The Trouble With Islam
by Irshad Manji
Irshad Manji and her book, The Trouble with Islam — which are quite certain to provoke considerable controversy, especially among Muslim believers — represent poignantly the dilemma of young, born Muslims drawn to the wider secular culture of the West. In a painful narrative, she has retraced her steps from the oppression of the Muslim-hating dictator Idi Amin in Uganda, where she was born into South Asian culture and the Shia sect of Islam, to a distressing superpatriarchal household in British Columbia, and thence to a position of some eminence as an out-front lesbian commentator on Canadian television.
Most of her journey has been tormented. She describes her father, memorably, as chasing her "through the house with a knife." Her relationship with her mother was better. But her involvement in Islam seems always to have been attenuated. Thanks to her parents' need for free babysitting, she was drawn to the Baptist church in suburban B.C., where missionizing was carried out by a woman who shared her South Asian heritage, and at age eight she won a prize as Most Promising Christian.
Soon thereafter, however, her father took her to the local Shia meeting hall, known as a madressa (not the same thing as the notorious full-time religious schools that have become centres of extremist indoctrination for Sunni Muslims). There, she underwent the Shia equivalent of Sunday school, held on Saturdays. Although she continued attending them until age 14, ultimately, she did not fare well with the weekend classes.
For one thing, she expressed a feministresentment over the subordination of woman students. She argued with her religion teacher about the contradiction between calling on girls to pray at the age of nine, with boys beginning at 13 — but then denying females the right to lead prayers. She was not mollified by the rigid answers she got, and raided the religious library and racks of pamphlets in the mosque. The books were "off-limits to ladies without advance approval," she remembers. She "had to persuade a boy . . . to run upstairs on my behalf and secure permission for me anytime I wanted to browse." In this regard, her rebellion against restricted familial and communal horizons is typical of intellectual seekers over the past century.
But she has had quite a ride. Eventually she went to Jerusalem and toured the Dome of the Rock, the oldest major work of Islamic sacred architecture, and the al-Aqsa mosque. She had to contend for permission to enter the second by reciting Fatiha, the first chapter of the Koran, the Islamic scripture, in Arabic, seemingly to satisfy an elderly man at the doorway who demanded proof of her Islamic bona fides. She then visited the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jewish Temple. There, she does not "feel like an interloper. I feel at home. More viscerally than ever, I know who my family is."
She explains this bold, seemingly weighty comment by describing a little Jerusalem boy brought up by Jewish Orthodox pietists, "zip[ping] around on an emblem of consumer cool," namely "a sleek, silver scooter." But her enthusiasm for "a society on the move" seems to have blinded her to the phrases with which she introduced this flash of insight: The child crossed her path in "a dank gathering place carved from stone . . . a playground to which Orthodox mothers felt safe bringing their toddlers, especially after yeshiva (religious school.)"
Was this merely a portrait dashed off, or does Manji really not know that the situation of certain Orthodox Jewish families is viewed by most secular Jews today as just as bad, if not worse, than that of Muslims? Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, like the Muslim women of Saudi Arabia, are forbidden to drive and otherwise function outside their homes. But those Jewish women who suffer under this proscription live in the suburbs of New York and even in Toronto, not in Riyadh. Further on, Manji dismisses Jews "who sequester themselves in yeshivas where they're forbidden to study . . . disciplines from astronomy to philosophy." It does not seem to occur to her that the little boy on the scooter may well end up in such a place.
The impression is, frankly, of someone who wants all religions to operate without rules. Manji states at the beginning of The Trouble with Islam, "free societies allow for the reinvention of self and the evolution of faiths."
But this extremely broadminded and confident attitude, which is characteristic of Northern Europe and Canada, as well as (on paper, at least) the United States, is by no means universally accepted. Israel, which Manji exhorts Muslims to respect and even, it seems, imitate, subsidizes the yeshiva network out of public funds just as Islamic schools are financed in Saudi Arabia. But Manji is also drawn to sympathize with the Palestinians, at one point declaring of Jewish settlers, "I don't pretend to defend those who kindle fires with branches severed from olive trees that Arab farmers have nurtured for decades."
Perhaps inevitably, given her profession, the author has produced an extremely relaxed, even insouciant narrative, in which offhand remarks detract from the seriousness of the issues involved. In addition, this work seems to have been completed in haste. There is a reference to "Muslim complicity in the Holocaust," based on the abominable pro-Nazi antics of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. However, the fact remains that, as Jewish writers have pointed out, the Holocaust mainly occurred in Eastern Europe, which had few Muslims. (Poland and Lithuania do feature some descendants of Tatar invaders who remain followers of the faith of Mohammed; and some of them assisted Jewish partisans against the Nazis. But that is another and much obscurer tale, to say the least.)
If there is one thing that must be said about the present controversy between the three Abrahamic faiths, it is that the threat of a "clash of civilizations" involving the Judeo-Christian and Islamic global communities has made serious history and analysis of these issues more popular and respectable among readers than one might have expected. Manji might have been better served to observe that phenomenon; but also, she may have seen herself as primarily writing for born Muslim youth, since this book begins with a preface directed to "My Fellow Muslims," and claims the literary form of the open letter. At least some of her book is clearly meant to jolt Muslim readers.
There can certainly be no doubt that Muslims, born and otherwise, need to be stimulated to reassess their situation in the world. As Manji notes, control of the holy places of Mecca and Medina by the ultra-extremist Wahhabi sect, the progenitors of al-Qaeda, has influenced too many Muslims in too many countries to blind conformity with the most reactionary ideology imaginable. This has compromised millions upon millions of innocents in terrorism, at least in the eyes of equally innocent, and usually sincere, Westerners. Manji is especially sharp on the gross oppression of the Shia minority in the Saudi kingdom; they happen to be a majority in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
But there are places where Manji's judgments ring too clever, or too popular, by more than half. For example, she enthuses over the U.S. network television psychologist, Dr. Phil McGraw and his host, Oprah Winfrey, in a manner that would make many serious American readers of this volume, regardless of their religion, guffaw with contempt. "Like a sirloin steak," she recalls, "I devoured the story of how Dr. Phil motivated a confused, resentful Oprah for her mission." The "story" turns out to consist of Dr. Phil telling Oprah "it doesn't matter whether your situation is fair or unfair . . . you have to help you, otherwise 'the old boys will hand you your [backside] on a platter.' " What, in reality, does this mean? How does such vague, even incoherent, advice guide an Israeli fearful of suicide terror, a Palestinian Muslim inflamed by extremist preaching, a Saudi woman yearning to rip off the coverings that oppress her, or a Muslim in Canada or the United States trying to find a place in the community?
As demonstrated by her declared fondness for steak, Manji has a voracious appetite for life, as well as for vivid characterizations and criticism. She has bitten off quite a bit, in big chunks, from the general literature on Islam. Some of it is poorly digested; at times it seems as if she has collected and made her own every reproach ever cast at the faith, in the manner of an extremely bright student attempting to stump her instructors. But at the same time her work has the flavour of an attempt to still her own deeper yearnings. What finally should impress the reader is that when Manji was young she wanted to lead the prayers, tried to read the religious classics, and thus sought to be a good Muslim. Her life is particularly complicated by the undeniable appeal she experiences in reading the Koran.
Thus, although she expresses deep disgust at much she ascribes (sometimes, in my view, mistakenly) to Islam as a faith, she writes near the beginning of this book, "I began to regain faith, in both the West and Islam, after the mid-1990s. Praise Allah for the Internet" (a view shared by many other seekers after pluralistic, traditional Islamic views). Manji's The Trouble With Islam only begins to analyze the moral and intellectual dilemmas facing Muslim believers today. One should hope she continues with her faithful reading of the Koran and other texts, and finds a way to declare "the straight path" to be her own, while remaining true to herself in her distinctive, and very Western, way.