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Muslim reformer finds hope for change in Arab world
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Muslim reformer finds hope for change in Arab world

Irshad Manji describes efforts to reconcile ‘Islam and freedom’

Muslim activist Irshad Manji, left, answered questions from the American Jewish Committee’s Allyson Gall at a Nov. 9 talk at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. Photos by Elaine Durbach
Muslim activist Irshad Manji, left, answered questions from the American Jewish Committee’s Allyson Gall at a Nov. 9 talk at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. Photos by Elaine Durbach

Irshad Manji has spoken up in defense of Jews since she was a youngster aggravating her teachers at the traditional Muslim madrassa in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. It was part of her passion for intellectual freedom — first and foremost in the Islamic world, but ultimately for everyone.

That stance got her kicked out of the madrassa and has alienated many in her own community, earning the outspoken writer and academic scathing criticism from establishment Muslim figures and even death threats. On the other hand, it has won her firm friends among Jews.

If that and being an outspoken critic of militant Islam was not enough to attract antagonism, Manji is also openly gay. But in a Nov. 9 talk at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Manji said there is only one label that matters most to her: “‘thinker,’ because it defines not a category but what I do.”

About 500 people came to hear her talk, organized by the synagogue and the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Area.

The event opened with an excerpt from the PBS documentary Faith Without Fear, about her quest “to reconcile Islam and freedom.”

Manji spoke about the controversial Islamic community center planned near Ground Zero, known as Park51, surprising the audience by saying she doesn’t necessarily regard its opponents as bigots. She questioned whether the imam in charge is as pluralistic as he might be, and criticized him for “failing to empathize” with “good and honest Americans” whose concerns should have been taken into account.

Manji herself is director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. She said it aims to develop leaders who will challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity, and self-censorship. She said it teaches that rights come with responsibilities and “that we are citizens rather than members of mere tribes, and that meaningful diversity embraces different ideas and not just identities.”

Asked by Allyson Gall, executive director of Metro NJ AJC, why there is such a fixation among Muslims on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she exclaimed, “Laziness.” She said it is easier for them, and for the governments of Arab countries, to focus on Israel and talk about Western and Jewish “imperialism” than to tackle the problems within their own societies.

“More Muslims are tortured and killed by Muslims than by any foreign imperial power,” Manji said.

She also spoke of her effort, called Project Ijtihad, through which she hopes to build an international network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies. “Just because you don’t hear much about these people doesn’t mean they aren’t out there,” she told the audience.

“There is very good news about what’s happening with young, reform-minded Muslims around the Arab world,” she said. For all the negatives her audiences might hear about Islam, the Koran contains three times more injunctions to be compassionate and merciful than to carry out militant jihad.

The AJC hosted Manji in 2004 after publication of her book, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.

“We were impressed by her book calling for a reformation,” said Gall. “The bottom line is that it is good for the world if there is reform within Islam, but it is the Muslims themselves who have to do it. And Irshad is one of many pushing it.”

The visit was cosponsored by Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the JCRC of UJA Federation of Northern NJ, Lynn and Roger Manshel, and the Sima Jelin Fund for Intercultural Tolerance. The sponsors included Ilene and Bob Cowen, Summit Jewish Community Center, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.

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