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Irshad Manji: Islam's Marked Woman

By Johann Hari

08 May 2004
The Independent

The death threats began six months ago. One morning, Irshad Manji opened her e-mail and read the first of many pledges to kill her. "It contained some pretty concrete details that showed a lot of thought had been put into the death-threat," she explains now, unblinking. She can't say how many she's received - "The police tell me not to talk about this stuff" - but she admits that "they are becoming pretty up-close and personal."

"One story that I can tell you," she says, "a story that I have the permission from the police to tell you, is that I was in an airport in North America recently and somebody at the airport recognised me. I had a conversation with them. While I was engaged in conversation with a very portly, very sweet fifty-something man and his wife, an Arab guy came up to my travel companion and said, 'You are luckier than your friend.' As a nice polite Canadian she asked, 'What do you mean?' and he didn't say anything. He turned his hand in to the shape of a gun and he pulled the make-believe trigger towards my head. She didn't know what to make of this, so she asked him to clarify his intentions. He said 'Not now, you will find out later,' and then he was gone."

Sitting with Irshad in a London boardroom, it would be hard for anybody to guess that she is the star attraction on jihadist death-lists. She has the small, slender body of a ballet-dancer, and a Concorde-speed Canadian voice that makes her sound more like a character in a Woody Allen movie than an enemy of Osama Bin Laden's. So what has she done to earn a bullet in the head?

Irshad is a key figure in the civil war within twenty-first century Islam. She is the Saladin of progressive Muslims, an out-rider for the notion that you can be both a faithful Muslim and a mouthy, fiercely democratic Canadian lesbian. As one American journalist put it, "Irshad Manji does not drink alcohol and she does not eat pork. In every other respect, she is Osama Bin Laden's worst nightmare."

"What I want is an Islamic reformation," she says, leaning forward, her palms open. "Christianity did it in the sixteenth century. Now we are long overdue. If there was ever a moment for our reformation, it's now, when Muslim countries are in poverty and despair. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?"

We are all going to have to learn about this battle for an Islamic reformation, because it will be raging - and occasionally blasting its way onto our city streets - for the rest of our lives. Manji's best-selling book, 'The Trouble With Islam - a Wake-Up Call For Honesty and Change', is both a crash course in its terminology and a manifesto for the progressive side. The core concept in Maji's thought - and that of all progressive Muslims - is 'itjihad'. It's a simple idea, and devastatingly powerful. Itjihad is the application of reason and reinterpretation to the message of the Koran. It allows every Muslim to reconsider the message of the Koran for the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century. "What was true for ninth century Mecca and Medina may not be the best interpretation of Allah's message today", Irshad explains.

This seems obvious to post-religious European ears, but it is (literally) heresy to conservative and even most mainstream Muslims. "At this stage, reform isn't about telling ordinary Muslims what not to think. It's about giving them permission to think. We can't be afraid to ask: what if the Koran isn't perfect? What if it's not a completely God-authored book? What if it's riddled with human biases?"

"We Muslims have to understand our own history," she says. "Itjihad isn't some wacky new idea. When Muslims were at their most prosperous, their most innovative, their most respected, it was when we practised itjihad, in Islam's golden age from 750 to 1250 CE. The greatest Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd, championed the freedom to reason."

"It was the closing of the gates of itjihad that led to disaster for Muslims, not the Crusdaers or the West or anything else. Sure, they were all bad, but the decline started with us," Irshad says. "It's the refusal to believe in independent reason that has contributed to a totalitarian culture in the Muslim world. Of course if Muslims can't reason for themselves, they become dependent on Mullahs and outside authorities. Of course if you think all truth is contained in one book and all you have to do is return to it - a belief I call 'foundationalism' - then you won't be dynamic and seek new solutions for new problems. Others have responsibilities as well, but we Muslims closed the gates of itjihad on ourselves. We need to take responsibility for that, and turn it around."

It was in the twelfth century that Baghdad scholars "formed a consensus to freeze debate within Islam," she explains, and "we live with the consequences of this thousand-year old strategy. They did it to keep the Islamic empire from imploding - they thought all this dissent and disagreement would lead us to fall apart. But I've got news for you: The Islamic empire no longer exists, and our minds still remain closed."

In case this sounds cerebral - how could this arid intellectual debate have such a drastic effect on the world? - Irshad is quick to underline its practical effects. From the mass-murder of democrats in Algeria to the uprising of students against the Mullahs in Iran, from the mosques of Finsbury Park to the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Sudan, "this is the fight between progressive Islam and the Islamofascists."

Irshad does not just rant against Islamic fundamentalism. She offers a constructive long-term programme for undermining it, which she dubs 'Operation Itjihad.' The solution lies with Muslim women. "At the moment, half the resources of Muslim societies - the women - are squandered. Yet investing in women makes amazing sense. Educate a Muslim boy and you've educated a boy. Educate a Muslim woman and you've educated a whole family. The multiplier effect of helping Muslim women is amazing."

So 'Operation Itjihad' would require us to redeploy a large chunk of our aid and national security budgets to small business loans for Muslim women. "Micro-lending has an extraordinary 30 year-track-record. For example, in Bangladesh the Grameen ('Village') Bank loans tiny amounts of money to people whom standard lenders consider untouchable - especially landless women. They have helped 31 million people, and they have a staggering repayment rate of 98%. Helping women achieve financial independence en masse butresses their existing, often underground, attempts to become literate. They won't need the oracles of the big boys if they can reach their own conclusions about what the Koran says.

"Empowering women is the way to awaken the Muslim world," she continues. "If you are serious about undermining the culture that created al-Quaeda, this is the way to do it. When women have money they have earned themselves, they are far more likely to begin the crucial task of questioning their lot. It will transform a culture of hate and stagnation." This feminism shouldn't be alien to good Muslims, she adds. "Mohammed's beloved first wife Khadija was a self-made merchant for whom the Prophet worked for many years. I sometimes point out to Muslim men that if they are serious about emulating the Prophet, then they should go work for their wives." What do they say? "There is a dour, sour silence."

"Then I remind them that it was Ibn Rushd who said - way ahead of any European feminists - that the reason civilisations are poor is that they do not know yet, the ability, the full ability, of their women," she continues. So how did Islam get so entwined with a misogynist culture? "I think you have to distinguish between Islam and the Arabic culture of the ninth and tenth centuries that very quickly became entwined with it. We have to disentangle Islam from the norms of the desert. Desert Islam was always opposed to the pluralistic, haggling life of the el-haraa - the urban alleyway bazaars. It is fanatic. Islam was meant to move the Arabs beyond tribe. Instead, tribe has moved the Arabs beyond Islam."

Irshad is needlingly, constantly aware that she could not even begin to enjoy the freedom she currently enjoys in any Muslim society. Her family were refugees from Idi Amin's West African tyranny, and the family washed up in Canada when Irshad was four years old. "I am also aware it wasn't Islam that fostered my belief in the dignity of every individual. It was the democratic environment to which I and my family migrated. In this part of the world, as a Muslim woman, I have the freedom to express myself without fear of being maimed or tortured or raped or murdered at the hands of the state. You know, as corny as this may sound, as a refugee to the West, I wake up every day, thanking God that I wound up here."

She grew up with "a miserable father who despised joy" and exhibited the worst of the Mullah mentality. Then in her local mosque - as an inquisitive, open-minded girl - she became aware of an attempt to "close my mind. It was a 'shut up and believe' mentality," she says. "Even in a free society where nobody was going to challenge us or hurt us for asking questions, even then our minds were still slammed shut. A crude, cruel strain within Islam continues to exist in even the most cosmopolitan of cities. That shows it isn't just external evil influences that have done this. We have - I repeat - done it to ourselves."

Irshad knows that she is dragging into the open an argument many Western Muslims have confined to their own minds for a very long time. She is critical of the "reflexive identification some Muslims in the West unthinkingly offer to groups like Hamas or the Taliban. I met one person [like that] at Oxford University last night. I asked, 'Do these women realise that the very groups and individuals whom they are defending are the very people who, if they were in power here, would frankly their daughters particularly of their right to be at Oxford at all?'"

She is frustrated that more moderate Muslims do not fight. "At all of the public events I've done to promote this book, not once have I seen a moderate Muslim stand up and look an extremist in the eye and say, 'I'm Muslim too. I disagree with your perspective. Now let's hash it out publicly.' Yes, after the event people tip-toe up to me and say, 'Thank you for what you are doing.' And there are times when I really want to say, 'Where was your support when it mattered? Not for my ego. But to show the extremists that they are not going to walk away with the show.'"

"It's insane that I get sometimes accused of 'Islamophobia', or offering comfort to people who hate Islam," she quickly adds, anticipating my next question. "I like to respond to that by talking about Matthew Shepherd [a young gay man who was recent crucified and burned to death in Texas]. I say to my good-hearted liberal friends, would you have let these yahoos get away with insisting that gay-bashing is part of their culture and as a result they deserve immunity from scrutiny on that front? Well, why is misogyny and homophobia in Saudi Arabia any different? No, it's up to us Muslims in the West to drop reactionary charges of racism against the whistleblowers of Islam - people like me and your heroic colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - and lead the charge for change."

She believes we are falling for a false kind of moral equivalence between democratic societies and tyrannies. "For example, the next time you hear an Islamo-fetishist, an imam of the ninth-century school, wax eloquent that Muslim societies today have their own forms of democracy thank you very much, we don't need to take any lessons, right there, ask him a few questions. What rights do women and religious minorities actually exercise in these democracies? Not in theory, but in actuality. Don't tell me what the Koran says, because the Koran, like every other holy book, is all over the map, ok. No, tell me what is happening on the ground."

She continues, her voice hard and rhythmic, "Tell me when your people vote in free elections. Tell me how many free uncensored newspapers there are in your 'democracy'. There is I believe, such a thing as the soft racism of low expectations. And I believe that there is more virtue in expecting Muslims like anybody else, to rise above low expectations, because you know what? We're capable of it."

It will not ultimately be Western bombs or Western markets that defeat Islamic fundamentalism. It will be women like Irshad, refusing to allow their religion to be dominated by fanatics. But there are a lot of people who want to stop her. "I actually don't live my life in fear, no not at all," she says, not entirely convincingly. "In fact I'll tell you right now, I deliberately did not bring my bodyguard to Britain with me against the better judgement of many people who want to see me alive."

"If I am going to convince young Muslims in particular that it is possible to dissent, and live, I can't be sending the mixed message of having the bodyguard shadowing me wherever I go," she says, her voice now uncharacteristically low and soft. "Even if something terrible happens, I stand by the decision, because I think at this stage it is far more important to give young people hope, to give them a sense of real optimism that there is room to be unorthodox."