Irshad Manji's Flying Leap

At the start of "Faith Without Fear," Irshad Manji's hour-long film documenting her quest to "reconcile faith and freedom" as a Muslim living in the West, sirens wail in the distance as Manji stands before her bullet-proof window surveying Toronto at night. "I can't show you where I live," she says, but she shows us her home security system and the lock on her mailbox to prevent letter-bombs. "My journey is about speaking out against injustice, no matter who's offended," she declares. "I won't abandon my God -- or my voice." She ties on her scarf over her pea coat, sets her security panel for "Away," and steps out to face the cold Canadian evening -- alone.

Manji, who began her career as a political aide and speechwriter, was until recently a television host in Canada. She first grabbed the U.S. spotlight in 2004 with a book called The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. She reassured readers that Islam's problems were serious but fixable, and that the West could play a constructive role in the process of reform. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Andrew Sullivan called The Trouble with Islam a "bracing little book" (of 225 pages) written by the "Lisa Simpson of Islam," and noted that it "does what so many of us have longed to see done: assail fundamentalist Islam itself for tolerating such evil in its midst." The book became an international bestseller and launched Manji as a leading voice of Islamic reform.

In a world with over a billion Muslims, why does Irshad Manji seem so alone? As a critic of Islam at least, she is not. Websites such as Eteraz.org and AltMuslim.com as well as personal blogs by Muslims from all over the world are full of such critiques. They are also full of critiques of Manji, who is often accused of pandering to an Islamophobic mainstream press and focusing the attention garnered by her cause on herself: her religious background, her Canadian diction, her sexuality, her bravery in defying death threats, and her impervious air of righteousness. Arguably, it's the media, or her critics, who focus on these things rather than Manji herself, but they often manage to derail the discussion she wants to have about Islam.

Manji's film, which airs tonight on PBS as part of a controversial 11-part series titled "America at a Crossroads," is an attempt to refocus the attention outside herself. Manji leads us on a sweeping tour of Muslim history and geography, introducing us along the way to Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard, a Muslim woman who lost her daughter in the Madrid bombing, a young rapper in one of Amsterdam's Muslim ghettos, and two women who live in Yemen, where the burqa is de rigeur -- Arwa, a dissident writer who resists wearing it, and Lamya, a green-eyed Californian who sees it as a free expression of her religion. Manji is still the star of the film, but it's a new Manji -- not Manji the preacher but Manji the spiritual seeker, one who is genuinely interested in how other Muslims confront the dilemmas posed by their faith.

Ultimately, she takes us back to the North American present and to her ongoing conversation with Imam Syed Soharwardy, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada and one of her strongest critics. In the process, she makes a compelling case for the necessity of "ijtihad," or what she calls Islam's lost tradition of critical thinking. Without it, she says, Islam will be lost to the literalists and extremists. To further drive home the legitimacy of her critique, she explains: "I'm guided by Chapter 4, Verse 135 of the Qur'an: ‘Believers: conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness before God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your relatives.' That's a call to heed my conscience." And if some people mix her up with Bernard Lewis, then so be it.

Manji herself is no moderate; she's a self-proclaimed "radical traditionalist" who seeks to find both the origins and the solutions to Islam's problems within the faith itself. And she has little patience for moderates, calling them "part of the problem, not the solution." Throughout the film, as she has throughout her career as a public dissident, Manji ponders, she prompts, she provokes, and she irritates. To Manji, the world's complexity calls for nothing if not a loud and clear message to other Muslims, a message also intended for those outside the faith. As she puts it in an open letter to her fellow Muslims at the opening of her book, "We're in crisis, and we're dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it's now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?"

For all her "we," Manji admits that she likes to keep "one foot in and one foot out" of the Muslim community, which may account for why she is so often treated with suspicion by other Muslims, especially progressive ones. Manji's critique of Islam is hardly a new one, as the Muslim activist Rafia Zakaria observed. "Young Muslims are very, very aware that Islam needs to be reformed," she told me in a phone interview. "They're torn between their identity and the desire for reform." And they're put off, she says, by Manji's aggressive public criticism of a community that already feels besieged. The problem with Manji, Zakaria has written, is her "prioritization of what Western audiences want to hear over what Muslims need to hear."

Zakaria, a lawyer who studies political science at Indiana University, is active in several human rights organizations and writes frequently in South Asian publications and on AltMuslim.com about the need for reform. She shares the depth of Manji's concerns about Islamic societies, but hesitates before expounding them in American national media outlets, she says, because "the first people who take it up are [right-wing blogs] Jihad Watch and Little Green Footballs."

Calls for reform from within the faith are essential, she says, and she would like to see more of them in every part of the world. But reformers also need to acknowledge the historical context in which Muslim societies have developed and the reality of Islamophobia today. Without that, she says, it's too easy to become a pawn of reactionaries on both sides trying to work up a "clash of civilizations." For Zakaria, the greatest hole in Manji's credibility is her lack of a presence "on the ground," working on campaigns within Muslim communities. "It's not very glamorous to go into a mosque full of immigrants and speak to them," she says, but "those are the people you have to engage with, whose minds you have to change."

Manji would agree with that. What she and Zakaria disagree on, it seems, is how to engage them. Zakaria, for all her militancy, thinks they need to be coaxed, while Manji thinks they need to be provoked. Her spiky hair and wry demeanor notwithstanding, Manji is hardly the Lisa Simpson of Islam. If anything, she has become the Bill Cosby of her faith, specializing in the loud declamation of unpleasant truths and urging a collective self-reckoning on a beleaguered community. Her provocations do get results -- just as Cosby's did -- beyond the predictable raised hackles and the smug nods. They have both captured an audience and grabbed its attention with a masterfully delivered litany of facts and interpretation. Cosby talked about a 50-percent drop-out rate among African Americans, and he talked about pound cake. Manji talks about how Islam gave the world its first university, and follows it up with the fact that more Muslims have been killed in the past century at the hands of Muslim regimes than at the hands of any Western imperial power.

Manji's website, muslim-refusenik.com, receives more than 300 messages every day, most of them, she says, from young Muslims attracted by her boldness and candor. "I'm not denying Western imperialism, but imperialism can come from many sources," she told me. "You know what? In this society, we are agents of change. We have to speak up." She proffers another Qur'an verse: "God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves."

The progressives watching her, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, wish she would temper her rhetoric to take into account the fact that not everyone feels as much an agent of change in today's world as she does. (Manji flies around the world giving talks to the International Women's Forum and the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, not to mention the Pentagon.) She holds a deep commitment to blunt truth-telling. But as Cosby proved with his speech about pound cake and expensive sneakers, this style of reform comes with an attendant risk of being demonized and lumped with racists. And doing it before an audience of mainstream journalists with dubious agendas may trigger more backlash than effective change.

Manji discounts these arguments with a willful naivete. What bugs her most is not those who demonize her, but those too timid to engage her ideas, whether they are the "moderate" Muslims she decries or well-meaning non-Muslim liberals afraid to criticize Islam. To those who secretly agree with her but fear admitting it, she asks, "Is it popularity or integrity you seek?"

Some of her sharpest critics might find these words ironic coming from the author of a bestselling book with her face plastered on the cover, whose website shows her posing with Eve Ensler, Bono, and Rudy Giuliani. They question the integrity of agreeing to appear in conservative media, as the guest of the right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck. And in her op-eds, such as the one she wrote in The Times of London defending the Pope after his Regensburg speech and another entitled "How I Learned to Love the Wall" (separating Israel from Palestinians; Manji later asserted that the title of the piece got it wrong and was not what she would have chosen), her critics see rhetorical posturing in order to gain popularity by distancing herself from the majority of Muslims. They observe that her references to the frequent death threats made against her have a funny ring coming from someone who asks Muslims to reject the defensive stance of victimhood.

To Manji, these are all things that need to be said, loudly and candidly. "The more urgent priority right now is intrafaith dialogue," she says. "We need to have Muslims debating each other, and showing the rest of the world that Islam is rich with debate." Her attitude has won her many admirers. But is engagement enough to trigger reform? And does it work when the message is delivered through a medium that distorts, whether it's the Glenn Beck Show or Al-Arabiya?

For those sympathetic to her message but doubtful of her sincerity, the announcement that Manji would attend the Secular Islam Summit threatened to be the last straw. The event took place last month in St. Petersburg, Florida in conjunction with a conference organized by the U.S. "intelligence community" and had many of the same attendees. The list of speakers included ex-terrorists like Tawfik Hamid and ex-Muslims like Wafa Sultan, famous for her declaration that "you cannot be American and Muslim at the same time." Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the interfaith Cordoba Initiative, failed to make an appearance, as did Mike Ghouse, the president of the Foundation for Pluralism, who wrote a blog post explaining the decision: "None of us wanted to become tools in the hands of the anti-Islam extremists." The number of practicing Muslims on the list of speakers could be counted on one hand, and many wondered why Manji would choose to be among them.

But those who followed the events of the conference found themselves surprised. Manji gave a speech that took the organizers and participants to task for not making stronger overtures to practicing Muslims, and urged them to seek common ground with believers. An attendee at the conference filed an admiring report on Manji's speech at Eteraz.org, prompting several community members to declare that their opinions of her had changed. Their case for her was bolstered when reports circulated that she had refused to sign the St. Petersburg Declaration because it didn't include language respectful of Islam as a religion. Ali Eteraz, editor of Eteraz.org, went so far as to give her "props" for that, and judging by the comments to his post, Manji is on her way to entering the good graces of the progressive Muslim community.

Her reacceptance comes not a moment too soon. Manji's next big venture, Project Ijtihad, is slated to launch sometime in the coming year, and its success hinges on her ability to lure progressive Muslims into the dialogue she wants to promote. Manji bills herself as the project's "chief catalyst," but she risks becoming its chief distraction. Raquel Evita Saraswati, who is helping to lead the project and has formed a satellite group of her own called Ijtihad Boston, joked that the group's motto, "ijtihad, not jihad," is informally "ijtihad, not Irshad." To build a network of reform-minded Muslims and engage in productive debate, Saraswati says, "takes time." This sounds patient, conciliatory, and rather unlike Manji.

Manji's "Faith Without Fear" ends, somewhat bizarrely, with a shot of her jumping out of a plane and plummeting toward earth in a tandem skydive. It's an apt illustration of her exceptional courage, intellectual as well as physical, sprinkled with more than a little hubris. Manji's faith in our ability to hear her out exhibits a kind of canny madness. Death threats don't scare her, and neither does Glenn Beck. From her current perch on top of the media heap, she insists on speaking the same unvarnished truth to everyone, all the time. With nothing but her miraculous self-confidence and those bullet-proof windows to protect her, she is leaping into thin air. Will the world rise up to meet her? It's a risk she's willing to take.

Madeleine Elfenbein is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

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