National Lutheran News

Reform champion tells “why Islam must change”

Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji says what she really wants is a return to original Muslim values.

An outspoken young female member of Islam told a roomful of religion communicators in her hometown, Toronto, Canada, on April 19, that her faith tradition has become stuck in a cultural and theological dead end.

Irshad Manji, speaking to attendees of the Associated Church Press, an organization to which Metro Lutheran belongs, provided glimpses of the content of her controversial new book, “The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call to Reform in her Faith.”

Manji delineated three complaints she has about Islam in the 21st Century:

* The community mistreats too many women.

* Muslims systematically practice Jew-bashing and Jew-baiting.

* Islam has a bad record on slavery.

Tying much of Islam’s current “trouble” to a tendency to read the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran, in an inflexibly literal way, she reminded her Christian audience, “Every faith community has its scriptural literalists, adding, “In the U.S., one currently resides in the White House.”

But, said Manji, it is only in Islam that literalism is mainstream worldwide. She maintained, “Islam has a supremacy complex about its scriptures.”

She said, “Most Muslims today have no idea … how to debate about religion. That explains the stony silence within Islam about terrorism.”

Historically, Manji explained, Islam has nurtured a healthy view of intellectual struggle. “This tradition thrived 1,000 years ago. In our day, Islam needs to rediscover the tradition of independent thinking.”

She argued that Muslims in North America “are perfectly positioned to reinstitute this.” The liberal Islamic reformation, she suggested, could and should begin in the West.

“We need,” Manji proposed, “to focus on the element most oppressed in Islam — women.”

She said, “[President] Bush proposed a Middle East free-trade zone, but he should have conditioned it on women’s rights.”

She said, “My book is not a scathing critique of Islam. It’s a healthy one.” She told the group, “My mother’s critique of my book came to me in the form of a question: ‘Dear, are you insane?’”

Manji said she was trained in Islamic school to believe that women are inferior and that Jews are treacherous. “When, at age 14, I asked my [male] teacher for the evidence, I was expelled.”

She spent the next 20 years researching Islam on her own.
Manji said, “I feel a sense of obligation to young Muslims. A huge chunk of support I hear comes from [them]. But many who say they support me also say they fear physical reprisal and persecution — even in an open society like ours [in North America].”

She suggested, “Maybe the title of my book should have been, The Trouble With Islam Today, because the scene currently prevailing there has not always been so.”

Manji admitted, “Many of my Muslim co-religionists worldwide covet my freedom to speak out,” adding, “If I had grown up in a Muslim country, I’d probably be an atheist in my heart.”
Islam has a great humanitarian potential, she said, but urged its leaders to rediscover its more open and tolerant past. She maintained that there is “an underground craving for change” in the Muslim world. But so far, she said, there’s no willingness to voice it publicly.

The young Canadian described a diversity in world Islam, but said it was “a diversity of ritual, not doctrine.” Almost all Mus-lims today, she said, “believe that the Qu’ran is immutable and came to earth un-touched by human hands.”
Today, she claimed, Mus-lim scholars imitate each other’s “medieval prejudices.” She said independent thinking in the Islam theological community “is almost non-existent.”
Reflecting on the ongoing strife between Israel and Palestine, Manji said, “The Palestinian leadership has rejected many opportunities for an independent state. They have never consulted the Palestinian people about their own destiny.”

Following up on an admission from Manji that she’s received many death threats, some spoken to her face and many more in writing, Metro Lutheran asked the controversial author, “How do you deal with the risky side of what you’ve undertaken?” She replied, “I’m in danger, but I don’t live in fear. I’m content because I’ve lived with integrity.”