Saturday, August 12, 2006

One gutsy lady!

I read Irshad’s book, Trouble with Islam Today - A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, a few years ago when it was published. A very interesting book. I highly recommend this book to everybody. Here’s a July’06 interview with her by Times of India which I got from Irshad’s official website....

“Allah is perfect; Allah’s interpreters are not” Author, journalist and activist Irshad Manji has received death threats since appearing on British television: she is a lipstick lesbian, a Muslim and scourge of Islamic leaders. Priyanka Dasgupta lifts the veils off the refusenik

The New York Times has dubbed Irshad Manji “Osama Bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” She takes that as a compliment. Irshad is the best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.

A self-confessed lesbian, she also travels the globe to lecture about the liberal reformation of Islam. Her audiences include Amnesty International, the United Nations Press Corps, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, the International Women’s Forum and universities from Cambridge to Notre Dame. Oprah Winfrey honoured Irshad with the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction.” Her livewire critiques have evoked severe reactions. One of the reactions posted on her website says, “I swear by Allah that some brothers are planning to take action against you. . . Just as Van Gogh was taken care of. This is your last warning.”

Theo Van Gogh was the Dutchman who made a film criticising the treatment of women under Islam and was stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street. His killer left a note threatening others in the name of radical Islam.

Irshad’s Toronto home now has bullet-proof windows. Currently, Irshad is based at the Yale University as a visiting fellow with the International Security Studies program. She is also making a feature film on Islam.

The New York Times had once described you as the biggest threat to Osama Bin Laden. If you were to ever meet Osama, what would you tell him?

• I would introduce ‘Osama Uncle’ (as good South Asian girls might say) to a 26-year-old British Muslim of Pakistani heritage. This young man recently left the jihadist terror network because he says that my work compelled him to re-think. After the introductions, I would sit back and let this former terrorist tell Osama Uncle what he needs to hear.

Would you attribute your growing up in Canada as being a huge influence to your way of thinking?

• I would say that the seminal influence on my thinking is the experience of being a refugee. I value the spiritual journey far more than the destination. That’s why I can appreciate the ambiguity of the Quran, even though it’s drilled into the heads of little Muslim boys and girls that Islam is the “straight path”. It may be straight, but it’s also very wide.

Why are so many fundamentalists opposed to such a progressive idea of creative thinking as Ijtihad?

• There are at least two kinds of Muslim fundamentalists who oppose ijtihad, Islam’s tradition of creative reasoning. One camp despises independent thinking because it challenges established power structures. Quite simply, they fear losing the personal privileges that come from a certain interpretation of the Quran. What they see as divinely created, such as Sharia law, is actually man-made. Therefore, the responsibility to update laws for the 21st century rests in the hands of Muslims, not God. But many fundamentalists believe that to acknowledge this is to demean God. To them I say: Allah is perfect; Allah’s interpreters are not. A second camp actually exercises a crude form of ijtihad, even as it threatens others for doing so. These are violent jihadis, who turn their backs on traditional, non-violent interpretations by cobbling together their own conclusions. Then they actively prevent others from drawing their own conclusions, threatening to rape, torture, or murder those who disagree with them. They’re the reason I must have bullet-proof windows at home, bodyguards in certain parts of the world, and a policy about living near police stations — one of the criteria for determining my address at Yale University.

So how does one propagate the theory of creative reasoning?

• But the answer, in my view, is not to leave ijtihad to the self-appointed ‘experts’. Such elitism only cements the pattern of submissiveness that afflicts the contemporary Muslim mind — an affliction that stops too many reformist Muslims from speaking up as extremists take over. The answer, I believe, is for open societies like Canada and India to democratise the practice of ijtihad while using all the legal tools at our behest, including criminal codes, to nail those individuals who preach hate in God’s good name. In early June, after 17 Muslim men in Canada were arrested for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack, I publicly asked my country’s law enforcers and justice officials why it’s taken so long to prosecute the people who spread radical Islamist ideologies. Canada has used the criminal code to deport a Holocaust denier on the one hand and a Hitlerloving Aboriginal leader on the other, but has never gone after Hindu-bashing, women-scorning, minority-mincing Islamist preachers. Why not? So far, no answer. The problem is not too much ijtihad; it’s too much hypocrisy in treating those who abuse it.

What will be your message to the fear-ridden people of our country?

• Ultimately, my message is about more than reforming Islamic practice. It’s about fighting the forces that seek to turn any of us — Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, even atheists — into robots for received wisdom. Let us remember that we don’t cease to be individuals merely by belonging to identifiable groups. Let us lose the false — and dangerous — assumption that just because human beings are born equal, cultures are too. Cultures aren’t born. They’re constructed. Finally, let us bear in mind that the universality of human rights is premised on the dignity of the individual, not the sanctity of culture. When we sanctify that manmade construct called culture, we’re actually damning it. We drain culture of the dynamism that individual creativity injects. We wind up with groupthink otherwise known as fundamentalism.

Irshad speak:

Fundamentalism is about where you wind up — and staying there.

Pluralism is about enjoying, but also learning from, the twists and turns in the path.

What I fear are not people, creatures, or events. I fear complacent states of mind, especially passivity — the intellectual, artistic and spiritual sluggishness that comes from losing faith in ourselves as individuals.

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