Islam's Marked Woman
By Johann Hari
08 May 2004
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."
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?"
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.
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.'"
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
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."