[NOTE from Robert Spencer, April 14: Greetings, Muslim Refusenik readers! What follows below is some carefully reasoned criticism of some of Irshad Manji’s positions, written respectfully by the Norwegian essayist Fjordman. It would have been refreshing if Ms. Manji had replied to the points made here, rather than simply slam Jihad Watch as “right wing.” I wrote to her to ask her why she thought we were right wing: because we oppose jihad violence and Islamic supremacism? Or because we oppose the Iraqi democracy project? Or because we call for Islamic reform? Or something else? I did not receive a reply. As Ms. Manji claims to want to foster free and open debate, I find that disappointing. Name-calling isn’t dialogue, now is it? If Ms. Manji would ever wish actually to discuss these or related issues with me in any forum, public or private, instead of just calling names (as fun as it is), she knows where to reach me.]
A new essay by the Norwegian writer Fjordman:
I received some criticism for a negative review I wrote at the Gates of Vienna blog of Irshad Manji’s book The Trouble With Islam, which I had finally decided to read because so many people are referring to her as the great hope of a liberal Islam.
Since I write under the pseudonym Fjordman myself, I try for the most part to refrain from criticizing too much those who make significant contributions to the debate regarding Multiculturalism and Muslim immigration using their own names. Hans Rustad is the editor of Document.no, which is Norway’s largest independent blog and in my eyes rightfully so as it is a counterweight to the ridiculous anti-Israeli and anti-American bias among the mainstream media. I like his website and read it regularly.
While disagreeing with him on certain topics, my goal is thus not to “get.” Mr. Rustad in any ways, simply to address an issue I believe to be of general interest.
According to Mr. Rustad, “I don’t think your description of Manji fits at all. She is not vague and incoherent, she is among the most intelligent and sharp-sighted observers I have seen. If she doesn’t suffice [as a reformist], then I believe there may be something wrong with your requirements. I do not understand why you are out to ‘get’ Irshad Manji. She has delivered razor sharp analyses of what’s wrong with Islam of our age. She sees the infantilization and the cult of victimhood. Her openness towards Israel and Israelis shows an open-minded, unprejudiced and politically intelligent individual. You give her little credit for this.”
Jens Tomas Anfindsen, who holds a PhD in philosophy and is specialized
in the philosophy of religion and is one of one of two editors of the
interesting bilingual website HonestThinking, agrees with some of my
criticism of Manji. According to Mr. Anfindsen, “Manji is a positive
voice. My point is limited to demonstrating that her attempts at
reviving ijtihad are flawed from a purely theological point of view.
What she does may be great, but it cannot be viewed as a revival of
something that is already present within the Islamic tradition.”
Anfindsen believes that what she says about ijtihad, is, from a theological point of view, pure nonsense:
“Manji is correct that ijtihad is an established principle in traditional Islamic theology, and it is also correct that the emphasis on and freedom to exercise ijtihad among Islamic jurists has varied throughout the ages. Especially during phases when Islam expanded and conquered other highly developed societies, the need for ijtihad, re-thinking of traditional views, to solve legal problems that the Koran and the hadith didn’t prescribe unambiguous solutions to, increased. However, there are strict rules for the use of ijtihad, and even a superficial knowledge of what it is about will reveal that ijtihad cannot possibly be what Manji claims it to be. If Manji were right, any Muslim could rationalize almost anything and then present the result as Islamic jurisprudence. Simple logic indicates that this cannot be true.”
Some of the limitations is that ijtihad can only be exercised by someone versed in Islamic law, which has traditionally only meant men. More importantly, ijtihad cannot under any circumstances set aside legal principles that are clear and explicit. For instance, no Islamic mufti can claim that it is allowed to drink alcohol or eat pork, as these things are clearly and unambiguously prohibited in the holy texts, and ijtihad can of course not alter this.
Ijtihad is thus similar to the personal judgment of judges or those versed in law in our secular justice system. This does indeed leave some room for interpretation, but it cannot set aside what has been put down clearly in text of a statute, legislative history and legal precedent.
According to Mr. Anfindsen, “Although it would be amusing if Manji could persuade young Muslims that ijtihad entails that they can decide for themselves anything they want to, and then claim that the conclusions they reached were Islamic, this understanding of ijtihad has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional Islamic legal principle of ijtihad.”
In my view, Manji is NICE, which is good, but not enough. There are about one billion nominal Muslims in the world. The more intelligent Islam critics already knew that not all of them are monsters. That’s not the point. The point is that her arguments are weak. Manji gets away with this because the average Western reader knows even less about the subject than she does. We must never get so emotional over discovering a person calling herself a Muslim yet renouncing anti-Semitism and Islamic intolerance that we abstain from looking critically at whether her analyses hold true.
There are two kinds of Muslim reformists: Those who lie deliberately, either to enhance their own personal wealth and prestige or as a strategy to confuse and divide non-Muslims. And then we have the others, which I unfortunately fear constitute a minority of the reformists, who genuinely believe what they are saying. My gut feeling after reading Manji, based partly on the fact that she includes critical words about the Koran itself, something which self-appointed “reformists” slash Islamic moles such as Tariq Ramadan never do, is that Manji is genuine. However, I have read the work of other reformists. Not one of them has so far, in my view, presented a credible case of how to reform Islam, but at least some of them have argued in a more logically consistent manner and based their views more thoroughly on Islamic texts than Manji does.
What worries me about Manji and finally caused me to write about her is that presumably well intentioned individuals such as her can contribute to keeping the illusion of a reformed and modern Islam alive during the time frame when non-Muslims might have a chance of separating ourselves from the Islamic world without massive bloodshed. Manji’s contribution, well meaning as it might be, may thus end up being negative because she will make others share her unfounded illusions about a liberal Islam at a time when we need to deal with and shed dangerous, Multicultural illusions.
Although she never says so explicitly in her book, I get the impression that Manji largely agrees with the mantra that “Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.” I don’t share this view. Why do those who behead Buddhist teachers in Thailand, burn churches in Nigeria, persecute Hindus in Pakistan or blow bombs in the London subway always “misunderstand” Islamic texts? Why don’t they feel this urge to kill people after reading about, say, Winnie the Pooh?
No text is infinitely elastic, just as no rubber band can be stretched to any length. If any text was infinitely elastic by personal interpretation, we could replace the Koran with any other book and get the same result. That’s obviously not the case. If you have a text that repeatedly calls for killing, death and mayhem, more people are going to “interpret” this text in aggressive ways. Islam is the most aggressive and violent religion on earth in practice because its texts are more aggressive than those of any other major religion, and because the example of Muhammad is vastly more violent than that of any other religious founder. If you return to the original Islam, which Manji claims to seek, you get Jihad, since that’s what the original Islam was all about.
Ijtihad isn’t magic. The dozens of explicit Jihad verses in the Koran won’t all magically disappear. As long as they exist, somebody is bound to take them seriously. And since any “reformed” Islam must ultimately be rooted in Islamic teachings and texts, this probably means that Islam cannot be reformed.
I will give Manji credit for asking some sensitive questions. According to her, “Far from being perfect, the Koran is so profoundly at war with itself that Muslims who ‘live by the book’ have no choice but to choose what to emphasize and what to downplay. (“¦) What if it’s not a completely God-authored book? What if it’s riddled with human biases?
Yet her philosophies are not always consistent, and one sometimes gets the impression that she treats Islamic texts as merely a fashion accessory.
Manji praises the tolerance of the so-called Islamic Golden Age. If she is familiar with Bat Ye’or’s work on dhimmitude, which she quotes, how can she still go on with talking about the tolerance of Islam? In the essay Andalusian Myth, Eurabian Reality, co-authored with Andrew G. Bostom, editor of the book The Legacy of Jihad, Bat Ye’or dispels the myth of the alleged “tolerance” of medieval Spain under Islamic rule during the so-called Golden Age. Moreover, not only does Manji paint a too rosy portrait of the treatment of Christians and Jews, she is suspiciously quiet about the treatment of other non-Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists etc. who hardly have any rights at all in Islam. Why? Are they not human? Has she read K.S. Lal’s The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India?
I don’t doubt for a second that if Muslims succeed in subjugating much of Europe, this will in the future be hailed as a Golden Age of Islam. But it wouldn’t be a Golden Age of Islam, it would be the twilight of Western civilization in Europe, just as the previous Golden Age was the twilight of the pre-Islamic civilizations in the Middle East.
In the eyes of Irshad Manji, the problem with Islam today is literalism: “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 the literalism is mainstream.” Her solution to this is to re-discover ijtihad, the Islamic tradition of critical thinking and independent reasoning.
Manji presents ijtihad re-interpretation as something bold and new for the 21st century, but it is in fact neither bold nor new. The first modern Islamic reformers in the 19th century, such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, stressed the importance of ijtihad, argued that “the door to ijtihad” had not been closed by medieval jurisprudence and that it was a right as well as a duty to apply the principles of the Koran and the Sunna to the problems of their age. ‘Abduh meant that individual ijtihad was permitted, but that it should operate within the framework of what was not laid down clearly in the Koran or sound hadith, and should thus be applied where these sources were silent or only stated a general principle.
Scholar Rashid Rida became ‘Abduh’s biographer. According to him, the Islamic umma was at the heart of the world’s civilization as long as it was truly Islamic and can be recreated if Muslims return to the Koran. The ijtihad of the early reformers indirectly contributed to the establishment of the “fundamentalist” movement per excellence, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the MB from 1928, became familiar with the thoughts of Muhammad ‘Abduh while studying in Cairo, but ‘Abduh’s disciple Rida influenced him even more. Banna, too, believed that the Islamic decline could be reversed only by returning to the original teachings of Islam.
Why doesn’t Irshad Manji discuss the impact of Afghani, ‘Abduh, Rida and the other reformers who advocated ijtihad already in the 19th century?
Manji writes that: “‘Operation Ijtihad’ centrals around liberating the entrepreneurial challenges of Muslim-women through micro-business loans. These are a sort of micro-investments. The whole idea here is to give women the resources to start businesses, so that they will earn their own assets, and with those assets they can teach their own children. They can start their own schools, what’s happening now in some parts of Kabul. The bottom-line to all of this is that when women have their own assets, they can read the Koran by themselves. Then they will discover verses in the Koran that imams will never tell them about. (“¦) Imagine if the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other rich allies launched Operation Ijtihad by recasting part of their national security budgets as micro-enterprise loans to creative women throughout the Muslim world.”
I’m not against micro-credit per see. I know Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus and others have had some success with this. But I am deeply skeptical of having non-Muslims paying for this, if the objective is supposed to be an Islamic Reformation.
I’m not a feminist, and I’m not buying the assertion that Islamic aggression will disappear once women re-interpret the Koran. The problem with Islam isn’t the patriarchy, it is the violence in its core texts. Exactly how are the more than 100 Jihad verses of the Koran, the dozens of aggressive military raids by Muhammad and his companions as contained in the Sunna, the hadith and the Sira going to go away because they are read by women? If women will make a difference, it will be in bringing Islam down, not in reforming it.
On pages 160 — 162 of her book, Manji writes that: “September 11 is a searing reminder of what can happen when we hive ourselves off from the problems of ‘others,’ the lesson being that good global citizenship has colossal benefits for domestic security. Regardless of whether Westerners want to accept this fact, Westerners have to accept it. And we have to accept it now because Arab Muslims are experiencing a baby boom. (“¦) Whoever denies these kids economic and civic participation will incite a degree of chaos capable of convulsing much of the planet. The Arab baby boom is as much the West’s problem as it is the Middle East’s. (“¦) Why wait until millions more Muslims show up at Australian, German, and North American checkpoints? Isn’t it a basic matter of security that Muslims heading to these places arrive already knowing that Islam can be observed in ways that complement pluralism rather than suffocate it? (“¦) the West can’t advance without immigrants. (“¦) In short, the West needs Muslims.”
Do we? Muslim immigration costs vast sums and has seriously destabilized our nations. Manji wants us to continue Muslim immigration while France is already close to a civil war because of Muslim immigration. Frankly, I don’t see any reason why we should allow a single believing, practicing Muslim to get permanent residency in our countries. And we invest in India, China and other countries because we believe they have a future. It’s the duty of Muslims to fix their problems, not ours. We’ve done enough, and what we have donehasn’t helped. If anything, Muslims have become more demanding and aggressive.
Muhammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida and other early reformers, even Wahhabists, hailed the Golden Age of Islam and wanted to return to the “true Islam” of the earliest generations, just as Manji is doing. Jihadists want the West to give money to Muslims and keep the doors open for continued Muslim immigration. Muslim reformists such as Irshad Manji want the West to give money to Muslims and keep the doors open for continued Muslim immigration. So, what’s the big difference here?
I stand by my initial assessment of her work: The best thing I can say about her book is that Manji is incoherent and vague. Her historical knowledge is poor and she ignores too many tricky issues. In my view, she brings absolutely no new insight into the question of whether or not Islam can be reformed. Irshad Manji wants to recycle an idea that has been preached since the 19th century, which Westerners should pay for when we are bleeding from the cost of Muslim immigration and while rich Arabs are sponsoring terrorism in our countries. Thanks, but no thanks. The most annoying aspect of this is that her writings have got much more attention than more deserving candidates. Buy a book by somebody who actually understands Islam, such as Understanding Islam and the Muslim Mind by Ali Sina, books by Ibn Warraq, or Wafa Sultan’s upcoming book.