Saturday, January 24, 2004

This could be Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare. Expelled from a madrassa (Koranic school) when she was 14, Irshad Manji’s pretty face, sans scarf, graces the cover of her new book and its title — “The Trouble with Islam” — is written inside a strip of duct tape placed over her mouth.

“The reason for our stony silence vis-a-vis September 11,” she says, “is because Muslims are afraid to explore rationality. We have to rediscover independent thinking, which our religion does not tolerate. Islam has to come to terms with diversity. No one can be immune from universal human rights. The ill-treatment of women, Jew-bashing and the scourge of slavery are all part of fundamentalist Islam.”

The book, published in the U.S. this month (St. Martin’s Press), is a Muslim woman’s call for reform of her faith. Her parents were refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda. They moved to Vancouver and Miss Manji was sent to a local madrassa at age 8. “Women are inferior and Jews are treacherous,” were the two messages “drummed into us as children.” She kept asking questions and the teacher kept on repeating that this was conduct unbecoming a Muslim girl. When she was 14, she asked him, “Where is the evidence for a Jewish conspiracy against Islam?” That got her expelled from the madrassa.

“If the Koran is a message of peace from Allah, why did his prophet slay an entire Jewish tribe?” she asks.

“Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves,” she explains. 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?”

“Who is the real colonizer of Muslims — America or Arabia?” Miss Manji asks.

It’s clearly Arabia in her mind. “Why are we all being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis?” Her questions are a steady cascade that flow from her key inquiry — what’s wrong with Islam? Miss Manji doesn’t spare the rod. “What’s our excuse for reading the Koran literally when it’s so contradictory and ambiguous?”

This clarion call for a fatwa-free future urges Muslims in the West to take the lead in updating Islam for the 21st century. “Questions about the Koran won’t get us into trouble with Western governments, so why are we afraid?” she asked. She supplied her own answer when she said she had received several death threats.

“We must launch a global, nonmilitary campaign to right the wrongs of our own dogmas,” said the Canadian television personality and writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. “How much longer can we Muslims tolerate the massive human rights violations committed in the name of Ummah (global Muslim community)?” she asked. “I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of God. I can’t stay quiet in front of prejudice, oppression and intimidation.”

Miss Manji, 35, criticized French President Jacques Chirac for the position he took against Muslim girls wearing headscarves at school, which he condemned along with Jewish skullcaps and “large” Christian crosses. She also attacked the Palestinian Authority for squandering foreign funding and said she would be disingenuous if she said Iraq had not further radicalized Islam, because “it has.”

When asked why the Muslim world has failed to produce a Martin Luther King figure to lead Islam out of its current predicament, Miss Manji said, “What we need is a Martin Luther because we need to achieve a counter-reformation to those who claim to be fundamentalist reformers.”

The diminutive angry author believes the time is at hand to give Islam a second chance, “not by sweeping negatives under the rug, but in telling it like it is. Asking questions is our birthright. Freedom to explore means everyone and everything.”

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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