Another Perspective

Changing Her Religion

A Muslim's muezzin call for an Islamic reformation remains fatwa-free, so far.

By 10.9.03

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TORONTO -- Irshad Manji is still alive. The local press accounts make it sound like there's a contract out on the young author's life. That her new book The Trouble with Islam: A Wake Up Call For Honesty and Change is the next Satanic Verses.

The book is, literally, daring. "I have to be honest with you," Manji writes on page one, "Islam is on very thin ice with me." She ticks off her faith's shortcomings, then continues: "Is that a heart attack you're having? Make it fast. Because if we don't speak out against the imperialists within Islam, these guys will walk away with the show. And their path leads to a dead end of more vitriol, more violence, more poverty, more exclusion."

Fighting words, especially to many Muslims, for whom such self-criticism is foreign and forbidden. But, to date, Irshad Manji hasn't been forced to pull a Rushdie.

True, she's hired a bodyguard, and replaced her home's old windowpanes with bulletproof glass. Her publisher broached the subject of her personal safety with the Solicitor General. And the book's companion website Muslim-Refusenik.com has attracted a rash of angry feedback. To wit,

"Do you think that just because you have a mind, you should use it? Desist and apologize for your blaspheming ways while you still have a chance. People like you should not exist. It is no wonder there is a hell. Enjoy your short stay in this world, for God only knows what is coming for you."

Manji is quite accustomed to being talked about. Ms Magazine called her "a Feminist for the 21st Century." In fact, the 35-year-old is Canada's most famous Muslim lesbian feminist.

Poised, hyper-articulate yet faintly geeky (like a spelling bee champ), the spiky-haired host of TVOntario's "Big Ideas" was already a good-sized fish in the country's puny media pond. The Trouble with Islam raised her profile even higher. She has been lionized in the national press and the book quickly climbed the bestseller lists.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this. The Toronto Star's blousy TV critic and perpetual outrage machine, Antonia Zerbisias, dissed Manji (a "professional lesbian") then mounted the paper's favorite hobbyhorse, and insinuated that Manji and her publisher were "playing the media to max out publicity, issuing a fatwa on themselves as it were." Zerbisias also alleged that the positive coverage of the book was actually a form of racism.

Speaking 10 days into the book's Canadian release, Manji was already weary of her new public identity: Heroic Martyr-in-Waiting -- or (that typically Canadian insult) Shameless Self-Promoter. Asked about Zerbisias' accusations, Manji rolled her eyes. "She acknowledged that she had not bothered to read the book. And her answer as to why she hadn't bothered to read the book was: 'it's not my job to be a book reviewer.'" Manji shrugged off the incident as, "typical of the hypocrisy that we see from people on the conventional left."

As for the auto fatwa charges, Manji denied that she or her publisher tried to play up the personal security angle. Somehow the Globe and Mail got its hands on a copy of the letter that Random House sent to the government and things quickly snowballed.

And that looming backlash? Messages at Muslim-Refusnik.com actually run about half and half. She was delighted to learn that admiring posters at alt.religion.islam call her "courageous" and "cute." "If everyone is expecting anger," she asked, "why isn't support from Muslims a story, too?"

Speaking of angry Islamists, the Canadian Islamic Congress issued a hyperventilating press release that denounced Manji as "a self-hating Muslim" but then refused all invitations to debate her on television.

"On the one hand, the CIC will carp and whine that mainstream media are not giving enough air time to their perspectives," Manji said, "but when they're given a golden opportunity to explain themselves and to challenge me they run away. But make no mistake: They will still carp and whine."

The executive director of the Canadian chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations reviewed the book for the Montreal Gazette. He scolded Manji for creating "a caricature of Islam, projecting her own conclusions on the text [of the Koran], much like, ironically, the literalism of Osama bin Laden." Then, like the CIC, CAIR Canada declined invitations to join Manji in a televised debate.

"If rumblings are all that it takes to put these guys on the defensive then they're in for a very big surprise...," she said.

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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About the Author

Kathy Shaidle runs the website Relapsed Catholic.