Irshad Manji: denial is scourge of Islam

Irshad Manji writes an open letter to Australian prime minister John Howard, much along the lines of John Ware’s Panorama witch-hunt, attacking mainstream Muslims and urging Howard to adopt an aggressive approach towards those attending today’s summit on religious violence. Yes, that’s the same John Howard who has been criticised for excluding more radical Muslim voices from the meeting, leading to accusations that he was only interested in talking to those who would tell him what he wanted to hear.

The Australian, 23 August 2005

Read this letter and ask yourself – is it any wonder that Manji is enthusiastically applauded by the likes of Daniel Pipes, Melanie Phillips and Anthony Browne, and almost universally loathed by her fellow Muslims?

Dear Prime Minister John Howard,

Today you meet 13 of Australia’s top Muslim clerics at the Islamic summit. As my own Prime Minister in Canada recently did, you’ll be asking for their support in the effort to stop Islamist terror.

But sir, as a reform-minded Muslim, I urge you to keep this in mind: Dialogue will not be enough. You’ll need to extract honesty about the practice of Islam today. And for that you’ll have to move beyond platitudes to ask pointed questions.

Why are Westerners, both Muslim and non-Muslim, being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

What’s with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam?

Who’s the real coloniser of Muslims, the US or Saudi Arabia?

Above all, why did the frenzy of fatwas against terror begin only recently? After New York. After Kabul. After Bali. After Beslan. After Baghdad. After Beirut. After Madrid. After Moscow. After Istanbul. After London. Why has clerical condemnation taken so long?

While the London bombings have roused many Muslims from our slumber, we still have trouble. The trouble with Islam today is that literalism is mainstream.

Even moderate Muslims take the Koran as the final word of God: unfiltered, unchanged and unchangeable. This supremacy complex inhibits us from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. Such a path can lead only to a dead end of more violence.

Please ask the imams: Is this the justice they seek for the world that God has leased to us all? If it’s not, then why don’t more of them say so publicly?

What they’re bound to say is that Muslims are the targets of a backlash. It’s true that from time to time we’re subject to hate. Our community leaders are adroit at showing us how to assert our rights, something most of us wouldn’t have in Islamic countries. In the spirit of reciprocity, it’s worth asking: What about the Koran’s incitement of hate against Jews? Shouldn’t Muslims who invoke the Koran to justify anti-Semitism be open to a lawsuit? Or would this amount to more backlash? What makes Muslims righteous and everybody else racist?

Which brings me to the R-word: racist. I beg you not to back off if you hear it. Remind your accusers that in the past 100 years alone, more Muslims have been tortured and murdered at the hands of other Muslims than at the hands of any foreign imperial power. That’s not to deny Western colonialism. It’s to point out that colonialism comes in many shades and colours. When you stand up for human rights in Islam, the people you’re helping are ordinary Muslims. What’s so racist about that? Ask the imams.

They’ll want to assure you that a faith that violates human rights isn’t true Islam. Excellent. That’s why you’re meeting them: because you believe that Muslims are capable of being more thoughtful and humane than the terrorists suggest.

But for the sake of an honest discussion, please challenge the clerics to come clean about the Islam they reflexively defend.

Is this Islam in its real form or Islam as an ideal? Let’s face it; everything is wonderful as an ideal. Communism is egalitarian as an ideal. Capitalism is fair as an ideal. The US constitution guarantees liberty and justice for all as an ideal. Muslims know the reality is different. As people of conscience, Muslims have to address Islam’s realities, too.

The prophet Mohammed would have embraced this distinction between the real and the ideal. When he was asked to define religion, he reportedly replied that religion is the way we conduct ourselves towards others. A fine definition, simple without being simplistic. Yet, by that definition, how we Muslims behave, not in theory but in actuality, is Islam, which means our complacency is Islam. It also means the power is ours to restore Islam’s better angels, those who care about the human rights of women and minorities.

To do that, though, we have to snap out of our denial. By insisting that there’s nothing the matter with Islam today, we’re sweeping the reality of our religion under the rug of Islam as an ideal, thereby absolving ourselves of responsibility for our fellow human beings, including Muslims, in Australia and beyond.

Prime Minister, you have a sterling opportunity to tell the imams that you won’t be hoodwinked by silky-smooth chatter. Diplomacy is not accountability. Winning this war will require one more than the other.

Irshad Manji is a Canadian writer and television presenter. She is author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (Random House, 2003).