Book Review

The Trouble with "The Trouble with Islam"

Irshad Manji is a Muslim woman living in Canada, and a well-known TV presenter. Now she has written a taboo-breaking book, in which she calls for reforms in the Islamic world. Stefan Weidner reports on "The Trouble with Islam".

​​Irshad Manji is a Muslim woman living in Canada, and a well-known TV presenter. Now she has written a taboo-breaking book, in which she calls for reforms in the Islamic world. Stefan Weidner reports on "The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change."

It takes courage to do what she has done. Irshad Manji breaks every Islamic taboo in the book, while also challenging our prejudices about Islam. What's more, she does so as a Muslim, and not as a Westernised woman preaching from the pulpit of a feminist ivory tower.

Irshad Manji was born into an Islamic family in Uganda in 1969. She fled to Canada with her parents and grew up in Toronto, where she rebelled against her strict father and her narrow-minded education in an Islamic school. Already a Muslim feminist, Irshad Manji then came to realise she was gay, which radicalised her even further.

As the presenter of a show on Canadian Queer TV, she was bombarded with obscene and threatening letters from her alleged co-religionists. Eventually, she was so sickened by it all that she decided to hit back. The result was her book, "The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change", which has just appeared in German translation. (And the publishers seem to think the title is too aggressive for the German market: here, it's been published as “Der Aufbruch”, which one might render as “Starting Afresh”.)

Provocative questions

Ignoring all the unwritten rules of standard, relativist "multicultural" decorum, Irshad Manji gets straight down to hard tacks: Why is Islam misogynistic? Why is Islam anti-Semitic? Why does Islam discriminate against religious minorities? Why is it forbidden in Islam to question religion, the Koran or the prophets? And is the Koran itself really the last word in Islamic wisdom?

Most previous books that raised these issues were either cheap anti-Islamic polemics, or else they regarded the questions as merely rhetorical, endeavouring to demonstrate that Islam is "in fact" neither anti-women nor anti-Semitic, etc.

"Our Islam is anti-Semitic and misogynistic"

Irshad Manji takes a different approach. She addresses her fellow Muslims directly, insisting that it will do no good to avoid facing certain realities. A close look at Islamic and Koran law, she maintains, will force us to realise that "our Islam" is indeed shockingly anti-Semitic and repressive of women, as well as having a tendency to oppress homosexuals and other minorities.

"If my analysis is wrong, can you explain to me why no other religion commits so many terrorist travesties, so many abuses of human rights in the name of God? And can you explain this without pointing the figure at anyone - except a Muslim?"

Manji says she wants to give Islam "one last fair chance". In order to forge links to Muslims who share her views, and to open a forum for discussion, she has now set up her own homepage, under the programmatic title: "www.muslim-refusenik.com ".

A copy of a Western critique

So far, so good - and so simple. Though some readers may be tempted to accept the book at its own self-valuation - as a great blow struck for freedom - Manji in fact makes things a little too easy for herself. Ultimately, though the book is labelled as the work of a "real Muslim", she is merely copying the kind of criticisms so often levelled at Islam by Western writers.

Apart from deploying the rhetorical device of directly addressing an imaginary Muslim reader, Manji has no new arguments to offer. This doesn't mean that the old arguments are necessarily bad ones, but they are less likely to contribute to the reform of Islam she demands than to its abolition. For why bother making reforms when the desired way of life has long been readily available in the Western world? The last chapter of the book bears the provocative title, "Thank God for the West"...

A lack of familiarity with the Islamic world

Sadly, Manji never tells us what religious faith and Islamic tradition actually mean to her personally. One is forced to conclude that it doesn't really mean much; and if this is true, then her whole Islam-critique is no more than an easy exercise in trivial polemic. For all sorts of reasons, many Muslims have a more positive identification with their religion. Manji's “searing indictment” can hardly fail to alienate them pretty quickly.

This holds particularly true for a large majority of those Muslims who live in an Islamic environment, and who cannot just shake off their traditions without having to fear severe social sanctions. Manji seems to forget this, for she speaks only for Islamic migrants in the West, and she clearly has little or no personal experience of the Islamic world. Muslims in Islamic countries do not have the option of simply rejecting all of Islam’s most basic tenets. As they are faced with considerable resistance within their own societies, the best that can be expected is that they may gradually develop a more humane interpretation of their Islamic faith. Seen from this perspective, Manji 's book hardens entrenched attitudes on both sides, rather than softening or transcending them.

Much food for thought - and discussion

A further annoyance in the German edition is the presence of numerous misprints; Averroes, for example - Ibn Rushd - is bizarrely Americanised into "Ibn Rush". The book is also lazily researched. Baghdad, for example, was founded by the Abbassidians in the year 762; Irshad Manji, however, describes its history as follows: "When the Muslims arrived in Baghdad, this ancient Babylonian city already boasted an educated Jewish elite, which the Caliph could draw on as a pool of political and economical advisors."

At this point, even the most reformist of Muslim readers might be tempted to slam the book shut. Though such a reader could hardly be blamed, it's a pity nonetheless; for Manji's book offers a wonderful opportunity to discuss everything that's normally left unmentioned out of sheer politeness.

Stefan Weidner © Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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