Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
by Scott Snyder, The Believer, June 2006
by Charles D'Ambrosio, The Believer, May 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2005
Salon.com, February 2002 (core member of Surrealist movement, painter, poet, wife of Max Ernst and author of Between Lives: An Artist and Her World)
The New York Times Magazine, August 2001 (actor and playwright)
Time Out New York, January 1997 (on publicaton of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

Questions for Irshad Manji

By John Glassie
(portions in The New York Times Magazine, December 2003)

Q. Your book, The Trouble with Islam is a bestseller in Canada, where you live, and is due out in the U.S. in January. In your opinion, what is the trouble with Islam?

A. In my view, ever since the birth of my religion, with few exceptions, individual lives have been too small and the lies Muslims tell have been too big.

Q. What do you mean?

A. I mean look at the ill treatment of women under Islam today. I mean look at the Jew bashing -- and I use that phrase deliberately. Look at the continuing scourge of slavery in Islamist regions. And the lies are that our problems are all the fault of the CIA, the Israelis, MTV, U.S. foreign policy, or the house of Saud. But we Muslims have been bludgeoning each other's freedoms and imposing martial law on ourselves for centuries. So all I'm asking of Muslims is to take ownership of the role that we play in what ails Islam.

Q. So how are Islamic authorities reacting to a call for reform from an openly-gay, Western TV personality? Aren't you the enemy?

A. If by authorities you mean self-appointed representatives of Muslims, those people are denouncing the book. But I'm also hearing from professors of Islam, for instance, who are supporting me. I'm hearing from many ordinary Muslims, in particular women, who are offering not just their support but, I'm surprised to be able to say, their gratitude, affection and love.

Q. Why such deliberate use of that phrase "Jew bashing"?

A. Islam comes out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but most Muslims have never even been taught that. The Koran itself gives Muslims ample opportunities to respect rather than bash Jews. Not all of us bash Jews, but too many of us do, and it's really just a convenient way for us to avoid our responsibility for the difficulties we face.

Q. Certainly the conflict in the Middle East can't be reduced down to that. And there's plenty of hate on both sides.

A. There's no question the conflict is more complex than that. But again, the Muslims were condemning Jews centuries before the state of Israel existed. At the height of the Golden Age of Islam, Jews and Christians in North Africa had to wear shoulder pads with dogs and monkeys on them, and dogs and monkeys are not exactly glorified beings in the world of Islam. In Baghdad, the seat of Islamic enlightenment during this time, Jews had to wear yellow symbols on their clothes, accounting for at least one theory for how the Nazis got the idea.

Q. What are your recommendations for breaking out of the current mess?

A. For us to put a dent in our historic anti-Semitism, we Muslims need to revive our tradition of engaging with the Koran. Towards the end of the eleventh century, the Caliph in Baghdad closed political ranks to protect his empire from increasing internal division -- and within a few generations the doors were also closed on something called Ijtihad, which is the Muslim tradition of independent thinking. Debates froze, study and interpretation ceased. And this led not just to a rigid reading of the Koran but also to legal opinions, known as fatwas, that scholars could no longer overturn or contest and could only imitate. And when you imitate medieval prejudices for a1000 years, it's no surprise you get a lack of self-criticism, exploration and introspection.

Q. Yes, you write about Ijtihad, as opposed to Jihad, as a way to foster change legitimately from inside the faith. But many people haven't even heard of it. How real and how strong was this tradition of independent thought?

A. Well, in the early decades of Islam, thanks to Ijtihad, as many as 135 different schools of Islamic thought were allowed to flourish. In the city of Cordoba alone, there were 70 libraries. Seventy! Think about it. That's one for every virgin promised to today's Muslim martyrs. Books back then, and babes today. That's a telling contrast in priorities.

Q. What are the other elements of what you're calling "Operation Ijtihad"?

A. Liberating the entrepreneurial talents of Muslim women is a major plank of it. Another is that we need as vigorous a debate about, say Egypt, as we have about Israel. Muslim countries ought nor be isolated from the kind of scrutiny that Israel receives. And these debates can and should start on campuses. We need to work with the West, and non-Muslims have a role to play as well. They have to start asking tough questions about Islam, rather than silencing themselves for fear of being called racists.

Q. How can reform begin with Muslim women becoming business-people? That seems more like the result of reform.

A. Merchant trade is entirely consistent with Islam, and the Koran itself doesn't prohibit women from becoming entrepreneurs, and even earning their own living. Experience shows that when women earn their own income, they're more likely to question what they've been taught about their own worth. The most recent United Nations Development Report, written and researched by Arabs, names three key deficits in the Arab-Muslim world: knowledge, freedom and women's empowerment. By tackling women's empowerment, I'm arguing that we can also begin to address freedom and knowledge. It's not crazy, I don't think, to suggest that portions of national security budgets could be transformed into micro-enterprise loans for Muslim women.

Q. You call yourself a Muslim refusnik. What do mean by that?

A. I certainly don't mean that I refuse to be a Muslim. I mean that I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of God. In that spirit, I ask more questions than I provide answers. One question I ask my fellow Muslims is: Will we remain spiritually infantile, caving in to cultural pressures to conform? Or will we become full-fledged citizens, defending the pluralism that allows us, in this part of the world, to practice our religion in the first place?

Q. It's true, I think, that many non-Muslims have wondered why they haven't heard more from moderate Muslims in the last couple of years.

A. In part, it is, yes, fear of persecution. I hear that word from many people. And in many cases, people don't know how to speak up. We are routinely taught that the Koran is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God's will. It's not to be analyzed or interpreted, never mind questioned. So most of us have no clue how to dissent, debate, revise or reform.

Q. There's literalism in Christianity and Judaism, too.

A. But only in Islam is literalism mainstream. Obviously, that doesn't mean that all mainstream Muslims are lobbing bombs at the so-called infidels. It does mean that we don't ask the hard questions. From North Africa to Southeast Asia you have a panoply of different cultures, yet this entire region lags behind the world in terms of economic progress and human rights. The common denominator to all these cultures is Islam. We can't simply dismiss the possibility that Islam itself needs to be reformed.

Q. Some of your critics complain that that you don't understand the Koran. You did get kicked out of the madressa at the age 14. Do you have the credentials to do this?

A. I got kicked out for asking questions, which is a very scholarly thing to do. And I spent the next twenty years studying Islam on my own. I acknowledge that the Koran is difficult and complicated. I celebrate that. The Koran is complicated precisely because of its contradictions and ambiguities. I challenge the men with fancy titles to acknowledge just how complicated the Koran is. You don't need credentials to be a simpleton.

Q. Here's a common response posted on your website: You are not a mainstream Muslim, you are not a good Muslim, and your calls for reform are really anti-Muslim attacks.

A. My response is this: Does promoting critical thinking and human rights make me anti-Muslim? Does wanting to end slavery, honor killings and shootings of Christian humanitarian workers amount to being anti-Islamic? If so, what a sad commentary it is on being pro-Islam.

Q. Homosexuality is not permitted in Islam. How do you reconcile your homosexuality with your faith?

A. I accept the possibility that my sexual orientation might be a sin. But only my creator can make that judgement. But here's a question: The Koran says that everything God made is, quote, excellent, and that nothing God has made is, quote, in vain. If the creator did not wish to create me, a lesbian, then why didn't he create somebody else in my place? And given how explicit the Koran is that God has deliberately designed the world's breathtaking multiplicity, I wonder how my critics can justify their utter condemnation of homosexuality.

Q. Why don't you wear a hijab or chador?

A. Hijab, chador or veiling are obligations only for Prophet Muhammad's wives. I'm not one of them. To meet the Koranic requirement for dressing modestly, I could wear a turtleneck and baseball cap. In fact, a ball cap is precisely what I wore when interviewing the political leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza recently. Yes, many Muslim women believe that covering themselves is an exercise in spiritual submission; it's more an act of cultural capitulation -- capitulation, that is, to Arab culture.

Q. Some critics have even suggested that you're an agent for Israel's Mossad intelligence service, and that you're taking money from the Zionists.

A. Oh, well, I'm on unpaid sabbatical from the Mossad! And, you know, these days a Shekel doesn't buy you as much as you think.

Q. But I understand you have received serious threats as well.

A. Concrete. Not just serious. But the security business is a very secret one and I'm not in a position to divulge details.

Q. Is it true you hired a bodyguard?

A. Yes.

Q. And that you installed bullet-proof glass in your home?

A. Yes.

Q. Are you frightened?

A. No. Not at all. I am very resolute in the integrity of what I'm doing.

Q. You're not scared for your personal safety?

A. I'm not. I've taken security measures. And meanwhile the work needs to go on.

Q. Do you have the desire to be an lightening rod for the cause of reform? Are you willing to be?

A. I don't fear the consequences of having written this book. God gave me thick skin, a big brain and, I'll be the first to admit, an even bigger mouth. And that's a pretty good combination to take on a cause as ambitious as this.

Q. Forgive this: Would it be strangely good for your cause if clerics were to issue a fatwa against you, because it would bring attention to the notion of reform?

A. It would be terrible. Terrible because attention would be drawn to the condemnation rather than to the ideas for reform. It would also be a huge disservice to the thousands of people I'm hearing from who want to irrigate Islam intellectually. And it would be a disservice to my detractors because it would only reinforce key points that I'm making.

Q. Maybe you will ultimately be ignored. The naming of Shirin Ebadi as winner of the Nobel Prize seems to have been downplayed or dismissed in the Muslim world.

A. The key there is that it seems to have been downplayed. I'm certainly hearing from student activists from around the world bit particularly from Iran that it is making waves. And that as a result of the kinds of things she is doing, that liberal Arab voices are beginning to take more risks.

Q. So do you imagine yourself moving beyond the role of author, TV-show host and lecturer to religious reform leader?

A. I don't nominate myself as a leader in the predictable sense. I'm only one of a number of emerging voices. I don't want to portray myself as one of the few, or even as an original. I will say I want to be the best global citizen that I can be. And I thank God every day that I wound up in a part of the world that allows this Muslim woman to pursue dreams and to tap her potential to make a difference. I will not turn my back on the opportunity to use those freedoms responsibility.

Q. Taking a cue from one of your surprising chapter titles, why would Muslims want to, as you suggest, "thank God for the West"?

A. Well, here's why I do: Because it's here that Muslims already enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged, all without fear of state reprisal. Yes, there is discrimination and harassment, but there is also legal recourse. What we call rights in this part of the world are fantasies in the Muslim world.

Q. Right-wing conservatives must love you, except for the lesbian part.

A. Let's say the range of responses I've gotten from right-wing conservatives undermines the notion that they represent a monolithic group. As far as my sexual orientation goes, I like being a challenge to people with ideological agendas who say "my fundamentalism is better than your fundamentalism" -- whether it's left-leaning or right-leaning fundamentalism, feminist fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism itself is part of the problem. I don't think it's a tribute to God to reduce him to a manufacturer of robots.

Q: You praise the freedoms of the West. But there are many people (in the West and elsewhere) these days who see the U.S. as acting like an imperial power. What do you think?

A: Name me a chunk of history during which there was no empire. Let's be real. The question is: Who would you rather see as an imperial force? A country that allows vigorous, even vitriolic protest, as America routinely does, or a country that bans protest -- and worse?

Q: Did you support the war in Iraq?

A: On the basis of my love for universal human rights, yes. The UN's own special rapporteur on Iraq, who also happens to be the Dutch foreign minister, described Saddam's regime as the cruelest since Nazi Germany. You can't call yourself "anti-war" and do nothing about Saddam. After all, he had been waging war on Iraqis for 30-plus years. Sure, I wish the White House had made human rights the rationale for invasion from the beginning. But if bettering human rights is a spin-off, then I'll take it in an imperfect world.

Q: There's a new effort by the Bush administration that's calling for democratic reform not only in countries like Syria and Iran but, for the first time, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt with whom we have friendly relationships. What do you think about what the White House is doing?

A: It's about time. Most Muslims I know crave democracy, and quietly look to the White House as the hope, not the culprit. Of course, you won't hear that from self-appointed Muslim "leaders" -- whether abroad or in the West.

Q: As you know, some have posited that democracy just won't work in Islamic countries like Iraq. How does this notion jibe with your views? Isn't there a form of functional democracy in Indonesia, for instance?

A: As an international community, we haven't experimented enough with Islam to know with certitude that it's beyond liberal reform. The Koran itself prescribes no specific form of government. If the Koran is divinely authored, in whole or in part, doesn't that silence suggest there's room to experiment? As for Indonesia, it's an electoral democracy all right, but one with few checks and balances. A decent start, with plenty more room to grow. Democracy without accountability is only theory.

Q. You have been called ambitious and you been called an egomaniac. How do you respond to those charges?

A. My ambition is to use my freedoms as well and as vigorously as I can. That may not wash with people who want to see a self-interested agenda at every turn. But those kind of accusations are diversionary tactics. If they stick, then you don't have to listen to my argument.

Q. But are you an egomaniac?

A. In the spirit of democracy, I'll let other people decide that. Even on that matter, engage in Ijtihad.