Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Irshad Manji a Progressive Muslim? A Reformer?

Irshad Manji is often discussed nowadays. (See the recent post on this blog about her appearance on Fareed Zakaria's show.) And she is often described as being in "the same group as" or a "a forerunner in the movement" to reform Muslim society today. Of course, that is often framed as a "movement to redefine Islam", a formulation that she has contributed in no small measure to popularizing. The interesting thing is that I am yet to find any Muslim--progressive or conservative, ethnic or strategic--who thinks she brings something positive to the discussion. The best summary of the issues with her that I have seen is one from Omid Safi, Co-Chairperson of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, the organization that is so often in the discussion nowadays, and editor of the book that has becoming a defining text of the whole disussion, Progressive Muslims : On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Reproduced below is Omid's exposition, originally written as an e-mail. Sabahat.
---------- Forwarded message from Omid S---------- From: Omid Safi Date: May 17, 2005 10:42 AM *********************** Dear friends... Some of you might have seen this compilation of comments on Irshad Manji, but for those who have not, here it is again.where to begin about Irshad Manji? Let me send you three items. The first two are good essays by folks on a Muslimwakeup, and the last something that I  had written. As you can imagine, I am quite fed up with her, and frustrated by the way that she pitches herself to everyone from Fox News (which is quite infatuated with her) to very right wing Zionist organizations (Daniel Pipes is a huge fan of hers as well). What is perhaps most frustrating is that she does have a few random insights here and there, but the whole framework is so flawed in my opinion, and at the end of the day a ceaseless attempt to bring the spotlight (and financial rewards) on her and her alone. 1) Here is what I consider to be a very astute critique of Manji, from our own Tarek Fatah: http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2003/11/thanks_but_no_t.php 2) Here is another important critique, one that directly gets to Manji's agenda in her discussion of Palestinians/Muslims. http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2004/02/a_multifaceted.php 3) This is a post that I had written myself on November 3rd to the Network of Progressive Muslims. It was in response to attacks from more conservative Muslims who grouped us along with Irshad together in "progressive" ranks, and I wanted to distinguish our own collaborative work from hers. ****************************** I think to most of us it is obvious why Irshad is not a progressive Muslim. I am not sure that she uses that self-designation either, although I know that she likes the "reformer" label. Recently, she has of course joined the ranks of those who are calling for ijtihad.I do agree, however, that in the perception of many folks out there we all get labeled together with Irshad. Part of what is so sad about things is that on one hand much of the corporate media seems to enjoy anointing one person as the flavor of the month (Akbar Ahmed, then Khaled abou El Fadl, then Soroush, then Shirin Ebadi, then Tariq Ramadan, etc.), and in their thinking there is basically room for one "nice Muslim" out there, and they have slotted Irshad there. I would prefer to see a whole spectrum of voices. Irshad also doesn't mind using (and being used by) the Muslim-bashing force of Fox News, etc.I do get asked all the time to differentiate between our approach and Irshad, and this is something that I find to be helpful in telling people: 1) Irshad presents herself as a voice out in the wilderness. (She has even managed to alienate the Toronto queer community, who have openly said that she doesn't speak for them.) We on the other hand are trying to not invent something out of scratch, but begin by creating a sense of networking, of fellowship, among existing communities and individuals. It is not about having one person on a podium, it is instead about bringing communities together and working on transforming them. 2) This point to me is key: all of us are working to identify, challenge, and resist problematic practices and interpretations in Islam and Muslim societies. That is fine, and necessary. However, I also believe that it is imperative for us as Muslims to identify areas in Islam that are deep reservoirs of wisdom and compassion for us. I don't see Irshad doing this. When one doesn't talk about what it is that keeps one a Muslim, spiritually nourished from the broad spectrum of the tradition, then it becomes very easy to side with the Muslim-bashers. Take a look at who sponsors most of Irshad's talks, and this points takes on even more urgency. 3) It comes back to the "multiple critique", the perpetual commitment to speak out for justice and against injustice no matter who it is against. Irshad actually does raise some valid points about areas in which we as Muslims do struggle. My problem is that she does not carry out the multiple critique by also directing the critique against the Empire. There is hardly a serious engagement in her presentations with the imperialistic agenda of the United States anywhere. Here I see one of the greatest ironies of her putting quotes from Edward Said on top of her webpage, while ignoring the very underpinning of Said's project, namely the commitment to resisting US hegemony, as well as critiquing Israeli abuses. Either she doesn't know Said, or is only name-dropping. 4) This issue is key for me: the Palestinian/Israeli issue. I think that we must approach this issue through the framework of a human rights issue, and I simply do not see Irshad acknowledge the suffering and humanity of Palestinians. Look at her gushing over Israel today as "...Israel is one mother of a pluralistic place." [The group that sponsored her, the VanCouver Hillel, proclaimed her as a "Muslim friend of Israel." http://www.vancouverhillel.ca/JWB_Muslimfriend.html ] Whatever word I think of to describe Israel today, pluralistic is not it. As I told the Toronto Star, the only person on TV that sounds more Zionist than her is Daniel Pipes! No wonder she has become the darling of so many Zionist groups in the US. To see Daniel Pipes' support of her, see http://www.danielpipes.org/article/1255 [where she is being proclaimed as "voice of moderate Islam." I wouldn't be surprised to see her receive massive amounts of funding from some of them. 5) I do believe that any criticism has to be both firm and loving. This is especially the case when one is conducting a critique of one's "own" community. I have listened to Irshad very closely on multiple occasions, and read her book and website closely. When I listen to her address the shortcomings of Muslims, I never get the sense that it is motivated by a love and compassion for the people that she is addressing. Instead, it always come across as condescending and self-righteous. Her statements like "I give you permission to think freely" certainly do not help. I believe that people are very perceptive, and they can tell--especially in person--when someone is motivated by a profound sense of concern and compassion for the integrity of their soul (before God and humanity), and when someone is merely pointing an accusatory finger. in love and solidarity, Omid ****** I hope something in the above is useful. -----------end excerpt from Omid S

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