All Things Considered: January 14, 2004

Woman Seeks Islam Reform


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Thirty-five-year-old Irshad Manji is a Canadian Muslim with a provocative message. Her book, "The Trouble With Islam," calls on Western Muslims to modernize their religion. This week, the book hit stores in this country, and it's already causing a stir. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.


Since her book's release in Canada last year, Irshad Manji has received death threats, prompting her to install bulletproof windows in her Toronto home and hire a burly bodyguard. He stands just behind her at the Coliseum bookstore in New York before a mostly middle-age non-Muslim crowd. Despite the precautions, it's soon clear Manji is not easily cowed. With spiky hair and a spunky attitude, she plunges into the most controversial part of her message. Muslims, she says, are taught that because the Koran was written after the Torah and the Bible, it is God's final perfect word, never to be questioned.

Ms. IRSHAD MANJI (Author, "The Trouble With Islam"): But I'm arguing that this supremacy complex is dangerous, because when abuse happens under the banner of my faith, as it does under any faith's banner, we Muslims, by and large, do not yet know how to debate, dissent, revise or reform.

LUDDEN: Manji has been dissenting since childhood. She was born in Uganda, but her South Asian family fled Idi Amin's crackdown on foreigners, settling outside Vancouver. There, Manji lived in two worlds.

Ms. MANJI: The democracy of thought and expression that I experienced in the public realm clashed with the repression that I experienced in the mosque and in the home. And I couldn't reconcile those two.

LUDDEN: By age 14, Manji was questioning her Islamic teacher's allegations of a Jewish conspiracy against Muslims. That got her kicked out of the religious school. But instead of leaving Islam, Manji embarked on 20 years of self-study. She discovered a beautiful doctrine, but one she says has been corrupted by tolerance for widespread human rights abuses and repression of women. And she finds even fellow moderates too quick to pin the blame on Western colonialism or on Israel.

Ms. MANJI: Is there any rule that Muslims have to own up to for our responsibility in what ails Islam today? And if not, why not? Are we that perfect? Are we that unimpeachable?

LUDDEN: Fed up with the blame game, Manji recently traveled to Israel to see for herself, and came away impressed with the Jewish state's thriving self-criticism. Above all, Manji says she seeks to provoke dialogue. By question and answer time at the Coliseum bookstore, she has. Several in the audience applaud her courage. Then a young Muslim-American woman stands. She challenges Manji for making generalizations about the Middle East and the West.

Unidentified Woman: But these generalizations are very, very dangerous, and more dangerous coming from actually you vs., say, maybe a non-Muslim academic scholar.

LUDDEN: Manji nods and offers an apology if her analysis turns out to be wrong. In Canada, Manji has long provoked strong reaction from the Muslim establishment. She's a popular TV broadcaster, and is openly gay, something forbidden in Islam. Mohammad al-Masri of the Canadian Islamic Congress is dismissive of her book.

Mr. MOHAMMAD AL-MASRI (Canadian Islamic Congress): Nobody should take her seriously. She is a very small minority in the Muslim community representing feminist lesbian. In that context, it's a personal account of her life. That's why the title should be "What's the Trouble With Irshad Manji's Life?"

LUDDEN: Yet Manji says she's also seen an outpouring of support. Young Muslim women have e-mailed about the relief they feel reading her book. And outside the Coliseum bookstore after her talk, Mark Shehan is impressed. Adjusting his yarmulke, Shehan says he's an observant Jew who believes Manji's message applies to all religions.

Mr. MARK SHEHAN (Jew): We all have to struggle it ourselves, and that's why I'm so turned on by what she was saying. In other words, don't sit there like a dummkopf and just take it all in. Question what you're hearing.

LUDDEN: Following her book tour, Irshad Manji plans to visit US college campuses, where she hopes to have a galvanizing effect. After a recent talk at Toronto's York University, she stayed on for a three-hour discussion with Jewish and Muslim students.

Ms. MANJI: Towards the end of the discussion, I challenged the Muslim students to live up to their stated opposition to violence, and organize a Muslim protest against suicide bombings.

LUDDEN: It's the kind of action Manji says she needs to see among her fellow Muslims if she's to remain committed to Islam. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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