(story by Mac)
Meet the woman who is, according to Time Magazine "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare. . .": Irshad Manji. Westerners who struggle to wrap their brains around the vicious tenets of radical Islam, should learn her name - it offers new hope in the innate goodness of the human spirit.
Manji is in fact a Muslim, and a self-identified feminist. She also embraces much of the philosophy of the conservative policy makers in the West. . . She is for example a supporter of Israel, and a critic of Palestinian aggression. She believes the National Organization for Women (U.S.) is not a pro-woman organization so much as a radical-left one. She has made a career out of warning the West about radical Islam, and advocating to young Muslims for a new direction in their faith.
Manji is a native of Uganda, from which she fled in her youth, and eventually settled in Vancouver with her sister. There, she continued her madressa education, and also enrolled in public secular school. She found herself ultimately booted from the madressa for "asking too many questions" - something discouraged in traditional Islam.
But she maintains that it wasn't always discouraged. Prior to the 11th century, questioning and critical thought was in fact a part of Islam, much as today it is part of Christianity and Judaism. Believing that a faith comfortable in its value can withstand critical questioning, Manji uses her talents for writing and public speaking to challenge moderate Muslims to re-adopt the Islamic concept of ijtihad
- critical thought and discussion of politico-theological concepts. She believes that Muslims living in the West are in the best position to re-discover ijtihad:
. . . “it is here that we have the precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged on matters of religion, without fear of government reprisal." . . .
In person, Irshad Manji is surprisingly warm and funny. One is immediately struck by her humor, and more, her intelligence. After listening to her for a short time, one realizes the depth of her fearlessness. She - as do so many outspoken Muslims - knows the daily fear of constant death threats from fellow Muslims. (One of her good friends is author Salman Rushdie.) Her apartment features bullet-proof windows. But she laughs when she speaks of these realities of a life lived standing up against the radical-Islamist status-quo.
Manji has long worked as a writer, but her reputation exploded with the publication of her book, "The Trouble With Islam Today". Today, she travels around the world, speaking to Muslims about the importance of reconciling their faith with a modern world, and moving forward into progress rather than remaining economically backward and societally static, as radicals would like to. She enjoys most speaking to groups of college students. But inevitably at these occasions she feels the most part of her audience is silenced by fear of the vocal "jihadists" present. After a presentation, she always has "someone" come and whisper in her ear as she signs a book, "Thank you.." for her message. She has learned to immediately reply, "Why are you whispering?" She wants to encourage moderate Muslims to stop fearing the radicals - feeling that if moderates can learn to be vocal, they will win freedom to speak out and to find new ways of practicing their faith.
This spring, Manji will be part of the Secular Islam Summit in the U.S. - believed to be the first ever of its kind. Its aim will be to bring together secular moderate Muslim leaders from around the world, in the effort to discuss ways of interpreting Islam in the modern world. She is currently at work finishing up a PBS documentary, "Faith Without Fear".
"The trouble with Islam today is that literalism is mainstream.
Even moderate Muslims take the Koran as the final word of God: unfiltered, unchanged and unchangeable. This supremacy complex inhibits us from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. Such a path can lead only to a dead end of more violence. . . "
In the Muslim community, Manji has big fans, and harsh critics. Her fans point to her fresh ideas for the advancement of a new and peaceful Islam; her critcs, somewhat predictably, point to her failure to know her place as a woman, and to her "pro-Zionist" politics. Whatever one thinks of her personal politics, one cannot argue that she is one Muslim whose voice is making sense to the most adversarial Western ears. Manji is an intellectual spitfire to be reckonned with. Her charm and energy light up a room. . . and may just help light the way for a new generation of Muslims.