[This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on April 28, 2012
When Irshad Manji, a courageous Canadian Muslim liberal and open critic of Islam was speaking with another reformist Muslim at an event this past December in Amsterdam, 22 male Islamic jihadists burst into the venue and attempted to physically assault her.
“They shouted ‘Kafir,’ an Arabic word meaning apostate, and then they issued not only a death threat, but an order to execute. One of them openly threatened to break my neck. Luckily they were unarmed,” she says. “However, investigating Amsterdam police later found a loaded machine gun in the home of one of the men who disrupted the event.”
Manji, who is openly gay, has been speaking around the word promoting her recent book Allah, Liberty and Love, The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, which she has completed some 10 years after her first best-seller, The Trouble with Islam Today.
The Islamic jihadists who disrupted her talk also threw raw eggs. Although she says has seen her share of fierce opposition and has been spat on before, this was the first time that a “mob” came out to disrupt one of her talks. She believes this may be because of the fact that there were “two Reformist Muslims getting together” which was seen as more of a threat for Islamic fundamentalists than if she were just appearing on her own.
The jihadists were angry at Manji for all sorts of reasons, including “the rights of Palestinians,” and they told her that “you can’t be gay and Muslim.”
But Manji says that she was protected by the crowd.
“When the jihadists threatened me, a young woman in a hijab stood in front of me,” and others in the crowd joined in to “create a human shield to protect me,” such that “I never once felt afraid…
This was a marvelous demonstration of pluralists, literally, standing together.”
According to Manji, when Amsterdam police arrived some 12 minutes later, “they began negotiating with me to leave the auditorium. I said no, I don’t need to leave. These are the guys that you need to arrest. They need to go, not me.”
A policewoman then told Manji that she needed to understand that the police were wanting to escort her out for her personal safety, but Manji stood her ground, and would not leave the scene.
“The police finally arrested two of the guys [one for making threats and one for insulting police. But they deliberately didn’t arrest them in front of the people in the auditorium because they didn’t want to humiliate them in front of women,” Manji says.
She insisted on finishing her talk, which is what happened.
Manji, who says she “studied Islam on my own,” says that “Islam really does have a tradition of asking questions,” of “debate” and “dissent,” which she refers to as “Ijtihad.” Ijtihad is the making of a decision in Islamic law (shari’a) by personal effort (jihad), independently of any school of jurisprudence, as opposed to taqlid, copying or obeying without question.
AT A launch for her new book at a bookstore in Winnipeg Canada last month, Manji said regarding the conflicts in the Middle East: “More Muslims today are being maimed and raped by fellow Muslims than anyone else. So we have to start looking within as opposed to blaming others.”
Manji says Islam needs more introspection and self-criticism.
“My book is a primer to developing moral courage [to speak truth to power], not just for Muslims but non-Muslims.
Change [in the Muslim world] has to be led from inside, but it only succeeds when it has the support of the wider community.”
Her Moral Courage project, which she founded at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, is about “teaching young leaders to break silences for the sake of a greater good,” she says.
At her book launch, a Muslim woman in the audience said she had heard that Manji is “a darling of the media.” Manji responded that she is described this way in the Muslim world because “a huge assumption made by Muslims” is “that Jews own the media,” and the implication is that “I am in the pocket of the Jews.”
One of the men in the audience was a Muslim who had initially invited her to his mosque to speak, but had to rescind the invitation due to opposition from within. He said, “I thought we were ready for you, but we were not.”
Manji tells the Post that since the Arab Spring she has spoken in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. “These are private gatherings. It would be too dangerous to do this publicly.”
She says she has not yet been invited to launch her book in Israel “but I would love to be invited.” She was last in Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and wrote an article in August of that year in The Times of London calling on moderate Muslims to engage in selfintrospection.
As she wrote: “We call for a ‘proportionate response’ from Israel. Yet when we diminish or ignore Hezbollah’s crimes, we engage in a disproportionate response of our own.
It has attacked Israel from southern Lebanon and Gaza, the very areas that the Jewish state had unilaterally evacuated.
If Islam is another word for peace, what is un-Islamic about opposing such bald aggression? “Moreover, Hezbollah deliberately endangers the lives of Muslim and Christian civilians. Its fighters set up shop in the middle of busy residential districts, so that any retaliation against them must involve hitting innocents.
What makes Muslims moderate when we wink at this cruel calculus?” When asked at her book launch event about her views on the functioning of the United Nations, Manji responded that she wouldn’t take the position of the secretary-general of the UN if offered it.
“The UN is so messed up. I can’t relate to the UN any more,” she says, and notes that “so much of it [the UN] is corrupt” that “I’d be ashamed to be associated with that institution.”
According to Manji, “Reformist Muslims do exist and are more and more willing to be heard.” She knows her work is “not going to change the minds of [Islamic] fundamentalists,” but says, “I’m here to encourage and embolden those who are discouraged to share their words…”
According to Manji, what drives her to speak out to ignite reform in the Islamic world is “gratitude,” since her family “arrived as political refugees of Uganda.
She speaks out to “ask God to continue to make me worthy of the freedoms” she received in Canada.
She relays a story of how as a child in second grade she used to lug around several volumes of an encyclopedia in her backpack. One day her teacher asked her why she was carrying these volumes around. Manji replied “I am in training.”
Although she says she didn’t know then what her purpose in life was, she felt as if she would be involved in a mission, carrying the weight of the world on her back.
Regarding her views on wearing the hijab, she says, “In my interpretation of the Koran, it is not mandated to wear the hijab, but so often Islamic women are told that they have to wear it to be good Muslim women.”
SHE IS also an advocate of having no legal limits to free speech.
“I have been called a free speech fundamentalist,” she quips, saying that she believes the best way to deal with hateful speech is to counter-argue. She has even managed to find a way to converse with “a would-be assassin.” As she relates in her book, an anonymous person emailed her:
Roses are red
Her blood is redder
God wants her DEAD
And we promise Him we’ll get her.
Manji decided to reply, showing that “even death threats can become fodder for creative freedom.” She wrote back in verse:
I’ve just chatted with God
He doesn’t recall asking you to murder
Maybe you misheard Him.
When He said, “Hmmm… hurt her?”
“No, fools,” He clarified.
“That’s not the way:
Think and engage,
Or don’t bother to pray.
For I gave my creatures a gift.
It’s called free will.
You might hate how it’s used.
But it’s not yours to kill.”
The author is the editor of the e-paper Winnipeg Jewish Review.