In praise of Irshad Manji: Courageous Muslim reformer

There were two Guardian pieces focusing on Islam which I was tempted to post on today.

The first, “Letters: We need an inquiry into anti-Islam press“, Jan. 24, is a call for a Levesonstyle government inquiry into “negative, distorted and even fabricated reports in media coverage of the Muslim community.”  Signatories of the letter were accurately characterized by Harry’s Place as “a helpful list of Islamist activists connected to extremist political parties, and those on the far Left (and their hangers-on) who have made common cause.”

The second piece, a CiF commentary by Karen Armstrong titled, “Prejudices about Islam will be shaken by this show“, Jan. 22, cites an exhibition at the British Museum,  Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islamto argue that a respect for other faiths is central to Muslim tradition. Armstrong conversely berates the West for “succumbing unquestioningly to a medieval [anti-Muslim] prejudice born in a time of extreme Christian belligerence”.

In different ways, both pieces reflect the Guardian’s grand tradition of whitewashing the threats posed by militant Islam and the intolerance towards religious minorities in nations governed by the letter or spirit of Sharia law – and the Western self-flagellation which inhibits honest discussions of Islam’s social and political decline or, per the question Bernard Lewis posed, What Went Wrong?”. 

The question of how best to talk about Islam in the context of our mission (combating antisemitism, and the assault on Israel’s legitimacy, at the Guardian and ‘Comment is Free’) is indeed, at times, vexing.  But, the more I read the Guardian the more I’m convinced that the institution’s greatest fault lay not in its unwillingness to critically discuss radical Islam but, rather, in its failure to champion those Muslims who passionately advocate for genuine liberal reform within Islam.

Irshad Manji, the Canadian born Muslim who I had the pleasure of meeting following a speech she gave at the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee in 2002, will never be published at ‘Comment is Free’.  But, her book, “The trouble with Islam today” (banned across much of the Middle East) is a must-read for those genuinely seeking a future Islam which is moderate, peaceful and tolerant.  

In “The Trouble with Islam”, Manji addresses:

  • The inferior treatment of women by Muslims
  • The Jew-bashing in which so many Muslims persistently engage
  • The continuing scourge of slavery in countries ruled by Islamist regimes.

Manji is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, and also directs the Moral Courage Project at New York University.

Her latest book, “Allah, Liberty and Love” attempts to explain the following:

  • What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation?
  • What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam?
  • How did we get into the mess of tolerating intolerable customs, such as honor killings, and how do we change that noxious status quo?
  • How can people ditch dogma while keeping faith?

In Amsterdam, in 2011, 22 jihadis stormed the launch for “Allah, Liberty and Love”, ordered her execution and threatened to break her neck.

Those seen in the video are members of “Sharia4Belgium“, an international network with cells in most of the countries Manji visited in 6 months of book tours. 

Noted Manji, optimistically, about the incident:

Even when they had a chance to run from the room, nobody at my Amsterdam launch fled. Some of my guests created a human shield around me and my host.

It’s yet more proof that “ordinary people” are capable of moral courage. As I write in Allah, Liberty & Love, “Some things are more important than fear.”

Manji’s bravery is truly inspirational, and stands in stark contrast to our day’s prevailing ethos of denial and appeasement in the face of such profound threats to the liberal values we claim to hold dear.

In praise of Irshad Manji!

(Enjoy the following clips, below, of Manji’s brief introduction to the themes explored in her latest book on Islam. Also, visit her YouTube channel, “Like” her Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter.)

24 replies »

  1. I take your wider points but your headline is inaccurate.

    The Guardian has reported her several times. It has also published a major interview with her and promoted her book.

  2. I met her in Sweden a couple of months ago, and she truly is a very inspirational speaker (and writer) that needs to be heard by many more people.

    • Thanks, Pretz. I changed the headline accordingly. However, it’s simply undeniable that truly liberal Muslim commentators like Manji are rarely heard at the Guardian and ‘Comment is Free’

      • So why did you run that original headline, when it was patently not true?

        (even though I agree with your main point in the article)

        • Because Irshad Manji’s views have never been given a platform at ‘Comment is Free;. I wonder why. Moreover, Moazamm Begg, former Taliban and Al-Qaeda member, has been published 18 times at CiF but Manji, never. Again, my headline was incorrect (and I’ve changed it accordingly) but my broader argument is undeniable.

          • Your main point seems entirely valid — especially given the disparity between Begg’s access and hers.

        • Speaking as an Irshad fan, myself, the current headline does seem rather presumptious, and an unnecessary hostage to fortune.

  3. Sorry to intrude on your love fest, folks, but I too have heard her, albeit on the telly and not in person, but have come away feeling that she wants to gloss over the very many, numerous, troubling aspects of Islam for the western consumption. It appears to me that she is in self denial about the violent and intolerant nature of her faith and is hoping against hope to “reform” it, in which case she’ll have to reform it so much that it’ll cease being Islam that was originally formed in the mind of a 52 year old man and his unfortunate 9 year old wife.

    I can’t put Allah, liberty and love in the same sentence, sorry.

    • Which puts her in the position of other religious reformers in history, although up against arguably much more difficult and dangerous opposition.

      The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.

    • Irshad is a Muslim. As such, she will never be acceptable to people who believe that Islam is a bad religion at its core.

      I am not one of those people, so I am interested in her work, and inspired by her courage and straight talk.

    • I agree. She is a very brave person, but she is trying to square an impossible circle with Islam. To reach a form of Islamic religion she would approve of Islam would have to change to a degree in which it would no longer be Islam by giving up so much of the violence and hatred for others that are central to its teachings.

    • But go back to a few centuries isn’t Christianity just as violent and intolerant? Do you think the contemporary liberal Christianity has ceased to be Christianity? And I’ve seen other muslims who don’t think their religion is at odd with liberal, progressive values. They are probably still a minority today but who knows what will happen in a few centuries.

  4. Adam has identified a real wickedness in the Guardian’s treatment of radical Islam. It has unequivocally sided with the reactionaries, a decision which has betrayed the reformers.

    A truly liberal newspaper would actively oppose the fundamentalists and expose the hate preachers. But that requires courage, and a commitment to truth, neither of which the Guardian possesses.

  5. Hers is a good book, though it was written back in 2002, I think, and she hasn’t published much if anything since, regrettably, I believe. And she does seem a genuinely lovely lady.

    But I wonder if Irshad Manji is to Islam what, say, Judith Butler is to Judaism, also a lesbian with a radical critique to her parent religion, and to Israel i.e. as acceptable to the average Jewish supporter of Israel, or even average Jew (if there is such a thing), as Irshad Manji is to (for the sake of argument) the average Muslim (again, if there is such a thing).

    It’s easier to embrace the radicals among one’s enemies or adversaries than those among one’s own.

    (though Irshad does seem genuinely more warm and cuddly than Judith Butler, though that thought might creep her out)

  6. Also, Adam (after Pretzel), how do you know CIF ‘won’t’ publish Irshad? Wouldn’t it be relatively easy for a CIF editor to read this CIFWatch article, and then invite her to write a piece?

    Then you might lose some credibility?

    • I hope I’m proven wrong and Manji is one day published at CiF, and I’l certainly acknowledge it if I am. But, the broader point is the prominence the Guardian and CiF gives to Islamic extremists at the expense of genuinely moderate and liberal voices. This is the dynamic that I think needs to be further explored.

  7. I think Rupa has a slightly different perception of Islam. I think it should be taken into account. AKUS is saying much the same thing.

    I got the most romanticised smattering of Islam from E,M. Forster, But the bloody hands of Ramallah opened my eyes to the evil that is in it.

    I don’t know Forster’s reaction to partition.