Irshad Manji Report
Going to see Irshad Manji on Monday was definitely the highlight of my ALA experience. Ironically, it was in the same auditorium where I endured Robert F. Kennedy, Jr the day before. Sadly, it was only about half full for Irshad, as opposed to being packed to the rafters for RFK Jr. Those who were there responded well to Irshad's message and gave her a good ovation at the end.
Irshad is an incredibly relaxed and natural speaker. She spoke for about an hour, and devoted her talk to the events and experiences that led her to become a self-described "Muslim dissident". Most of the ground Irshad covered is described in her excellent book, The Trouble with Islam Today. Here is a brief summary of her speech:
-Irshad began with her main point: that it is time for Muslims to stop blaming others for their own problems. She stressed the importance of personal responsibility, and of the necessity of speaking out when one sees injustice. As she put it: "courage is not the absence of fear", but rather the sense that some things are important enough to risk your life for.
-Irshad's journey towards dissent began as a teenager in the Vancouver area. She was open minded and inquisitive, qualities that would see her get kicked out of the local madrassa (Islamic religious school). After this happened, she decided to teach herself about Islam, which she did by taking advantage of her local public library (yes, this was a major applause line). What Irshad found in her studies was an Islam far different from the doctrinaire intolerance she was taught in the madrassa. This is the basis of her belief that Islam, for all its problems, is both reformable and compatible with the modern world.
-This experience shows the absolute importance of people being free to ask questions. Irshad made an important point on the distinction between faith and dogma. Faith can survive having questions asked of it; dogma can't.
-Irshad's decision to write her book was inspired both by 9/11 and by her investigation of the brutal treatment of women in much of the Muslim world.
-She feared that writing the book and speaking out would make her a target, and it has. Like so many others, she has received numerous death threats from Islamists. At first, they emanated from the Middle East, but then they started to come from places like Scandinavia and the UK. She even receives threats from North America. In fact, a recent one was traced to an Internet cafe in downtown Toronto.
-Despite these threats, Irshad no longer retains the services of a bodyguard. As she explained it, she can't expect other Muslims to heed her call to speak out against the extremists when she can afford a bodyguard and they can't. Courageously, she has decided to lead by example, though she wisely takes other security precautions.
-The most encouraging reaction to her book has been among young Muslims, many of whom have read it and embraced Irshad's proposals for debate and reform. The free Arabic version of the book has been downloaded over 200,000 times from Irshad's web site in the last year, and is being printed out and circulated in places such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, in a manner reminiscent of Soviet Samizdat. Irshad has also made downloadable PDF copies available in Urdu, the major language in Pakistan, and Farsi, the main language of Iran. Irshad's book is, of course, banned in the latter country.
-Unfortunately, these burgeoning Muslim dissidents are dwarfed by the far greater number of Muslims who feel threatened by Irshad's ideas. This negative reaction isn't only from Islamists; many self-described "moderate Muslims" have condemned her and sent her hate mail as well. Irshad's own mother had to sit through a mosque sermon where the Mufti called her daughter a "bigger criminal than Osama bin Laden", because she sowed fitna (discord) in the Muslim community.
-Irshad quoted the advice that Sir Salman Rushdie gave her when she asked for his advice on why she should publish her book: "Because a book is more important than a life". He elaborated by saying that once a thought has been put to paper, it can never be un-thought. This is why the the most insidious form of censorship is self-censorship; because this is the only way to prevent that thought from being uttered or written in the first place.
-Irshad encouraged librarians to speak out against the Islamist intolerance that occurs in places like Iran. She ended by mentioning that even her mother, who is a pious, traditional Muslim, has encouraged her efforts and is opening her mind to at least some of Irshad's ideas.
After Irshad ended her remarks, there was a half-hour Q & A session. One woman from Iran asked her about the issue of stoning, which Irshad had said still occurs in that country. The woman said that pressure from Iranian dissidents had brought a de facto end to the practice. Irshad agreed that the practice has been drastically curtailed in recent years, but said that it does still happen on occasion. (With Ahmadinejad determined to take Iran back to the "glories" of the Khomeini era, I would not be surprised to see this barbarous practice make a comeback.)
I asked Irshad a question about how she deals with the doctrine of apostasy, which is one of the main ideological tools Islamists use to silence dissidents and freethinkers. She said that she ignores it. Irshad did mention the 2005 Amman Declaration, a ruling by leading Islamic clerics that no Muslim can declare another Muslim to be an apostate. In terms of her own situation, Irshad pointed out that she regularly reminds the Islamists that if they kill her, they simply ensure that her ideas will circulate even more widely than before.
Overall, it was a great session, and refreshing to see ALA have a speaker discuss the threat radical Islamism poses to intellectual freedom. If you're interested, I strongly encourage you to visit Irshad's web site, Muslim Refusenik. Her book, The Trouble with Islam Today, is a great read, and would make a good choice for Banned Books Week.