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Brave, Young and Muslim
A review of The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith by Irshad Manji.


The New York Times, Mar. 3, 2005

Photo: The Trouble With Islam Today by Irshad Manji

The last couple of years have not been easy for anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a decent, democratizing outcome. And even in the wake of the remarkable Iraqi election, the toppling of the Lebanese cabinet and the reforms brewing in Egypt, it is too soon for anyone to declare victory. We're dealing with some very unstable chemicals. But what makes me more hopeful today is precisely what made me hopeful that the Iraq war might work out, and that is the number of Arab-Muslim youth I've encountered since 9/11 who have urged me to keep writing about the need for democracy and reform in their part of the world.

Of course, many Americans are surprised by this. America has treated the Arab-Muslim states for 50 years as a collection of gas stations. All we cared about was that their pumps were open and their prices low, and that they be nice to the Israelis. As long as the regimes did that, we said, they could do whatever they wanted 'out back.' They could treat their women however they wanted, they could write about America in their newspapers however they wanted, and they could preach intolerance of other religions all they wanted - just keep their pumps open and prices low and be nice to the Israelis. On 9/11, we got hit with everything that was going on 'out back.'

Since then, it's been clear to me that unless we partner with Arabs and Muslims to change their context, unless we help them create the free space for a war of ideas that will allow for a new discussion out front and out back, we're just begging for another 9/11. I always knew we had partners there, but the democratic movements that have now emerged have shown me just how many young people there want to give voice to their aspirations and achieve their full potential - something their governments and spiritual leaders have been blocking.

If you want to get a taste of what they sound like, read Irshad Manji's courageous book The Trouble With Islam Today, and the letters and debates from young Muslims on her Web site ( Ms. Manji is a 36-year-old Canadian Muslim feminist who has dared to write a book calling for a reformation of Islam.

'There's no bigger idea for the Muslim world today - and consequently for all of us - than reopening the gates of independent thinking, or 'ijtihad,' ' she said. 'That's the main point of my book - to show that Islam once had a pluralistic tradition of critical debate and dissent, and that we Muslims need to rediscover this tradition to update Islam for the 21st century. That's not being radical. That's being faithful.'

Born in Uganda of an Indian-Muslim father and a mother with Egyptian roots who emigrated to Canada, Ms. Manji is a frequent lecturer about diversity on college campuses. 'Even before 9/11 and my book, I noticed that after my lectures young Muslims would gather at the side of the stage, wait for everyone else to leave and then walk over and say things like, 'Irshad, we need more voices to help open up this religion of ours, because if it doesn't open up we are leaving it.' That is what the clerics don't get. We're saving Islam by showing the emerging generation how they can be part of a pluralistic world and be faithful Muslims.'

To that end, Ms. Manji has just launched what she calls Project Ijtihad. 'The goal,' she explained, 'is to create a leadership center that will attract young, reform-minded Muslims to network with one another so they see that they're not alone, to develop the confidence to openly dissent with conformity in Islam and to learn about the golden age of Islam, when Muslims, Jews, Christians worked together to preserve and expand knowledge - something we're rarely, if ever, taught in our public schools or in our Islamic religious schools.'

At the urging of students, Ms. Manji recently had her book translated into Arabic and Urdu and posted on her Web site. Young Arabs and Pakistanis are now downloading it in private and discussing it. This week she was approached by a small Arabic publisher who operates in Lebanon and Germany - and has just opened in Baghdad - offering to publish her book in Iraq!

'I can't help but appreciate the symbolism,' she said. 'Baghdad was the seat of the Islamic enlightenment from the eighth to 12th centuries. It was a crossroads of goods, services, big ideas.'

This will take time to play out, and a decent outcome is not assured. But the good news is that young Arabs and Muslims are starting to have a very different conversation 'out back,' and more and more of them are demanding to have it out front.