Author of The Trouble with Islam Today Irshad Manji discussed the taboo questions of Islam and her views on the political strife regarding religion in conversation with USC Humanist Chaplain Bart Campolo at Wallis Annenberg Hall on Thursday evening.
The conversation spanned not only forbidden questions about Islam, but also forbidden questions about religion and politics in general. Manji emphasized the importance of being receptive to other people’s ideas.
“Tonight is an experiment to see how honest are we willing to be in asking ourselves questions in what we believe, and why,” Manji said. “As in, ‘Is there something that I feel is so sacred that is so non-negotiable to me, that after all the negativity in the news, if someone asked me about it, I would be defensive to?’”
Manji discussed her own experience growing up and learning more about Islam. Some experiences, according to Manji, led her to realize not only the misjudgment of Islam by the rest of the world but the misjudgment of Islam by Muslims as well.
“Through self-study, I learned Islam had its own traditions of free inquiry; I came out of my experiences studying religion realizing I could be a believer of free inquiry and of Allah,” Manji said. “But recognizing that I could have both questions and faith made me complacent. I became unwilling to acknowledge problems in the actions of followers of my religion.”
Manji went on to specify what she believed to be the core of current issues surrounding Islam. Such issues, she realized over the course of her book tour, extended not only to Muslims but also to followers of other religions as well. At first, hearing her fans talk about other religions’ issues made Manji indignant, but gradually Manji began to learn from followers of her work.
“Young Christians, Jews and even atheists would come up to me and say, ‘The message you have is important but you have to understand that this isn’t just the trouble with Islam today; the dogma and intolerance happens also in my religion,’ and I used to think that these people were saying that my entire thesis of the trouble with Islam is invalid,” Manji said. “My ego would make me defensive. But I began to listen.”
From her followers, Manji learned about what she came to call “moral courage.” Recognizing the importance of moral courage, Manji began to change her own goals and missions.
“These young people taught me three things that were really important: They taught me that speaking truth to power doesn’t just mean speaking truth to external power, it also means speaking truth to the power that is ego,” Manji said.
For Manji, the second thing she learned from the young people she spoke to was the difference between those who criticize a work and those who offer constructive criticism.
“When they shared with me the dogma in their own communities, they weren’t judging my own opinions about Islam, but they were rather opening up to me about their own experiences,” Manji said. “Finally, these kids taught me that actually, Islamic reform is not my mission; rather, the much more universal mission is what I have come to call moral courage. Moral courage, in its simple but not simplistic definition, means doing the right thing in the face of your fears.”
Following her explanation of her path to her current mindset following the publishing of The Trouble with Islam Today, Campolo asked Manji questions about her ideas about faith before opening up to the general audience. One of the questions asked Manji what specific problems she had with the practice of Islam today. Manji responded that while the majority of Muslims are not to blame for many of the terrorist attacks, she did not think that Muslims should feel completely innocent and only blame the rest of the world for their issues without looking within themselves first.
“My problem with Islam in its practice is the fact that we had thrown out the window this tradition of Ijtihad [which means free inquiry],” Manji said. “Instead of reminding ourselves that we have to take responsibility for some of the things happening to us, we instead are pointing fingers at everyone else.”
Manji expressed her aversion to seeing the world in black and white for both outsiders and Muslims alike. She ended her talk with the idea that if Muslims hope to hold the world up to a higher standard, they must be hold themselves up to that same standard first.
“I think that if my fellow Muslims want to have credibility, then we need to have our own different points of view at home,” Manji said. “If we’re stifling diverse thought within the Muslim community, we can’t preach to the rest of the world that we’re a diverse group, and we can’t expect the rest of the world to think of us as different individuals.”