Reading <i>The Trouble with Islam</i>, Part 2

The Trouble with Islam : A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. By Irshad Manji. St. Martin's Press

"I appreciate that every faith has its share of literalists. Christians have their Evangelicals. Jews have the ultra-Orthodox. For God's sake, even Buddhists have fundamentalists. But what this book hammers home is that only in Islam is literalism mainstream." ... by Bernard Lewis? Nope. Samuel Huntington? Not quite! Robert Spencer? Wrong again. The statement above was authored by none of the usual, white Orientalist suspects. Irshad Manji, a queer, South Asian, Canadian, self-identifying Muslim woman is the latest to jump on the Islam-bashing for a buck bandwagon. Manji is not the first writer to capitalize on Islam-bashing, nor will she be the last, but the danger in her latest book is that she packages her anti-Islam message in the guise of a progressive, moderate Muslim voice of reason

After attending Manji's The Trouble with Islam book reading a few weeks ago at Coliseum Books in New York City, I felt compelled to respond to her book, a "letter to fellow Muslims," as a Muslim woman with a very different point of view. Manji's mission is to promote dialogue and in line with her mission, I intend to respond to not only the substance, or lack thereof, of her arguments, but also the danger in her message and her means of promotion.

In Manji's analysis of Islam, she packages Islam into an oversimplified equation, which basically amounts to: Islam = Anti-Semitism + Misogyny + Tyranny. She adds that this equation is not limited to fundamentalist Islam, but rather "mainstream" Islam and while all religions have extremist tendencies, Islam is the only religion she views where fundamentalism is actually mainstream. To further simplify matters, she plugs the West into another neat equation: West = Religious Freedom + Women's Progress + Safe haven for Muslims. Her Huntington-style juxtaposition of Islam versus the West lacks depth and fails to account for the many realities that fall outside these neatly calculated equations.

In her black and white analysis, Manji ignores the gray. She fails to mention that in many Islamic countries, women have held positions as heads of state - Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Begum Khalida Zia of Bangladesh. The West, which she heralds as a paradigm of women's progress, can boast of very few and in the US, not a single one. Our most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, comes from Iran. So her assertion that women in Islamic countries are oppressed and disempowered is an overstatement. Of course gender-based discrimination and violence occur in Islamic countries, but these phenomena occur across all cultures and societies and to imply that Islamic oppression is more "barbaric" than Western oppression feeds into inaccurate, Orientalist stereotyping.

At her book reading, she stated that she felt thankful to have not been born in an Islamic country because if she were a Muslim woman living in the Muslim world, she would not have such freedoms. Yet again, Manji glosses over the serious civil liberties infringements against Muslims that have happened in the US after 9/11 with the Patriot Act, 3,208 deportations, 6,483 detentions, 27,000 FBI interrogation raids, and widespread racial and religious profiling. Her native Canada even issued a travel advisory against visiting the US after a Canadian citizen was deported to Syria when he landed on US soil. No formal charges were brought against him, no connection to terrorist links — his crime was being Muslim. In a climate where Muslims are being punished for being Muslim, her portrayal of the West as a safe haven for Muslims to speak freely and openly makes little sense. In fact, the targeting of Muslims by the US government has forced many Muslims into silence and encouraged those with differing opinions to censor their points of view for fear of negative repercussions.

The trouble with Irshad Manji is that her definition of Islam lacks specificity and her celebration of the West lacks critical honesty. She gives us personal anecdotes of her experiences with Islam and then equates Islam to the summation of those experiences. Had she narrowed her definition of Islam to include that of South Asian expatriates living in Canada and actually interviewed others, then perhaps her book would have been an insightful glimpse into the situation of Muslims in her community. To generalize her experience and say this is "Islam" and furthermore diagnose this "Islam" in her book is where Manji goes too far and at the expense of the Muslims she hopes to mobilize into a progressive reformist movement. By finger pointing and alienating Muslim community members with her emotionally-charged and virulent statements, she has not only neglected to offer a viable solution for Islamic reform, but also managed to give the Muslim moderates she claims to represent a bad name.

The "movement" Manji is trying to create via her book and interactive website,, is a disturbing reality that must be challenged by the moderate, progressive, Muslim voices she claims to represent. Given our post-9/11 climate of anti-Muslim fever, it is particularly irresponsible of Manji to propagate sensationalized anti-Islam stereotypes.


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