Ambassador of Ijtihad

11. September, 2007

Foto: Irshad Manji

The real problem is not Islam itself, it is Muslims. Islam gives us the opportunity and the permission to change, it is we, Muslims, who have to develop the courage to do so.

Interview with Irshad Manji, a journalist and author of a best-selling book The Trouble With Islam Today

You have been awarded many labels, from radical liberal to Osama bin Ladens’s worst nightmare. You call yourself a muslim-refusenik. What do you mean by that?

I did call myself a muslim-refusenik, and you’ve asked me this question at a very interesting moment because I am now literally transitioning away from being a muslim-refusenik. Let me explain what I mean by that, why I adopted it and why I’m now evolving into something different. By „muslim-refusenik” I do not mean that I refuse to be a muslim. That should be obvious – why would somebody who refuses to be a muslim put herself on a front line of so much verbal and other kinds of abuse in order to try and reform her fellow muslims? I’m very much a faithful muslim. By „refusenik” I mean that I refuse to join an army of robots and automatons in the name of God – anybody’s God, including my own.

Of all the labels that have been thrown my way, first and foremost I consider myself a thinker, which allows me to be on a journey every day. If you think, you are constantly evolving, you refuse to become a fundamentalist of any particular identity that anybody – including yourself – tries to assign to you. That’s why I’m very much on a journey. I’m moving now away from being a refusenik to becoming something much more proactive. Notice that „refusenik” means you’re against something. I’m very much „for” something, I’m for moral courage, muslim reform and, ultimately, I’m for independent thinking – which is why I emphasise in my work now Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking known as Ijtihad.

Can you tell us about how your personal journey began, and where are you going now with the Project Ijtihad?

It is hard to know where to begin to describe the journey, in the most obvious ways I am a traveler, a refugee to Canada. I grew up in two types of schools – the regular secular public school of most North American children, and on top of that every Saturday for several hours I attended the Islamic religious school – the madressa – in Vancouver. That is where my own trouble with Islamic teachings began.

There I was told every week that women are inferior and the Jews are treacherous. That did not match my feelings, so I began to ask questions. Very simple questions which were outrageous and irritating enough to my teacher that at the age of 14 I was told in no uncertain terms „Either you believe, or you get out”. When faced with the decision whether to believe lies or to extract myself from a poisonous environment and put myself in another environment where I could learn on my own, namely, the public library (this was the pre-internet days), I decided I had to leave. But, as I explained to my dear mother, I am not leaving Allah. I am leaving the madressa. Very important distinction!

For the next 20 years, I took time to study Islam on my own, in the public library. And I’m so glad I did, because this is when I learned about all the beautiful aspects of my religion. The irony is that if I had remained stuck in that religious school, I would have never been introduced to the positive elements of my own faith. And I say, thank God for the freedom of information! Far from corrupting my faith – which is what my madressa teacher feared would happen – freedom of information saved my faith in Islam. But, if I can just add one more turning point – it also made me a much more accountable muslim, in the sense that now I have to pay attention to my conscience.

I’ll give you a quick example: fast forward 25 years, about 8 months before September 11th 2001. I’m a successful TV producer in Toronto, creating one of the top-rated current affairs programs, it’s December of the year 2000 and I’m exhausted from meeting all of my deadlines and suddenly noticed an envelope on my desk. Inside is a newspaper clipping, telling a story of a 17-year old Muslim girl in Nigeria who is accused of having pre-marital sex. Even though she has gone through the trouble of rounding up not one but seven witnesses to the fact that she’s actually been raped, the authorities who are practising the strict version of the Islamic law – sharia – condemned her to a hundred whippings. I noticed something written in bright red ink on the side of the clipping: „Irshad, one day will you tell me how you reconcile this kind of insanity with you Musilm faith?”. That comment was written by my boss.

At first I thought, how dare you question my religion, who are you?! But a problem with that answer is that it’s passive and a reason to do nothing. Hours later I remember my conscience whispering to me, you have to step out of this denial, this is absolutely the right question to ask you, Irshad. I decided that I have to lower my defenses, widen my eyes and ask myself the final question that has brought me to this point: what else is happening with human rights today in the name of Islam?

At that moment I came to realise a difference between identity and integrity. My identity as a Muslim woman told me to get defensive about the question I was asked, but my integrity as a human being told me exactly the opposite – that it was right to ask me this question, and it was right to feel outrage about this basic human rights violation of a young woman who was raped yet under Islamic law she was accused of being a criminal. I knew that right then and there I had to confront this situation with raw honesty. Ultimately, that is what lead me to write a book.

You describe in your book that one of the first questions to your madressa teacher was „Why can’t girls lead prayer?„ which lead to a frustrating discussion and your expulsion form the school. Are women’s rights and Islam compatible?

It was a great question then, asked by a seven-year old, and it is still a great question now. I told you that I left madressa to study Islam on my own terms, what I haven’t told you yet is what I learned. I discovered that during the Prophet Muhammed’s time there was a female prayer leader, a female imam, as we call it. We just weren’t told about her in madressa. So I knew there was a precedent of women leading prayer. Then the question became, why are we routinely told that we cannot lead the prayer?

The most common answer has nothing to do with Islam at all. It has to do with a cultural tradition – in Arabia, this tradition is known as honor. Basically, women are told that you can lead female prayers but you cannot lead mixed gender prayers because when you bow down, your – excuse me – rear end will be up in the air and men will become distracted, their concentration will be broken, their piety will be diluted and their attention will be concentrating on your body.

The problem I have with this argument is that it treats men as children, as if they are incapable of controlling their behavior. And when you consistently treat a large group of people – in this case, men – as if they are weak, it automatically instills in them two things: a victim mentality (no wonder there’s so much anger among men within Islam!), and a sense of immunity, that they can get away with every abuse of power without being held accountable – after all, they’re weak, so how can you hold them responsible for controlling their own behavior!

Until we as muslims address the issue of making women bearing the burden of reputation that also men have some responsibility for, until we confront that issue, we will never get to the heart of why so much abuse is happening in the name of Islam. This really goes to show that the real problem is not Islam itself, it is Muslims. Islam gives us the opportunity and the permission to change, it is we, Muslims, who have to develop the courage to do so.

But what is Islam – what is any religion – except that which it’s adherants make of it? The Prophet Muhammed was asked what is religion. He offered a very simple but not simplistic definition. He said, religion is how you conduct yourselves towards others. What it means is that it is the way it’s practised that matters, not what the theories are, but the way the believers implement that religion. It is good news because it means it is within the power of muslims to restore humanity to one of the worlds noble religions. We, Muslims, have to extricate ourselves from this victim mentality, and remind ourselves, as the Qu’ran tells us in Chapter 13 verse 11 „God does not change the condition of the people until they change, what is it, themselves”.

Change is what your Project Ijtihad is about. What are you trying to achieve with that and what has the response been so far?

„Ijtihad” is Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking, creative reasoning, reinterpretation, debate and dissent. It is hard to imagine today that Islam has such a tradition, given that literalism and dogmatic approach to faith has become mainstream and very very wide-spread. The reality is that from the 8th to about the 12th century, when Christianity was struggling in it’s dark age, Islamic civilisation was leading the world in curiosity and creativity. So much of what we today assume to be the product of European secular culture, or even Judeo-Christian culture, in fact, was shaped by believing muslims. Some quick examples – muslims gave the world among the first institutions of higher learning, it was known as „The House of Wisdom” in the 9th century in Baghdad. Muslims gave the world mocha coffee, which is what I’m drinking right now. Muslims gave the world an early version of a guitar. And even that ultra-Spanish word of „Ole!” which has it’s root in the Arabic word „Allah”.

I point all of this out because it’s very easy today to assume that Islam and the West must be unremittingly opposed to one another. But again, history tells us that Islam midwifed the Euroepan renaissance, and so the interdependence between the Islam and the West shouldn’t be ignored.

This leads me, then, to bring Ijtihad into the picture. As I said, Ijtihad is Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, and I long believed, and am now practising this belief, that first and foremost it is Muslims in the West who are in the best position to revive Ijtihad on behalf the rest of the Muslim world. Why? Because it is in the West that we already enjoy the precious freedoms to think and express and challenge and be challenged on matters of faith without fear of government reprisal for doing so. This is a precious gift. And so, with this gift of individual liberty and freedom of conscience I and a group of reform-minded Muslims have started Project Ijtihad. This is an effort to build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-muslim allies. Even though we are starting this network from North America and Europe, make no mistake – it is a global effort. Already, we have chapters developing in Amman, Jakarta and even in the heart of West Bank in Palestine. If it was not for the fact that security is such a problem right now, I would have been in the West Bank this summer, helping a passionate group of Palestinian students start their chapter of Project Ijtihad.

What are some of the things we’re doing? Let me begin on a personal note and broaden it from there. After my book came out in English, my e-mail inbox overflowed with messages from young Muslims in the Middle East, asking me to get the book translated into Arabic so that they could share these ideas with their friends, who, they insisted, were desperate for honest conversation about Islam. My standart response to these young people was, name one Arab publisher who would have the guts to translate and then distribute the book. Most of them wrote back and said, you’re right, but so what – you get the book translated and post it on your website, and we could download it free of charge as a PDF – that would mean we could read it in privacy and safety we wouldn’t have if we were carrying the physical copy of the book. I thought that was a brilliant idea, had the book translated, got it posted and in just over a year we’ve had over 250,000 downloads of the Arabic version. The internet strategy that has developed from this now means that I’ve had the book translated into Urdu for Pakistan and Farsi for Iran, where the book is banned out-right. In just over 6 months we’ve had over 90,000 downloads of each version.

My point is that there is huge hunger and those young people were absolutely right. As a result of all of them downloading and reading the book we have developed a Project Ijtihad data base of reform-minded Muslims who are now undertaking all kinds of efforts on their own, from creating videos about the need to speak out as Muslims against the genocide in Darfur, to starting book clubs based on other books, for example „Peace be Upon You” which is a history of Jewish, Muslim and Christian coexistance for the past several hundren years. So many books focus on the negative while this book focuses on the positive and these young people are learning from that.

Ultimately, what Project Ijtihad is going to start doing in the next few months, and – who knows, maybe the Soros Foundation wants to be involved? – we’ll be sponsoring a writing competition inviting young Muslims and non-muslims to answer an Ijtihad-driven question, which might be „Do questions undermine faith or strengthen faith?”. We’ve already raised enough money to offer three winners scholarships to further their education and we’re also developing media partnerships with major newspapers around the world to feature the winning essays so that non-muslims as well begin to appreciate that critical thinking in Islam is indeed possible, that reform-minded muslims exist and their numbers are growing.

In the post-9/11 world, what has been the response of political leaders to Project Ijtihad and what role do you think politicians of the free world can play to further your mission?

The response from the political leaders is a confusing one – but I must tell you that it is confusing also from the journalists and from the ordinary people. I receive a lot of scepticism from people (non-muslims) who insist that Muslims must reform. When I point out to them that Project Ijtihad is underway and we as reform-minded Muslims need their vocal support, among the first responses is „Oh, nothing is ever going to change, why bother!”. So, on the one hand, groups and individuals will complain that more needs to be done and Muslims need to speak out, but when you tell them that an effort is underway to do that and we could use your help, they then become very cynical. I’ve come to realise that the up-hill battle that is Project Ijtihad, in part, is up hill not because of the anger of muslims who become defensive and conservative Muslims who want to keep things as they are and even become even more dogmatic rather than open-minded – that’s only part of the problem – the other part of the problem is pessimism we experience from non-muslims who feel that there is no hope. We are trying to show them there is.

We’ve also had positive response from all sides of the political spectrum including, I’m happy to say, liberal democrats, who are very excited about this effort. Without going into too much details I will tell you that I’ve been invited to many [US] presidential campaigns run by the Democrats, to come and speak to them about crafting a new foreign policy vision, one that acknowledges the threat of radical islam, not just to security but to universal human rights, while at the same time undertaking a campaign to engage Muslims in a way that is respectful to Islam. It is wonderful, especially as a Canadian, to be invited to give input in this discussion. The fact that they are even considering reformulating US foreign policy in a way that is much more respectful without denying the problem, is reason for hope.

Muslims who have moved to the West – such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example – have criticised Western governments for failing and/or refusing to see the long-term danger to the democratic values posed by Muslim immigrants who do not share these values and have not integrated into the society. What are your views on this and what could the West have done differently?

This questions needs to be put in the present tense and it is important to make that discinction because it is not too late. In my book and in my current thinking I am a big believer in, first of all, empowering the women of the muslim world. Women have the least to lose and the most to gain from change. And, as most of us already know, the UN Arab Human Development Reports – which, I emphasise, have been researched and written by Arabs – point out that the Muslim Middle East suffers from three key deficits: the deficit of women’s empowerment, the deficit of knowledge and the deficit of freedom. And, I’m about to argue for you that by closing the deficit of women’s empowerment we can go far to close the gaps to the deficit of knowledge and freedom.

The big idea that I’ ve ben advising various presidential campaigns is to undertake a massive international campaign of micro-credit loans for the women in the Muslim world. These loans of a hundred or two hundred dollars won’t break the bank in the West but it can mean all the difference in many parts of the Islamic world. The idea here is that when Muslim women accept these loans, they start their own small businesses to address gaping holes of goods and services in their communities, and better yet – there is a consensus in Islam that when a woman earns her own assets, she gets to keep 100% of those assets and do with them as she sees fit. Men who earn their own money, under Islam must share it with their families.

What could women do with their own money that they earn through their small businesses? For starters, they could become literate and learn to read the Qu’ran for themselves, see all of the passages that it gives them for empowerment and respect. Beyond that, they could start their own schools. And I must report to you that this is already happening in some parts of Kabul today – women are starting their own schools with money earned from small businesses. In some of those schools you can read signs that say “Educate a boy, you educate only that boy. But educate a girl, and you educate her entire family” – the point being that the multiplier effect by educating Muslim women cannot be underestimated.

I want to emphasise a point here, which I don’t hear emphasised enough – the beauty of an idea like this is, it is not simply about economic development, that goes without saying, but the real beauty is that Islam is so compatible with an idea like this. I talked about the fact that there is a consensus that women who earn their own money can keep all of it and make decisions about how it is used. But it goes beyond that – the Prophet Muhammed’s beloved first wife, Khadija, was a wealthy self-made merchant, for whom the Prophet worked for many years – she was his boss. When Muslim women have the option of accepting micro-credit loans, one of the arguments that they make to their husbands (who don’t want them to take the loans) is this: if Islam asks you to emulate the Prophet Muhammed, if that is what it means to be a good Muslim, then you have to understand that by letting me work for myself, as the Prophet did with Khadija, you are also living the live that the Prophet would have lived. And that argument has worked very well.

I should also point out that there is a beautiful theory within Islam that if you invest in somebody, you can’t take back the loan unless they have created new wealth from it. So, in all kinds of ways, Islam is a theological cushion for this micro-credit idea to work.

And, finally let me say that far from being a theory, the track record for the past 30 years shows beyond doubt that when Muslim women have the option of accepting the loans, they use the money not just to improve the quality of their own lives, but to lift the lives of many more – their families, villages, neighbourhoods, even entire towns. So, I think this idea has great merit, it is worth experimenting with. When I say “experimenting”, I don’t mean adopting it here or there, or use it in a patchwork kind of way, I’ m saying – wouldn’t it be interesting? – if the rich countries around the world, including Arab countries such as Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, got together and took just a sliver of their defence budgets and pooled them into a series of loans for the women of the Muslim world. What is the worst that could happen?

That is a great question, but you will be asking that question to men, especially in the Arab countries. So I wanted to ask you, what about the men? For it is understandable why women are championing the change and fighting for their rights. How do men feel about this, do they see the advantages, or is it more like a zero-sum game for them?

Both are happening at the same time, not surprisingly. Of course there are men who feel threatened by an idea like this, and when I have spoken to Muslim audiences about it I often notice that in the back of the room groups of men are nodding their heads in appreciation. I like to tease them sometimes, asking, “What are you brothers agreeing with, shouldn’t you be threatened?” and most of them respond that it’s true that when brothers – as they call themselves – oppose this idea, it is not because it would be against the Qu’ran but because they fear of losing their own cultural privileges. That’s a very honest acknowledgement.

At the same time, I’ve heard from many people in the wealthier states of the Muslim world that an idea like this improves the lives of not only girls and women but also boys and men. Because it creates opportunities of economic development and enterpreneurialism in parts of the world that would otherwise be relying on corrupt bureaucracies. And, frankly, many of the men who are looking forward in their future, are saying that this is the way we’re going to get our economies going and create middle class as a result. When you have middle classes as oppose to wide disparities in wealth and poverty, you are creating people who will demand from their bureaucracy transparency to know where their tax money is going, precisely because they have worked so hard to earn it. They will want to be sure that that money is going to social services, health and education, rather than in the pockets of oligarchs. It’s not unlike, I’m sure, what many in Latvia are talking about, coming out of a shadow of the Soviet bureaucracy and authoritarianism. The idea of investing in Muslim women is not just economically sound, which is a very good thing in itself, but it’s also Islamically sound.

The UN has pointed out that today there are 280 million Arabs, and by the year 2020 there will be more than 320 million. The Arab world is undergoing a massive baby boom, and how are those kids going to have civic and economic opportunities to express themselves if we as an international community do not begin now to create an enterpreneurial environment in which they can be at the same time creative intellectually and constructive economically? The other point is that in many Muslim countries struggling with their socialist past, for example Egypt, there are three “career ghettos” in which men are constantly pushed: security, military and bureaucracy. If you ask men in Egypt if they are happy with their lives in those ghettos, you will hear over and over again that while they do have dreams, those dreams will never be realised in such stifling environments.

So, once again – when you empower Muslim women through micro-credit loans, and create an environment of enterpreneurialism and creativity, by definition you also create opportunities for men to improve their lives. I want to emphasise this again precisely because the Prophet Mohammed benefitted from the enterpreneurial talents of his wife, there ought to be no religious reason for opposing this idea!

Muslim societies and, indeed, the governments, have on a number of occasions turned against fellow Muslims who have openly spoken about the traditions and life in contemporary Muslim societies. It seems that part of the Muslim community wants to shoot the messenger. Why are they so afraid the world will hear the message?

You’ve just answered your question. They are afraid that the world will hear the message. But among the reasons why Muslims are so afraid of the message itself is that within Islam over hundreds of years various assumptions have been made of what it means to be pure.

Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate this. When my book came out in Canada, my mother went to the mosque two weeks after the book was released. She fully expected criticism – she got it. The imam delivered what we call „khutbah” – a sermon, in which he declared me a bigger criminal than Osama Bin Laden. He explained, saying that my book has created more debate in the Muslim world then any terrorism Bin Laden has been accused of. Now, on the surface it all sounds so absurd, but what this imam was saying makes a lot of sense to many Muslims, which is this: debate is not a good thing. The assumption is that debate creates division, and division weakens the “ummah”, or the worldwide Muslim community, and anything that weakens the community then makes it vulnerable to conquest from the West. As as result, we cannot tolerate debate.

We, Muslim and non-muslim liberal democrats, understand what the Prophet Muhammed said, which is that differences of opinion is a sign of God’s mercy. The Prophet said this because he was acknowledging that the ultimate authority belongs to God, therefore we on this earth cannot play God. We have to accept that all of us have limited knowledge, we are fallible, therefore, we must negotiate with one another, play around with ideas and work together to reach temporary conclusions. But we must be humble enough to recognise that the ultimate solution is always God.

What happened is that the clerical class within Islam has taken upon itself to play God. So for them debate is division, division is heresay, and anybody who creates debate is, therefore, a criminal. As a criminal, you are subjected to a possibility of a very high punishment, including death. I’m not going to sanitize the reality – for all of the passion that I have for Ijtihad, I’m still on the receiving end of many death threats, including in my own city of Toronto – declared by the UN the worlds most pluralistic and cosmopolitan city.

Talking about cosmopolitan cities – your book has been published in in 26 countries, including Pakistan, India and Libya, and you’re in talks of having it published in Indonesia which has the world’s largest population. Yet, publishing was refused in Turkey, which is now an EU accession country. What are they afraid of?

I’ve had two publishers who have agreed to release the book and then withdrawn at the very last minute. The first one because they wanted to censor too many parts of the book, and the second one because they were afraid of the Islamist rise in Turkey and not wanting to be targeted for physical violence. So even in the Muslim world’s only funtioning secular, democratic republic the threat of rigidity and dogmatism is alive and well.

To end our conversation, will you tell us about your film “Faith without Fear?”

The film is a sequel to the book. It explores my journey to reconcile Islam with human rights and freedom of conscience. The film points out that Islam began as a religion of justice and has become corrupted into an ideology of fear. It is not America, or Israel, or MTV that has done most of the corrupting. It is we, muslims who have, therefore it is only we, muslims, who can begin taking responsibility for making change, for restoring Ijtihad to Islam. And I quoted earlier this beautiful passage that God does not change the condition to the people until they change what is in them themselves.

Now let me quote another passage, very much the other side of the coin, which is Chapter 4 Verse 135. It says: “Believers, conduct yourselves, with justice and bear true witness before God”, and – here’s the important part, “even if it be against yourselves, your family or your parents”.

This is a call to speak truth to power, no matter who is offended. And so, when you take the call in Qu’ran to assume responsibility and take ownership of the problems within Islam, when you combine it with this call not to worry about whose feathers you are ruffling, that you must speak truth to power, I believe – precisely because I’m doing this in a peaceful way, not imposing my views on anybody, certainly not killing anybody in order to realise my vision of Ijtihad, – but precisely because I’m trying to live up to this divine imperative within Islam, I believe I’m doing what a faithful Muslim ought to, and that absolutely does mean reconciling Islam with open-mindedness.

I welcome the support of non-muslims, including right here in Latvia, to come along for the journey, because ultimately we have to be in this together. If reform-minded muslims are not supported by the outside world, then the most conservative elements of the muslim community will always be given a permission to see themselves as the only authentic voices. When we are supported by the outside world as reform-minded Muslims, automatically the conservative Muslims are put on notice that there are many more voices that also matter, and that now the conservative Muslims cannot assume your legitimacy, that you must compete and work for it with the Irshad Manjis of this world.

The interview took place in Riga, 6 September 2007.

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