Canada Author Causes Stir with 'Trouble with Islam'

Muslim author writes about her life-long journey to explicate Islam
Sep 30, 2003 11:36 AM EDT

TORONTO - At the age of 14, Irshad Manji was expelled from her Canadian Muslim school for asking too many questions.

It was the catalyst for a 20-year journey by the self-styled "Muslim refusenik" to study the problems she felt plagued Islam, culminating in an explosive new book, "The Trouble With Islam: A Wake Up Call for Honesty and Change."

In the book, recently published in Canada and available in the United States in January as well as other countries soon, Manji calls for Muslims worldwide to usher in an era of reformation through introspection.

Manji explains in her book that being a refusenik "doesn't mean I refuse to be a Muslim; it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah."

Penned as an open letter to citizens worldwide, the 34-year-old author and broadcaster, who was named a "feminist for the 21st century" by Ms. Magazine, tackles three issues she describes as the main problems within Islam: the inferior treatment of women, anti-Semitism and the use of slavery in Islamic countries.

"Of the five fingers that Almighty God has given most of us on each hand, if we point one at Israel and another at America, what are the three remaining fingers pointed at? Will we point at least one of them at ourselves? Can we dare to have that happen? And if not, why not?" Manji said in an interview at the office of her publisher, Random House, in Toronto.

"I leave my fellow Muslims with a very basic question here: Will we remain spiritually adolescent, caving to cultural pressures to conform or will we finally mature to the full fledged citizens that we are allowed to be in this part of the world?"

Manji, who was born in Uganda and moved with her family to Richmond, outside of Vancouver after they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972, gained a following for her 1997 book called "Risking Utopia" on how youth are redefining democracy. She was also as host and producer of "Queer Television" which billed itself as the world's first show on commercial television for gays.

She views her book as a wake-up call for non-Muslims to be wary of "Islamo-festishists," meaning people who romanticize Islam.

"The next time you hear an Islamo-fetishist, Muslim or not, wax eloquent that Islamic societies have their own form of democracy, you need only interject with one question: What rights do women and religious minorities actually exercise? Not what the Koran says about this but what is happening on the ground."

Death Threats

Manji's firm, loud voice contrasts deeply with her pixy-like stature and spiky, brown hair.

Her outspoken views on Islam have quickly garnered her an outpouring of hate mail as well as concrete death threats. Her formidable bodyguard waited across the hall during the interview.

Manji has been labeled an agent for Israel's Mossad intelligence service by her detractors as well as a Jewish woman who changed her name to a Muslim-sounding one. The author, who is a lesbian, has received criticism that her partner is Jewish. She is not.

Manji candidly discussed the potential backlash to her book with her neighbors, who decided to move.

She even broached the issue of tackling Islamic reform with the fatwa-plagued Salman Rushdie in an interview. When Manji asked him why she should write the book and invite death threats into her life, he responded that the world needs change.

Yet, the author herself remains unafraid.

"I don't see this as a courageous move at all. I have lived my life as someone who busts hypocrisy as every turn. My integrity as a human being, as a journalist and as a Muslim is very important to me," insisted Manji.

Manji's manifesto entreats Muslims to embrace the concept of "ijtihad" -- Islam's tradition of independent thinking. She hopes the book will make the word "ijtihad" as common in contemporary Western vernacular as "jihad" has become.

If efforts to reform Islam are unsuccessful, Manji holds open the possibility she will leave the faith.

"It is precisely because I care so much about integrity that if I don't see an appetite for reform among my fellow Muslims, particularly in the West, then I may very well have to leave the faith because my own integrity will not allow me to be complicit in what I will have to conclude by then has become a totalitarian belief system," she said.