Tuesday 16 February 2010

The Trouble with Islam (Review)

'I propose that, as a guiding value, we in the West agree on individuality. When we celebrate individuality, we let most people choose who they are, be they members of a religion, free spirits or both. For a lot of Europeans, individuality might ring too much of American individualism. It doesn't have to. Individualism - I'm out for myself - differs from individuality - I'm myself, and my society benefits from my uniqueness.'

Very few times I find articulate answers to a particular conundrum in a piece which, at first sight, might be unrelated to my initial dilemma. But this paragraph, included in Irshad Manji's highly controversial book 'The Trouble with Islam', had me wondering whether the Uganda-born Canadian writer was addressing the Cuban Parliament instead of her fellow Muslims.

'The Trouble with Islam' is an open and impassioned letter written by a woman who feels her religion is in peril. It's a wake-up call for Muslims everywhere to move away from what she calls - rightly or wrongly, it's up for you to decide - 'foundamentalism', that is, the accepted assumption that the only Islam to be practiced is that one coming from the Arabic states, specifically Saudi Arabia.

Irshad Manji doesn't mince her words. Her language is emphatic and provocative. In chapters such as 'Operation Ijtihad' this works wonders:

'Here's what I'd picked up so far. Muslims constantly exhibit a knack for degrading women and religious minorities. Could both of these troubles be tackled at the same time? (...) First, trade has always helped grease the wheels of the good relations among Muslims, Jews and Christians. Second, there's no prohibition in the Koran against women becoming businesspeople. My tentative conclusion: God-conscious, female-fueled capitalism might be the way to start Islam's liberal reformation.'

However in other passages I found her approach too Michael Moorish without the effectiveness that makes the American documentary-maker so feared and reviled by rightwing commentators. For instance, Irshad's visit to Israel in 2002 lasted only a couple of days but takes up more than sixty pages. Her comparison between her treatment at the hand of her Jewish hosts and that of their Muslim counterparts comes across more as a rant than as a balanced analysis, even if it's her experience that informs the two chapters.

Born in Uganda in 1968, Irshad Manji arrived in Vancouver, Canada in 1972 at the age of four with her family and settled in a middle-class suburb in Richmond. The first encouraging sign in 'The Trouble with Islam' that Irshad's view of the world and specifically of her past, is far from dim is her blunt criticism of how the black natives were treated by her fellow Muslims in her country of birth: 'like slaves'. Throughout her career, whether as host of Toronto-based Queer Television or Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, Manji incessantly has asked difficult questions on matters of race, religion and human rights. No wonder she has received several death threats. She has become in the words of The New York Times: 'Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare'.

'The Trouble with Islam' can also be included amongst a group of books about religion that will make atheists such as me ponder the importance of faith for believers. Here's Manji on how distancing herself from tradition helped her reconnect with Islam:

'The more the mosque felt like the madressa, the less I attended. I started to decentralize my faith, cultivating a personal relationship with God rather than assuming it had to be mediated through a congregation. In that spirit, I prayed in solitude ("bowing alone", as the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, might say).'

Atheists will read that last sentence and probably cringe at the level of submission involved. We often wonder why one would need religion at all. Yet, if there's a lesson I've learnt in the last ten years or so is that many believers (and I'm referring to the three Abrahamic faiths here) reject the 'bearded men' wholeheartedly. Read the reaction from the Catholic community recently to the Pope's comment about the new equality bill being debated in the British parliament. Or the support from the Jewish community for the recent ruling by the supreme court on the Jewish Free School's admission policies. On both occasions, the moderate and reformist voices shouted down the traditionalist ones. And the key to that stand? That personal relationship with God that Irshad mentions in the passage quoted above.

'The Trouble with Islam' is a very relevant book for our times. Especially when Switzerland, that paradise of calmness, grazing cows and hand-painted landscapes, has voted against the building of minarets and Sarkozy, in France, is thinking of banning the niqab in public. Manji's proposal, that the Muslim Diaspora embark on what she calls 'Operation Ijtihad', is timely. More so, when one learns of the many technological and scientific advances achieved during Islam's golden age, between the 8th and 13th centuries. For Irshad this means taking the phrase 'Allāhu Akbar' more personally, maybe even changing it to 'I'm the greatest'.

Copyright 2010

Note: The clip below is part of Irshad Manji's film tour for 'Faith Without Fear', a documentary charting the Canadian author's journey through the Arabian peninsula and the Netherlands in an attempt to debate with fellow Muslims about Islam's place in our world today. It was my first brush with Irshad's oeuvre and although it did not result unfortunately in a public screening at my previous workplace (an arts centre) it did motivate me to buy her book and seek out this documentary. I recommend both.

Next Post: 'Road Songs (Special Edition)', to be published on Thursday 18th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. oh, boy... does she enjoy the spotlight.
    gutsy gal this woman.
    tip of the hat to her.

    and yes, the world will be a much better place without religions.

    ask god.
    you'll see!

  2. Good morning London!
    It has been encouraging, recently, to hear more than just a solitary voice rising from the Islamic community decrying Saudi-style fundamentalism.
    Tarak Fatah, the head of the Canadian Islamic Congress has denounced the wearing of the veil as 'medieval' and the highest Islamic authority in Egypt plans to ban its use on the university campus of Al-Azhar, stating that 'it has nothing to do with Islam'. His view is that it is a tribal custom and has no religious significance.
    If it is difficult to imagine the Catholic church embarking on such a campaign of oppression and opposition (as Islamic fundamentalists), it is not hard at all to picture the ensuing uproar from that community. Either the Muslim community has been slow to dissent, or it has taken prominent figures like Ms. Manji to pull media focus away from the sensationalism of the other side.
    Let's hope that more voices are added to the chorus, and that the rabid minority, which has received far too much attention, are beaten back into the corner where they belong.
    Thanks for this relevant and interesting post.

  3. Hola Cuban In London.

    What if I am a Muslim, a woman, veiled in public, will not leave the house without my husband's permission, and my husband is bearded and I am being called a fundamentalist and traditionalist, which I am, well I may not be a traditionalist but I am a fundamentalist, but being a fundamentalist makes me a really, really bad person.

    What if I am not in Saudi Arabia, but being called a Saudi copycat and condemned and the way I dressed is declared wrong, and hated, to the point that they want to ban my right to cover myself as I wish. And to make it worse for me, the call to prohibit me is not just by non-Muslims but also by fellow Muslims.

    What if I am so, where do I find my voice, where do I go, if I can't be at the place where I thought basic human rights are triumphed. Who do I ask for help to keep my personal and private rights, when the people whom I thought cherish individuality and personal freedom, think I am rabid and want to beat me back into the corner where they think I belong.

    My son, who is only seventeen, sometime complain or explain something to me, would start off by saying, Mom, the trouble with human being is.... I pray he is not right.

  4. Now that the words "individualism" and "individuality" have been explained, perhaps someone will concentrate upon establishing a definitive word for "minding one's own business."

    The problem, as I see it from my vantage point here in Fólkvangr, is not what you believe or what I believe in a personal sense, rather, it is when you or I decide this is what the man or the woman next door should believe and practice. If the religious person and the atheist alike would be satisfied to live with their beliefs in a state of content silence, there would be no religious disputes or wars.

    It is only because there appears to be an innate desire -- perhaps even a drive with a strength equal to the desire for food, drink and sex -- which requires some people not only to try to convince their neighbors that their way is the "right way and the only way," but that compels them to demand it of their neighbors under a threat of violence.

    In short, no one needs to be "beaten back into the corner where they belong," either literally or figuratively. The only thing any of us must do is to understand the concept of humility, to accept and to acknowledge our own individuality, and to learn when to keep our mouths shut.

    Fascinating post, CiL.

  5. Still in my lunch hour but I felt compelled to write my own thoughts.

    My answer to you Ocean Girl is by way of an example. This will helpfully clarify my position and where I stand on religion's right to (self) expression.

    A few years ago France passed a law whereby religious symbols could not be worn in civic centres. I agreed with that law.

    Now Sarkozy wans to ban the niqab or veil in public places. I am against such measure.

    Why do I agree with the former and not the latter? Because of what you wrote, Ocean Girl. A civic centre represents a country democratic institutions - whether they are flawed or not, that's not my point - whereas a park, for instance, symbolises a place where you can go to relax or sit down and read a book. The civic centre represents society at a basic human level, in fact by banning religious, you encourage people to look at you first as a human and then as anything else: bald, redhead, black, fat. It doesn't matter. The ban on wearing the niqab in public will backfire with people who, like you, choose to wear it. And that's where this whole veil malarkey gets interesting. I don't agree with Irshad (never mentioned in my review that everything she wrote in her book is accepted by me, in fact, there are some contentious passages which I never wanted to put forward for fear of being offensive) on the whole hijab issue. Unless you are forced to wear such garment (and for that read my previous review of Azar Nafisi's book 'Lolita in Tehran') nobody has the right to criticise you for making a sound and adult decisions. What fram says corroborates my words. Atheists can also be fundamentalists, unfortunately. One name only: Richard Dawkins. I love his writing, but why the vicious attitude? Leave to the Pope, thank you very much.

    I pride myself, and yes I am tooting my horn now, in having learnt a lot about religion in the last ten years. It has not motivated me to join any yet and I cannot see the situation changing in the near future, but I have discovered a wealth of culture and history in reading about Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, to name a few.

    Many thanks to you all for your comments. Keep them coming.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Once again, Cuban, you prompt me to purchase a book. This one, in particular, has particular resonance for me, having grown up in a fundamentalist family whose beliefs I rejected early. The arc of my beliefs from fundamentalism to rejection of fundamentalism, moving on to an embrace of atheism, and then to an opening to spiritual belief is something I should write about in my blog some day. How this path is traversed by people of vastly different beliefs is already frequently the subject of my fiction, but I have rarely been courageous enough to do what Manji has done in such a public way: declaring what she personally believes in. The stakes are hardly similar since, in her case, her life could be in jeopardy. In mine, I might suffer the distancing of family and acquaintances, but my residence would not need bulletproof windows. I loved how, citing Rushdie, she reflected in her interview on the permanent gift the writer can give to the world: “a thought cannot be unthought.” I liked, too, her distinction between faith and religion, since it is that distinction that has informed the evolution of my spiritual beliefs. Again, thanks for this review.

  7. Cuban, I'm sitting here straddling the fence, asking myself whether or not to comment on this post. I have no problem with what you've written here. It's just a hot topic, and perhaps you can understand it's particularly hot for me. I've read this book... in fact, I read it about 3 years ago, and one of the first things that caught my attention was the fact that Manji was detached from Islamic culture at such an early age, she cannot possibly know how an Islamic society truly functions, terrorists and lunatics aside. And having perceived that, the rest of the reading was... well... wan. I think that if Manji had perhaps made an attempt to reconnect with her true roots, she would have found that most Muslims don't actually need that "congregation". First and foremost is submission to God, so where is her trouble, if that is what she is seeking? Yes, it's the terrorists. Except she's got terrorists and Muslims mixed up, as do many. And so her text is filled with that invective accompanies prejudice against one’s own… usually the highest form of prejudice. Can a person hate who she is more? There are so many contradictions in her book, I lose track of where one stops and the next begins. How about a visit back to Pakistan, or for that matter, any other Muslim country, Manji, rather than remaining cloistered in the snows of your new “home” from which you see only what the media is trying to tell you about that “other” part of the world? We lose something when we pretend we are not who we are…

    And that's all I'm saying about that. Except, of course, that I'd like to mention that your points were well-made, balanced, and not tinged with the slightest hint of prejudice. I do see where you’re coming from. Thank you, Cuban!

  8. To understand what's wrong with Islam, you need to study it's hairy history going back 1400 years and learn its root beliefs and modus operandi. Go to school online free with the Historyscoper and learn all the key facts in a cool compressed format with links. To get started click http://go.to/islamhistory

  9. Fantastic review and also very well-written and balanced thoughts, Cubano. It is indeed a very complicated and relevant issue.

    I will just say that I like the point you make about linking the knowledge and understanding of religions to the incredible and vast wealth of culture behind them. I couldn´t agree more.

  10. I like that opening quotation about individualism, although that latter type does exist in the US too. I’m not too fond of ranting or cultural stereotyping in any form. Still, it’s interesting that a woman is looking critically at Islam’s place in the modern world and thinking of solutions. She’s quite a charismatic speaker.

    Thanks for bringing her message to our attention. Interesting comments too.

  11. I like your intelligent and balanced take on this subject. I am glad you have tackled it and I look forward to more.

    Habristes la cajita de Pandora amigo.

  12. Agree or disagree with her, she is one gutsy woman. This is one of my favorite books and I drew upon her work for some of my masters thesis. I do disagree with her on some points and I don't think that all Muslims who adhere to traditional/fundamental beliefs are bad - only those who do so without coming to that belief system from their own self reflection. That is the crux of her argument -- that THINKING is crucial to any community and that ideologies followed blindly are fodder for exploitation by those with ulterior motives.

    I got to meet her a few years ago when I co-organized a campus visit to Chicago and she is just an amazing individual.

  13. this post, these comments, quite engaging and thought-provoking. thank you and you all!

    i like that interjection about "michael moorish" -ness. gives me cause to compare, consider, and observe based on past and future readings or film viewings.

    i'm going to stand firm by my long-running thought and now "out load" declaration that yours is one of the best blogs in existence. your thought process is captivating.

  14. surely the title alone will get her in very hot water - sounds a very interesting and provocative book..thanks and greetings from Mexico

  15. Hello again Cuban,
    Having read the comments to this post - and they are very interesting in their diversity - I have to make something clear about what I wrote so awkwardly earlier.
    It is not that I think there is a 'correct' way to think or an acceptable way to practice one's faith. My criticism (and my heavy-handed language of 'beating them back into a corner where they belong') is for the fact that Islam appears to have been hijacked by the a minority of Saudi-style clerics, and that the vast majority of Muslims do not subscribe to the brand of fundamentalism that so inflames and frightens not just Western non-Muslims, but moderates within the faith.
    My point, badly made I admit, was that if there were a faction of the Catholic Church actively promoting a similar view (to the Islamic fundamentalists) to the point where the church was almost universally perceived as promoting the same brand of oppression and submission, there would be a backlash from within the Catholic community. (I know, I know, it could be argued that the church is already guilty of that.)

    Whereas the Catholic Church has a centralized bureaucracy and a leader, with a relatively consistent party line and a certain degree of control over its official representatives, Islam does not. The 'rabid few' are free to promote hatred, espouse violence and oppression. They get the press, spike the fear factor, and have no one to answer to. 'Beat them back into the corner where they belong' essentially meant that moderate, faithful Muslims would do well to reclaim their religion from those who misrepresent and sullied a great faith.

  16. Many thanks to you all for your kind feedback.

    Deborah, you don't need to apologise. I understood perfectly well what you meant. I think that the three Abrahamic faiths do fall into dogmas very often when the 'men in beards' (metaphorically speaking, not all of them are heavily hirsute, I know) take over. Laura put it very succinctly: Thinking is the key. And thinking forces one to confront one's own prejudices. It made me deal with my anti-religious views (and no, they have not totally disappeared, but the first step to understand a phenomenon, is to get to know it).

    Greetings from London.



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