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My Faith Is a Mess

Fiery author Irshad Manji takes aim at Islam, the religion she loves but believes is full of hatred today.

Interview by Deborah Caldwell

Irshad Manji, 35, has been called the "nonfiction Salman Rushdie" and "Osama Bin Laden's worst nightmare"-and she takes both as compliments. Her book, The Trouble With Islam, was released in the United States a few weeks ago after making waves for months in her native Canada, and also in Germany. For her views, Manji says she is facing threats on her life: her apartment in Toronto is outfitted with bullet-proof glass.

Manji says her faith has become infested with hatred -- of Jews, of women, of gays, of the West. And instead of confronting these issues directly and openly, most Western Muslims -- the only Muslims with the freedom to debate -- have instead retreated.

Manji's questioning started when she was a little girl. It reached a critical point, when, at the age of 14, she had it out with her madressa teacher after she demanded he provide evidence of the "so-called Jewish conspiracy" against Islam. He ordered her to shut up or get out. So Manji fled.

She recently talked with Beliefnet senior producer Deborah Caldwell.


Let's talk about this issue of literalism in reading the Qur'an. Why do you think that is the way most Muslims read their holy book? And why is that a problem?

Let me start this way: I completely acknowledge that every faith has its share of literalists. I don't deny that for a second. What I am pointing out is that only within Islam today is literalism the mainstream. The reason it is mainstream is that we Muslims, even in the West, are routinely raised to believe that because the Qur'an comes after the Torah and the Bible, it is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God's will, not given to being interpreted or analyzed, never mind questioned. And this is dangerous because when--not if--abuse happens under the banner of our faith, most of us, including those of us who are "well-educated professionals" have no clue how to debate, dissent, revise, or reform because we have not been introduced to the virtues of critical thinking.

But I thought Islam had a long history of critical thinking.

Ah, now this is where I might respectfully dispute this premise. We absolutely have a history of critical thinking and obviously I go into it in the book-it's the tradition of itjihad. But it's not very long lived. In fact, it's quite short lived. It existed roughly between the 9th and the 11th centuries. And most Muslims don't even know about it.

Ijtehad is Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking. I know it sounds a lot like jihad to non-Arab ears, and indeed it comes from the same root, "to struggle"--but unlike violent struggle, ijtehad is all about independent thinking. In fact, in the first few decades of Islam, 135 schools of thought flourished, thanks to the spirit of ijtehad. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon "expert opinion" if their own conversations with the Qur'an came up with better evidence for their ideas. And as I quip in the book, Cordoba, probably the most sophisticated city in Muslim Spain, housed 70 libraries. Now when you think about it, that's one for every virgin promised to today's Muslim martyrs. Right? And obviously I am being cheeky when I say that, but it's a reminder of just how far Islam has fallen from its height of tolerance and critical thinking.

So, the question becomes "What happened to the spirit of ijtehad?" Toward the end of the 11th century, something catastrophic happened in the world of Islam and it is this: gates of ijtehad closed in an effort to protect the fragile Islamic empire, from Iraq to Spain, from further division. At this time, the Islamic empire was experiencing a series of internal convulsions, not external ones, not the crusades or anything like that. Dissident denominations were popping up and declaring their own runaway governments, so the main Muslim leader known as the Caliph based in Baghdad closed rank. But, the problem is that unity came to be confused with uniformity as a result. Studies seized. Interpretations stalled. And this led, not just to a pretty rigid reading of the Qur'an, but also to a collection of legal opinions what we now call fatwas that scholars could no longer question or overturn, but could now on pain of execution, only imitate. And for the next 1,000 years to this very day, with very few exceptions, Islamic scholars have been imitating each other's medieval prejudices without much self-reflection or self-criticism.

Would you consider, for instance, the mystical tradition, Sufism, as among the movements that have kept bubbling up under the surface?

Yes, and I also point out in the book that this is not to say that there are no liberal denominations within Islam anymore. Of course there are, and Sufism would be one. Ismailis are another. The problem is that these denominations are absurdly peripheral within the world of Islam. All of them deserve to have more theological influence than they actually do.

And I will give you one quick example of what I mean by absurdly peripheral. Among the welter of accusations that I get from self-identified Muslims, I am often "accused" of being an Ismaili. Now, when I say accused I put that in quotes because first of all I am not Ismaili, but even if I was, I would not consider that to be a shameful thing. I would not consider that to be an accusation. And yet the very fact that it is leveled at me as an accusation automatically implies that Ismailis are not seen as credible within the world of Islam. Why? Because they are liberals. Because they have a more flexible approach.

Can you tell us more about Ismailis?

First of all, they are part of a Shia denomination and within that, they are a further minority. They follow the Agha Khan. In the world of Islam, Ismailis tend to be better educated, more entrepreneurial and more philanthropic than most other Muslims. And you know why I point that out-because as a result of those traits, they are also often accused of being Jews. In fact, they are often called, "the Jews of the Muslim world." And it's not surprising that being accused of being an Ismaili is the second biggest accusation that I get, second only to what--being accused of being a Jew.

Wow. Very interesting.

I want to emphasize that simply because I've talked about the negative response from Muslims does not mean that that's all I'm getting. I am astounded and amazed that so soon after the book has been released, I am receiving an incredible amount of support, affection and even love from self-identified Muslims-primarily Muslim women, but not exclusively. I go out of my way to post the criticisms and then respond to many of them, but even among many of the criticisms I also make sure to include the support.

Are you also getting a lot of feedback from gays and lesbians?

Some, yeah, some.

Is it mostly positive?

I would say that in the West, queer Muslim activists, as they would like to be known, have been hot and cold. Many of them thank me for speaking up and for showing that there is a diversity of people within the world of Islam, i.e. that we're not all straight. But many of them are disgusted by my position on Israel.

Really, why?

Because they tend to live their lives behind tribal and political barricades, the ones who are disgusted with me consider me a sellout to the tribe. Their own identities are very much wrapped up in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Not all of them--and in fact I receive no shortage of email from both gay men and lesbians from all over the Islamic world--but what's interesting is that in the West, primarily in North America, the self-identified queer Muslims are angry with my positions. It's all coming from that anti-imperial, anti-colonial kind of perspective.

First of all I believe that Jews do need their own state, and while I recognize that there is no shortage of complications in the history of how that state came to be, the fact of the matter is that even before the Camp David Accords, the Palestinian leadership was offered at least three opportunities for an independent Palestinian state-and always, always, always turned it down. So, don't preach to me that this was done against the will of the Palestinian leadership.

But the really important point to make is that nowhere other than in Israel, in the Middle East, are gay and lesbian rights tolerated, never mind accepted. And you know what's interesting is that in 2005, Jerusalem, which is run by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish mayor, will be the host of history's largest queer pride parade. It will be called "World Pride 2005: Love Without Borders." It is an effort by both queer Arabs as well as queer and supportive Jews, to bring together these two communities. When I point this out to queer Muslim activists in the West, they have nothing to say to that because they know that in any other part of the Middle East, if you are openly gay or lesbian and you are a Muslim, you will be punished for it.

Maybe what they are implying in their criticism of you is that being anti-globalization, or being pro-Muslim, is more important to their identity than being identified simply as gay or lesbian.

I accept and embrace that perspective, but then the question becomes: How is it anti-Muslim to be promoting universal human rights? And if it does, then what a sad commentary on what it must mean then for these people to be pro-Islam.

But a lot of progressive Muslims still feel that it is important to balance those ideas with a critique of Western capitalism and Americanization of the world.

You've said a very important word there, and that is balance. I am not seeing that from a lot of progressive Muslims. Well before European colonialism took off and even longer before the state of Israel was born, Muslims have been bludgeoning each other's freedoms and imposing martial law on one another. And that doesn't mean that everything that has gone wrong in the Muslim world can be blamed solely on Muslims, but it does mean that we Muslims must own up to our role in what ails Islam today.

Why has this happened? Why did it not happen to Christianity?

I am going to suggest something that I know many progressive Muslims will not like to hear because of their antipathy for America, but I argue that the imperialism we Muslims must confront today is not so much American imperialism as Arab imperialism-that there is an Arab version of Islam that is so dominant and so crushingly and chokingly tribal, that we Muslims often confuse Arab cultural traditions with Islam itself.

We Muslims are always told that the only legitimate communication that we can have with God must be in the Arabic language. Why? Well, because Islam was born in the heartland of Arabia, Prophet Muhammad was given his revelations in the Arabic language, so it stands to reason that we can only read the Qur'an in Arabic and communicate with God in Arabic. But you know what? That's like saying to a Christian the only legitimate communication you can have with your God is in Greek. Why? Because that's the original language of the New Testament. So what I'm suggesting is that this injunction to read the Qur'ran only in Arabic and to pray only in Arabic is part of deep-seated Arab imperialism that has become conflated with Islam.

That's a really interesting idea.

It's so deep-seated, and yet so obvious, that we overlook it. And I'll give you another example of what I mean. The chadors that Iranian women have had to wear since the Islamic Revolution of 1979--those chadors were designed by someone from Lebanon, in other words, in the Middle East. These chadors have nothing to do with Persian tradition or Iranian history. They are a heavy-duty import from the Middle East. And yet, they are strutted around as if this is the way good Muslim women package themselves.

And as I ask in the book, perhaps with a little bit of cheek, "Should Allah operate like Prada?" You know? Why should this be the most trusted symbol of how Muslim women display themselves to the world? If you go back to the Qur'an, the decree about women having to veil themselves is only for the prophet's wives. To meet theological requirements for dressing modestly I could wear a turtleneck and a baseball cap. And yet, that's not acceptable because this is not what is considered to be Islamic tradition. But why must Islamic tradition be based in Arab cultural domination when 87 percent of Muslims worldwide are not ethnic Arabs?

Why do you think there is such deep-seated anti-Semitism within Islam? Where do I even begin? I'll give you an example that I know resonates with a lot of people because it is so absurd, yet it is very, very real. I used to host and produce a TV show called "Queer Television," the world's first show on commercial TV for gay and lesbian people. Of about 100 episodes that I produced and hosted, only one was devoted to gay and lesbian Muslims worldwide. You know the most common response I got from Muslims in Toronto now, in the West, who caught this episode-that the people I featured in it, the Muslims I featured in this program, were not Muslims at all. They were Jews.

This, from the bosom of a wired, digital, 21st century city. To give other examples, after Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty, Israel, attempting to live up to the biblical injunction to turn swords into plow sharers, offered to share its agricultural technology with Egypt, which Egypt desperately needed. But the Egyptian press went ballistic over this and began to accuse of Israel of planting carcinogenic cucumber seeds on unwitting farmers and giving women-Muslim women-chewing gum that turns them into lustful prostitutes and saps the sperm of Muslim men. Again, as a way of taking over the world. It's unbelievable both in the West and the Islamic world, just how deep anti-Semitism runs.

Where does it come from?

Let me talk about a little-known document called the Pact of Umar. This was a medieval document on the books throughout the Golden Age of Islam. And what it said is that non-Muslims must wear symbols on their clothes in order to distinguish themselves from Muslims. That non-Muslims must wear a girdle over their clothes-over their clothes--in order to slow down their pace when they walk. That non-Muslims must rise whenever a Muslim wishes to enter the room and that non-Muslims must watch their houses of worship decay rather than repair or even restore them and on and on and on.

And non-Muslims at that time meant Christians and Jews. But, in particular, there was an injunction against Jews. And so the question is, "What do you get when you combine a ban on independent thinking, namely the closing of the gates of itjihad, with the long-practiced code of discrimination called the Pact of Umar?" You get imitation on one hand, because independent thinking no longer exists. And you get intolerance on the other, thanks to the Pact of Umar

Now, let me again, in the spirit of honesty and balance, acknowledge that in Islamic Spain, for example, Muslims and Jews did co-exist and they even contributed to each other's cultural development. Jews, for example, served as bankers and diplomats, and military lieutenants and teachers and doctors in the courts of Muslim rulers and in turn, Muslim rulers cleared trade and communications roots, allowing for Jewish theology to be openly shared for the first time ever. So there was a level of cooperation, absolutely, that outstripped anything that the Christian world offered to Jews at the time.

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