Manji: Young Muslims want change

IRSHAD MANJI didn't have a Jewish upbringing, but Judaism also affected the development of her outlook from a young age. Born into a Pakistani family forced to flee Uganda when she was four, Manji encountered dogmatic anti-Semitism as a pre-teen attending after-school classes at her local madrassa in Canada. The questions she asked herself and her teacher on this topic formed an essential part of what pushed her to leave its confines and think critically about her religious tradition. She went on to become a media personality, at one point hosting Toronto's QueerTelevision. The lesbian, feminist, critical-yet-devout Muslim became an international celebrity, however, when she published The Trouble With Islam: A wake-up call for honesty and change in 2003. She takes a tough view of Islam's treatment of women, its resistance to change, its "Arab imperialism" and its propensity to blame Israel. The slim, spunky, spiky-haired 37-year-old has yet to stop challenging what she sees around her. Her discourse is essentially Socratic, as even during an interview she asks her own questions and answers them with more questions. She is faced with the query, "So what are you doing at a conference for Jewish women leaders?" She replies that she was already in Egypt at a conference with young Muslim leaders, then continues: "The fact is, I'm very well aware that there are some people, in fact many people, who would argue I ought not to be engaging in conferences with Jewish women because somehow that reduces my 'credibility' or 'legitimacy.' But my response to that is many-fold: First of all, what is reform to mean if it doesn't mean that we bust out of our tribalisms? How can I call myself reform-minded and not become quite comfortable with having Jews as allies, as friends, as colleagues, as fellow activists, in both the spirit of tikkum olam and iftijihad, Islam's tradition of independent thinking and creative reasoning?" Her Web site, on which she posts Arabic, Farsi and Urdu free translations of her book, is named, a reference to the Jews in the USSR who struggled for their freedom. So far, she has had 150,000 free downloads. She quips, "Al-Qaida is not the only entity in the world that knows how to use the Internet to spread its message." In principle, you say, it would be wrong to shun Jews and participation in Jewish conferences. But doesn't it indeed diminish the reach of your message, given that you're looking to win over Muslims? No, not at all. Let me tell you about the reach of my message. When I was in Cairo for the last three days of my trip to Egypt, I could not believe how many young Muslims - male and female - approached me to say, "Are you Irshad Manji?" At which point I would be somewhat leery, but fessed up. And each and every one of them, to a person, thanked me not just for my "courage," but more importantly because my book and my words are helping them find their voice, they said. I finally began to meet the human faces behind the 150,000 downloads of the Arabic translation of my book on my Web site. So if the question is, "Does consorting with the Jews stop you from reaching as many people as you'd like?" Hell, my expectations of reaching young Muslims have been exceeded by what I've seen and heard over the years. And now, it turns out, I'm as much recognized in Cairo as I am in New York. These kids will not hold it against me for engaging with Jews. They've read my book. They know my position on Israel-Palestine. And still, they come to me to say thanks. In your book, you essentially called for a Muslim reformation. What's your assessment of how that's going? I'm much more optimistic today than I was when I finished writing the book ... In the past year alone, I have come to know Muslims, mostly young, who have organized protests against Islamist violence. A good friend of mine in America has launched the Muslim women's freedom tour, in which she recruits young Muslim women from across the country to crash their local mosques, sit on the men's side, and insist on the right to equal worship, much like the Women of the Wall have done here in Israel. You probably know about the first mixed-gender public prayer led by a woman. It happened only last March in New York City, of all symbolic places. And I'm happy to report that sometime this year or next, history's first-ever expressly reformist translation of the Koran will be published, courtesy of three young Muslims in America. Does any of this a movement make? No, not yet. But there is momentum. I'm going to say something that sounds counterintuitive, but when we watched the riots over the prophet Mohammed cartoons, it would have been easy to conclude that Muslims are never going to emerge from this rush to violence. It seemed so counterproductive to the cause of Islamic reform, these riots. But here's what's happening under the radar: with every passing geopolitical, global convulsion, whether it's the next beheading, the next set of kidnappings, the next set of riots, more and more reform-minded Muslims emerge from the woodwork, and they write to me to say 'Enough is enough. While I am appalled by these cartoons, I am even more appalled by the violence taking place in the name of Islam over these cartoons. Irshad, how can I help reform the faith from within?' So what we would instinctively see as terrible actually has the effect of pushing reform-minded Muslims to come to the surface and speak their minds. Are you pleased with that? Have you gotten as far as you would have liked? Before the book - I've been writing these same things for years - I could easily say 80 percent opposition [to my ideas], 20% support from Muslims. Today is the exact opposite. I am hearing far more support from Muslims than opposition. Now again, let's get real. The opposition that I'm hearing is hostile; it's vitriolic; it's murderous. I still receive many, many death threats. In fact, one of the criteria for where I'll be living at Yale University now that I'm a fellow will be how close my housing will be to the police station. I'm happy to say a one-minute run and a two-minute walk. In other words, I'm not being a Polyanna about any of this. But the fact is that the support that I'm hearing far outstrips not just the criticism - that's par for the course - but the contempt. If this has happened in only three years, [in] 10-15 years we might very well see a different conversation happening among Muslims. Why has the support-to-opposition ratio changed? Because I'm not going away, quite frankly. Critics always want one thing: If they don't want you dead, they at least want you to go away. And I refuse to, no matter how many epithets and insults are hurled at me, no matter how many banana peels are thrown at me, no matter how much spit is projected into my face. I give my detractors only two choices: either they walk away, or they engage. And more and more they're sticking around to engage. One could legitimately ask, why are they sticking around to engage? And I think it's because conversations about Islamic reform are going to happen with or without them. I want to make this point very clearly: Non-Muslims have a role to play in making these conversations happen. Immediately after my book came out in Canada, various media approached the self-appointed Muslim leadership in the country to invite them to debate me. And to a person they said no, we're not interested. Then the book hit number one, and suddenly most of those who had declined the invitation came back and said, okay, now we're ready. Why did that change? Because they realized the general public is not going to wait for permission to have these conversations. How many fatwas have been issued against you? I haven't kept track, not because there are so many - why bother counting? - but only because it's difficult to know. The way I find out about fatwas more often than not is that individual journalists from the Middle East write me to say, "Irshad, I want you to know that there was a fatwa published against you this week. Please be careful." Who knows how many aren't telling me about the fatwas that are being published? Do you take the fatwas as a sign that you're doing something right? I don't wear it as a badge of honor, but neither do I wear it as a scarlet letter. It is what it is. This is part of the terrain of being a dissident in Islam. But I do not go out of my way to court fatwas. I specifically say wherever I can that if any reader or listener is thinking, "I would love to be the one to kill her," just remember that if you succeed, you would only be turning me into a shahid; you will only be turning me into a martyr. And do you really want to give my cause that kind of credibility? Do you really wish to help me sell more books? My hope is that by outlining the consequences of even attempting to kill me, they will see that it would only be counterproductive to their cause. But I'm a realist. It only ever takes one nut. That is why it doesn't matter how many body guards I have. If someone really wants to get you, they'll get you. Are you concerned? No. Which is a different thing from saying, "You should be concerned." There are some people who say, "You should be concerned." My mother is one of them. [She laughs.] And she is concerned for me. But if the question truly is, "Are you concerned?" The answer truly is, "No." Because, honestly, if somebody were to off me tomorrow because of what I'm doing today, I would die with a smile on my face, because I know that I have used the short time that I have in this life to leave a positive legacy that has also spoken to my integrity. When I was struggling emotionally writing the book, I asked [Salman Rushdie], "Why do you support a young Muslim woman writing a book that might invite the same chaos and violence into her life that's been brought into yours?" And without any hesitation he replied, "Because a book is more important than a life." I laughed, thinking that this guy is obviously making fun of his situation, and he's about to tell me the serious answer. It turns out that was the serious answer. He explained that whenever a writer puts out a thought, it can be disagreed with vigorously, vehemently, even violently, but it cannot be unthought. That, he said, is the great permanent gift a writer gives to this world. And I loved that answer, first of all because I'm crazy, but second because it was so honest. He emphasized the word "permanent," which suggested to me that he wasn't denying that I might be murdered for what I'm doing. But he was saying that the purpose with which you live is sometimes more important than the length of time you live. And I cannot imagine a greater privilege than to be living in a free society that allows me to exercise this liberty of conscience to do what I believe is the fight of our generation. How can I imagine a greater privilege than that? And how can I imagine turning my back on that? Why is this so radical a concept for Muslims, even those in the West? Let me explain it in a way that make sense, to me at least. Honor is the Arab tribal custom that requires women especially to give up their individuality in order to maintain the reputation of the men in their lives. Their lives don't actually belong to them. Their lives belong to a wider group of people: their families, their tribes, even their nations. We, as Muslim women - but often Muslim men, as well - are so often told you cannot ask that question, you cannot have that thought because it would dishonor the family, it would bring shame upon the rest of us. No wonder that so few Muslims are willing to step out and stand out. Because the punishment for doing so is not just to the individuals who dissent. It is the cost to our entire families. We carry the bucket for them. It is unfair, it is unconscionable, it is a communal mindset as opposed to one that empowers the individual. And many Muslims in the West are still suffering from that tribal mentality. To be fair, one could argue - by no means am I making a moral equivalence here, so please do not understand it that way - but one could argue that Jews in the Diaspora also suffer from more conservatism than Jews in Israel. Because any immigrant community will want to try to calcify its identity for fear of losing that identity. But I would say that Muslims in particular have an extra layer of calcification that is rooted in this Arab tribal imperialism. The saddest part of it all is that the vast majority of Muslims around the world are not Arabs. We are not. Less than 20% are Arabs. More than 80% are not. So the question is - and I don't have a satisfactory answer to it - "Why are we allowing the Arabian Peninsula to define for us what is the proper way of being Muslim?" Why do we allow Arab cultural norms of honor to define whether we must wear the hijab, which is an Arab custom? It is not a Muslim custom. Why do we swallow "holus bolus" this notion that the only legitimate language in which we can pray is Arabic? That's like telling a Christian he's inadequate or an apostate if he doesn't know how to speak the original language of the New Testament, which is Greek. Now I'm going to flip the coin, because there's something else that's really important for me to try to bring out. Whenever I'm in Western Europe, there's not a visit that goes by where I'm not told by at least one Muslim if not more, "I wish I lived in America." "Really," I say. "Why?" "If I were in America, I would be treated as a real citizen." "Even," I say, "at a time when so many Muslims are angry about the Iraq invasion and about Guantanamo Bay and the human rights abuses at Abu Graib?" "Yes, even then." Because what many Muslims tell me is that in Western Europe mainstream society is so secular that it's become missionary in its atheism. So that those who define themselves as people of faith are immediately defined as second-class citizens merely by virtue of having faith. They are brainwashed at best, and dangerous otherwise, according to mainstream Europe. So many Muslims say to me, "Do you see why I see no incentive to integrate into the society, because I will never be good enough for this society?" But then they contrast this with America, and say, "In America I can be what I want to be and all that I want to be." In many ways the Bush administration is hated. I'm not going to at all deny or sanitize that. But America is still seen by many Muslims as that shining city on the hill. What's your take on Iraq? You seem vaguely supportive of the invasion in the book. How has your thinking evolved given facts on the ground? Like almost everybody, including conservatives, of which I am not one, I'm profoundly disappointed by how the Bush administration has handled the aftermath of the mission. Not a day goes by when I don't hear from some Iraqi who says, "I still support the overthrow of Saddam, thank you America for introducing us to this political freedom, but you're not listening to the people on the ground who are saying that we need greater economic investment in our country now. You had the Marshall Plan for Germany. That took awhile, but it worked. Where is the Marshall Plan for us?" It's not that I'm hearing ingratitude. I'm hearing sadness and almost a sense of tragedy. That the potential was so huge and somehow it has been squandered, and I do feel that way as well. But I could not call myself anti-war and pretend that Saddam wasn't waging war on 27 million people for 30-plus years. As a person of conscience who opposes war, I had to oppose Saddam since he himself is a warmonger. And I stand by that position. But I do believe that the American administration has missed the boat. Does it make you doubt the virtue of democratizing Middle East, especially forcibly? First of all, I've often asked those who believe democratization can't be forced, "So, tell me what the alternate approach would be?" And never, not once, have I heard - forget a rational answer - an answer, period. While I was in Egypt, I had this conversation with a British professor. I asked him what would have been the alternative [to invading Iraq], and he looked at me in disbelief, as if somehow that was an unreasonable question to ask. And his answer was, "Well, we just keep doing what we're doing, or did." And I said to him, "And expect a different result?" He just couldn't even abide the question being asked. And what that tells me is that there was no ideal approach to this. I do believe that force needed to be used in a case like this, in Iraq. [But] can democracy be imposed? The truth is I don't know the answer to that. And frankly, anybody who claims to know the answer is either a fool or a liar. What about its appropriateness in this region? I used to believe, as George W. Bush still does, that all human beings aspire to democracy. And in my heart of hearts, I do believe that all human beings aspire to freedom. But I'm not as sure as I once was that democracy and freedom go hand-in-hand. Today, in Iraq, what we are too often seeing is Shia factions using their liberation to settle old scores with Sunnis. In other words, they are exploiting freedom - or shall I say democracy ? - to exacerbate tribalism. And that is not the purpose of democracy. So democracy is a tool that they are using for very anti-democratic ends. Will it always be this way? Should it be this way? The answer has to be no, because what is democracy ultimately for, if not to open up societies? What I have now - I hope I can put it this way without sounding arrogant - is the courage of my confusions. And I am genuinely confused. Some of what you're saying puts you in the neocon camp. I honestly don't believe in these labels. I'm not left-wing, I'm not right-wing. I'm post-wing. What do you make of the election of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority? When I engage with young Muslim leaders from the Middle East and North Africa, [one] of the big messages I get from them is, "We can no longer keep pointing fingers at Israel, at America, at the CIA, at MTV. We are going to have to take responsibility for ourselves." The strong conclusion I came to was that they [Palestinians] recognize how much factionalism is taking place among their own and they're fed up with it, and they are acknowledging that they themselves are sometimes their own worst enemy. And Hamas's rise to power is creating the kind of internal tensions that will bring to the fore the fact that the Palestinian leadership is as much responsible for the sorry plight of the Palestinian people as much as anything Israel has done. There are two occupations. Contrary to what my detractors insist, I don't deny that Palestinians have been under Israeli occupation. [But] there's a second, and equally important, occupation, and that's the occupation of their mindsets by their own so-called leadership. And so this infighting between Hamas and Fatah is bringing into sharp relief what nobody has really wanted to talk about. I listened to most of [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen's speech to the so-called National Unity Conference. I was quite surprised by what he said, and pleasantly so. He said we have to move beyond conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are too often a pretext on our part for laziness, for doing nothing. This is the first time I heard a Palestinian leader saying this. He also said we have to transcend slogans, because slogans do not feed hungry bellies. Wow. An Arab leader who doesn't believe that everything can be solved in a catchy slogan? So, again, this is just another example of why I believe the rise of Hamas might prove to be exactly what the peace doctor ordered. Another reason often given for lack of reform is wounded pride. Is this genuine? I believe it's a real excuse, but I don't call it a reason. I recognize just how powerful this concept of honor is in Arab society. So the concept of being humiliated by somebody outside of your tribe - in this case Jews - does have a serious effect on the Arab mindset. But too bad. And by the way, it's not just Irshad Manji who's saying, "Get over it." It's young Muslims who are saying the same thing. When I speak with young Muslims today, especially in Egypt, the subject of Israel and Palestine never comes up. It's not an issue for them ... because it is so not our problem at this point. They're sick and tired of having this issue used as a pawn for preventing them from achieving their aspirations and dreams. Is there anything you'd like to see West doing here? Holding the Muslim world accountable for its own double standards. When the cartoon riots happened, I don't think there were enough Western leaders saying to Muslim leaders, "Look, if you really want the rest of the world to take seriously your sensitivities about your religion being mocked, first do something to end the viciously anti-Semitic cartoons and literature that comes out of the Arab world." It's very basic. And I'm not hearing that from too many Western leaders today. Given its treatment of Muslim women, how does Israel do on your test that society is only as open as the way it treats its women and minorities? I don't have a take on that. I don't know enough about what Israel does to comment confidently on it. But I will [say] that for as much pointing of fingers that might be done to Israel, more and more Arab women today are owning up to the fact that it is certain customs within their own traditions which are oppressing Arab women as well ... I saw in the case of Arab women that there are at least two sources of oppression, not one. And I think Israel is not the greater source of the oppression. When you speak with Israeli Arab women, behind closed doors they will tell you that they know that they are treated far better in Israel than they would be in any Arab country. It is frustrating that so few of them are willing to own up to this publicly... I have learned from talking to Palestinians far and wide that there is a grudging admiration for Israeli society. Will that make them or their societies more open? Not necessarily. Sometimes the admiration is threatening, [so] they will become more insular to cover for that admiration. What is making Arab societies less closed is that more and more Arab Muslims are seeing the kind of freedoms that young people like me are exercising, and they're saying, "If her, why not me?" More and more are saying, "Enough of this."