Jewish World Review April 2, 2002 / 20 Nisan, 5762

Irshad Manji

A Muslim plea for introspection

Will we defend the very pluralism of interpretations and values that makes it possible for us to be here in the first place? -- As a kid growing up just outside of Vancouver, I would spend five hours every Saturday at madresa, religious school for Muslims. There, I imbibed some petrifying lessons: That if I'm a bad Muslim, my coffin will come to life and squeeze me so hard that my screams will be heard by the people walking above ground. That reciting the call to prayer with a "white accent" distorts its meaning to the brink of blasphemy.

And, perhaps most frightening for a child in a pluralistic suburb, that it's sinful to befriend non-Muslims, especially Jews. Mind you, not every madresa pumped such prejudice into the souls of its nine-year-olds. Only members of the purest sect got that privilege.

This member also got the boot. After a few years of probing and prodding, I asked one too many questions: something starting with, "But how do you know ?" "Look," Mr. Dewji sputtered, "either you believe or you don't. If you don't, go. Go now. Leave and never come back!"

"Jesus Christ!" I bellowed, kicking open the door as my chador grew sweaty around my throbbing temples. At that moment, I had crossed the threshold into a wider world called Canada. Praise be to Allah.

Since Passover and the latest wave of suicide bombings, folks have been asking me, "What does it take to whip a human being into the kind of frenzy that makes him a suicide bomber for G-d?" Because I've never equated fundamentalism with faith, I don't understand it. Neither do most Muslims I know. But instead of acknowledging that there's a serious problem with the way our religion is practiced, even in cosmopolitan Canada, we romanticize Islam. The peer pressure to stay on message -- the message being that we're not all terrorists -- seduces us into avoiding the most crucial of jihads: introspection.

Enough of this adolescent capitulation to peer pressure. It's time to question publicly whether Islam lends itself to fundamentalism more easily than other world religions. Here's my case for why it might:

We Muslims are routinely told that The Holy Koran is a book about which there is no doubt. By building upon the Torah and the Christian Bible, the Koran perfects their teachings. No need to interpret the final draft of G-d's manifesto. It is what it is, and that is that.

Which relates to Islam's other "great" contribution --- getting it all in writing. Mohammed formally codified the laws that Moses introduced and Jesus embodied. Small mystery why so many Muslims proudly proclaim that Islam is more than a religion; it's a way of life.

Forgive me for cringing. By now we know that once guidelines are encoded, be they sexual harassment policies or articles of faith, they acquire a sense of permanence. Particulars infused with urgency -- an urgency responding to the circumstances of the era -- become inflated, then congeal into universal, timeless truths. Welcome to the modus operandi of fundamentalists.

Of course, it's the MO of fundamentalists in every religion. Still, at least Jewish and Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of the other's Biblical interpretation, none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists.

Heck, the Jews even publicize debates by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and embodying challenges into the Talmud itself. I wonder if this embrace of discussion makes it safer for Jewish kids to grow from their curiosities.

I don't know. What I can testify to is that Muslim youth are rarely permitted, never mind encouraged, to question. Does that alone create suicide bombers? Of course not. Does knowing G-d's final manifesto prevent us from challenging our own prejudices? Let us come clean to our Creator, if not to our community as well.

Some may be tempted to argue that now is not the time to air vulnerabilities, lest Muslims be further targeted for backlash. That's a rationale more appropriate to a tiny refugee rump than to the "integral presence in Western society" that Muslims have become, according to the president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. If we're integral, we have the power to change things, including ourselves, without fear of reprisal, except from ourselves.

And there's much to change. Witness our profound anti-Semitism. If it starts with Islamic countries outlawing their citizens from merely visiting Israel, it certainly doesn't end there. I can't count the number of times I've been warned by relatives in the U.S. and Canada to serve Islam by leaving my work in the media, which -- I should realize -- is owned and thus manipulated by Jews.

Earlier this year, employed at a channel owned by a nice white Anglo-Saxon family, I produced a special about gay and lesbian Muslims around the world. The most common complaint of Toronto-area Muslims who caught the show? That the homosexual "pigs" and "dogs" whom I featured must have been Jews off-camera. Damn those Zionist plants!

Fast forward to the days following Sept. 11. The Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association urged politicians to attend its press conference and speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry. Among those who did: an openly gay legislator. I hope he can expect reciprocal outrage the next time a gay club or bookstore is firebombed.

This is a watershed moment for North America's Muslims. Will we remain spiritually infantile, shackled by cultural expectations to clam up and conform, or will we mature into citizens, defending the very pluralism of interpretations and values that makes it possible for us to be here in the first place?

As always, Mr. Dewji, I look forward to an honest answer.

Irshad Manji is a broadcaster with Vision TV, the world's only multi-faith TV network. Comment by clicking here.

02/14/02: Take a leaf from the Prophet, Yasser

© 2002, Irshad Manji