Muslim Feminist Manji Wows Crowd in Toronto

By Sheldon Gordon

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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TORONTO — Prominent Israeli personalities such as novelist A.B. Yehoshua and strategic analyst Barry Rubin were among the speakers earlier this month at the Toronto Jewish Book Fair. The biggest draw, however, was a Muslim Canadian author calling for an Islamic Reformation that would purge the Muslim world of antisemitism.

Irshad Manji, a Toronto broadcaster and self-described observant Muslim, delighted a sell-out crowd of some 600. Heavy security, including her personal Israeli bodyguard, accompanied the slim, 34-year-old woman as she explored the themes of her new book “The Trouble With Islam: A Wake Up Call for Honesty and Change.” A best seller in Canada, the book has been published in six other countries and is scheduled to go on sale in the United States in January.

The book’s highly-publicized Canadian launch has resulted in anonymous death threats against Manji for being what she terms a “Muslim refusenik.” (“It doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim,” she explained to one questioner, “but I refuse to join an army of robots in the name of God.”)

The charismatic and self-assured Manji, an avowed feminist and a lesbian, shocked her audience by describing how she visited local mosques incognito, dressed in a full-length burka, and heard the clergy talk of a “Western, Jewish-led conspiracy against Islam and declare that it is the responsibility of Muslims in the West to support the jihadis, with their money, if not with their sons.”

Manji emphasized the need for Muslims to revive the concept of ijtihad, or self-jihad, an Islamic tradition of independent thinking, in which Muslims study the Koran and reach their own interpretations, which she called an “almost Talmudic process.” The Koran includes harsh commentaries on Jews, she said, “but it also reminds us of the Jews’ ‘exalted nationhood’ and validates the sovereign role of Jews in the Holy Land.”

The Koran “gives ample opportunities to be respectful of Jews; it’s a matter of what to emphasize and what to downplay,” she said, “so why have so many Muslims chosen hate?” She said that independent thinking in Muslim scholarship disappeared by the 11th century, “as unity came to be confused with uniformity.” For 1,000 years, “Muslim scholars have been imitating each other’s prejudices.”

Manji predicted that the Islamic Reformation that she advocates “may very well begin in the West, where we enjoy the precious freedoms to think, challenge and be challenged without fear of state reprisals.” She was careful to include Israel, which she has visited, among the multiethnic, pluralistic states she admires. “Mainstream Israel bathes itself in self-examination, as it should. It’s time for mainstream Islam to catch up.”

Manji explained that she arrived at her nonconformist views early in life. Born in Uganda to a south Asian family, they immigrated to Canada to escape the racist oppression of former dictator Idi Amin. In British Columbia, she attended both public and religious schools.

In her Islamic religious school, she was taught that “women are inferior and Jews are treacherous — not to be trusted.” When, at age 14, she challenged her teacher to prove those claims, she was expelled — “with no right of return and no desire for one.”

Manji insists she has been bucking the Muslim establishment ever since. Certainly, the Canadian Islamic Congress has no kind words for her.

“Everybody’s writing a book [on Islam] nowadays,” said the group’s vice president, Wahida Valiante. “Irshad Manji’s is only another book added on to the heap of garbage that is being written about Muslims and Islam. The community has made its point of view known that we are not really impressed by it; she doesn’t speak for us. It’s like someone writing about Torah who doesn’t understand it. Those who work toward building bridges and creating understanding and harmony are generally people who don’t go around making outrageous statements.”

At the book fair she declared that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would have little effect in defusing Muslim antisemitism, noting that even during the medieval golden age of Islam, Jews and Christians were forced to practice self-abasing behavior in the presence of Muslims. “We cannot point to the ‘ill-conceived creation of Israel’ as the root of our antisemitism,” Manji said. “It emerged hundreds of years before the Jewish state was a gleam in anyone’s eye.”

Manji’s skepticism about a peace agreement troubled officials of the dovish Canadian Friends of Peace Now, the event’s sponsor.

“It was refreshing to hear a Muslim asking members of her faith to question their assumptions, because as a Jew I do the same thing of other Jews,” said board member Tamar Ishaky. “But there were almost echoes of right-wing Israelis in her words. For me, it was disturbing, but I can totally understand it. I thought she handled herself marvelously.”

Manji said she is disappointed that not one mosque had invited her to speak and that, until recently, Muslim community leaders had refused to debate with her on television. She is heartened, however, by “how much affection and love I’m hearing from individual Muslims — and that doesn’t just include my mother.”

Especially pleasing, she said, is that many young Muslims seem open to her message, she said. Formerly, the host and executive producer of a television show for gays and lesbians, she is now president of a start-up called VERB TV, a channel geared toward young people.

Manji will soon be addressing many more young people. Coinciding with the U.S. launch of her book in January, she will begin a nationwide speaking tour of university campuses. “I represent a generation [of Muslims] that knows there’s a need for a discussion and actually craves it,” she said.

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