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The result of such a challenge may be a surprise even to her. Manji is not the only Muslim calling for an Islamic counterpart to the Protestant Reformation, but it isn’t at all clear that that would be a good thing.
Budding classicist Evan McElravy argues that the popular understanding of the Reformation as a fount of tolerance was not bourn out by actual events. Protestants were not “looking for secularizing release.” Instead, they wanted “some old time religion” to act as counter ballast to the decadent Renaissance church. And the Catholic church itself became much less “decadent” (e.g., willing to look the other way) in response to the challenge posed by the reformers.
McElravy reminds that the various Protestant churches quickly became “just as entwined with the state as the Catholic Church had been, and Islam often is today,” and often proved just as adept at enforcing their particular prejudices and orthodoxies. Bottom line: “It was only by some curious and unlikely twist of fate that Protestant cosmic values, as they developed, were conducive to the sort of modernizations that advocates of an Islamic Reformation seek.”
In fact, many historians of religion believe that an attempt to recreate such a movement would backfire. “From reformations, good Lord deliver us,” said Philip Jenkins, the prolific author of Mystics and Messiahs and an expert on religious movements. “Arguably the biggest problem facing the Middle East is that Islam has been having a reformation” since the 14th century. Each return to fervor represents a ‘reformation’ against decadence, and the Wahhabis are the latest aspect of it.”
“What Islam needs,” he adds, “is enlightenment.”
The professors may disagree, but she has so far been a hit on tour. At Ottawa’s International Writer’s Festival, the author sparked what one local reporter called “Manji-mania.” “Beefy guards” checked handbags at the National Library, which had been checked for explosives earlier that day. Her reading was “a love-in.” Manji was mobbed by fans and was even treated politely by Muslims who disagreed with her. “Eating out of her hand” is a common enough summary of responses to her tour stops.
It’s a tour she plans to take to the U.S., when the book is released next January. Will the love-in grow larger or will America’s powerful, well-financed, Islamic apologists finally deliver on that promised backlash? Will conservative fans overlook her pro-feminist, pro-gay stance, or come to see her liberalized version Islam as no more appealing or authentic than progressive strains of Christianity?
Manji is determined to be heard, and, if the Canadian reception is any indication, that’s not a bad bet. For the publicity offensive, she wants to enlist Oprah Winfrey in spreading her plans for Muslim women’s liberation. And what of more subtle forms of political influence? Manji said with a grin, “I welcome the opportunity to visit the White House.”
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