the trouble with irshad manji

So last night I attended a talk by Irshad Manji, former host of City TV’s Queer Television and author of The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change (2003). Like her book, the talk left me with strongly mixed feelings.

Presented by a fairly wide group of organizations including Waterloo-Laurier Israel Political Affairs Committee (WIPAC), Random House of Canada, Gays and Lesbians Of Waterloo and the University of Waterloo Womyn's Centre, Manji spent an hour presenting highlights of her book, then took questions from the floor. Manji's speaking style is very Moses Zaimer but it takes well to a Q&A, which one might expect from the author of a book which reads like a television transcript.

Manji is a good public speaker, and although she said almost nothing that wasn't in her book, she gave an interesting lecture. Her title was "Israel, Religion, and Diversity", and her thesis was that Israel is a "champion of diversity" and thus worthy of defence on the grounds that it's more democratic than most of the Middle East.

When she was asked how she could support a self-declared Jewish state which has explicitly different laws for its Jewish & non-Jewish citizens, she basically replied that it was better than Pakistan and several other self-declared Islamic states. This isn't much of an answer -- would Manji also defend the biases of CNN on the grounds that it's better than Fox News? But she's right to say that Israel manages to protect the human rights of its citizens better than most of its neighbours, through elections and a strong supreme court. If they'd only grant suffrage to the almost three million Palestinians whose land they occupy, I'd be the first to hold them up as a model democracy.

She was refreshingly critical of Palestinians who didn't denounce the lack of democracy in institutions like the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, which have never really allowed an open vote on anything, but she's a little naive on Israeli history generally and got in a little over her head. At one point she mentioned the "generous offer" made by the administrators of the British Mandate to its Arab citizens, which was rejected because it reserved a small amount of land for Jews. She didn't mention that this was never a very serious offer; rather, it was made in the spirit of divide-and-conquer which the British used so successfully to keep all their colonies in hand. Her book also contains a number of factual errors (a good list of them is given in Justin Podur's review in Znet). She tries to be another Tarek Fatah, and lists him and his wife in her acknowledgements (tellingly, he responded by publicly requesting that she remove his name from subsequent editions).

I really wanted to ask her one question: "Look, I like most of what you have to say, but why'd you have to choose such a stupid title for your book?" She seems to have deliberately picked a title which would guarantee it being cited throughout the right-wing North American media by pundits who almost certainly didn't read any further than the cover. How could she in good conscience deliberately feed off of and encourage the rampant post-9/11 scapegoating of Islam? Was she hoping to guarantee sales by becoming the next Salmon Rushdie? In the end I didn't bother, as it became clear that her approach to dialogue is to push buttons and agitate people then hope that progress is achieved as a result, and given such a worldview, you'd have to concede that her choice of title makes perfect sense. I'll admit to having previously suspected her of crassly profiteering motives for picking a title like that, but Manji took great care to mention that proceeds from her speaking tours go to Médecins Sans Frontières, so whatever else one might say about her, she seems to be sincerely in it with selfless intentions. She's also making translations of her book into Arabic and Urdu (the dominant language of Pakistan) available for free download on her website, and has funded editions in those languages which will come out this fall. For that alone she has earned my respect.

Overall, this book is probably better than you feared, although there's plenty of better writing out there if you want to read about the reform movement in modern Islam. But if she's coming to a University campus near you, you could do worse than check out her presentation.