PBS 'America at a Crossroads': 'Faith Without Fear'

Irshad Manji
Author, "The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith"
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 1:00 PM

Irshad Manji, author of " The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith," was online Thursday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Faith Without Fear" -- the eighth installment of PBS's "America at a Crossroads" series -- which follows her as she travels the Arabian peninsula, reconciling her faith in Allah with her love of freedom.

PBS's " America at a Crossroads" series airs from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night from April 15-20.

The transcript follows.

Manji, dubbed "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare" by the New York Times, is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, and is president of Project Ijtihad, an Internet initiative to revive Islam's own tradition of dissent and debate.


Irshad Manji: Salaam everyone. Irshad here. I know it's not quite 1 p.m. yet, but better early than late to the revolution. Or is that reformation? Or counter-reformation? Whatever the case, let's get on with it - together.


New York: Ms. Manji, your message is inspiring to those of us here in the West, but are you getting any traction among actual other Muslims? I'm reminded of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who basically is preaching to non-Muslims. Isn't Islam headed in a more conservative, more Wahhabi-ruled direction, which would cause people to be even less receptive to your message?

Irshad Manji: Hey New York -- you ask if my message of ijtihad (Islam's own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent) is getting any traction. YES. Project Ijtihad, the effort that I and several other reform-minded Muslims have founded, is about to launch in a very public way. We've got many young Muslims behind us, and the effort keeps growing. We've already achieved concrete successes, on inter-faith marriage for example, thanks to the hunger among young Muslims to engage (and get engaged -- LOL). Go to my Web site and download my most recent interviews. You'll read/hear about why I'm optimistic that Project Ijtihad is making a big difference.


Vienna, Va.: You asked is it revolution, reformation, or counter to those. What do the Muslims whom you deal with on a daily basis believe the form of change should take?

Irshad Manji: Simply put, we don't need to change Islam. That's because Islam itself contains the raw materials to be both humane and reasonable. What we need to do is change the Muslim mindset to bust out of tribalism (strict hierarchies that equating debate with division and division with crime), and recognize that Islam's own scripture, the Quran, contains three times as many verses calling on us to think/reflect/analyze than verses telling us what's forbidden/acceptable. In short, re-interpretation is not just permitted; it's encouraged.


Washington, D.C.: Irshad -- I read your book and really appreciate its message. As a gay man who is the son of a Southern Baptist Minister, I understand the dangers of fundamentalism as well. My question to you is this -- can gay and lesbian non-Muslims do anything to support the gay and lesbian Muslims who are trying to make their religion more inclusive, even in the face of death?

Irshad Manji: Yes -- vocally support the effort of minorities (from sexual minorities to religious ones) in Muslim countries/communities to realize their basic -- and universal -- human rights. Too many progressive Americans today fear getting involved because they'll be accused of sticking their noses in "other people's business." It's only "other people's business" if you believe that human rights are not universal.


Toronto: How does your lesbian outlook skew your Muslim beliefs? Do you not feel that being as open and gay as you are is not compatible with the Quran?

Irshad Manji: I don't have a "lesbian outlook." I have a human outlook -- one guided by my conscience rather than any constructed identity. After all, you could have said I have a "Canadian outlook" or a "South Asian outlook." You chose to zero in on my sexual orientation. Seems you're the one with the hang-up about it. I submit that thought respectfully.


Cincinnati: Would not the title of your book be more appropriate if it were worded "The Problem with Muslims." I don't see a problem with the religion of Islam, but there are plenty of problems with people who use the religion to attain their own selfish goals, including yourself.

Irshad Manji: I've addressed this question any number of times and you can go to my Web site to read my oft-repeated answers. But the reason I'm picking up on your question is that you suggest my goals are selfish. If advocating for less suffering on the part of women and minorities amounts to selfishness, what a sorry statement about what it means to be altruistic in Islam today.


Allentown, Pa.: Good afternoon -- I am curious of the reception of your emphasis on "discussion" by the Imams? It is hard for an outsider to believe that the changes you are advocating can gain much traction when there appears to be such a void of intellectual challenge and debate in Islam. Also -- as a reformed Muslim, do consider yourself Sunni, Shia or other? Thank you.

Irshad Manji: I don't bother publicizing the denomination into which I was born. That's because I know how sectarianism is used in my faith -- as a weapon of mass distraction; i.e. as yet another tool with which to discredit. Fact is, I'm a faithful Muslim and only Allah can judge the purity of my intentions. As to the imams, why are they the arbiters? I wish that non-Muslims would stop investing these guys with the authority to approve or disapprove of other Muslims. They're not the only creatures who count. Especially before the eyes of God.


Fremont, Calif.: You are a brave person to take on the effort of reforming Islam. It seems like a lost cause like world hunger, only this is more dangerous. I read recently about a journalist who was decapitated in Sudan for slighting the prophet in some obscure way. Why not simply become an atheist and walk away from all this mumbo-jumbo nonsense?

Irshad Manji: Although much of religion amounts to ritualistic shizzle, I don't believe faith itself is nonsense. Deep faith is a growth experience. Faith has supplied me with values such as empathy and discipline, and such values serve as a counterweight to the emptiness of materialism. They also remind me that I'm not in full control of my life, which is a way to keep it real. Above all, don't you think we could all use a bit more humility these days? In this case, the humility to recognize that we don't have all the answers? Having faith in a higher being -- which I call Allah but you might call something else -- is not about dogma. It's about faith, and faith (unlike dogma) is secure enough to handle questions.


Washington/Morocco: As someone from a Muslim/Arab background, I find your pro-war ideas disturbing and incompatible with human rights that you claim you are fighting for. What you promote actually incites hatred against Muslims and continues to justify this violent horrible war that has killed at least half a million people, and created 2 million Iraqi refugees, not to mention millions of injured and traumatized people.

The fact that you believe that your Muslim background gives you exclusive understanding of the Arab world is disingenuous. Most Arab-Christians in the area oppose U.S. policies as much as Muslims do and as much non-religious Arabs do. We, primarily as Arabs, of all religious backgrounds and political affiliations, oppose the violent policies of the U.S. government in our lands and any interference in our internal affairs.

Irshad Manji: Wow. Such arrogance to be speaking on behalf of an entire "we." Perhaps you're failing to hear -- or outright neglecting -- the voices of other Arabs who, like me, condemn war so much that we also condemn the wars that Muslims launch against other Muslims. But I guess introspection doesn't fit into your definition of human rights? A shame, since the Quran tells us that "God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." (13:11)


St Paul, Minn.: Hello. Have you gone to any Muslim country for your Ijtihad?

Irshad Manji: I've traveled throughout the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Muslim communities of Western Europe/North America.


Boston: Salaams Irshad. As a Muslim, I am curious as to what we can expect to see in your documentary that may or may not be different from your book, which I read in 2005. My sense is that you have become more a defender of Islam than a critic (as you often are called). My question may be more appropriately phrased as this -- how can Muslims unapologetically call out the human rights abuses happening under the banner of Islam while also making a clear case for faith? Perhaps in the eyes of some this is impossible -- but my gut feeling is that it isn't.

Irshad Manji: You're right, it isn't impossible. And more than simply not being impossible, fighting for human rights within Islam is necessary if we're going to live up to the Quran's divine imperative: "Believers, conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness before God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your family." (4:135) Seems to me that this is a call to move beyond the tribal mentality and defend the basic dignities all individuals. So much more to say, which I will in my next book.


Boothbay, Maine: To be really free, a person must have a choice of which religion to follow, if any. A religion that forbids its adherents from renouncing that religion never can spawn a truly free society. Is it true that the Quran forbids its adherents from adopting a different religion, with the penalty being death? Many Muslims seem to believe this to be true and people have been murdered because of it. If it is true, then Christians and others are rightfully afraid of Islam

Irshad Manji: Nope, not true. The Quran vigorously defends religious pluralism, including those who convert or choose not to believe at all. When some Muslims wage war on converts -- as many of many mullahs in Afghanistan recently did -- they are following a selected and reported saying of the Prophet Muhammad (known as the hadiths). Problem is, the Prophet reportedly said many things that contradict each other. And all the contradictions can fall under the bigger umbrella of this reported Prophetic saying: "Differences of opinion in my community are a sign of God's mercy."


McLean, Va.: What formal Islamic theological training do you have? With all due respect, I'm not sure that you are a credible Islamic reformer unless you have the proper bona fides.

Irshad Manji: Are you saying that we should not exercise our peaceful consciences, stand up for justice and strive to reclaim God's good name unless we have a Ph.D. in our professional titles?


Washington, D.C.: Are you afraid for your personal safety?

Irshad Manji: No, and that's because I won't let the opponents of reason and humanity dictate my life. Death threats don't frighten me. Never, ever will.


Gramanath: Ms. Manji. My congratulations to you for standing up and speaking. Can you comment on the root cause of the silence or dismal reaction of the Muslim community to the chaos that is happening all over the world by them, among them, between them and others? Thanks.

Irshad Manji: The most dangerous f-word around: fear. That's why I've called my PBS documentary "Faith Without Fear." In the documentary, I explore the reasons for the fear. That's my sneak preview of an answer -- hope you'll be watching tonight. ;-)


Freising, Germany: I've read that some groups of women in the Middle East have looked back in time, to the lifetime of the Prophet, in order to obtain more rights within their own societies. If women had more rights and privileges during the time of the Prophet, when and where did the culture originate that diminished women's rights and privileges within Muslim societies?

Irshad Manji: The Quran contains plenty of pro-women passages. One could argue that women have many more rights according to the Quran than according to any other scripture before it. But the reason for such anti-women interpretations is tribal culture; in the case of Islam, Arab tribal culture. (I know that's politically incorrect to point out in the age of multiculturalism; so be it.) In particular, the tribal tradition of honor requires women to give up their individuality in order to maintain the reputation of the men in their lives. This turns women into communal property. The way in which Islam has been propagated for the past several hundred years, the code of honor has become enmeshed in religious practices. Bottom line: Although this problem didn't come from Islam, it has become a problem for Islam. That's why Muslims have go to fix the corruption of Islam. It's not enough to chant "Islam is a religion of equality"; Muslims have to live up to that slogan by actively separating the culture from the religion.


Chicago: How do you explain your support for the Iraq war? Also, you write approvingly of the state of Israel, but have you ever gone to the West Bank to see how the Palestinians are treated by the settlers and the IDF?

Irshad Manji: I've researched in both Gaza and the West Bank on five separate occasions. My position on Israel/Palestine is far more nuanced than you suggest. I believe there are two occupations that need to end -- one by the IDF, and the other perpetrated by the Palestinian leadership against their own people. I go into that, as well as your other question, in my book. I respectfully challenge you to read it.


Brisk Spring Day in the Northeast U.S.: Salaam. Ms. Manji, to what extent are Muslim communities outside of the U.S. aware of Americans' deep ambivalence towards the Iraq war and the domestic antiwar movement? Please tell how much of a sense there is throughout the Muslim world that there are plenty of Americans who are curious towards Islam, even if we vary widely in our knowledge, and that there are many Christians -- the majority, really -- who want to reach out and make common cause with Muslims who mourn all this war, bloodshed and cynical manipulation of people's fear and hatred on the part of politicians.

On an unrelated note, I've always loved the your first name and its variants. Is Irshad Arabic? What does it mean? Thanks.

Irshad Manji: In my experiences, individual Muslims are aware that the American people are, at the very least, deeply conflicted and increasingly turning against the war. This is especially true of younger Muslims, who have access to various sources of information. But many also tell me that the cultural pressure is high to remain "on script" and denounce America. I remind them that just as they want Americans to distinguish between Muslims and their autocratic governments, so they must clarify between the American people and Washington.

As for my name, it means "guidance" - and more fully, "the rightly guided moderate one." (I swear I didn't plan that...) When Muslims say there's no problem with us because "Islam means peace," I tell them that my name means "rightly guided" and clearly many of you believe I'm misguided. So you can't have it both ways... ;-)


Irshad Manji: Okay, everyone, my time is up. Don't take that literally. Thanks for a great chat -- I've posted three years worth of feisty dialogues on my own Web site. Feel free to visit, read and engage. Meanwhile, I invite you all to watch my documentary -- "Faith Without Fear" -- which airs tonight at 9 on PBS. Send your feedback through my site. Thanks all. God bless -- even the atheists.


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