti-terrorist perspective'.
Humility, you suspect, doesn't come that easily. When I ask about the comparison in the New York Times to Martin Luther, she says: 'I rolled my eyes at that; I cringed.' But this turns out not to be because of the aggrandisement involved in being bracketed with the founder of the Reformation, but, 'because here I was under the impression that people like me are seeking to update Islamic interpretations for the 21st century, not the 16th'.
She has received many death threats, some histrionic, a few serious. 'I acknowledge the fact that I can't use a mobile phone, because GPS technology makes it very easy for ill-wishers to track you down and do you harm. I usually have security at my events. But I live as if I can't be paying attention to any of that. If I were to be offed tomorrow, I would have no regrets. That doesn't mean I cruise for a fatwa, but Vaclav Havel in his own time of dissent in eastern Europe liked to say that he had to live as if he were permitted to express himself fully. He had to compartmentalise the fact that he was under threat.'
She admits that the constraints that follow death threats made life difficult for her former partner. 'I'm single at the moment, but when Michelle and I were together, it was hard for her. She adapted to it, I have to say, with great strength. What broke us up eventually wasn't that; it was my 24/7, away-from-home life. I had to make a choice between my relationship and this mission and I know, frankly, what I've been put on this earth to do. I don't mean to sound like a diva when I say that. I truly believe that each one of us has a calling and even if my work goes down as a mere footnote in the history of the real reformers who come after me, that's fine.'
Manji remains close to her mother, although you get the impression it's a needling, nettling relationship. When she told her mother she was writing the book, her mother said: 'I'm just going to ask you one thing, please do not anger God.' 'I respectfully reminded her that angering mullahs and imams and Muslim political lobbyists does not necessarily mean angering God. She did not buy the argument at all. My mother, my hero, my role model: she wasn't and she still isn't.'
Once the book came out, her mother was forced to endure a sermon at her mosque in which the imam claimed that Manji was worse than Osama bin Laden. 'And you know why? Because apparently my book had caused more debate among Muslims than al-Qaeda's terrorism! What does that say about us?' Other worshippers reassured her mother afterwards that Manji was saying what needed to be said. 'And she finally saw this for the first time. And I said, "You know, what, Mom? I'm thrilled that you've come to this conclusion. I'm only sorry that you needed social approval to see this."'
Ouch. There is no denying, though, that Manji is right about the paradoxes of multiculturalism. When it comes to Islam, it often seems to be easier (and not only for Muslims) to attack freedom of expression than defend it. It is shocking that in pluralistic societies there are young people at her events 'who are there to heckle, to denounce, not just me as a human being, but the very idea of pluralism. There are very rarely those who will take them on. They come up to me afterwards and whisper, "Thank you"'.
'At a well-known university in the Boston area recently - I won't say which - I noticed there were fewer people in the audience than I would have expected. I asked some girls about it afterwards and they said an email had gone round that afternoon to all the Muslim students saying "If you are caught at that bitch's lecture you will pay the price." This from a university in America.'
Where Manji is not right, at least for me, is blaming the Arab world, in throwing a blanket of accusation over what she calls 'desert Islam'. While the influence of Saudi money and Wahhabi sectarianism on madrassas worldwide is well-documented, her glib dismissal of the Arab world doesn't allow for its complexities or the amount of subtle, liberal, reformist thinking going on even within its ruling regimes. When I try to talk to her about the Gulf, where I lived for five years, she counters with an email she's had from a young man in Egypt, which is a bit like answering a question about Scotland by talking about Russia.
Not all tribalism, or villageism, is the fault of Arabia. Manji has found a convenient scapegoat here and she doesn't seem to be too bothered how she uses it. At one point, she tells me that the United Arab Emirates 'markets itself as the Las Vegas of the Arab world'. This is so laughably untrue that it's difficult to know how to respond: Dubai might, arguably, be seen as a kind of Las Vegas, although it pretends not to be, but the other six states that make up the UAE have no desire to be any such thing.
I was hoping that this apparent bias was a function of her book's direct, almost tabloid style. She wanted, she says, to have a conversation with readers, not engage in a theological dispute with scholars. But it is also evident in person, where she speaks like the learned woman she is.
There is, though, no doubt that she is generating a debate that needs to be had, nor that many of her insights about the West's multicultural muddles are humiliatingly acute. She comes across as messianic, prickly, monomaniacal. But what she is attempting - 'To capture the experiences of those Muslims who have not felt permission to voice their lives, to develop their voices' - is audacious. It does take an extraordinary person to change history or even to try.