Irshad Manji is the Canadian media's latest "It" girl, taking the tiara from No Logo author Naomi Klein. Manji is all over the place these days, on CBC TV, in the papers and in the pages of Maclean's, promoting her The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change. Not surprisingly, considering the title, the spiky-haired, 30-something author travels with a bodyguard, and has had bulletproof glass installed in her Toronto apartment.
Manji's contrarian attitude to her faith began early, while in her madrasah in Richmond. The Pakistani girl wanted to get past her student text, Know Your Islam, and study the Koran itself. Unfortunately, the holy book was only available in Arabic. "Most Muslims have no idea what we're saying when we're reciting the Koran in Arabic," she writes of a language which clerics regard as inseparable from the faith. Translation, she learned, is thought to "corrupt the text."
In a slightly older incarnation as a "mall-rat," Manji found an English translation of the Koran at the local mall, Lansdowne Centre. Her questions only grew, along with her outrage at the misogyny, anti-Semitism and lack of self-examination she saw in her Islamic upbringing.
The author doesn't sugarcoat the excesses of her faith, and in some ways the book is a welcome counterpoint to the parade of Muslim clerics who disowned the hijackers in the wake of 9/11, claming they weren't followers of the "true Islam." In one page, Manji cites the Koran's own ambiguous words about killing, and asks who has ownership of which version of the faith. But the Koran is certainly no how-to guide for terrorists, either. Manji demonstrates that what's been said of the Bible applies to the Koran: a book is like a mirror, and if an ass looks in, you can't expect an apostle to look out.
Like the other two great axial religions, Christianity and Judaism, with which it shares a great amount of narrative DNA, Islam is a many-textured thing, containing both shadows and light.
The problem with Islam is one thing, but there's also a problem with this book. There's the cover, for one thing, with Manji's long face prominently displayed above the subtitle, A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change, with her looking past the reader to the millions of Muslims who've presumably hit the post-Enlightenment snooze button. The content follows suit. Each page is littered with multiple "I"s, and unnecessary expressions like "Excuse me?!" It's not so much that Islam has to answer to the women of the world, it seems, as to Manji herself.
As a dark-skinned Islamic woman, Manji - an insider to the faith - is given licence, at least by her publisher, to go medieval on the followers of Allah. As a clever Western-educated, cosmopolitan, lesbian author, she's the Islamic fundamentalist's worst nightmare - which makes her confrontational stance all the more questionable. If you're up against such unyielding dogmatism, what is the use of rhetorical overload? But since the book starts off as a letter written to Muslims, one wonders if her intended audience is doubters within Islam, and perhaps Western readers all too ready to buy into any account that demonizes the religion further.
Obviously, there is plenty wrong with Islam, just as there is with most of the world's religions, but is it useful for an author, even a disaffected Muslim author, to belabour the obvious? We know the drill on the Taliban treatment of women, and the sorry state of affairs in Saudi Arabia. Manji wonders if the faith can be disentangled from the tribalism of its believers, which she believes amplifies the message of misogyny. She then examines the explosive issue of the complicity of her religion in 9/11, but goes too easy on successive US administrations, which lit the fuse of fundamentalist fury.
Still, Manji has some good insights, and if you can get past the hectoring, personal tone, she writes in a feisty, readable way. The multicultural vision of harmony, where we're "all the same but different," doesn't hold up well under her sharp gaze, and she counterpoints an utter lack of self-criticism in the Islamic world with the tradition of doubt found in the West. Still, I suspect with so many people knowing so little about Islam, a more measured, historical approach would serve readers better, rather than emotional jeremiads from troubled believers, who are hanging on to their faith by their fingernails, and demanding it morph into something they can endorse.
In her moral fervor and occasional rancor, Manji leaves one with a slightly puzzled feeling, like a United Church bishop who rejects the doctrine of Christ's divinity but remains in the fold (how far can you go in disowning the claims of your faith, and still reasonably call yourself a believer?). She believes that ultimately Islam should be salvaged rather than savaged - and if it comes down to such a choice, it's hard to disagree. But the idea that one-third of humanity will bend willingly to Western notions of feminism and individual autonomy seems optimistic to the point of naiveté. Especially given the explicitly Christian crusade of the Bush neocons against "evil-doers," it seems unlikely we will see any rapprochement this century between Islam and the other two major religions. Although one cannot but hope that women the world over are no longer oppressed by religious ideology of any kind, the author's demand that Islam change to her satisfaction seems uncomfortably consonant with the neocon expectation that the Mideast has the choice of accepting "democracy" willingly, or at the barrel of a gun.