Muslims need critical thinking – Irshad Manji

Interview by Dirk Verhofstadt

Irshad Manji is a Canadian journalist and lesbian feminist. As a believing Muslim she is fearless in confronting the crimes and hypocrisies of the self-appointed leaders of her religion. With her book The Trouble with Islam she joins the growing number of female Muslims that condemns the oppression of women in the Muslim world. Her call for ‘critical thinking and independent reasoning’ reads like an open letter to the Muslim world. Manji offers a practical vision of how we can help Muslims undertake a reformation that empowers women, promotes respect for religious minorities, and fosters a competition of ideas. Her book will inspire struggling Muslims worldwide to revisit the foundations of their faith. The Trouble with Islam is now on sale in a Dutch translation in the Netherlands and Belgium. Liberales staff member Dirk Verhofstadt had an exclusive interview with Irshad Manji in Antwerp.  

What is the trouble with Islam?  

Irshad Manji: The problem with Islam today, in a word, is literalism. Literalism is a commitment to strict exactness of words or meanings in reading or interpretation. Every religion has its share of literalists. But the difference is that only in Islam today literalism is mainstream. We Muslims, even here in the West, believe that because the Koran comes after the Torah and the Bible, it is therefore the final and perfect manifesto of God's will. Even moderate Muslims will say to one another that the Koran is not like any other holy book. It’s like a God 3.0 and there shall be nothing after it. It’s a dangerous supremacy complex, because when abuse happens under the banner of religion most Muslims, included those with University degrees, have no clue how to challenge Islam. They don't have to think and critical thinking skills need not apply. We were never able to question the Koran.  

What are your recommendations for breaking Islam out of its current state?

Irshad Manji: We urgently need an ‘Operation Ijtihad’. Islam was not always so close minded. During the ‘Golden age’ - between the 9th and 11th century - there existed a tradition of critical thinking in the Muslim world. For example in Cordoba in Spain there existed 70 libraries. Cordoba took its place as one of the most cultural centers of the medieval world. The height of Muslim learning in Europe was reached during the time of philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the 12th century. Ijtihad is the Islamic tradition of critical thinking and independent reasoning. Now we have to re-discover it precisely to update Islam for the 21st century. The opportunity to update is especially available to Muslims in the West, because it's here that we enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged without fear of state reprisal. In that sense, the Islamic reformation has to begin in the West. I propose a non-military campaign to promote individual approaches to Islam, to re-discover our traditional critical thinking. 

You also refers to the ideas of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. Can you explain why?  

Irshad Manji: ‘Operation Ijtihad’ centrals around liberating the entrepreneurial challenges of Muslim-women through micro-business loans. These are a sort of micro-investments. The whole idea here is to give women the resources to start businesses, so that they will earn their own assets, and with those assets they can teach their own children. They can start their own schools, what’s happening now in some parts of Kabul. The bottom-line to all of this is that when women has their own assets, they can read the Koran by themselves. Then they will discover verses in the Koran that imams will never tell them about. For example, the Koran says that women has the right to negotiate the conditions of marriage. But women are never told about those verses. This would allow them to interpret them themselves.  

You call yourself a 'Muslim-refusenik'. What does it mean?

Irshad Manji: This does not mean that I reject to be a Muslim, but I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah. This is why the spirit of my book is about questioning. It challenges Muslims worldwide to end human rights violations committed against women and religious minorities in the name of Islam. It also calls for an end to anti-Semitism which has no basis in the preaching of the Koran.  

Are you religious?  

Irshad Manji: I don’t really need to be religious but I think I’am spiritual. There are certain rituals associated with Islam that I do practice because they speak to my integrity. For example I fast during the month of Ramadam because It helps me build character, discipline and empathy with the poor. These are values I believe in. I give ‘Zakat’, the system of charity under Islam. Those who have wealth give it away to those who do not. This rotation of wealth is a way to balance social inequality. I give more that is expected from me actually. But, at the same time, I do not pray in the conventional Muslim way. I did that until my mid-twenties but I realised that this was nothing more than an insignificant ritual. And I care enough about my relationship with God to inject it with more meaning which is why I have still spontaneous conversations with my creator. And finally, I refuse to do the pilgrimage to Mecca as long as Mecca excludes Jews and Christians for being on it soil. I don’t need to be religious in order to feel very comfortable to be a Muslim.  

Nahed Selim, a Dutch author with Egyptian roots, wrote that a lot of stipulations in the Koran were written by men in order to oppress women. Do you agree?  

Irshad Manji: Certainly much of the interpretations of the Koran has been go through men. But this was not always the case. During the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam women participated to society. The hope for me is that we reopen the gate to ‘Ijtihad’. I’m not interested to return to the imperialist desires of the Muslims and the idea that Muslims are superior towards other people as was the case during the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam, but rather in freedom of expression and exploration.  

Homosexuality is not permitted in Islam. How do you reconcile your open homosexuality with your faith?  

Irshad Manji: I’m openly gay, that’s true, but not arrogant gay. I even accept the possibility that my creator reject my homosexuality as a sin, but only he can make that judgment. Meanwhile, those Muslims who challenge me, has to read the stipulations in which they believe themselves. The Koran says that everything God created is ‘excellent’ and that noting that God has created is ‘in vain’. If the creator did not wish to create me, a lesbian, then why didn't he create somebody else in my place? And given how explicit the Koran is that God has deliberately designed the world's breathtaking multiplicity, I wonder how my critics can justify their utter condemnation of homosexuality. You know what? I’m not seeking their approval. I don’t care if they accept me as a lesbian. I don’t care because they are not the arbiters of my life. 

Is the Islam compatible with the idea of the separation between religion and state?  

Irshad Manji: To be honest, I don’t know. The Koran says nothing about the proper form of government. If the Koran is a document approved by God, either in whole or in part, that silence is deliberate,  and if that silence is deliberate that must mean that we have room to manoeuvre, to innovate and to experiment with the different forms of government. So in theory Islam is compatible between the separation of belief and state. In reality it is the real task. That’s the reason why I follow with such interest the situation Iraq and Afghanistan where new constitutions have been introduced. In both countries they introduced women’s rights and in the case of Iraq even the right to disbelieve in Islam. But will the judiciary in both of these countries be independent enough to recognize that any interpretation of sharia is human made and not God made. I don’t know the answer, time will tell. 

In France they approved a law that forbids public servants and teachers in public schools to wear veils and remarkable religious signs. What’s your opinion about this?  

Irshad Manji: As a North-American (Manji actually lives in Canada, nvdv) I don’t think it should be a crime to present yourself as a person of faith. As long as you are not infringing upon de basic rights of other people, and as long as it is in fact a choice, people may wear what they want. The real problem is that in to many cases the wearing of a hijab is not a choice. It is imposed upon women by the men in their life. According a survey a few days before the acceptance of that law in France, a majority of the Muslim women said that they supported the ban on the hijab. Not because they opposed the hijab, but because they opposed the violence and the intimidation that they experienced at the hands of men who insisted that they wear the hijab. A lot of Muslim men consider their wife as a property. Women in this part of the world have the choice to make up their own mind. In to many parts of the Muslim world, including the Muslim communities in the West, they have no choice. I want to make my own choice.  

Do Muslims consider women as inferior?  

Irshad Manji: Yes, I think most Muslims do, and in fact they are in a inferior position. Many Muslim women will not consider themselves as inferior but wear a veil because they feel as dignified human beings. Because they want to protect themselves against staring and judging by men. If women are so dignified, why is it the burden of women to cover up, in order to protect themselves from the stares of men? Why can’t be accepted from men to control their own instincts or animal behaviour? This is a question that I have never heard a satisfactory answer from a Muslim women. And I will continue to ask that question. We urgently need an operation ‘Ijtihad’ to liberate Muslim women from their inferior status.  

A lot of people in the Arabic world oppose to Israel. What’s your opinion about this attitude?  

Irshad Manji: I spent some time in a ‘madressa’, an Islamic religious school. The teaching curriculum was characterized by two themes: women are inferior and Jews are treacherous. My visit to Israel in the summer of 2002 was something very eye opening. Most Muslims who oppose the existence of the Jewish state of Israel are influenced by a lot of propaganda about the victimization of the Palestinian people. I’m not denying that Palestinians  have been victimized, not at all. But they are also victimized by their own leadership and not just by Israelis. For example, since 1937-1938 any proposal for an independent Palestinian state was rejected by the Palestinian leadership, and therefore they never consulted the Palestinian people. Is this democratic? It is also worth pointing out that Arab countries support the fight of the Palestinians against Israel, but in Lebanon it is against the law for Palestinians to own property or to have a full time job. After the first Golf war the Kuwait government banished 300.000 Palestinians as a way to punish them because of the support from Arafat to Saddam Hussein. My point is that there is so much hypocrisy in the Arab world. I hope that more Europeans take a public stand to denounce Islamic extremism and not just Israel’s extremism.

 In most European countries right wing parties are successful. They oppose to foreigners in general and to Muslims in particular. What’s your opinion about this?  

Irshad Manji: This is a sad evolution. But non-Muslims westerners have also to stop silencing and censuring themselves. The Koran cannot longer be taken literally by Muslims and multiculturalism can not longer be taken literally by non-Muslims. Amin Malouf, the Arab-French novelist put it beautifully when he said ‘traditions deserve respect only in so far they themselves are respectable’. We cannot accept murders of honour, religious circumcisions, enforced marriages or other forms of oppression of women. Some people say: this is our or their culture! This cannot be an excuse. People have to take their responsibilities. I don’t support right wing parties not only because they hate immigrants but also because they reject homosexuals, single mothers and so on.  

What are your expectations as to how this book will be received when it finally does get published in the Arab world?  

Irshad Manji: (laughing) To be honest, I don’t think I will find an Arabic language publisher. But I will post  an Arabic version of my book on my website (see http://www.muslim-refusenik.com) by the end of this year. And I try to distribute it in the Arabic world on audio cassettes. Underground yes. If Khomeini could spread his revolutionary ideas by that way, why would a young Muslim from the west not do the same?  

Aren’t you afraid for your life?  

Irshad Manji: (seriously) Absolutely not. There is a reason to be. At home in Toronto I have a top of the line security system, bullet proof windows and a bodyguard and this after recommendation of the police. I’m not afraid at all because I feel I’m doing for the right reasons. I don’t think I’m gonna die because of this, but if I do I can tell you that I would be very happy to have lived with great purpose.    

Interview by Dirk Verhofstadt