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World: 'Muslim Refusenik' Irshad Manji Urges Thoughtful Piety

Irshad Manji (Courtesy Photo) May 15, 2007(RFE/RL) -- Irshad Manji is a Canadian journalist and Muslim author of the international bestseller "The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call For Reform In Her Faith." Manji encourages Muslims to question and debate traditional interpretations of Islam. Currently a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, Manji spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari on May 14.

RFE/RL: You argue that Islam needs to be reformed and that the Koran -- the holy book of Muslims -- is a contradictory human book. Is your view, your perspective, being taken seriously in the Muslim world?

Irshad Manji: Well, it is in fact being taken seriously; and the reaction is most intense among young people in Muslim countries. It's interesting [that] when my book first came out in English, and because of the burst of international press that it received, my e-mail box overflowed with messages from young Muslims in the Arab world begging me to get the book translated into Arabic so they could share these ideas with their friends, whom they said were hungry for honest conversation about Islam. My standard unimaginative response to them was, "Come one, name one Arab publisher that will have the guts to translate this book, let alone publish it." And most of these young people wrote back to say, "You're right, but so what, Irshad? You get the book translated into Arabic [and] you then post that translation on your website; and when we can download it privately, that means that we can read it privately and therefore safely."

Well only a year and a half later, I can tell you that there have been already 200,000 downloads of the Arabic version of the book. Just last week, I received an e-mail from a reporter with "The New York Times" magazine who said that she saw how the book in Arabic is being distributed among young people in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Even when I was in Cairo this time last year, young Muslim men -- not just women -- would approach me to say, "Thank you, we're reading it, our friends are reading it, and it's now making the rounds of the democracy movement." So much of the criticism that you hear is more from an older generation. The younger generation -- the one that knows that it lives in a very interdependent, wired, and connected world -- is hungry for more information and wants these debates even when the conclusions are ones that they can disagree with.

Minority Voice?

RFE/RL: What do you say to those critics who argue that you're just part of a very small minority?

Manji: They may be right for now. I just don't know and we don't know until we really give other Muslims the opportunities to speak their mind more freely. The assumption of that criticism is that there aren't reform-minded Muslims out there; but my own experience shows that this is simply not true.

The problem is [that] the voices of reform-minded Muslims are being muted and are being suppressed; and they're being suppressed by one thing, and that is fear. It is the fear that comes from intimidation, which is why I and a group of reform-minded Muslims have launched a project [called] Ijtihad -- "ijtihad" being Islam's own tradition of critical thinking and debate and dissent. Project Ijtihad aims to build the world's most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims, and we want to show two points: one, that Islam gives us the permission to be thoughtful and faithful at the same time; and, secondly, the more of us who come out of the shadows and begin to speak and think freely, the more other reform-minded Muslims will see that they are not alone.

RFE/RL: You're openly gay and a practicing Muslim at the same time. How is that possible?

Manji: I think that only Allah can decide at the end of the day what is possible. I don't ask my fellow Muslims to approve of me; I seek approval only from two entities: my creator and my conscience. But while we are here on this earth, we ought to recognize that the Koran leaves plenty of room for discussion and debate. For example, the Koran tells us that everything God created is "excellent," that nothing that God created is "in vain," and that God creates "whom He will." Now if Allah did not wish to make me and other Muslims something other than straight, would he not have used his unmatched, unparallel powers to create heterosexual people in our place?

Ultimately, I think we have to realize that none of us is God -- only God is God -- and [that] therefore we are all accountable for the choices that we do make when we come before our creator on the day of judgment. But because almost every chapter of the Koran begins by describing God as the most compassionate and the most merciful, at the very least I believe I can look forward to a fair hearing and to a great conversation with my creator on the day of judgment. What I cannot guarantee for myself or for anybody else is approval, and that is of course a decision that only Allah can make.

'Muslim Refusenik'

RFE/RL: You call yourself a "Muslim refusenik." What does that mean?

Manji: It does not mean that I refuse to be a faithful Muslim -- that much should be obvious, because why would I put myself on the front lines of so much abuse and anger and even death threats if I did not care enough about Islam and my fellow Muslims. So by refusenik, I simply mean that I refuse to join an army of robots in the name of God; and I believe that this is a very Islamic sentiment that I am expressing, because the Koran contains three times as many verses calling on us to think and analyze and reflect than verses that tell us what is absolutely right or wrong.

RFE/RL: You refuse things such as [the] discrimination against women that is taking place in the name of Islam.

Manji: That's right. I believe that the biggest problem that Muslims must contend with today is the human rights violations that are being committed against women and minorities in the name of our religion. And the saddest part of all of this is that Islam began as a religion of justice. So Islam does have the capacity to be fair, humane, and reasonable as long as we Muslims have the courage to change.

Operation Ijtihad

RFE/RL: You have proposed the plan of reforms that you call Operation Ijtihad. What does that include?

Manji: The idea would be here for one plan to happen in the traditional Islamic world and another plan to take place among Muslims in the West. In the traditional Islamic world, the idea would be to offer women microcredit loans so that they can start their own businesses, earn money from their businesses. And there is consensus within Islam that when a woman owns her own assets, she gets to keep 100 percent of those assets and do with them as she sees fit. Now what could women do with the money they earn from micro-businesses? Well, for a starter they could become literate -- learn to read the Koran for themselves instead of relying only on imams to give them selected verses. And when they learn to read the Koran for themselves, they see all of the passages that the Koran has that give them dignity and self-respect -- passages that, for example, tell them that they have the right to choose marriage or not choose marriage. Let me tell you a quick story.

About eight months ago, a journalist in Kabul e-mailed me to say, "Remember those progressive female-friendly verses of the Koran that you identified in your book?" "Yes," I said. And she said, "Today I met a Muslim woman in Afghanistan who took a microcredit loan from a nongovernmental organization; she started her own candle-making business, she earned her own money, and she learned to read the Koran for herself with that money. And she saw all the passages in there that give her options for dignity; she then recited those passages to her husband, who was illiterate and who had been beating her ever since they got married. And when he realized that these passages are in God's book, he has never hit her again.

RFE/RL: What is your proposal for Muslims in Western countries?

Manji: We have to recognize that we have a wonderful gift and a wonderful privilege, and that is the freedom to think and express and challenge and be challenged on matters of faith without fear of government retaliation. And we have to use these freedoms in order to revive ijtihad in our own communities.

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