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Muslim Refuseniks Speak Out

Manifesto calls for resistance to religious totalitarianism.

By 3.27.06

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The New York Times calls her "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare," but if you must label her Irshad Manji prefers Muslim "refusenik," a term once reserved for Soviet Jews who were refused permission to emigrate to the West. It is an appropriate label since Manji considers her foes -- fundamental Islamists -- every bit as villainous as the totalitarian rulers of the former Evil Empire.

Living in Toronto in a home furnished with bullet-proof windows, the 38-year-old lesbian, Canadian/South Asian/native Ugandan television show host has grown used to the daily threats on her life since the publication of her book, The Trouble with Islam Today. Subtitled "A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith," the book is an exploration of the inferior treatment of Islamic women, Jew-bashing, and the continuing scourge of slavery in Islamic countries.

Manji is one of the Manifesto 12, a dozen writers and intellectuals who earlier this month took a united stand against a "new totalitarianism." Since the Manifesto was published, Manji says, "the blogosphere is, for the most part, breathing a sigh of relief that silence is being broken over the need to address Islamist intimidation head-on." From its first sentence, the Manifesto leaves no doubt where fundamental Islam fits into the general scheme of history: "After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism." The Manifesto ran in several newspapers across Europe and was prompted by the violent and bizarre reaction to the editorial cartoons caricaturing the prophet Mohammed that ran originally in a Danish newspaper.

The Manifesto 12 are quick to point out that the threat is not from Islam per se, but from what they call "Islamism," defined as a "reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism." Countering Islamism means rejecting "cultural relativism, which consists of accepting that Muslim men and women should be deprived of their right to equality and freedom in the name of their cultural traditions," an extraordinary admission from mostly liberal intellectuals and scholars, who have for so long tolerated intolerance and endorsed a radical multiculturalism that refused to condemn any evil save that committed by one's own country (i.e., America).

If I have one problem with the Manifesto it is the Twelve's contention that the world is undergoing a "global struggle between democrats and theocrats," instead of a conflict of civilizations. Theocracies are not by definition anti-modern nor anti-Western. There are many and have been many benign theocracies, i.e., Tibet before the Chinese communist invasion. The Twelve also suggest that "despair" is the rationale for totalitarian states like Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban, which is a bit like saying despair was rational for the Holocaust.

TO NO ONE'S SURPRISE Muslim assassins have begun mobilizing, drawing up and disseminating a hit list containing the names of the Manifesto 12, even though many of them are already marked men (and women). Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi physician and women's rights activists, has been in hiding since Bangladeshi Muslim fundamentalists put a bounty on her scalp in 1993 after she told The Statesman that "...the Koran should be revised thoroughly." Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch MP, co-produced the film that got Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh murdered. A note, found impaled on the murder weapon, warned Hirsi Ali that she was next. Iban Warraq, pseudonym for the author of Why I am Not a Muslim, and Salman Rushdie, are marked men, too.

One recent posting to the popular British Muslim chat room ummah.com, included the aforementioned hit list and this ominous remark: "Excellent -- makes killing the kuffar [infidel] all the bit easier... [N]ow we have drawn out a hit list of a 'Who's Who' guide to slam into. Take your time but make sure their [sic] gone soon -- oh and don't hold out for a fatwah it isn't really required here."

Equally disturbing has been the reaction to the Manifesto by so-called moderate Muslims. The Toronto Star asked local Muslim leaders for their reaction and received this response from Zafar Bangash, president of the Islamic Society of York Region: "It's quite a childish kind of ranting of these people...All of these people are misfits as far as Muslims are concerned. What they are saying is quite racist and is Islamophobic." Likewise Jamal Badawi, professor emeritus at St. Mary's University in Halifax, said, "the manifesto will serve only to increase Islamophobia, which is already on the rise." As usual, Muslims who speak out against terror, and for women's and non-Muslims' rights are labeled "misfits," and "extremists." And any one opposed to Islamic terror is "racist" (an absurdity since Islam is a religion, not a race). Others called the manifesto "provocative," which begs the question, compared to what? Forced marriage? Fatwahs? Suicide bombings?

One of the great unsolved mysteries of our time is how many European and North American Muslims might properly be called "moderate." The relative silence of moderate or liberal Muslims seems to indicate a poverty of numbers. Perhaps this is why when the Manjis, Warraqs, Nasreens, Rushdies, and Hirsi Alis of the Islamic world do speak out their words make headlines. Since the Manifesto's publication, Manji says she's received many emails from younger Muslims who want to reconcile religious belief to free expression. "My expectation of a mixed reaction is good news -- only five years ago, such a manifesto would have been almost universally condemned by Muslims. Now, more and more reform-minded Muslims are discovering their voices."

Recent opinion polls, however, show a more ominous picture. A London Telegraph survey found that four out of ten British Muslims want Islamic law introduced to Britain. Fifty-two percent do not think extremist organizations should be shut down. A fifth, including a quarter of men, say suicide attacks against the British military can be justified. Almost half think British Muslims have become more radical in their views toward Western society over the past year. This jives with what Zeyno Baran, director of International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center, told the Star, that the extremists were becoming the mainstream. If true, the Twelve's Manifesto couldn't have come at a better time.

Read the entire Manifesto here. Readers can sign a petition of support of the Manifesto 12 here.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.