‘Osama’s worst nightmare’ is how The New York Times described her after her controversial debut book The Trouble with Islam in 2002. Since then, Irshad Manji, bestselling author and critic of mainstream Islam, has engaged with an entire generation of young Muslims desperate for change, who connect with her brand of liberal thought and her openness about her sexuality. And, of course, it has got her a lot of enemies. Manji spoke to Neha Bhatt about her new book Allah, Liberty and Love, and keeping up with religion in “morally confusing times”.
What prompted your book Allah, Liberty and Love?
It was the global response to my previous book, The Trouble With Islam. Also, the fact that there has been a real change in the response I have been getting from young Muslims since then. There was a lot of hostility earlier, and there still is some, but about five years ago, my Facebook page began getting much more positive posts. Readers started feeling that finally somebody from their faith was articulating, and their question was, “Show me how I can deal with the backlash from my community, the way you have dealt with backlash from your own”. So this new book is really a ‘How to’, not just for Muslims, but other faiths that wish to support Muslim reformists.
Have the concerns of Muslims changed since your last book?
I think so. With more and more e-mails like, “How can I marry a non-Muslim? Do I have to give up my faith, or my love?” that I received, I asked my imam to reinterpret the Quran in this perspective and he came up with a two-page defence of interfaith marriage. With that, gradually, more than praise and anger from readers, there was a desire to reconcile faith and freedom. In fact, I wasn’t surprised at the Arab Spring. From my experience in Cairo in 2005, a lot of youngsters approached me there about interfaith marriage. Once again, it was an indication that these are not just big ideas, these are real struggles that people are experiencing in their lives.
A chunk of your new book contains dialogue between young readers and you. Does the number of people trying to question Islam surprise you?
Yes, it does surprise me. That’s why I have moved on from anger, which fed a lot of my last book, and I have taken a journey of my own. My critics have also been my teachers. I know it’s a little cheeky, but their pen is my zen.
So do young Muslims favour the concept of ijtihad—that promotes critical thinking and dissent—rather than jehad?
I do believe so. The reality is that there is a new generation of Muslims that hungers to find a common ground between the faith of Islam, and the needs of individuals. They are looking to harmonise these ideas, and live a modern, non-violent, happy life.
Your book has been panned for your outright dismissal of moderate Muslims.
I react patiently to such criticism, because I don’t believe that moderate Muslims are very moderate at all. They work from a point of identity, not integrity. The moderate Muslim typically says, “Don’t challenge what I say, you have to respect me”.
You emphasise that these are morally confusing times. What makes it so?
It is the fear of being labelled so easily when you speak your mind. The fear of being ridiculed and branded the moment they ask a question...that can make someone uncomfortable. (But) you can’t call yourself a global citizen if you keep your mouth shut.
Has anything changed in a post-Osama world?
I don’t see a higher level of anger among Muslims because Bin Laden’s killing. I don’t see them criticising the assassination. In fact, the overwhelming response by Muslims on my website was, “Good riddance, let the bastard burn in hell”. But at the same time, there was a lot of concern over images of Americans celebrating his death at Ground Zero.
Do you get a lot of letters from India? What are their concerns?
India ranks right up there in the quantity of letters I get. One of the more common questions we are getting from not just India but various open democracies is, “How do I allow myself to not get defensive when people bring up the question of terrorism being related to my religion? Can you somehow help me to rein in my emotions, so I can have a constructive discussion without creating an uproar?” My answer to that, which I address in my book, is “Why should you be so afraid of offending? You don’t need to come from a place of anger, but honesty.”