Courage and Dissent: The Work of Irshad Manji
I first heard the word "Refusenik" applied to Israelis who refuse to serve in the Israeli Defense Force. Then I heard it in relation to Jewish citizens of the former Soviet Union who were refused permission to emigrate. I learned the word in a third context -- "Muslim Refusenik" -- a few years ago, when I heard Irshad Manji speak at my college. Ms. Manji is a Canadian lesbian Muslim feminist.
She's an acclaimed journalist, news broadcaster, lecturer, human rights advocate, and the creator of Canada's QueerTelevision network. Implanted in all of her work is her bold quest for Muslim Reform and her self-identity as a Muslim Refusenik -- a person who opposes fundamentalist Islam. Just recently (three years after hearing Manji's talk), I finally got around to reading her book The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. Written as an open letter to the Muslim community, Manji unearths some troubling cornerstones of mainstream Islam today which she identifies as: "tribal insularity, deep-seated anti-Semitism, and an uncritical acceptance of the Koran as the final, and therefore superior, manifesto of God's will." Manji's goal, essentially, is to challenge the Islamic mainstream to move toward a reformation that empowers women, honors the dignity of gays and lesbians, promotes respect for religious minorities, and revives itjtihad, Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking.
Manji writes provocatively; she constructs sharp, cogent arguments using sensational images and charged language that run the risk of seeming propagandistic. She also makes a habit of essentializing the Muslim community and does so with an air of omniscience. Were I a progressive Muslim (as a few of my friends are), I might find The Trouble With Islam Today quite troubling indeed. But what strikes me most about the book is Manji's generous references to -- and praise for -- Jewish thinkers, Jewish thought, and Israeli society. It's interesting to read how favorably one Muslim lesbian feminist perceives the Jewish community. Much of Manji's exasperation in wrestling with Muslim resistance to inquiry does, in fact, make me feel fortunate to be part of an interpretive, ever-evolving Jewish tradition and lucky to have been born at a time when the American Jewish landscape was, and still is, diverse and pluralistic. At the same time, I became aware of how Manji's glorification of Jewish tradition and experience negates many of the realities Jews experience as "insiders." True, it's great that women can be rabbis. But it's not so great that the playing field for male and female rabbis remains profoundly unequal. And yet, while it can be frustrating, as insiders, to experience these inequalities, seeing them against the background of a Muslim lesbian feminist's struggles within her own religious community, I am reminded of just how far we've come.
I give Manji her props for sparking conversation, for being a voice of dissent in a tradition that often eschews it, and for living her bold convictions. I think every tradition needs an Irshad Manji to challenge censorship, reveal injustices, and question authority. This, I believe, is precisely her point: to dare Muslims and non-Muslims alike to voice what has long been silenced, and then fight for change.