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The Missionary Position | The Nation

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The Missionary Position

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To her credit, Irshad Manji appears to be acutely aware of the audience question, and tackles it on the first page of The Trouble With Islam Today. The book is written as an open letter, addressed directly to Muslims, both in and outside the West. And it also helps the critical reader that Manji backs her claims with source notes, which are listed on her website, Muslim-refusenik.com. The Trouble With Islam Today is a chronicle of Manji's personal journey of introspection and discovery about her faith, prompted in part by the constant stream of horrendous news about repression that seems to pour out from (the region of) Islam. "When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment," she writes.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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Unlike Hirsi Ali, Manji has not openly renounced her faith, although, she says, "Islam is on very thin ice with me." She attributes her skepticism to her childhood experiences at the madrassa she attended in Vancouver. In the orthodox, gender-segregated school, she could not visit the library freely; instead, she had to wait for all the men to clear the area where it was located in order to be able to browse the offerings. The imam was a stern man who discouraged questions and proffered dogma. So woeful was the training Manji received that she did not know that Islam was an Abrahamic religion until after she left the confines of the madrassa. Later, when she purchased an English-language Koran, she finally embarked on her own journey of learning.

Much of what Manji describes will be familiar to those who have read reform-minded books on Islam. For instance, she questions the assumption that the Koran is the inviolate word of God and has remained so for fourteen centuries, without a single diacritic or vowel-length change. She tells the controversial story of the "Satanic verses" (also known as hadith al-gharaniq) to show that this point is debatable. According to some scholars, the Prophet had included verses that referred to Meccan goddesses while reciting lines from the Koran. Later, realizing they were not inspired by revelation, he abrogated them from the sacred text. This, of course, establishes a precedent that the Koran was changed at least once. Why is it so hard to imagine, she asks, that other human beings could have added their own changes? She rightly argues that both the terrorists and the peacekeepers among Muslims find scriptural support for their views in the Koran. (Incidentally, this is no different from the Bible, whose most peaceful and most violent verses have been used at various points in history to back up the institution of slavery as well as abolition and the civil rights movement.) A significant portion of the book consists of calling on Arabs and Muslims to be responsible for their own destinies, and to stop blaming the West or Israel for their problems. The style here may be very blunt, but the proposition is wholly unoriginal. One can read similar statements in commentary and op-ed pieces of many newspapers across the Arab world.

Unfortunately, like Hirsi Ali, Manji consistently gives individual examples of malfeasance and then extrapolates to the entire body of Muslims. In discussing World War II, for instance, she writes, "Let's be straight about what else happened during the Nazi years: Muslim complicity in the Holocaust." Here she trots out the story of Haj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem who visited Berlin as a guest of Hitler and approved of his genocidal agenda. But how do we move from one cleric with authority in one congregation to "Muslim complicity"? And if it turns out that there are individual Muslims who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, do we then get to talk about "Muslim resistance" to the Holocaust? After all, Abdol-Hossein Sardari, head of the consular section of the Iranian embassy under the Vichy government, succeeded in convincing the Nazis that Iranian Jews were not Semites, thus saving their lives. He went a step further and issued 500 Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews in France. Similarly, the Sultan of Morocco flatly refused to hand Moroccan Jews over to the Vichy government that ruled his country. But people such as these do not fit the paradigm of Muslim backwardness and outright evil, and so they go unmentioned.

As with Hirsi Ali, Manji's expertise on her subject is incomplete. Take the following statement: "The Koran appears to be organized by size of verse--from longer to shorter--and not by chronology of revelation. How can anyone isolate the "earlier" passages, let alone read into them the "authentic" message of the Koran? We have to own up to the fact that the Koran's message is all over the bloody map." This is simply not true. Each sura of the Koran is identified by whether it is "Meccan" or "Medinan," depending on whether it was revealed early in the Prophet's spiritual life or later on, during his hegira in Medina. Some verses are addressed to specific communities of believers. Others refer to specific historical events. All of these details help establish temporal contextualization. The study of the Koran's chronology is a whole field unto itself. In addition, and despite having written a book called The Trouble With Islam Today, Manji has not taken the trouble of learning to speak, read and write Arabic fluently, nor of visiting any Muslim country. She left Uganda at the age of 4 and has absolutely no experience of what it is like to live in a Muslim country. Would a scholar who has written a book about China without bothering to speak Chinese or visit the country be taken seriously?

Despite its careful sourcing, Manji's book is a narrow polemic, selectively citing events and anecdotes that fit one paradigm only: Muslim savagery, which of course is contrasted with Western enlightenment. Several of Manji's claims about the Arab world are based on articles translated by the nonprofit organization Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which was founded by Col. Yigal Carmon, a twenty-two-year veteran of military intelligence in Israel with the goal of exploring the Middle East "through the region's media." MEMRI focuses on the following areas: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. There are three general observations that can be made about MEMRI's work. One is that it consistently picks the most violent, hateful rubbish it can find, translates it and distributes it in e-mail newsletters to media and members of Congress in Washington. The second is that MEMRI does not translate comparable articles published in Israel, although the country is not only a part of the Middle East but an active party to some of its most searing conflicts. For instance, when the right-wing Israeli politician Effi Eitam referred to Israel's Palestinian citizens as a "cancer," MEMRI did not pick up this story. The third is that this organization is now the main source of media articles on the region of Islam, a far greater and far more diverse whole than the individual countries it lists. The reliance on MEMRI highlights Manji's lack of direct, unmediated exposure to the news media of the area about which she expresses such fierce convictions.

Equally troubling is Manji's unsubstantiated assertion that there is little dissent in Islam: "We Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department." As it happens, earlier this year the Moroccan government took the commendable step of officially acknowledging that approximately 10,000 people had been put in prison, tortured or killed for political reasons between 1956 and 1999. (Human rights organizations caution that the number of victims may in fact have been much larger.) Their "crimes" ranged from wanting to overthrow the monarchy, to questioning official edicts, to simply handing out left-wing leaflets. The problem isn't the lack of dissent. It is the lack of a context in which dissent is welcomed rather than repressed. This repression, furthermore, is tacitly supported by Western powers. The American government, in particular, is so pleased with Morocco's methods of repression that it allegedly "renders" some of its recalcitrant detainees there. The experience of Morocco with repression is not unique and can be seen in other countries in the region broadly defined as "Islam"--countries such as Syria, Algeria, Indonesia, Egypt and so on. To say that there is no dissent in Islam is simply absurd. The claim must be recognized for what it is: a different manifestation of the "silence of the native," which brings us back to the need for outside advocates and to the nifty excuse for outside interference into the affairs of sovereign states.

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