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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

A Muslim author's controversial message

Recently the United Jewish Council of Toledo brought the controversial Muslim author and activist Irshad Manji to Toledo for a talk at Temple B'nai Israel. After the publication of her provocative book, The Trouble With Islam, she has been at the center of widespread controversy.

The book has been condemned by many Muslims for its anti-Islamic slant, but she has received unprecedented acceptance by non-Muslim groups, particularly the Jewish organizations in this country and Canada.

During her Toledo appearance she cause a stir by appearing in the same program with members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who were also invited to speak and help raise funds for United Jewish Council. She contended to her hosts, in private, that the joint appearance would give the appearance that she endorses the policies of the state of Israel or its armed forces, which she does not. To their credit, the organizers apologized for the oversight and moved the IDF presentation to another part of the temple after the program.

Ms. Manji was born to Pakistani parents in Idi Amin's Uganda in 1968 and immigrated to Canada and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her rebellious streak was evident at an early age when she questioned the pertinence of certain religious and cultural practices. The same rebellious streak led her to Toronto to host the controversial television program QueerTelevision in Toronto. The publication of her book put her squarely in the eye of a ferocious cultural and religious storm.

Her book is an angry and vitriolic diatribe against certain practices that are prevalent in the Muslim world. She questions the scriptural bases for militancy, terrorism, the lack of women's rights, relations with the followers of other faiths (particularly the Jews), and the tendency of many Muslims to vehemently oppose debate and dissent within their faith.

After reading the book I also questioned her motives. Was she a concerned Muslim, I wondered, who was trying to ignite a sincere debate among the faithful to look afresh at the age-old interpretations of their sacred text, or was she an opportunist lobbing grenades at the religion by questioning its very relevance? I could not see through the fog of her anger and sarcasm to appreciate her message.

But it came through loud and clear in her presentation at the Temple B'nai Israel and during the brief conversation we had after her formal presentation. She is a funny, witty, and charming woman and does not appear to belong to any one camp. According to her, she is only doing what Muslims in the course of their religious history have always done - reinterpret religion according to prevailing times. The process of ijtehad or independent reasoning was the bedrock of Islamic thought that led to comfortable coexistence with other faiths and the flowering of the arts and sciences.

While I agree with the need for a vigorous intellectual debate among Muslims about interpretations of their sacred text, I disagree with the premise that the Qur'an, the Muslim sacred text, is flawed. As with other sacred texts, one needs to understand it in context to the times it was revealed. A literal interpretation invariably leads to inconsistencies and conflict.

For her boldness in asking uncomfortable questions and challenging the validity of established practices, Irshad Manji has become a persona non grata in most Islamic circles. Orthodoxy by its very nature discourages such probing discourse. She is often accused of being a pawn of the Jewish interests in North America. In light of what she says in public, it just does not wash. Had Muslim groups been more willing to listen to her, no matter how provocative and controversial her message, she probably would be visiting more mosques than synagogues.

There is a groundswell of support among moderate and liberal Muslims for some of the things she says. At the academic level this debate is happening among Muslims but is sorely missing at the community level. Before the house of Islam splits along an orthodox-liberal divide, the thoughtful people from all points of view should sit down to discuss these issues. It would be in their own long-term interest.



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