Ms. Manji's website www.irshadmanji.com is an excellent source of information for reformist approaches to Islam.
Islam Needs Reformists, Not 'Moderates'
Bin Laden's followers represent a real interpretation of Islam. Why don't more Muslims challenge it?
By IRSHAD MANJI
President Barack Obama should be applauded for his risky—and lonely—decision to take out Osama bin Laden. But in announcing bin Laden's demise, the president fudged a vital fact. Echoing George W. Bush, he insisted that al Qaeda's icon "was not a Muslim leader."
But this is untrue. Bin Laden and his followers represent a real interpretation of Islam that begs to be challenged relentlessly and visibly. Why does this happen so rarely?
"Moderate" Muslims are part of the problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught many white Americans, in times of moral crisis, moderation cements the status quo. Today, what Islam needs is not more "moderates" but more self-conscious "reformists." It is reformists who will bring to my faith the debate, dissent and reinterpretation that have carried Judaism and Christianity into the modern world.
Sounding the call for reform is no way to win a popularity contest in the Muslim community. After the 2005 London transit bombings, I delivered a radio commentary disagreeing with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the moderate American imam who later fronted the campaign for an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero. He had issued a statement about the London terror strikes, assuring journalists that according to the Quran, "Whoever kills a human being…it is as if he has killed all humankind."
"Not quite," I explained with regret. "The full verse reads, 'Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind" (my emphasis). For the British jihadis, I went on, "villainy in the land" describes the boot prints of U.S. soldiers in Iraqi soil. This otherwise humane Quranic passage gives aspiring holy warriors a loophole to exploit.
I closed by suggesting that moderate Muslims join moderate Jews and Christians in admitting to the nasty side of all our scriptures. The following week, a Muslim acquaintance emailed me. Peeved that I would "go after moderate Muslims," she curtly counseled me to "wash laundry in the backyard"—that is, to discuss our internal affairs privately.
But what takes place among Muslims affects countless lives outside the fold, so our business is everyone's business. When it is "moderates," not extremists, who treat you as a traitor for advocating liberal democratic values, something has corrupted the moderates themselves.
That something is identity politics. Even in the seemingly tolerant Muslim communities of America, the politics of identity stands in the way of reinterpretation and reform. Akeel Bilgrami, a philosopher at Columbia University, makes an elegant distinction in this regard. Moderate Muslims, he observes, are so consumed with Western imperialism that they have distracted themselves from dealing with the imperialists inside Islam—Muslims who dominate, censor, injure and murder fellow Muslims.
Bin Laden and his disciples epitomize this crowd. But you do not have to be murderous to be an obstacle to reform. I will never forget the Muslim man in New Jersey who flaunted his moderate credentials by leading an interfaith dialogue group, yet who, behind closed doors, revealed a purist's insularity. On the letterhead of his interfaith initiative, he presented me with a list of phrases and paragraphs to be banned from my 2004 book, "The Trouble with Islam Today."
"You want my publishers to edit out these thoughts?" I asked, incredulously.
"Oh, yes," he confirmed. "Otherwise, you're like a fascist."
Prof. Bilgrami chalks up the defensiveness of moderate Muslims to their fear that openly criticizing other Muslims "would amount to a surrender," the ultimate abdication of group honor—and thus identity—to a contemptuous West. But, as Prof. Bilgrami astutely points out, the reverse holds true: The final triumph for colonizers is the Muslim habit of denying and deflecting our internal dysfunction. Avoidance strips Muslims of the ability to be introspective and, therefore, free. Moderate Muslims throttle the very moderation to which they claim to be devoted.
Of course, identity politics is not exclusive to Muslims. Many moderate Christians criticized Dr. King for causing "tension" in their ranks. Dr. King shot back that he and his followers "merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive." The same goes for Muslim reform in our own day.
It is time for those who love liberal democracy to join hands with Islam's reformists. Here is a clue to who's who: Moderate Muslims denounce violence committed in the name of Islam but insist that religion has nothing to do with it; reformist Muslims, by contrast, not only deplore Islamist violence but admit that our religion is used to incite it.
Notice that I say "used." Islam is being manipulated. That is why Muslims should acknowledge the awkward passages of our own holy book and reinterpret them—publicly. The Quran, I believe, encourages this: It contains three times as many verses promoting critical thought as opposed to blind submission.
How can we reinterpret the Quranic passage that allows Muslims to kill "as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land"? For starters, we must stress that more Muslims are being slaughtered by other Muslims than by anyone else. To fight "villainy in the land," then, we have to repel the violent ideology of some of our fellow Muslims.
Drawing attention to Muslim-on-Muslim violence is essential to deflating the grandstanding of bin Laden's sympathizers. This counternarrative deals in reality while doing justice to a loving God. Muslims need to share it with the young people in our communities. And other Americans, including U.S. presidents, should expect us to share it.—From "Allah, Liberty and Love" by Irshad Manji, to be published June 14 by Free Press. Copyright © 2011 by Mosaic Media Inc. Printed by permission.