ISHRAD MANJI WAS BORN IN DURING UGANDA´S DICTATORSHIP Idi Amin. However, when she was 4, she and her family fled to Vancouver, where Irshad grew up in a much opened environment.
Manji is the best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today, 2005, which has been translated to more than 25 languages. Currently, Irshad is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy. She writes columns that are distributed worldwide by The New York Times Syndicate.
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Rose Mary Salum: Is The Trouble With Islam Today, along with most religions, that people take sacred books and teachings literally rather than metaphorically?
Irshad Manji: Religions run into trouble when their adherents fail to distinguish between faith and dogma. Faith is secure enough to handle questions. Faith never needs to be threatened by questions. Dogma, on the other hand, is always threatened by questions because dogma, by definition, is rigid. It’s brittle. It snaps under the spotlight of inquiry–and therefore deserves to be threatened by questions.
The problem of dogma afflicts every religion. But in the 21st century, it does not afflict every religion equally. Of course, an uncritical approach to faith exists in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, even Buddhism. However, only in Islam today is dogmatism mainstream worldwide.
Let me explain what I mean by that sweeping statement. Most Muslims, even in the West, are routinely raised to believe that because the Quran was revealed after the Torah and the Bible, it is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God’s will. As such, the Quran is not given to the ambiguities, inconsistencies and outright contradictions of those other so-called “sacred” texts. Even moderate Muslims believe that the Quran is not like any other holy book. It is God 3.0 and none shall come after it.
Moderate Christians, moderate Jews, moderate Hindus and moderate Buddhists do not have such an uncritical relationship to their scriptures. That’s what allows them to be moderate. But Muslims do. And this uncritical relationship to our scripture amounts to a supremacy complex about it.
That supremacy complex is dangerous for at least two reasons. First, it disproportionately empowers the violent fringe in Islam. How? In the second way that this supremacy complex is dangerous: it inhibits the “reasonable center”—moderates—from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. The violent jihadis are so adroit at quoting from the Quran to justify their violence, and because the rest of us have been taught we cannot ask questions of the Quran, we are left with the feeling that challenging the Quran-quoting jihadis is to challenge the Quran itself. And that, we are told, is off-limits. Welcome to the big lie that dogmatism promotes.
The fact is that even in Islam, it is permissible to ask questions of the Quran. Islam once exuded a glorious tradition of critical thinking, independent reasoning, debate and dissent known as “ijtihad.” It generated 135 schools of interpretation. And it taught Muslims that we can be thoughtful and faithful at the same time. Muslims have turned their backs on this tradition. If we re-discover ijtihad, it will not be by chance. It will be by choice.
R.M.S.: As you say, the most crucial jihad is self criticism or the struggle with one’s self (and this concept exists in many other religions), why keep avoiding it? Is it power, is it survival, what is it?
I.M.: To engage in a struggle with the self is to contest one’s pride, ego, esteem—and ultimately, identity. These days, identity is confused with integrity. If we identify as Muslims than that is all we are supposed to be, the higher-ups warn us. We belong to a particular tribe with a particular set of values and to contest those values, even if we did not choose them for ourselves, is to betray the people who give you your identity and thus your integrity. A convenient, self-contained argument, is it not?
This argument, like any dogma, feeds off fear— the fear of being marginalized or physically threatened within your community; the fear of offending, instilled by orthodox multiculturalism; the fear of losing a sense of where you belong, which is especially daunting in a world of shifting borders.
So what takes the place of self-criticism? Self-censorship. Too many of us clam up and conform to the injustices in our own tribes, and the bullies we fear need not lift a finger—except to point it at the oppressors outside the tribe. For Muslims, those outside oppressors are America, Israel and MTV. The rare Muslims who point a finger inside the tribe are not only deemed traitors, but are declared “inauthentic,” “opportunistic,” or worse. In just one breath, their identity and integrity are smeared. Is it any wonder that self-criticism is avoided?
Yet the greatest social reformers have always challenged the oppressors within their tribes, even as they have stood up to imperialists from without. Gandhi, for example, took on the ancient caste system of India while defying British colonizers. He pointed out that replacing a white oligarchy with a brown oligarchy still amounts to an oligarchy. He made “swaraj”—or revolution within the self—as much of a cornerstone as his more famous philosophy of “satyagraha”—or non-violent resistance.
Many of us know about the latter. Far fewer of us know about the former. Which only goes to show that even well-educated people are not immune to the lazy temptation of waging the outer struggle and ignoring the inner one. Humanity pays a steep price for this imbalance. The Quran itself warns that “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11).
R.M.S.: If all you propose is for Muslims to truly follow The Holy Book, why do you receive so much animosity in return? (you always quote a beautiful passage of the Quran: “Believers: Conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your kin.” (4:135)
I.M.: The animosity comes from those who insist that my agenda is to destroy pure Islamic society from within. But if abusing basic human rights is the indictor of a “pure” Islamic society, then nothing I could do would be worse than what Muslims are already doing to each other.
In a desperate attempt to avoid addressing injustices within our tribe, many of my critics to make me, Irshad Manji, the issue. “She is a feminist,” they sneer. Is it because I am a feminist that three honor killings a day are happening in Pakistan alone, usually with the word “Allah” dripping from the lips of the murderers? “She is a lesbian,” they huff. Is because I am a lesbian that in Mali and Mauritania, little boys are hustled into slavery by Muslims? “She lives in the West,” they protest. Is it because I live in Canada that Christian humanitarian workers are shot point-blank in places like Saudi Arabia? In short, if I exited the scene, would these and other displays of religious violence magically disappear? Do I really have all that power?
The first dissidents in Islam emerged less than a hundred years after the religion was established. These dissidents were male, Arab and heterosexual. Yet they were still accused of being in the pay of the Jews! My point is, when people do not want to confront the facts, they will reach for any weapon of mass distraction. I am not fooled by these tactics and neither are the many Muslims writing to me in support.