One Woman’s Quest to Bring Free-Thinking Back to Islam
Irshad Manji is the internationally best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, which has been published in 25 countries. Wherever the book is banned (throughout the Muslim world, including Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates), Ms. Manji seeks to reach readers by posting free translations on her website: muslim-refusenik.com. The New York Times describes Ms. Manji as “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” and Oprah Winfrey recently honored her with the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction.” And on International Women’s Day last year, the Jakarta Post in Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim country — named Manji as one of three women making a positive change in Islam today. Her new documentary, Faith Without Fear, will be broadcast by PBS on April 19 at 9 pm EST.
What my day used to be probably isn’t much different from yours now. In the morning, I’d roll out of bed half asleep and stagger to the front door of my quiet Toronto apartment to grab the paper. Nights, before I went to bed, my most pressing concern was whether I’d remembered to floss.
Now when I wake up, the first thing I do is check my email and forward any chilling messages to the police. Then I deactivate my top-of-the-line alarm, get the paper and sip my coffee while gazing out of my bulletproof windows. The police have instructed me not to carry a cell phone in case one of my enemies uses global satellite positioning to track me down. And when preparing for bed, I make sure my portable panic button is within reach.
Life went on high alert three years ago. That’s when my book, The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, came out. The book challenges sexism, anti-Semitism and other prejudices that pervade my religion right now. Nearly overnight, I became an internationally best-selling author, cheered by people who believe in universal human rights. But along with this support came angry threats from would-be terrorists: “You will pay for your lies,” “Enjoy your short stay on earth,” and “This is your last warning.”
None of this should be a complete shocker. In my book I point out that Islam — once a religion of justice — has become a hotbed of intolerance, particularly towards women and minorities. I argue that Muslims must embrace the progressive parts of our history rather than letting the extremists define our religion for us. I plead for Muslims to speak out against honor killings, stonings, suicide bombings and other crimes committed under the banner of God.
I knew that expressing such thoughts could put my life at risk. As I wrote the book, there were times when I thought to myself, quite seriously: If this paragraph doesn‘t get me killed, the next one will. Gives new meaning to “deadline,” doesn’t it?
I also thought of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses was so reviled by Muslim fundamentalists in Britain that they paved the way for a $2 million bounty on his head, courtesy of the Iranian government. Rushdie spent several years in hiding. I remembered Taslima Nasrin, a novelist, feminist, doctor and Muslim dissident from Bangladesh. She’s still in exile — 15 years after the first death warrant against her. Only last week, a Muslim group in India renewed the reward to kill Nasrin. Above all, I recalled the assault on 82-year-old Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel Laureate in literature, who was stabbed in the neck three decades after writing a book that some Muslims considered heretical.
So do I have a death wish? No. But what would be sadder for me than a life ended is a life wasted. As a Muslim woman who’s lucky enough to live in North America, I insist on using my precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged. Put bluntly, I have the opportunity to shatter deadly silences. How irresponsible would it be not to?
Speaking out isn’t new to me. I’ve been raising questions — and hell — since, well, forever. My mother, a devout Muslim who fed me and my sisters on a cleaner’s salary, sent us to a regular public school during the week and a conservative madrassa (Islamic school) on the weekend. From Monday to Friday, I’d play sports and run for student council like any ambitious, go-getter of a girl. On Saturday, though, I’d find myself being lectured about the inferiority of girls. And Jews.
I chafed against the hate speech and, from under my itchy white chador, began defying it. My mother struggled with my outspokenness. “Whatever you do,” she lovingly warned me, “please do not anger God.” But I had to ask: Was infuriating my teacher the same as angering my Creator? Did God really want me, one of his creatures, to be a second-class citizen? Did He seriously condemn an entire people — Jews — to eternal enmity? In short, is this the same God of mercy and compassion that Islam’s holy book, the Quran, describes at the start of almost every chapter?
After my teacher ranted against Jews yet again, I asked for proof of their “conspiracy” against Islam. “Either you believe or you get out!” he bellowed. With my temples throbbing under my chador, I kicked open the hefty madrassa door and yelled, “Jesus Christ!” I wanted to make a memorable exit. Little did I realize just how memorable it was: Jesus was a Jew.
I walked away from the Islamic school, but not from the Islamic faith. I needed to find the beauty in Islam for myself and took time over the next 20 years to study it. That’s when I discovered Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking and creative reasoning. It’s called ijtihad (ij-tee-had). By engaging in ijtihad, Muslims can update religious practices to reflect social changes, including the advancement of women and respect for religious diversity. Ijtihad means that Muslims can be faithful and thoughtful at the same time. Who knew?
It also means that Muslims can live our faith without fear. Of course, all people of conscience — whatever our religion, if any — have moments of wondering whether we’ve transgressed. That’s perfectly human. So courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear. To me, much more important than fear is freedom — the ability to exercise it and grow from the consequences.
That vision is entirely consistent with the spirit of Islam. For example, the Quran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to think, analyze and reflect than verses that tell us what’s absolutely right and wrong. In fact, no matter where you open up the Quran, you’re never far from three messages that add up to a defense of freedom. One: only God knows fully the truth of anything. Two: God alone can reward belief and punish disbelief since only He knows what real belief is. Third: our resulting humility sets us free to ponder God’s will without any obligation to toe a dictated line.
I believe so passionately that Islam and freedom can be reconciled that I’ve spent the last two years producing a PBS documentary about this mission, called Faith Without Fear. My hope is that all viewers, Muslim and not, will be inspired to conquer their personal fears — the fear of being ostracized (or worse) in their particular communities, the fear of offending minorities in a multicultural world, the fear of asking questions out loud. By confronting our fears, we can finally take ownership of the solutions before us. This, too, might be frightening, but the status quo is a far bigger risk.
Still, I’m not vying for martyrdom. At an especially dark time, I asked Salman Rushdie why I should write a book that might endanger my life. I’ll never forget his answer: “A book is more important than a life. Once you put out a thought, it can be disagreed with vigorously, vehemently, even violently. But it cannot be un-thought. This is the great permanent gift that a writer gives to the world.”
Notice he wasn’t denying that I might be offed for expressing myself. Rather, he was implying that the purpose with which we live is sometimes more important than the number of years that we live. Another way of saying what my conscience already knew: Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear.
Despite all the death threats, I’ve received infinitely more amazing responses. Most gratifying is my mother’s blessing. For years, she believed I was a self-hating Muslim with a chip on my chador. After I visited her on my book tour, I realized she finally got it. Mom slipped a card into my suitcase. The front of it blared “Bravo!” Inside, she wrote, “I’m so proud of your achievements. You go, girl!”
That’s my credo, too: Keep going until you find your voice. Once you find it, use it. In a free society, using your voice is not just a right, it’s a responsibility. May more of us marshal our voices to break deadly silences — for good.