Last edited: February 14, 2005

‘Muslim Refusenik’ Incites Furor With Critique of Faith

Canadian’s Book Challenges Treatment of Women Under Islam

Washington Post, January 19, 2004

By DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post Foreign Service

TORONTO—Irshad Manji remembers receiving a newspaper clipping about a Nigerian girl who had been sentenced by an Islamic court for having sex before marriage. Although seven witnesses backed her testimony that three men had raped her, the court decided she should suffer more punishment—180 lashes.

On the clipping, scribbled in red ink, was a note from one of Manji’s colleagues: “Irshad, one of these days you’ll tell me how you reconcile this kind of insanity and female genital mutilation with your Muslim faith.”

Manji, 35, who lives in Canada, said she identified with the story as a Muslim woman and because she, too, was born in Africa. But she was also haunted by the injustice. If there was something in Islam that allowed a girl to be punished for being raped, there was something in Islam that needed to be changed, she thought. Soon after, Manji began calling herself a “Muslim refusenik.”

It did not mean, she said, that she was refusing to be a Muslim, as she had been raised. “It simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah,” she explained.

This new perspective led Manji to write a book titled “The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change.” Recently released in the United States, Manji’s book challenges Muslims worldwide to end human rights violations committed against women and religious minorities in the name of Islam. She also calls for an end to anti-Semitism, which she says has no basis in the preaching of the Koran.

Her book has created a firestorm of debate in Canada and Germany, where it was previously released. She has been called the “nonfiction Salman Rushdie,” a reference to the Indian-born author whose 1988 book, “The Satanic Verses,” provoked death threats and a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, calling on Muslims to kill him. Manji says she also is facing threats on her life.

“Anybody who undertakes a book like this has to be prepared for what comes after it,” she said in an interview at a restaurant in Toronto. “I have received concrete death threats. Most are well thought out. . . . I’m not talking about critical e-mails or vitriolic hate—I get that all the time. I’m talking about messages that threaten my life.” She said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have advised her not to discuss the details of the warnings.

She described the book as the result of “a need identified at a deeply cellular level. I needed to write this, having grown up with a thick skin, a big brain and a bigger mouth, a combination that allows me to advocate ideas. . . . I’m morally obliged.”

In the book, Manji writes: “I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I’m hanging on by my fingernails, in anxiety over what’s coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah. When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment.”

In a quick-fire critique, not slowing for apologies, Manji asks questions she says other Muslims are asking in private but dare not ask aloud. “Why are we being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? What’s with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam? Who is the real colonizer of Muslims—America or Arabia? Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God’s creation?”

She has described herself as a feminist and a lesbian who clings to her religion. “How can we be sure that homosexuals deserve ostracism or death when the Koran states that everything God made is ‘excellent’?” she wrote. “Of course, the Koran states more than that, but what’s our excuse for reading the Koran literally when it’s so contradictory and ambiguous?”

She recites a list of recent atrocities committed against other Muslims in the name of religion. “I hear from a Saudi friend that his country’s religious police arrest women for wearing red on Valentine’s Day, and I think, ‘Since when does a merciful God outlaw joy or fun?’ “ She hears about victims of rape stoned for having “committed adultery” and she says she wonders “how a critical mass of us can stay stone silent.”

Manji was born in Uganda, and fled with her family to Canada from Idi Amin’s atrocities in 1972, when she was 4 years old. The family settled in Richmond, a Vancouver suburb. She says she is estranged from her father but in contact with mother and two sisters. “As a Muslim woman, I wake up every morning thanking Allah that I wound up in this part of the world.”

She describes her pursuit of freedom as having roots in childhood. At home, her father demanded obedience and was often violent. One night, she says, her father chased her through their house with a knife, and she escaped outside and took refuge on the roof. There, she had an epiphany. “I remember very clearly looking out over the neighborhood of homes. I thought even if my mother is home right now, she couldn’t help me. It is here, in the wider world, I see open-ended possibility.”

She attended a madrassa, a Muslim school, when she was 9, and began to question her faith. Every Saturday, she was instructed about Islam. Men and women, she said, entered the mosque by separate doors and prayed divided by a wall. “In the mosque,” she writes in the book, “men never had to see women and women never had to be seen. If that isn’t the definition of assigning us small lives, then I’m missing something big.”

At 14, she says, she was expelled from the school for asking her teacher for proof that the prophet Muhammad commanded his army to kill the entire Jewish tribe.

Next she stopped going to the mosque because she felt she could not think independently there. Instead, she said, she began praying on her own. After washing her feet, arms and face, she would sit on a velvet rug and turn toward Mecca. Eventually, she stopped this as well, because she did not want to fall “into mindless submission and habitual submissiveness.”

Since then, she has been on what she describes as a quest to understand her religion, and says she remains a Muslim. But she says being a Canadian means having permission to think freely. “Lord, I loved this society. I loved that it seemed perpetually unfinished, the final answers not yet known, if ever they would be,” she writes in her book. “I loved that in a world under renovation, the contributions of individuals mattered.”

In her book, she urges Muslims to take on ijtihad, the Islamic tradition of independent reasoning. One way she says Islam can be reformed is by giving Muslim women worldwide economic power. “Economic development unleashes incentive to think critically of the Koran, giving them resources to start schools, to stand up to their husbands,” she said. “I don’t idealize or romanticize how much blood can be spilled on this. Blood is being spilled anyway. The violence is going to happen, then why not risk it happening for the sake of freedom?”

Her critics say the book is simplistic, and that Manji does not have the academic credentials to criticize Islam. “The Trouble with Islam? I think Ms. Manji used the wrong title,” said Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, a non-government organization that represents most of the 600,000 Muslims in Canada. “The book should be entitled: the trouble in the life of Irshad Manji. The book is a personal account of a young lady struggling with her religion, which is common among Muslims and non-Muslims. She is not a specialist to advocate Muslims should revise their religion and holy book. It is not credible.”

Elmasry said the Canadian Muslim community did not want to overreact. “We did not treat her like the British Muslim community treated Salman Rushdie,” he said. “We ignored her book.”

Irshad defends her work. She rejects the argument that she is projecting her personal baggage onto Islam. “It has nothing to do with blaming my father’s violence on Islam,” she says. “These are distractions at best. People are afraid it will be taken seriously.

“I challenge my critics to answer this: With or without my personal baggage, would women in Iran still have to ask for permission to travel? Would children get hustled into slavery? With or without my father’s violence, would honor killings happen twice a day in Palestine? Answer that.”

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