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Journalist and author calls for reform of Muslim faith

<s a joke, but there is some truth to it.

In her convocation last Friday entitled “The Future of Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith,” Irshad Manji made the preposterous claim that she may have more Muslims mad at her than George W. Bush. The reason for their anger? Manji, a self-proclaimed faithful Muslim, wrote a book published in 2003, “The Trouble with Islam Today.”

The TV personality, journalist, author and speaker hopes to reform — or rather re-introduce dimensions of Islam that have been forgotten or neglected — her religion from within.

“While Islam began as a religion of justice, it has been corrupted into an ideology of fear,” Manji said in her talk. “It is we Muslims who are doing much of the corrupting, and therefore it is only we Muslims who can fix the problem.”

Standing up to one’s own community is easier said than done. For Manji, the current Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, it requires Robert F. Kennedy’s “moral courage.”

“Moral courage is to risk backlash from your own community as you pursue a greater good,” she said. “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the recognition that some things are more important than fear.”

Today Manji practices moral courage routinely, as a best-selling author who receives death threats in addition to lesser forms of criticism. The roots of her courage extend back to childhood, however, where she grew up in Canada as a Ugandan immigrant of South Asian descent.

Enrolled in Saturday morning religious education at an Islamic madressa, a young Manji took issue with her teacher’s message that women can’t lead prayer because of their inferiority to men and with his portrayal of Jews as wealth worshippers.

“What I was being given at the madressa was not the makings of faith but the makings of dogma,” she said, adding that her eventual expulsion from the madressa was all the evidence she needed to know that there is a compassionate God. “Faith is secure enough to handle questions; dogma on the other hand is always threatened by questions.”

Leaving behind a structured environment but not her religious heritage, Manji learned about new aspects of Islam through personal study using public library materials. There was a female prayer leader in the Prophet Muhammad’s time, she discovered, and Muhammad’s first businesswoman wife, Khadija, proposed their marriage. Muhammad also considered women to be partners — not property — of men.

“Far from corrupting my faith as my madressa teacher feared, freedom of information saved my faith in Islam,” Manji said.

Yet her career as a globally recognized public spokesperson for her vision of Islam began many years later, sparked by a newspaper article her T.V. station boss placed on her desk. A 17-year old girl in Nigeria had been sentenced to 180 lashes by an Islamic court as punishment for premarital sex. Manji’s superior had written in the margin, “One of these days you’ll tell me how you reconcile this kind of insanity with your Muslim faith.”

For Manji, this story highlighted the need to revive Islam’s tradition of ijtihad, or independent critical thinking, and she has in a sense made this revival her personal jihad, or struggle. Most tangibly, her struggle took the form of writing “The Trouble with Islam.”

“I knew that in writing a book like this, I’d be putting myself in the firing line,” she said.

Despite some emotional wrestling, Manji committed herself to completing the book a few weeks after speaking to Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial Satanic Verses. Accused of blaspheming Islam in his novel and having faced death threats himself, Rushdie nevertheless advised Manji to continue writing because “a book is more important than a life.”

Manji’s final product has caught on overseas with young people. While the book was published in English, eager Muslims asked for an Arabic translation. Now Arabic-reading individuals can download a free copy of Manji’s book on her website, and in the one and a half years of its availability, 300,000 downloads have taken place.

In solidarity with the young Muslims she is inspiring, Manji also relinquished her 24/7 bodyguard.

“It is a matter of integrity to be practicing moral courage and not just talking about it,” she said.

Manji concluded her convocation speech by emphasizing the importance of asking uncomfortable questions and left the audience with one of her own: “Can democratic societies produce pluralists without producing relativists?”

While Manji’s call for critical thinking struck a chord with one Carleton Muslim, he also questioned Manji’s presentation of Islam.

“Irshad had a very narrow and biased view of what Islam was, and was not able to separate Islam as a religion from politics and culture,” said junior Kareem El Muslemany, a resident of Egypt for 13 years and America for six. “As a result, she took her limited experiences of the older generation of conservative Muslims and responses to them, implying that the majority of (especially older) Muslims are misogynist, anti-Semitic, and closed to religious interpretation and question.”

“However, while her views and anecdotes may have given a false impression of Islam to the audience, her central message was good. I would agree that it is important for Muslims to ask about Islam and, if dissatisfied, to take a stand and challenge other Muslims’ religious convictions.”

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