Islam needs NO defense against Manji’s book, But perhaps Muslim DO

No fatwa against the author. No sudden disappearance into hiding. No public book-burnings. Weeks after its publication, Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam still has not drawn even the mildest condemnation from any Canadian Islamic organization.

Prominent Muslim leaders have declined invitations to debate her on TV talk shows. And she has not become the widespread subject of Friday Khotbas (sermons) by Imams in Canadian mosques.

Instead, Manji is freely traveling across Canada to personally promote her new book. As a founding member of a new Toronto-based Muslim group, she has been given the strong support to which she is entitled. And that’s as it should be. After all, this is Canada in 2003.

But all this quiet recognition must be a great disappointment to the author, her publisher, and some of this country’s sensation-seeking media, who’d predicted a major backlash from hordes of so-called “fundamentalists.” It did not happen. Not one Canadian Muslim — "fundamentalist" or otherwise — bothered to picket any outlets selling the book. It’s all been a big yawn, in spite of the media hype, some of which Manji herself encouraged.

"A Canadian Muslim who tomorrow releases a book critical of her religion is drawing a very high level of awareness from police because of a feared backlash from fundamentalists," proclaimed The National Post, which led the Canadian print media in running long excerpts from The Trouble With Islam amid alarmist reports of its supposed volatile effect on the national Muslim community.

“In some countries, Irshad Manji would be buried up to her neck and stoned to death," The Ottawa Citizen assured its readers.

"Call her crazy or call her courageous…,” said the Toronto Star in an interview with the author.

And the Globe and Mail reported, "Some weeks ago, Irshad Manji suggested to her downstairs tenant that it might be a good idea if she packed up and left." That accompanied few days later a long book review and even a column by one of Canada’s leading writers.

But this is Canada, and it is 2003.

Canadian Muslims are, above all, Canadian. And Canadians are nice folks, with the best sense of decency in the world. Their protests are usually mild, reflecting the hope that people in general are smart enough to decide for themselves if a book like The Trouble With Islam is worth its hype.

More importantly, Canadian Muslims have learned a hard lesson from the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989. It began when British Muslims burned his novel, The Satanic Verses, triggering violent protests in India, Mr. Rushdie’s country of birth. The Indian government gave in to international pressure to ban the book. And then a fatwa was issued for Rushdie’s death by the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for allegedly spreading hate against Islam, for being blasphemous, and for insulting the Prophet Muhammed. The rest is history, a bitter history for all Muslims, but especially those living in the West.

I have always maintained, however, that Islam doesn’t need this kind of negative defense. After all, it is a world religion. It is robust. For more than 1400 years, it has consistently attracted at least 20% of the world’s population. It still attracts many millions every year among those who seek, learn, and come to believe that Islam is the best faith for them.

Islam does not have a hierarchical priesthood, nor any provision (like excommunication) for revoking membership. Muslims are forbidden to prejudge others, whether they are of the same faith or not. Islam also teaches that actions, deeds, and the art of persuasion — including dialogue, debate, logic, and rational argument — are superior means of proactively engaging those with opposing views. Thus Ms. Manji, a Toronto journalist, lesbian, and active feminist, can go on calling herself a Muslim for as long as she feels like it

Although I believe Islam needs no defense, the same is not true for Muslims themselves, and this tension is vividly illustrated by The Trouble With Islam. Ms. Manji is entitled to speak her mind, but the book’s title is misleading. It should have been called The Trouble With Irshad Manji’s Life. Now in her 30s Ms. Manji reveals that she did not enjoy her parent’s love and affection in her formative childhood and teenaged years. And like many who’ve experienced similar disappointments, she blames her religion, its Holy Book and its teachings. She has not found enough reason, however, to leave Islam altogether. Instead, she calls for reform, holding Islam responsible for all the ills she has observed among Muslims.

Fair enough.

But as much as Ms Manji has the right to speak her mind, the religious interpretations of other Muslims must also be defended. No one has ever suggested (successfully, at least) that the Old Testament, holy to both Jews and Christians, be revised so that verses advocating killings and violence, tribal or racial superiority, the suppression of women’s or gay/lesbian rights, be deleted. This is because the writings in any holy book are subject to the diversity and fallibility of human interpretation. So it is false and disingenuous for Ms Manji to assume that the Qur’an is somehow different in this regard from other holy scriptures.

I doubt if any reputable publisher would touch a book written by a non-specialist that advocated a revision of the Old Testament, or questioned its divine origin. It would be a risky business, not because of any anticipated furor, but because the media would most likely ignore it. And faith-based groups, if they were to protest such a release at all, would give it mere token attention.

When it comes to anti-Islam, Muslim-bashing, smearing the Qur’an, or insulting the Prophet Muhammed in print, however, both publishers and authors stand to make money from the venture. But here in Canada, the land where decency and sober second thought prevail? I hope not.