The Trouble with Irshad Manji
Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam, has taken official society by storm with her attacks on the culture and politics of the Muslim and Arab world. As a South Asian lesbian who grew up alienated attending a Muslim school in Canada, she represents a multicultural voice in solidarity with the great liberal values of the secular state. Her message and identity are marketed as the latest, best selling popular criticism of “Islamic fundamentalism.”
In promoting her book and ideas, she has spoken on cable news shows, in the official papers, at Washington think-tanks and Zionist audiences throughout North America. Manji claims to be taking up a project of self-criticism and innovative thinking in the Muslim community. The inspiration for her criticism is the “enlightened” states and societies of the West, in particular the U.S. and Israel. To her audience, she is the quintessential “Good Muslim.”
The Irshad Manji phenomenon can perhaps be understood in three ways. First, it is an extension of the logic of liberal multicultural racism. Second, is the attempt to refine a general liberal racist doctrine based on secular chauvinism, which has justified imperialism for more than a century, in the battle to consolidate Western control of the Middle East. Third, like the shallow white male conservatives who falsify the history of democratic traditions from Ancient Greece to Judeo-Christian ethics, Manji falsifies the history of the Arab world and Islamic traditions. She posits a “free” secular West where in fact worship of God is generally subordinated to mayors and police chiefs. This is contrasted to an imaginary Middle East where Allah mandates “tyranny” and where all independent thinking is crushed. Manji, like all good imperialists, tells us lies about the history of those we wish to be in solidarity with and about our own history.
Historically we have seen white men advocate the use of ruling class power to reorder the society and self-image of “the backward masses.” In recent times Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice are straight men and women of color facilitating the deadly comedy that is American empire—mystifying as effectively as any other bureaucrat world civilization has known. And now we have a queer woman of color Muslim to entertain us. Irshad Manji is not a passing phenomenon but a purveyor of one of the most advanced forms of racism and imperialism today.
Irshad Manji represents the highest stage of an oppressive medium. She represents a necessary adaptation in the “rainbow coalition;” the multiracial liberal consensus that cannot help but side with the American state as the vanguard of freedom in the world. Their phony multiculturalism; their presentation of a Muslim-woman of color-lesbian, as God’s humanizing agent, who will “give us permission to speak” about what is wrong with Islam, is nothing but a sermon from a pulpit of bones. In her “open letter” to the Muslim community she has several goals in mind.
First, Manji seeks to expose anti-Jewish bigotry in the Muslim community. This would be a noble goal for a multiracial anti-imperialist alliance which fought Zionism as distinct from Jewish people. But she has clearly befriended the liberal Zionists. Not only does she argue that Palestinians are trapped by their own culture, but Manji, sponsored by Canadian Zionists, went to Israel. Miraculously, she found democratic freedoms there.
Next, Manji wishes to use state power to make a space for secular, liberal-progressive politics, starting among Muslims in the West. She hopes to construct the illusion that liberals like her have a monopoly on the self-criticism of the community. Since the majority of us are not privy to Washington cocktail parties, she is fooling no one but her fellow party-goers. By trying to resurrect the historically failed liberal project in the Arab and Muslim world, Manji not only represents the crisis of a handful of liberal Muslim intellectuals, but the global crisis of a failing politics and regime. They are incapable of addressing the problems facing every society today.
No state or ruling class has ever promoted freedom. In this totalitarian quest to make the “New Man”—“reforming” the Muslim world—the contradictions that rack society can only deepen. The obstacles to everyday peoples’ self-government are apparent in Manji, and the empire she serves. Our “right” granted from above to cultural autonomy and free speech exists in direct proportion to the centralization of social, economic and political power in the hands of the few. Moreover, “speech” itself is grounds for identifying and punishing “Bad Muslims and Arabs,” both here, in Europe, and in the Middle East.
How much more absurd is this when one considers that Manji has claimed that only in the West can Muslims “enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged without fear of state reprisal.” Is she blind to the fact that thousands of Muslims in the U.S. are being intimidated into silence by deportations, detentions, SEVIS registration, racist attacks on the street, and state repression? That Muslim youth are fighting racists and the cops in the street in England and France? Like the modern woman of color manager who manages in the workplace, she assures us, “I too know discrimination; I know your pain, and I’ve worked hard to get here.” The sensibility of the everyday Arab, Muslim and anti-racist hears “Now shut up, get back to work and be thankful for your freedoms under this benevolent regime.”
Manji, like the silent majority of Western liberals, looks on the French state’s banning of the Muslim veil or hijab in public places as, well, “progressive.” Why, we ask, would Manji ever want to seek liberation in a racist system that is itself in crisis? Further, does progressive secularism lead to freedom? Is “criticism” by a handful of intellectuals and the state a basis of peoples’ democratic control of their society or the rationalization of empire and racism by the gun, the bomb and the missile?
For Manji anti-racism doesn’t mean the destruction of bigotry everywhere. If so, why would she go to Israel to learn about anti-racism and democracy? Israel is a race state predicated on the oppression and destruction of its indigenous population. If the U.S. ruling class is so progressive then why does it spend billions of dollars a year on Israel? If U.S. society is “a shining city on the hill,” why does so much of it identify with this racist project? If we wish to build an anti-racist movement then we must oppose bigotry everywhere, including white supremacy.
Democracy and secularism continue to get contrasted with political religious visions, and Islam in particular, by the rulers and official society to advance their own interests. Yet these very same ideas, both secular democracy and the democratic spirit of religious rebellions have motivated everyday people to build movements to overthrow their rulers and build a better society.
Manji counterposes secularism and religion as a serious debate. This is a false one, a product of the secular imperial ruling elite and the stumbling progressives who can’t help but agree with them. Historically, in the West, fights for democracy and against the state have often been projected in religious terms. America and Europe have known both democratic visions which declare no allegiance to any government but God as well as secular visions of direct democracy which are loyal to no state or ruling class. These have been far from perfect. They have expressed anti-racism and opposition to patriarchy and have defended these ills. We oppose the idea that Islamic civilization is not recognizably human and has not known equal achievements in independent democratic thinking and movements, despite having its own authoritarian aspiring rulers. Quiet as it’s kept, in many respects, contemporary Islamic civilization possesses democratic instincts on a mass scale greater than to be found in the West today—even with the excesses of armed liberation struggles repudiated.
Everyone knows, for the media tells us, within the authoritarian forms of Islam are head choppers and suicide bombers. Now that the average American citizen (who doesn’t happen to be a Muslim or friends of Muslim Americans) knows some beginner’s vocabulary—Allah, Muhammad, Koran, the veil (as a sign that Muslim women are especially oppressed), head choppers and suicide bombers—we can begin.
Islamic political thought has a long history which cannot be done justice here. However, here are merely some brief thoughts Irshad Manji is incapable of understanding. Manji and many racist thinkers by using the term Islamic fundamentalism attempt to attribute the authoritarian behavior of specific individuals and groups to entire societies. Always coexisting and competing with secular nationalism, there are certain democratic principles within political Islam which reveal themselves quickly.
There have always been debates about direct democracy within Islam all over the world. To audaciously “introduce” liberal democracy to Muslims, is like offering training wheels to communities with the power of innovative thinking like a tractor trailer. Within discussions of the “Islamic state” there has always been the unquestioned sovereignty of the ummah (the people). Discussion has raged as to what is the role of shura, or consultation, to caliphs, or aspiring rulers and the state. Shura has been the term within Islamic political discourse which is always at the intersection of representative democracy and direct democracy. Its interpretation separates those who seek to govern society from above from those who desire that it be governed by everyday people from below. Shura has taken the form of popular committees and assemblies to govern society. It has also justified parliamentary politics, the existence of intellectuals, clerics, and rulers who “consult” with the people before acting out their own will as official society, subordinating the people as their “legitimate” representatives. This ongoing question of who is sovereign is a fundamental one. Can these aspiring rulers in the name of Islam be recalled and disposed of entirely at the will of everyday people? Or is people’s self-government subordinated to the arbitrary rule of a ruling class? Irshad Manji says “yeah, yeah but these ideas only exist in theory.”
These ideas clearly do not exist merely in theory. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine (before and after U.S. colonial intervention, again and again) people are not jailed and killed by imperial states, and aspiring rulers who serve them, without political aspirations on a mass scale. Authoritarian rulers, whether in the U.S. or the Middle East, cannot erase the tradition Muslim people call itjtihad, or innovative thinking. Where Islam appears to be an overwhelming political discourse debates are going on about principles that people familiar with radical democratic traditions in the West would recognize.
Any discussion of social change must be rooted in an understanding of the self-activity and self-conceptions of everyday Arab and Muslim people as all of us. In this thoroughly modern and global battle between two irreconcilable ways of life, barbarism or the forces of a free society, ideas and philosophy play a central role. Thus propaganda is more important than ever to demystify the violence of the state and official society. Manji, like many of today’s intellectuals, places herself wholeheartedly at its disposal. She has shown her colleagues the way out of their hopelessness and isolation. In their search for some “authority” they work as hard as they can to obscure everyday people’s struggle and capacity to be self-governing.
There is no question that Muslim communities, like Americans and folks the world over, have obstacles to confront in their path to self-government and autonomy. However, the chauvinistic idea that the world is faced by a clash of civilizations, that Islam is particularly irrational and in crisis, and that the U.S. and Israel are beacons of light and democracy is one of a long line of racist insults fomented by regimes historically renowned for white supremacy.
What Manji is really concerned with is assimilation. But assimilation isn’t what it used to be when the white man could culturally justify empire all by himself. Manji asks Muslims in the West, as the younger generation comes of age, to answer all the old questions, in a new way and in new place: Who and what are you for? Manji asks this generation, with a multiracial and multicultural face, to serve the ruling class in an effort to crush the autonomy of everyday people both at home and abroad.
People do not submit passively to the current organization of society. In this struggle new forms of society are breaking out all around us. Manji is blind to the fact that historically, Arabs and Muslims, like all people, have resisted and challenged imperialism and racism from abroad and authoritarianism in their societies by speaking the languages of their own traditions, through a creative interpretation of their own religion and culture.
All peoples carry out “self-criticism” quite independent of the intellectuals and the state. What is at stake for Manji and her benefactors is that this self-criticism is not in the service of these. Manji cannot grasp how the utter bankruptcy of this system and its proposed way of life is a result of its own contradictions. Manji is vivid testimony to its stupidity and irrationality, for even its intellectuals cannot see their utopias—at home and abroad—are built on sand.