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Irshad Manji

Re-imagining Islam

Tania Menai, in New York

Irshad Manji, 36, is a Canadian Muslim, a feminist, a journalist and homosexual. The host of Big Ideas, broadcast by TV Ontario, she interviews personalities from the intellectual world. For four years Irshad presented an award-winning program about gay life. In 1972, little Irshad and her family fled from the dictator Idi Amin’s Uganda to Vancouver, where she grew up. Wearing a full-length chador, she attended madrassa, the Islamic religious school, every Saturday. She remembers learning two themes: that women are inferior to men, and that Jews have to be hated. At age 14, she was expelled by her teacher because she was asking “too many” questions. For the next 20 years, she studied the Koran and other sources of Islamic theology on her own, in search of answers. Her immersion has resulted in the polemic book, The Trouble With Islam, in which Irshad questions her religion from inside out. Since the book’s release, she has received many death threats. Irshad welcomed VEJA for this interview at a friend’s home in New York.

Veja – What is your fight with Islam?
Irshad – It is with the way the religion is widely practiced these days, based on a literal interpretation of the Koran. That makes Muslim live under martial law, with no freedom to think or disagree. It is a problem that emerged centuries ago, way before European colonization or the creation of Israel, and it’s been getting worse. In the beginning of this religion, Islam adopted the tradition of critical thinking, called ijtihad. The spirit of ijtihad stimulated an atmosphere of creativity and curiosity that enabled Muslim civilization to lead the world in innovation. In Muslim Spain, scholars encouraged students to read the Koran with a critical eye, even if this would go against clerical opinion. If this tradition already existed in Islam, we only have to rediscover it.

Veja – When did Muslims started to interpret Koran in a literal way?
Irshad –
At the end of the eleventh century, the gates of ijtihad where closed due to internal disputes in the Muslim Empire. Sunni Islam’s 135 schools of thought were reduced to four, relatively conservative, schools. That led to quite a rigid reading of the Koran. Scholars were forbidden to overturn or even question legal opinions, called fatwas. The punishment for those who dared to dissent was death. In the following century, Muslim scholars started simply to imitate one another, including their medieval prejudices. Even though this is an old problem by now, its intensity has grown in recent years. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, the world became dominated by a single superpower, the United States. Muslim radicals describe themselves as the only people capable of challenging the values of pluralism, consumerism and materialism that the American culture represents. It is shocking that many non-Muslims agree.

Veja – Did the United States take too long to take the Muslim fundamentalist seriously?
Irshad –
Americans only became conscious of the problem after the attacks in Washington and New York. A book like mine could never have been published before September 11, 2001 – not because the issues were irrelevant, but because the West didn’t care about them. That is tragic because it suggests that we human beings, with all our technology, intelligence and desire to make some difference, we are sill intellectually lethargic. It is necessary to go through a crisis like this to realize that we have to be constantly alert. What happens in another part of the world will have consequences for us.

Veja – How do the Muslim who don’t agree with you react?
Irshad –
They usually accuse me of being a “closet Jew” or an “Agent of the Mossad,” which is the Israeli secret service. They also call me an “Ismaili,” an expression that refers to a liberal sect of Islam, composed of people who tend to be formally educated, entrepreneurial and more philanthropic than most Muslims. Because of these qualities, Ismailis are regarded as “the Jews of the Muslim world”. It is a great compliment – however, my critics are not complimenting me. I regularly receive death threats by e-mail and, sometimes, I’m threatened in person. Once, at the airport, an Arab approached a friend of mine and told her that she was luckier than me. Then he cocked his finger in my direction, as if he was pulling the trigger of a gun. After that, he promptly left the scene. On the other hand, since the release of my book, I have been receiving support from Muslims around the world – especially from young people and from women. However, it is done in secret: they cannot verbalize their opinions because are afraid of “persecution.” To call attention to this injustice, I decided to travel without a body-guard. Only if the police insist, do I take personal security with me. If I’m going to convince young Muslims that it’s possible to dissent with orthodoxy and live, then I cannot have a body-guard protecting me all the time. That would be hypocrisy on my part.

Veja – Canada is a safe country and, still, you need a body-guard?
Irshad –
Yes, but I used him sporadically. First, it’s expensive. The State doesn’t pay for him. Neither does the publisher. I’m the one who pays. We, the people with courage to raise controversial subjects and establish moderation, have to look the Jihadists in the eye and say that we refuse to live in fear. I am not going to live with paranoia. The only death I fear is a premature one, which would cut short a life full of purpose.

Veja – Would it be possible for you to write this book living in a Muslim country?
Irshad –
A thousand times no. That’s why I thank Allah every morning for the freedom I have in this part of the world. I am a refugee who lives in a country where, as a Muslim, I can be engaged – and I don’t just mean for marriage! I mean that I can explore my full potential. How many Muslim women have this privilege? I want to challenge all Muslims who live in the Western world to use this precious freedom.

Veja – And what can these Muslims do?
Irshad –
They need to be sure that they can have faith and, and the same time, have their own ideas. That’s why I’m creating an institute to stimulate independent thinking in Islam. The idea is to form a center of leadership to educate young Muslims about the art of debating. Also to teach them about Islam’s Golden Age, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony. I’d like to bring scholars from other religions to talk to these young people. Finally, this leadership center would be place for young, reform-minded Muslims to network face-to-face. After that, we would return these kids to their communities so they can figure out the best local projects to open up Islam from within. No one is able to do it alone. When a young Muslim asks me what the next step to take is, I ask them the question back. Each one is his or her own leader.

Veja – How would it be possible to improve the women’s situation in Islam?
Irshad –
The best way is for Muslim women to start their own schools. When you educate a Muslim boy, you are educating only that boy. When you educate a Muslim girl, you are educating the whole family. I don’t want to seem romantic about it, but when women have the permission to learn, they are able to see that the Koran itself gives them more rights then they’re told. This way, they can disregard mullahs, who, of course, never mention the full scope of women’s rights. Women’s participation is crucial for Islam to emerge from the rut in which finds itself today.

Veja –Does the Koran really condemn women to an inferior position or is it a theme opened to interpretations?
Irshad –
Unlike the Bible, the Koran doesn’t mention that Adam was created before Eve. In the Koran’s version of this story, there is no basis to prove male superiority. In fact, the Koran ends this passage by commanding us to honor the mother figure. The problem is, a few lines later, the Koran contradicts itself and says that men were created superior to women. It is shocking to read sentences like: “Women are your fields. Go, then, into your fields and do as you please.” Some scholars see this as a positive verse, comparing women to fields that need tender loving care if the farmer’s seed – the male sperm -- is to grow into something healthy and robust. But what about the part that says “do as you please”? Isn’t that a recipe for unchecked power? It’s curious that such negative passages are the ones that overwhelming influence laws in the Muslim world.

Veja –Several Muslims think that you shouldn’t be taken seriously for being homosexual. How do you deal with this issue? Irshad – The Koran is ambiguous and whoever wants to follow it will have to choose which parts to emphasize and which ones to downplay. It is true that some of the Koran condemn homosexuals. At the same time, the sacred book says that everything created by Allah is “excellent.” Nothing created by Him was “in vain.” If we ought to believe in Koran, how do Muslims reconcile these verses with their own condemnation of homosexuals? I could be wrong, but I ask my critics: how do they know they are right? I’m not asking for them to accept or approve my sexual orientation. God was the one who created me. Only He will approve me or not. I only ask for a space to debate these issues.

Veja –How does the Arab world see the United States?
Irshad –
It is a love-hate relationship. Arab parents get involved in corruption to become rich and send their kids to study in the United States. These are the same parents who shout “Down with America.” They should add: “but not until my son graduates”! In private, most Arabs don’t consider Americans the ones responsible for their problems. If there is a legitimate complaint against America it is not that America has interfered, but that America has not interfered enough. Several American administrations left human rights movements in that region without support. That is why Arabs resent the U.S.

Veja –Why did you visit Israel?
Irshad –
To report on any conflict, it is necessary to be there, to hear the people. I heard from several Arab-Israelis, secretly, that their lives are much better in Israel than they would be in any Arab country. They enjoy an independent judiciary, they have the right to vote and are represented by five political parties, which is four more than they have in any other part of the Middle East. They also have study and job opportunities. I know that Israel wrongly occupies Palestinian territories, and I’m the first to say that this occupation has to end. However, there is a second occupation going on: the ideological occupation of the Palestinian people by their own leaders. Why wasn’t the Oslo agreement ever translated into Arabic? That would allow regular people to read it and decide for themselves. I belive in democracy for the Palestinians, and that means both occupations have to be stopped.

Veja – Why do Palestinians accept this situation?
Irshad –
They are afraid. This is not an excuse – only the reality. When I was in Ramallah, I looked for the writer Raja Shehadeh. He wrote an impressive book in which he criticizes the tribal system that establishes the relations among Palestinians. But when we met, in the presence of other activists, I was disappointed. Shehadeh shut himself up. He even changed his speech. He said that Israel was the oppressor and the Palestinians were the oppressed. No nuances in his statement, unlike in his book. I got the impression that if he says what he thinks, he would put his life at risk. And he is a lawyer who created a human rights organization. Imagine what happens to the poor ones.

Veja –You say that Islam has to detach itself from Arab culture. Why?
Irshad –
Arabs represent only 13% of the Muslim world – but the weight of its culture is immense. It is necessary to separate Islam from the tribal traditions of Arabia. Mohammed brought Islam to the Arab world for them to learn how to make peace. The intention was to unify the tribes that were constantly at each other’s throats. Instead, a psychiatrist whom I met in the Gaza strip told me that Islam ended up stimulating the negative part of the Arab culture, such as the tradition of honor. Arab honor requires women to give up their individuality in order to maintain the reputation of the men in their lives. This, in effect, turns women into communal property because their lives don’t belong to them; they belong to a wider group of people – their families, their clans and sometimes even their nations. To illustrate, this past January Hamas made a “progressive decision”: it allowed women to volunteer themselves for suicide bombers. However, only one type of woman was eligible: She who has “dishonored” her family. By taking her life and that of innocent others, according to Hamas, such a woman will be lifting the moral stain that she has left on her family. Islam must untangle itself from Arab cultural traditions like this in order to modernize.

Veja –Your book was translated into Arabic. Is there any Arab publisher willing to publish it?
Irshad –
Not yet. But young Muslims from the Arab world gave me the idea of posting the entire Arabic translation on my website. This way, many more people will have access to it with privacy and no fear. And the Urdu-language edition of my book will soon be published – yes, published! – Pakistan.

Veja –Does Osama represent Islam?
Irshad –
No, quite the contrary. Extremist leaders like Osama bin Laden don’t have the religious importance that is usually given to them. They use Islam to achieve power. His dream regime is based on Nazism – a secular and scientific ideology. Many Muslims are tired of what is happening with our faith. I have been writing about these issues for years and if someone had asked me back then, “What’s the ratio of anger to support that you hear after one of your articles?” I would have replied, “80% anger, 20% support.” Today, I would say 50/50, if not tipping toward support. Something has changed, for the better. The challenge now is to transform this underground hunger for change into an above-the-ground, visible phenomenon. And that means giving the next generation of Muslims the power to transcend their fears so they will finally speak their truths.
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[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]