A Nightmare Come True: Farrukh Khan Pitafi on Irshad Manji

By Irfan Khawaja

Along with perhaps a million other people, I've recently been reading Irshad Manji's book The Trouble With Islam, a snappy little critique of contemporary Islam (and non-contemporary Islam) written from a heterodox Muslim perspective. Actually, I happen to be writing a review of the book for publication, but I won't preview my review here except to say that I liked Manji's book quite a lot while disagreeing vehemently with parts of it. Whatever its flaws, the book is well-written and well worth reading.

Being the diligent reviewer that I am, I was obliged to read all of the other reviews of Manji's book, if only to ensure that I didn't end up re-inventing the critic's equivalent of the wheel while writing my own. The negative reviews, Muslim and non-Muslim, are an instructive mix of legitimate criticism, total nonsense, and outright denial. The latter two categories include some real doozies, but surfing Manji's website the other day, I happened on a review of the book in The Nation (Lahore, Pakistan) by columnist Farrukh Khan Pitafi that pretty much takes the cake. In truth, Pitafi's review scarcely differs from any of the others in its genre-the Envy- and Malice-Ridden School of Journalistic Misrepresentation-but given how perfect a paradigm of that genre it happens to be, it's hard to forswear comment on it.

It's entirely in keeping with the customs of this genre that Pitafi should open a review filled with venom and spite by issuing a plea for pity: "The sad death of my loved grandmother and her funeral on the sacred day of Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi would have stopped me from contributing this column this week had a distasteful incident not taken place." The "distasteful incident" turns out to be the BBC Urdu Service's having broadcast a somewhat favorable commentary on Manji in Pakistan. The broadcast is captured in a website commentary that begins with the following radical thought: "Sawwal Karna Mehra Haq Hah: Irshad Manji" (" 'It's my right to ask questions': Irshad Manji"). I recommend the article to the attention of any Urdu readers out there; having read it, you yourself can evaluate Pitafi's theory that the Manji phenomenon represents a BBC conspiracy against Islam. (Follow the links at the bottom of the page.)

Normally, a book review gives readers some indication of the contents of the book under review, along with some general assessment of the book, based on its contents. Pitafi, of course, regards himself under no such obligation. His aim, after all, is not argument but defamation; it's the only thing he knows how to do, and the only thing his audience can handle. Out comes the invective: Manji's book is "ludicrous" he tells us, "only full of conjectures and personal experiences," "hardly anything more than an expression of biases devoid of facts." Her conception of ijtihad is "lecherous" (he continues) and she herself is incorrigibly irrational, not worth arguing with, and only in it for the money.

The more one reflects on these criticisms, however, the more insistently they begin to raise questions about their author. Why would a "ludicrous" book elicit so powerful a reaction-especially during what the critic avows as a period of mourning for a beloved relative? If Manji isn't worth arguing with, why go through the motions of arguing with her? And how can a conception of ijtihad be "lecherous," anyway?

As for "conjecture and experience," Manji's book does contain that, but even the dullest mind would comprehend that it contains a lot more. The dullest mind would also detect some "conjecture and experience" in Pitafi's own columns. And if you really want to be philosophical about it, you might realize that once you subtract "conjecture and experience" from the sum of moral knowledge, you aren't left with much in the way of a remainder.

As for "biases devoid of facts," the claim would have more credence if Pitafi were capable of rebutting any actual claim in Manji's book. He does, I admit, give it the old college try. So he begins by disputing Manji's assertion that "an average of two women die" every day from honor killings in Pakistan. This is his rebuttal: "Now I swear had the number been that horrible in Pakistan Asma Jahangir should have succeeded in staging a feminist coup in Pakistan." As it happens, we can settle the factual matter pretty expeditiously, since Manji provides a reference on her website that our friend Pitafi was evidently too lazy to check. Footnote 1 for chapter 2 of The Trouble With Islam cites the following authority for the "two-a-day" figure:

Dr. Riffat Hassan quoting Amnesty International, in Neva Welton and Linda Wolf, eds., Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century - Stories from a New Generation of Activists, (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2001), p. 214.

To paraphrase Hamlet: there are more things in Pakistan, Pitafi sahib, than are dreamt of in your ideological dogmas.

As for the other two "factual criticisms," neither has any bearing whatsoever on Manji's argument. Pitafi notes that Edward Said was a Christian, not a Muslim. But since Manji had never said or implied that Said was a Muslim, the "criticism" falls flat on its face. Pitafi then goes on to criticize a film by Akbar Ahmed that Manji had praised in the book. Not having seen the film, I have nothing to say here except that a critique based on minutiae like this is bound to be pretty weak chai.

And that turns out to be the sum total of Pitafi's review. The sheer blustering incompetence of it would only be worth ignoring if it didn't appear in a major newspaper in a major Pakistani city-in Lahore, supposedly the cultural and intellectual capital of Pakistan (and I might add, my family's hometown). There should be something disconcerting about the fact that a location like that should produce trash like this. But it has-and, in publishing a regular column by Farrukh Khan Pitafi, it regularly does. Indeed, Pitafi himself inadvertently manages to explains why. How did he manage to get his hands on Manji's book in the first place? "I managed to get its copy from a friend who recently came from the west." I suppose we can infer that the book is not readily available at Feroz Sons on The Mall. And that, I think, is part of the problem here.

"The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others," wrote J.S. Mill in On Liberty,

so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers-knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter-he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

This is the habit that the Farrukh Khan Pitafis of Pakistan (and throughout the Muslim world) so conspicuously lack. And perhaps we should go easy on them when we survey the obstacles they face. To collate one's views with those of others, one has to have reliable access to contrary views. How much access can one have if the only way of acquiring it is to ask your friends to smuggle books into the country from elsewhere?

But I am not inclined to go that easy on them, either: Pakistan suffers from a bit of censorship, but it is censorship of a fairly porous and sporadic variety. So the failure here is as much a matter of censorship as it is a matter of intellectual integrity. Saturated in arrogance but incapable of producing arguments worthy of junior high school, the Pitafis of the Pakistani intellectual scene (and not all of them, I should add, live or work in Pakistan) seek, desperately, "not for objections and difficulties," but for confirmations of their prejudices-confirmations that function as proxies for genuine knowledge. The sheer hostility with which they express themselves-and their ineptitude even at that-is an indication not of genuine conviction, but of the chronic self-doubt that characteristically accompanies fideism. When the chronic self-doubt expresses itself as chronic hostility, of course, the result looks something like Pitafi's review of Manji's book.

The question, ultimately, is less what the Pitafis of the world think than who will succeed them. The nightmare of being replaced in public esteem by a "lecherous" lesbian ijtihadi is perhaps more than such brittle souls can endure. All the more reason to make the nightmare a reality. One person's nightmare, after all, is another person's agenda. In this light, whatever my criticisms, I'm delighted to say that the Manji phenomenon could well be a nightmare come true.


Irshad Manji's website (includes links for book, BBC article, and Pitafi article): http://www.muslim-refusenik.com/ 

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey, and lecturer in politics at Princeton University.