Decent Exposure

A Muslim’s Call
for Reform in Her Faith.
By Irshad Manji.
225 pp. New York:
St. Martin’s Press. $22.95.

There is one anecdote in this bracing little book that still makes me crack a smile long after reading it. As a 13-year-old student attending a madrasa in suburban Vancouver, Irshad Manji, a Muslim immigrant of South Asian origins from Uganda, was subjected to a familar tirade against the Jews by her teacher — to whom she gives the name ”Mr. Khaki.” Unfazed by the disapproval she knew she would garner and completely unsuited to the kind of supine deference her teacher was obviously asking for, Irshad began to pose some tough questions:

”I remember asking why Prophet Muhammad would have commanded his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe when the Koran supposedly came to him as a message of peace. Mr. Khaki couldn’t cope. He shot me a look of contempt, gave an annoyed wave of the hand and cut short history class, only to hold Koran study next. Me and my big mouth.”

But Irshad wasn’t done with Mr. Khaki. She kept asking awkward questions throughout the year. A kind of Lisa Simpson of Islam, one day she simply demanded that Mr. Khaki provide some evidence of the alleged Jewish plot. She recalls:

”What he provided was an ultimatum: ‘Either you believe or get out. And if you get out, get out for good.’

” ‘Really? That’s it?’

” ‘That’s it.’

”With my temples throbbing and my neck sweating under the itchy polyester chador, I stood up. As I crossed the partition checkpoint, I could have uncovered my head for all the boys to see, but I didn’t want to risk the humiliation of being chased out by an even more scandalized Mr. Khaki. All I could think to do was fling open the madrasa’s hefty metal door and yell, ‘Jesus Christ!’ A memorable exit, I hoped.”

”The Trouble With Islam” is a memorable entrance. It isn’t the most learned or scholarly treatise on the history or theology of Islam; its dabbling in geopolitics is haphazard and a little na?ve; its rhetorical hyperbole can sometimes seem a mite attention-seeking — like that final ”Jesus Christ!” in the madrasa. But its spirit is undeniable, and long, long overdue. Reading it feels like a revelation. Manji, a Canadian journalist and television personality, does what so many of us have longed to see done: assail fundamentalist Islam itself for tolerating such evil in its midst. And from within.

Her basic argument is that the Koran is a complex, contradictory, human book. Its proscriptions are many and conflicting. Abandoning the role of a thinking person is not something that should be required of any religious individual. Reason and faith, Manji wants to believe, are not in conflict. And yet, as Islam is frequently practiced, reason is deplored as something that should defer in every instance not simply to the Koran but to the political authoritarians who reserve to themselves the sole right to interpret it.

What Manji discovered in the madrasa was a symptom of what she sees as a broader and deeper problem: that Muslims have stopped thinking, that their faith has been hijacked by tyrants and bullies, and that it has become infested with all kinds of hatred — of Jews, of women, of gays, of the West. And instead of confronting these issues directly and openly, most Western Muslims — perhaps the only group of Muslims with the actual freedom to question, criticize and debate — have decided to retreat into victimology and appeasement. Aided and abetted by the moral nihilism of academic postmodernism, these people have surrendered to the new fascists of the Arab world.

I just hope Manji is ready for a very rough ride ahead. She is not exactly diplomatic. Here’s one typical rhetorical flourish: ”Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We’re in crisis, and we’re dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?”

Her answer to her own question is guilelessly to challenge certain givens. The Koran mandates the veiling of the wives of the Prophet. So why are all women now required to be covered from head to foot? In the distant past, Islam integrated and celebrated human diversity, and honored Christian and Jewish culture. So why has Islam degenerated into a maelstrom of the most virulent anti-Semitism? ”Let there be no compulsion in religion,” says Chapter 2 of the Koran. So why do many Arab Muslim states persecute or ostracize nonbelievers?

Manji wants to know why some extraordinary statements of Muslim intolerance are dismissed or ignored. She writes: ”Here’s a passage straight out of an Arabic-language textbook distributed by the Saudis to Muslim schoolchildren in America: ‘The unbelievers, idolaters and others like them must be hated and despised. . . . We must stay away from them and create barriers between us and them.’ ” This textbook is being read in America. Why? And why isn’t there a groundswell of outrage among American Muslims about this kind of message? Or, for that matter, by American non-Muslims?

Of course, Manji will be widely dismissed. She is a young woman and she is a lesbian. She loves the West, its freedoms and its opportunities. She has visited Israel and found it more open, more self-critical, more admirable than its Arab Muslim neighbors. She is clearly and primarily an individualist, a person who thinks for herself. It will be asked, as it is asked of many Westerners, why she simply cannot accept that religion is not about reason. Why doesn’t she simply cease being a Muslim? Or why doesn’t she simply submit?

Her answer is a straightforward and moving one. She wants to embrace her faith by understanding it fully, by realizing its vision of human equality, by resuscitating the ancient Islamic tradition of ijtihad: questioning, asking, thinking. Like gay Christians demanding accountability from their faith, she is not content to have Scripture read to her and then be told to shut up. She refuses to be treated like an idiot. Sure, when she reads about women being stoned for adultery or gay people being murdered by religious fanatics, she is tempted merely to leave, to wash her hands. ”But each time I reached the brink of excommunicating myself, I pulled back. Not out of fear. Out of fairness — to myself. One question begged for more thought: If the all-knowing, all-powerful God didn’t wish to make me a lesbian, then why didn’t he make someone else in my place?”

I’m glad he didn’t. Manji’s prescriptions for change in Islam — Western loans to Muslim businesswomen, for example — seem dwarfed by the scale of the problem. She barely touches the difficult topic of American foreign policy as a critical aspect of the defanging of Islamism. She can be a little glib at times, a little too fond of her own tone of voice and of her smart-aleck phrasemaking. But her plea endures because it is so clearly genuine. One question she asks reverberates in my mind: ”What if Mohamed Atta had been raised on soul-stretching questions instead of simple certitudes?”

The relationship between the state of contemporary Islam and the mass murderers of Al Qaeda is not a simple one; but it surely exists. In the voice of this young woman, you can hear the willingness to ask why, and how the situation can be remedied. You can hear, in fact, the distinct tone of liberalism, a liberalism that seeks not to abolish faith but to establish a new relationship with it. If we survive this current war without unthinkable casualties, it will be because that kind of liberalism didn’t lose its nerve. Think of Manji as a nerve ending for the West — shocking, raw, but mercifully, joyously, still alive.


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