Irshad Manji: Islam's marked woman

Irshad Manji is a lesbian Muslim who says her religion is stuck in the Middle Ages. The outspoken author tells Johann Hari how she became a target for assassination

The death threats began six months ago. One morning,Irshad Manji opened her e-mail and read the first ofmany pledges to kill her. "It contained some prettyconcrete details that showed a lot of thought had beenput 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-closeand personal."

"One story that I can tell you," she says, "a storythat I have the permission from the police to tellyou, is that I was in an airport in North Americarecently and somebody at the airport recognised me. Ihad a conversation with them. While I was engaged inconversation with a very portly, very sweetfifty-something man and his wife, an Arab guy came upto my travel companion and said, 'You are luckier thanyour friend.' As a nice polite Canadian she asked,'What do you mean?' and he didn't say anything. Heturned his hand in to the shape of a gun and he pulledthe make-believe trigger towards my head. She didn'tknow what to make of this, so she asked him to clarifyhis intentions. He said 'Not now, you will find outlater,' and then he was gone."

Sitting with Irshad in a London boardroom, it would behard for anybody to guess that she is the starattraction on jihadist death-lists. She has the small,slender body of a ballet-dancer, and a Concorde-speedCanadian voice that makes her sound more like acharacter in a Woody Allen movie than an enemy ofOsama Bin Laden's. So what has she done to earn abullet in the head?

Irshad is a key figure in the civil war withintwenty-first century Islam. She is the Saladin ofprogressive Muslims, an out-rider for the notion thatyou can be both a faithful Muslim and a mouthy,fiercely democratic Canadian lesbian. As one Americanjournalist put it, "Irshad Manji does not drinkalcohol and she does not eat pork. In every otherrespect, she is Osama Bin Laden's worst nightmare."

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

We are all going to have to learn about this battlefor an Islamic reformation, because it will be raging- and occasionally blasting its way onto our citystreets - for the rest of our lives. Manji'sbest-selling book, 'The Trouble With Islam - a Wake-UpCall For Honesty and Change', is both a crash coursein its terminology and a manifesto for the progressiveside. The core concept in Maji's thought - and that ofall progressive Muslims - is 'itjihad'. It's a simpleidea, and devastatingly powerful. Itjihad is theapplication of reason and reinterpretation to themessage of the Koran. It allows every Muslim toreconsider the message of the Koran for the changedcircumstances of the twenty-first century. "What wastrue for ninth century Mecca and Medina may not be thebest interpretation of Allah's message today", Irshadexplains.

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

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

"It was the closing of the gates of itjihad that ledto disaster for Muslims, not the Crusdaers or the Westor anything else. Sure, they were all bad, but thedecline started with us," Irshad says. "It's therefusal to believe in independent reason that hascontributed to a totalitarian culture in the Muslimworld. Of course if Muslims can't reason forthemselves, they become dependent on Mullahs andoutside authorities. Of course if you think all truthis contained in one book and all you have to do isreturn to it - a belief I call 'foundationalism' -then you won't be dynamic and seek new solutions fornew problems. Others have responsibilities as well,but we Muslims closed the gates of itjihad onourselves. 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 ofthis thousand-year old strategy. They did it to keepthe Islamic empire from imploding - they thought allthis dissent and disagreement would lead us to fallapart. But I've got news for you: The Islamic empireno longer exists, and our minds still remain closed."

In case this sounds cerebral - how could this aridintellectual debate have such a drastic effect on theworld? - Irshad is quick to underline its practicaleffects. From the mass-murder of democrats in Algeriato the uprising of students against the Mullahs inIran, from the mosques of Finsbury Park to the ethniccleansing being perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalistsin Sudan, "this is the fight between progressive Islamand the Islamofascists."

Irshad does not just rant against Islamicfundamentalism. She offers a constructive long-termprogramme for undermining it, which she dubs'Operation Itjihad.' The solution lies with Muslimwomen. "At the moment, half the resources of Muslimsocieties - the women - are squandered. Yet investingin women makes amazing sense. Educate a Muslim boy andyou've educated a boy. Educate a Muslim woman andyou've educated a whole family. The multiplier effectof helping Muslim women is amazing."

So 'Operation Itjihad' would require us to redeploy alarge chunk of our aid and national security budgetsto small business loans for Muslim women."Micro-lending has an extraordinary 30year-track-record. For example, in Bangladesh theGrameen ('Village') Bank loans tiny amounts of moneyto people whom standard lenders consider untouchable -especially landless women. They have helped 31million people, and they have a staggering repaymentrate of 98%. Helping women achieve financialindependence en masse butresses their existing, oftenunderground, attempts to become literate. They won'tneed the oracles of the big boys if they can reachtheir own conclusions about what the Koran says.

"Empowering women is the way to awaken the Muslimworld," she continues. "If you are serious aboutundermining the culture that created al-Quaeda, thisis the way to do it. When women have money they haveearned themselves, they are far more likely to beginthe crucial task of questioning their lot. It willtransform a culture of hate and stagnation." Thisfeminism shouldn't be alien to good Muslims, she adds."Mohammed's beloved first wife Khadija was a self-mademerchant for whom the Prophet worked for many years. Isometimes point out to Muslim men that if they areserious about emulating the Prophet, then they shouldgo work for their wives." What do they say? "There isa dour, sour silence."

"Then I remind them that it was Ibn Rushd who said -way ahead of any European feminists - that the reasoncivilisations are poor is that they do not know yet,the ability, the full ability, of their women," shecontinues. So how did Islam get so entwined with amisogynist culture? "I think you have to distinguishbetween Islam and the Arabic culture of the ninth andtenth centuries that very quickly became entwined withit. We have to disentangle Islam from the norms of thedesert. Desert Islam was always opposed to thepluralistic, haggling life of the el-haraa - the urbanalleyway bazaars. It is fanatic. Islam was meant tomove the Arabs beyond tribe. Instead, tribe has movedthe Arabs beyond Islam."

Irshad is needlingly, constantly aware that she couldnot even begin to enjoy the freedom she currentlyenjoys in any Muslim society. Her family were refugeesfrom Idi Amin's West African tyranny, and the familywashed up in Canada when Irshad was four years old. "Iam also aware it wasn't Islam that fostered my beliefin the dignity of every individual. It was thedemocratic environment to which I and my familymigrated. In this part of the world, as a Muslimwoman, I have the freedom to express myself withoutfear of being maimed or tortured or raped or murderedat the hands of the state. You know, as corny as thismay sound, as a refugee to the West, I wake up everyday, 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. Thenin her local mosque - as an inquisitive, open-mindedgirl - she became aware of an attempt to "close mymind. It was a 'shut up and believe' mentality," shesays. "Even in a free society where nobody was goingto challenge us or hurt us for asking questions, eventhen our minds were still slammed shut. A crude, cruelstrain within Islam continues to exist in even themost cosmopolitan of cities. That shows it isn't justexternal evil influences that have done this. We have- I repeat - done it to ourselves."

Irshad knows that she is dragging into the open anargument many Western Muslims have confined to theirown minds for a very long time. She is critical ofthe "reflexive identification some Muslims in the Westunthinkingly offer to groups like Hamas or theTaliban. I met one person [like that] at OxfordUniversity last night. I asked, 'Do these womenrealise that the very groups and individuals whom theyare defending are the very people who, if they were inpower here, would frankly their daughters particularlyof their right to be at Oxford at all?'"

She is frustrated that more moderate Muslims do notfight. "At all of the public events I've done topromote this book, not once have I seen a moderateMuslim stand up and look an extremist in the eye andsay, 'I'm Muslim too. I disagree with yourperspective. 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 aretimes when I really want to say, 'Where was yoursupport when it mattered? Not for my ego. But to showthe extremists that they are not going to walk awaywith the show.'"

"It's insane that I get sometimes accused of'Islamophobia', or offering comfort to people who hateIslam," she quickly adds, anticipating my nextquestion. "I like to respond to that by talking aboutMatthew Shepherd [a young gay man who was recentcrucified and burned to death in Texas]. I say to mygood-hearted liberal friends, would you have let theseyahoos get away with insisting that gay-bashing ispart of their culture and as a result they deserveimmunity from scrutiny on that front? Well, why ismisogyny and homophobia in Saudi Arabia any different?No, it's up to us Muslims in the West to dropreactionary charges of racism against thewhistleblowers of Islam - people like me and yourheroic colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - and lead thecharge for change."

She believes we are falling for a false kind of moralequivalence between democratic societies andtyrannies. "For example, the next time you hear anIslamo-fetishist, an imam of the ninth-century school,wax eloquent that Muslim societies today have theirown forms of democracy thank you very much, we don'tneed to take any lessons, right there, ask him a fewquestions. What rights do women and religiousminorities actually exercise in these democracies? Notin theory, but in actuality. Don't tell me what theKoran says, because the Koran, like every other holybook, is all over the map, ok. No, tell me what ishappening on the ground."

She continues, her voice hard and rhythmic, "Tell mewhen your people vote in free elections. Tell me howmany free uncensored newspapers there are in your'democracy'. There is I believe, such a thing as thesoft racism of low expectations. And I believe thatthere is more virtue in expecting Muslims like anybodyelse, to rise above low expectations, because you knowwhat? We're capable of it."

It will not ultimately be Western bombs or Westernmarkets that defeat Islamic fundamentalism. It will bewomen like Irshad, refusing to allow their religion tobe dominated by fanatics. But there are a lot ofpeople who want to stop her. "I actually don't live mylife in fear, no not at all," she says, not entirelyconvincingly. "In fact I'll tell you right now, Ideliberately did not bring my bodyguard to Britainwith me against the better judgement of many peoplewho want to see me alive."

"If I am going to convince young Muslims in particularthat it is possible to dissent, and live, I can't besending the mixed message of having the bodyguardshadowing me wherever I go," she says, her voice nowuncharacteristically low and soft. "Even if somethingterrible happens, I stand by the decision, because Ithink at this stage it is far more important to giveyoung people hope, to give them a sense of realoptimism that there is room to be unorthodox."

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