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Happy Warrior for New Islam

by Diederik van Hoogstraten

The writer and journalist Irshad Manji calls on young Muslims to critically examine their religion, and show “moral courage” to take on their own families if they have to. Each believer is responsible for his or her own choices, she says: “I’ve been fighting my entire life against fatalism in Islam, making us view ourselves as passive objects.”

Happy Warrior for New Islam Ahmed, a young student from Jordan, says he used to be “very active” in Islamist circles. Sharia and fundamentalism were his passions. But before Ahmed chose to give up everything  perhaps even his life — for the extremist cause in Iraq or Afghanistan, he chose another path. Now, Ahmed describes himself as a “progressive, reform-minded Muslim”.

It makes sense that Ahmed knows the work of Irshad Manji, say both Manji and Ahmed. The world of reform-minded Muslims is small, and most of them know and respect Manji. And not just because of her appearance: small stature, short dark hair, brown skin and a penetrating look behind her hip glasses.

The 42-year-old writer and journalist was born in Uganda of Indian-Egyptian descent. She grew up in Canada and now lives in New York. To struggling youths in Muslim and Western countries alike, she is an intellectual leader with a big mouth and a big heart — but without a headscarf; a rare kind of leader.

Her new book is scheduled to appear in June 2011. The title is not yet known, but it will be “a guide for a mature Islam debate”, Manji says. Her first book, The Trouble with Islam Today, appeared in 31 languages. The Arabic translation has been downloaded more than 2 million times; the realm of Dan Brown best selling novels.

It serves to illustrate the hunger for guidance and information, inspiration and support. Young people in countries such as Iran, Syria or Afghanistan would have to fear for their lives if they were seen carrying Manji’s book. This way, they can download it for free, unseen by others.

In a world of fatwa’s, repression, lack of freedom and male dominance, it takes courage and perseverance to continually advance a clear, positive argument for freedom and equality. Yet that is exactly what Manji does, without ever losing sight of her Islamic faith and roots.

Oprah Winfrey
Invited by the feminist group Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia (KPI) Irshad Manji engages young women in IndonesiaOprah Winfrey noticed this, too, in 2006. America’s talk show queen handed Manji the first Chutzpah Award. The Hebrew term Chutzpah stands for courage, audacity, recklessness. Winfrey was referring to Manji’s courage, possibly with a dose of audacity.

On that occasion Manji shared what Salman Rushdie told her after she had received her first death threats: “Once you put out a thought, it cannot be unthought. A book is more important than a life.” Manji has been called “the Rushdie of non-fiction”.

She still feels it is magnificent: a black, Christian woman gives an award with a Jewish name to a Canadian Muslim. Since Manji abhors anti-Semitism and the blind hatred of Israel in the Muslim world, it follows that she wouldn’t mind being called a modern-day King David. She shares the smarts, strength and self-confidence of the Old Testament David. And she, too, believes that the current Goliath  — the anti-modern, unfree Islam — can be defeated.

“The great reformation of our time,” Manji says, looking at me calmly in her small office at New York University. “That’s it: a total reformation.” My question had been, what does she aim to achieve with her new book, which I cooperated on. “It’s an invitation to Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere,” she says, “to work together on this reform effort. To ask the hardest questions, fearlessly.”

When asked whether this grand project really has any chance, she displays her characteristic, broad sardonic smile, followed by a Socratic counter question: “What do you think?”

Manji teaches at NYU, where she founded the Moral Courage Project. She writes columns and books, makes documentaries, debates in person and on Facebook, travels the world to meet and support Muslims. As a senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels, she contributes to this thinkthank's mission to promote 'democracy and freedom, universal human rights; rule of law; gender equality; security, stability, and most of all, peace.' And her visitors get to taste her special Chai, a dark, strong tea that should really be enjoyed with milk and plenty of sugar.

The courageous crusade she pursues with students from all corners of the world and all faiths has been a hallmark of Manji’s own life from the beginning. In 2001, she worked as a hip, young, lesbian television announcer in Toronto. A good career, a cool girlfriend, a nice urban life; nothing out of the ordinary in a major, progressive Canadian city. But after that year’s terror attacks on the United States she decided to write a manifesto for people like herself, and anyone willing to read and listen.

In contrast with the philosophical school of fellow Muslims such as Osama bin Laden  — she has been called “Bin Laden’s worst enemy” —  Manji sees great value in personal liberty. “I believe that a higher power, the Creator, has given us free will,” she says. “That means we think for ourselves.”

Invited by the feminist group Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia (KPI) Irshad Manji engages young women in IndonesiaManji’s work is founded on Ijtihad. This ancient tradition of open debate, critical self-examination and pluralism once characterised Islam. The word Jihad (struggle) is part of Ijtihad, but without the violent meaning that today’s generation of Jihadists have attached to it. “Contrary to the violent struggle,” she says, “Ijtihad is about understanding the world by using our minds.”

It offers the believer freedom within her faith. Manji prays many times a day  — but not toward Mecca and not at mandatory, set moments. She does not drink alcohol and she fasts during Ramadan  — but she would never consider covering her head. To her, an educated woman in a free society, faith offers a loose structure for doing good and a source of hope and strength  — but not a rigid blanket smothering free thought. Her faith is hers alone; her relation to God is personal.

This view has made Manji the target of countless attacks. “Traitor” has been one of the recurrent  — and one of the mildest — accusations. Due to the fatwa’s on her head she was forced to live behind bulletproof glass for a while.

But Manji also receives fan mail from places such as Indonesia, the Netherlands, Iran and Australia. She clearly touches a nerve. Young people tell her they finally feel known, seen and heard by someone like themselves.

“Muslims are trapped in their rules,” a young Iraqi woman named Alya wrote to Manji. “People like you and I are necessary to tear down the iron wall. I wanted to share my story with the world, but I love my family and I don’t want to destroy their lives.”

Manji understands Alya. But her attitude is just what she tries to counter. Moral courage is especially crucial inside the family structure, Manji says. It is the hardest  — and therefore the most worthwhile — thing to tell your family the truth. Of course Manji realises this can have serious, even fatal consequences in Muslim families. But change is impossible, she says, without openness and truth in the family.

The family is the only power structure that really matters in Islam. Mostly the man serves as a dictator — sometimes benign, sometimes not. That helps explain the many death threats she receives. “I criticise the power structure and call on women to be themselves,” she says, “with a direct and personal connection to God.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Manji knows and respects Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie. But contrary to their approach, she holds on to the religion she was born into. This is a circumstance of conviction, she insists. It is also a great benefit to her credibility among Muslims, which has remained high due to her refusal to walk away from Islam.

Manji denies a contradiction between her faith and the Western values she embraces. She refuses to choose, whatever Muslim fundamentalists and atheists may say. In her lectures and writings, she tells many tales of loyalty to both the West and Islam.

Her early memories entail her arrival in Canada after the family had fled Idi Amin’s Uganda: The warm welcome, the support and the donated winter coats, the sense of freedom and independence. But her faith in Allah did not abate  — not even when her father hit her mother and threatened to cut off her ear.

The young Irshad dared to contradict her father, and one night she had to flee through the window, onto the roof, where she stayed the entire night. Irshad was twelve or thirteen years old. During that lonely period, she realised that no one besides her could decide her future. She buried herself in her schoolwork and found what she calls an “escape route” in learning.

Manji sees her modern, audacious interpretation of Islam as the right way. “I struggle for the freedom of others, which is a way of showing my gratitude to God,” she says. “God’s love is visible in the fact that he turned us into independent agents, active citizens with responsibilities, not objects.”

Manji marks another difference between the violent Jihadists and herself: “I say we have a choice and we give our own lives meaning. They take choice away.” And one more difference: Manji describes herself as a “happy warrior”, which can hardly be said of the men blowing up school buses, cutting off heads, hanging homosexuals and stoning women. “I have been fighting fatalism my entire life,” she says, “fighting the passive stance that turns us into objects without free will.”

She loves her mother very much, Manji emphasizes. “But I am no fan of her fatalism.” The term “moderate” bothers her, as well. She says it has been hijacked by Muslims who are, in essence, conservative  — who still reject modernity.

She knows this much from experience: “Moderates in the Muslim world are terrified to be seen with me.” A girl names Ayesha wrote Manji: “Millions of us think like you, but they are afraid of making their views public for fear of persecution.” Recently, Manji was supposed to speak at an international conference in Jordan. The royal court prevented it. “That’s a country calling itself moderate,” Manji says. “But voices like mine are apparently dangerous.”

She understands very well why people like Ahmed in Jordan are afraid to be heard. In fact, “Ahmed” is a synonym  —  his real name in a story like this would be too risky. “If only more of the reform-minded Muslims would dare to go public,” Manji says.

She not only embraces difficult discussion; she actively seeks it. Friction and debate are healthy, in her view. “God save groups who always agree about everything.” In her new book she quotes the 12th century scholar Maimonides: The truth does not become truer if the entire world agrees, he once said. In fact, the truth might become “less true” if everyone were to agree.

In her book, Manji offers support to break through the scared silence and the culture of political correctness. It is meant for both Muslims and non-Muslims. The former need to shed the paralyzing stance of victimhood, she says. And non-Muslims need to stop believing that cultures are equal, so that they will finally begin to ask painful, sharp questions, without the fear of being branded a “racist”.

A culture or faith interpretation in which gays and women are considered to be lower figures does not deserve the respect of Western progressives, Manji argues; not even for the sake of “multiculturalism”. “People are equal,” she says. “Not cultures.”

That is a key difference to Manji. She is female, Muslim, lesbian, Canadian, brown, single. But she absolutely refuses to be defined by any one these identities. “I embrace the complexity of my identity,” she says. “Everyone is complex, but so many people deny it.”

Manji is liberal in the eyes of conservative Muslims, and conservative according to some Western liberals. These categories mean little to her. Only the individual matters. Manji’s pet term is individuality, not individualism. And her book is an invitation to all readers “to start their own search for moral courage.”

Confronted by the question why she, of all people, is the rare one to fight for individual freedom, the Islamic Socrates in New York has, of course, a counter question: “Why not the others?”

Tara Todras-Whitehill (upper)

Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia (KPI): Invited by the feminist group Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia (KPI) Irshad Manji engages young women in Indonesia


Comments (1)

John Defoe
Posted: woensdag 2 februari 2011 om 14:32
What a courageous woman!

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Diederik van Hoogstraten

Diederik van Hoogstraten

Diederik van Hoogstraten lives in New York, where he writes for the Volkskrant, Elsevier and other Dutch publications. His memoir De rennende Hollander (The Running Dutchman) was published in 2010. Photo: Trevor Butterworth.


“In 2004 I met Irshad Manji in Toronto, a young Canadian Muslim who also happened to be gay. She had just published her controversial book, The Trouble with Islam Today. Irshad’s mission is to reform Islam from within. Call it radical -- she, for one, does not like the term “moderate”. Or call it ambitious -- Irshad intends to pull her faith into the 21st century. That goal has lead to fatwas and endless threats as she now lives, teaches, speaks and writes in New York. Yes she remains herself, positive and optinistic. Irshad is helping young Muslims around the world. She builds, with a healthy dose of doubt, but without fear. She embodies courage, which is why she came to mind when I decided to joine One11; it's all about people being looking forward and daring to dream big. No naive good-news stories, but serious portaits of people doing good, even --especially-- when no one is watching."