A “skirmish of cultures,” or so Irshad Manji describes the convulsions sweeping the Islamic world over those pesky Danish cartoons. As her euphemistic interpretation of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” suggests, Manji is optimistic about Western-Islamic relations. Manji’s optimism stems from her progressive vision of a reformed Islam, which she hopes to popularize among the world’s 1.1 billion Muslim faithful.
Between international lectures, syndicated columns and frequent appearances on radio and television, Manji calls Yale her temporary home as a visiting fellow. She is here researching a follow-up to her best-selling book, “The Trouble with Islam Today,” a scathing indictment of how Muslims have betrayed their tradition of independent thinking.
In a conversation ranging from Manji’s distaste for Edward Said’s “Orientalism” to the similarities between McDonald’s and post-Saddam Iraq (“We can’t expect fast food or fast freedom to fulfill us,” she quipped), one of the world’s most promising Muslim dissidents told me how she plans to help transform a faith that has become “intellectually atrophied and morally impaired.” Bubbly and brilliant, Manji exudes passion without arrogance or pedantism.
If anyone understands what it’s like to be targeted by the enemies of free expression, it’s Manji. She regularly receives death threats for her unapologetic critique of contemporary Islam. Threats have been so serious that she required a 24-hour police escort for months after the book’s publication. To this day, she is required to regularly “check in” with police detectives.
What irks Manji’s critics is that she doesn’t just lampoon the likes of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri; Manji confronts mainstream, so-called “moderate” Muslims “whose passivity amounts to complicity” with a brand of Islam steeped in anti-Semitism, misogyny, intolerance and an all-too-easy willingness to defend nominally Muslim tyrants and terrorists. That she is female — and, even better, an out lesbian — only adds insult to injury for critics. On her Web site, muslimrefusenik.com, Manji pokes fun at the claim that she is an agent of the “Zionist conspiracy” by joking she is on “unpaid leave from the Mossad.”
Besides having a sense of humor, Manji distinguishes herself from rioters burning consulates and Colonel Sanders by pensive self-reflection and modest pragmatism. Case in point: She changed the title of “The Trouble with Islam” to “The Trouble with Islam Today” acknowledging valid criticism that a recent interpretation of Islam is responsible for the cancers of terrorism and repression rampant in the Muslim world — not the Islam the Prophet Muhammad intended. Manji identifies as a turning point the 12th century, when the Muslim empire squelched ijtihad, the Islamic practice of independent reasoning.
Changing dominant elements of contemporary Islam and demolishing entrenched societal taboos is no easy task, an admission Manji is quick to make. The stardom which made her a staple of broadcast news and op-ed pages whenever that proverbial “clash of civilizations” seems imminent doesn’t seem to have inflated her ego. Manji sees her role as helping to bring incremental change to Islam with other liberal Muslim reformers to whom she dedicates “The Trouble with Islam Today.”
Her reform proposal is simple: Allow Muslims to discuss their faith as the Quran itself encourages, “without compulsion” to toe a dictated line. Her foundation, Operation Ijtihad, funds programs around the world that support independent thinking in Islam. Manji is convinced that given the chance to exercise what she calls “freedom of conscience,” Muslims would find an Islam — or many Islams — far different than that taught from the pulpits of muftis and mullahs.
It’s unsurprising that when we cringe at Muslim protestors marching with signs like “Those who insult Islam should be beheaded,” Manji sees opportunity. On a documentary film shoot in Europe before the manufactured outrage of Danish imams spread to the Middle East, Manji ran up against what she saw as a “profound silence about the obvious gap” between Muslim and Western values. Cartoon protests lifted the lid on a long-simmering debate — a debate in which Manji’s voice now figures prominently.
It’s at moments like these that Manji receives the most elated responses for her efforts. E-mails from Muslims everywhere from Pakistan to Manji’s adopted country of Canada flood her inbox daily asking what can be done. The stifling of free expression in Arab and Muslim capitals seemed to provoke a backlash from younger Muslims who want Manji’s help to reinstate the very thing fellow Muslims are rioting against. “Painfully, haltingly, the liberal reformation of Islam may be unfolding before our very eyes,” she teases.
History will be the ultimate judge of whether Manji and other “Ijtihadists” reclaim what they see as the true, intellectually vibrant, progressive nature of Islam or whether the West is destined for violent collision with an incompatible Islam. But in the meantime, we should be encouraged that Irshad Manji is doing her best to avoid that harrowing fate — and that she’s doing so at Yale.
Keith Urbahn is a senior in Saybrook College. He is an occasional columnist.