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Irshad Manji, Author of The Trouble with Islam and Talk Show Host, Canada

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May 6, 2004 -  Click here to listen to Personal Testimony of Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam and a talk show host in Canada, speaking at AJC's 98th Annual Meeting.

Irshad Manji
American Jewish Committee
98th Annual Meeting

Shalom, Salaam, and good afternoon. It is a privilege to be here. I know that sounds like a cheesy throw away line coming from many speakers, and cheesy it may be, but it is not throw away, not on my part. It's very deliberately chosen, this word "privilege." You know, earlier today one of the AJC's long time officers excitedly put a copy of your Annual Report into my hands and said, "Look. Look what the cover says. The cover, it emphasizes democracy." And then together he and I flipped through the first few pages of the Annual Report, and words like "pluralism" and "human rights" jumped out at us. We marveled, he and I, at the AJC's embrace of these universal values. That's why it's a privilege for me to be here today.

The history of the Jewish people, as we all know, is shot through with dislocation and displacement. Yet, I can't help but point out the delicious irony that it is among the reasons for the fact that so many of you know what it means to be a global citizen, as witnessed in the universality of the values that are promoted in your Annual Report. So much of that comes because of your history with displacement and dislocation, and today so many of you can teach the rest of the world what it means to be a global citizen.

My own history with what it means to be a global citizen started in 1972 at the age of four. Don't do the math just yet. Focus on the hair. My family and I are refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda. We got kicked out in 1972 by General Idi Amin, for which I am eminently grateful to him, and we wound up just outside of Vancouver in a hardly sleepy, very ethnically diverse suburb called Richmond. It was there that I grew up attending two types of schools, the regular public school of most North American kids, and then, on top of that, every Saturday for several hours at a stretch, the Islamic religious school, the madrassah. It was there that I regularly imbibed two major messages - that women are inferior and that the Jews are treacherous, not to be trusted.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have never said, nor would I ever say, that every madrassah teaches these things. I don't know what every madrassah teaches, I haven't been to every one of them. But since I'm explaining to you where my passion for these issues comes from, it's vital that I convey to you my lived experience. And part of my lived experience is the fact that even back then - now you can do the math - at the age of eight, nine, ten, I had enough faith - faith, not dogma - to ask questions, plenty of them. I think my first question for my madrassah teacher was, "Why can't girls lead prayer?" A question I know many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish women have wanted to ask of their own rabbis, and some have.

I graduated, entirely metaphorically, mind you, to asking more sophisticated questions, like, "Hold on, Sir. If the Koran came to Prophet Mohammed as a message of peace, then why, even after receiving that message, did he command his army to slay an entire Jewish tribe?" Well, you can appreciate that such questions irritated the hell out of my madrassah teacher, who, in his case anyway, felt entitled to put down women and trash the Jews. So it's not surprising that he and I reached our ultimate impasse over yet another question, yet another Jewish question, "Where is the evidence for the so-called Jewish conspiracy against Islam? You love to go on about it, sir. Now, tell me, where's the proof?" I realize in retrospect that may have been an unexpectedly and unintentionally trick question on my part. Because let's face it, conspiracy theories, by definition, don't lend themselves to evidence. But I don't think I would have been satisfied with such an answer back then. I can tell you I am not satisfied with such an answer today, and that's why I continue to ask it publicly, where is the evidence for the Jewish conspiracy against Islam?

Well, that question, first posed by me at the age of 14, got me booted out of the madrassah. There is a God. There really is. For the next 20 years I studied Islam on my own. As I often have to remind my mother, "Ma, I left the madrassah, I didn't leave God." For the next 20 years I studied Islam on my own when there were no spotlights, no journalists clamoring for commentary, no invitations to the AJC's annual conference, no publishers approaching me, no money to be made. In other words, I studied Islam with complete and utter sincerity. I'm pleased to tell you that as a result of all of that self study, I came to discover a truly progressive side of my religion.

What I discovered is ijtihad. Ijtihad is Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking. It sounds a lot like jihad to non-Arab ears, and indeed it comes from the same root, the struggle. But unlike violent struggle, ijtihad is all about independent reasoning, independent thinking. It is, and I think I can say this to this audience and you'll appreciate it, it is the almost Talmudic approach with which a Muslim can go to the Koran, engage with its passages, converse with its verses, and come up with temporary conclusions about what they may mean, temporary, because ultimately only God knows fully the truth of anything.

But it was thanks to the spirit of ijtihad that in the early decades of Islam, 135 schools of thought flourished. As Professor Lewis mentioned, during the Golden Age of Islam, Jews and Muslims coexisted; we're not talking hand-holding harmony, but they coexisted and even contributed to each other's development. Jews, for example, served as high ranking diplomats and military lieutenants, and doctors and teachers and bankers in the courts of Muslim rulers. And in turn, Muslim rulers cleared trade and communications routes, allowing for Jewish theology to be openly, visibly and legally shared for the first time in the history of the Jewish diaspora.

Because of the spirit of ijtihad, in Muslim Spain scholars would teach their students to abandon "expert opinion" if their own conversations with the ambiguous Koran came up with better evidence for their ideas. One final example, if I may. In Cordoba, probably the most sophisticated city in Muslim Spain, there were 70 libraries. Seventy. Now, that rivals the number of libraries in many cosmopolitan cities today, and Islam had this a thousand years ago.

I'm skipping over all kinds of nuances to give you the big picture, bottom line. We Muslims need to rediscover our tradition of ijtihad in order to update Islam for the twenty-first century. I'm excited to propose that young Muslims in the West are perfectly positioned to revive ijtihad. First of all, probably the most surprising aspect of life since the release of my book is not just the anger and the vitriol and the death threats. That's no surprise at all. What is a surprise is the amount of support and affection, and even love that I am hearing from Muslims around the world, especially Muslim women, and especially young Muslim women.

It's because they know that we already have in this part of the world precious freedoms to think and express and challenge and be challenged, all without fear of state reprisal. It is because they know this that the message has resonated so well with them. For others, Muslim men, older Muslim women, and some young Muslim men, this gift of the freedoms is a gift that they need to begin to appreciate too. And non-Muslims I believe have a crucial role to play in helping Muslims of goodwill get there in reviving ijtihad. That role, it's a very simple but not a simplistic one. The role that non-Muslims can play is to ask questions out loud.

For example, the next time you hear somebody insist that Islamic societies today have their own forms of democracy, thank you very much, you need only interject with one question, "What rights do women and religious minorities actually exercise in these democracies? Not in theory now, but in reality. And, please, don't tell me what the Koran says, because the Koran, like every other holy text, is all over the map on the major human rights issues. Tell me what is happening on the ground."

I know that many non-Muslims are afraid of being called racists for asking such pointed questions. But, ladies and gentlemen, I have not let my fear, and more to the point, my mother's fear of me being called a self-hating Muslim, get in the way of doing the right thing. Imagine what would not have happened if Martin Luther King, Jr., had succumbed to his fear or his mother's fear of being called an uppity rabble rouser. In fact, that is exactly how many of his fellow clergymen viewed Martin Luther King, Jr. They criticized him for "fomenting needless tension" in Birmingham, Alabama. "Get out of town," they told him. "Leave the people there alone; let them work it out for themselves."

And you know how King responded? Not by running away from this accusation of being a rabble rouser and a fomenter of tension, but by staring it down. In his now famous letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. told his fellow liberal clergymen, "I must confess that I'm not afraid of the word `tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth." Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise above the bondage of myths and half truths to the realm of unfettered analysis and creative appraisal, so we must see the need for non-violent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism, to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. What Martin Luther King, Jr., did, is he jolted people out of their complacency, and that's what gadflies do. We pick away at the herd and the herd mentality.

I ask you to join me in expecting more of Islam. You see, Martin Luther King, Jr., did not settle for the soft racism of low expectations. He fought the soft racism of low expectations. Will you? Are you? Can we do more? Join me in asking more of Muslims. And when you do, rest assured of one thing, you'll be showing more faith in the capacity of my fellow Muslims to be thoughtful and humane than most of our clerics currently give us credit for. In the spirit of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, may we all work together for the day when jihad will be displaced by ijtihad as the way we Muslims express our chutzpah.

Thank you.