Book Review: ‘The Trouble with Islam Today’

By Irshad Manji

Given the rise of militant Islam in the 20th century, this is an important book, despite its many shortcomings. Where the Muslim author of this book deals with the religion of Islam and its patriarchal violence her arguments are strong and the material she wields rests on solid ground. However, where she strays into politics, economics and other religions the weakness and fragility of her understanding is demonstrated. More of that later. Meanwhile, I shall consider the books considerable strength and its potential importance.

Although in parts she appeals to non-Muslims, the book is written as a sort of lengthy critical ‘open letter’ in order to challenge non-violent Muslims.  The author describes herself as a Muslim Refusenik and says in the introduction that she is ‘hanging onto Islam by her fingernails’.  Her challenge is for the creation of a  ‘critical mass’ of moderate Muslims which will begin a two pronged process. First a serious criticism of the Qur’an itself, and in a parallel second prong, a scrupulous self-criticism of Islamic practices. In short she wishes to contribute to kick-starting an Islamic ‘reformation’ process.

That is to say a process similar to the one Christianity in Europe went through in the 15th and 16th centuries. Fuelled by economic and social changes, this European Protestant reformation was also a ‘protest’ against the oppression, moral and pecuniary outrages perpetrated by Roman Catholicism. It commenced in Switzerland and later Germany as an intellectual movement of criticism based upon the actual reading of the Christian Bible and contrasting this with the institutionalised practices of Roman Catholicism. Among the more well known initial intellects were Erasmus, Huss and Reuchlin. It gathered pace and eventually became a popular movement of resistance to Papal authority and its control of all forms of governance. This movement, eventually led to a reform of how Christian religion was practiced and how communities were governed in much of Europe.

The partial separation of politics from religion; championed by Martin Luther and various European Princes and Burghers, has not been replicated in the Islamic World.  It should be noted at this point, that all the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are forms of earthly patriarchal governance with a textual claim of divine authorisation for their oppressive forms of rule. However, direct  religious (papal) governance was shattered during the above-noted protestant reformation. Political governance was separated from religion and religion became mostly a private matter. Apart from some orthodox Jews, only Islam retains the ancient aspiration to religious forms of governance and conformity and it is this among other things which Irshad Manji draws attention to. For example;

“..how we Muslims behave, not in theory, but in actuality, is Islam…..we have to snap out of our denial……We Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department.”(Introduction.)

After describing her childhood as a Muslim with a father who typically had a ‘ready fist’ and her struggle in young adulthood faced with male Muslim prejudice against females, she decided that her ‘home’ was where her ‘dignity lives’.  She relates that a severe wake-up call for her came with a colleagues comments on the news that a Nigerian girl was to receive 180 lashes after being coerced into pre-marital sex by three males.  She begins chapter 2 with a question and a statement. The statement is as follows.

“Pick a Muslim country, any Muslim country, and the most brutal humiliations will grab you by the vitals. In Pakistan, an average of two women  every day die from ‘honour killings’, often with Allah’s name on the lips of the murderers. In Mali and Mauritania, little boys are seduced into slavery by Muslim hustlers. In Sudan, slavery happens at the hands of Islamic militias. In Yemen and Jordan, Christian humanitarian workers have been shot point-blank. In Bangladesh, artists who advocate for the rights of religious minorities have been locked up or driven out of the country altogether.” (Chapter 2.)

And that short list of course, is only the tip of a veritable iceberg of torture, throat slitting, gang-raping, murder and mutilation perpetrated by followers of the religion of Islam. What she mentions and what mystifies many non-Muslims is – the lack of condemnation from mainstream Muslims against these outrages perpetrated in the name of Islam. In regard to the Taliban’s destruction of pre-Islamic statues of Buddha she asks ‘Why the absence of mass Muslim demonstrations? She points out that it possible for any outrage to be justified on the basis of an extract from the ‘holy’ book of Islam – the Qur’an. A book which she argues needs questioning by all Muslims. In chapter three entitled ’When did we stop thinking?’ She argues that  mainstream Muslim’s consider they and their religion are the ‘good guys’ and she then states;

“Then I’ll accuse us of covering our asses. For all our denunciations of Islam’s fringe sickness, Muslims studiously avoided addressing the paralysing sickness of the entire religion – the untouchability of mainstream Islam.“  

Chapter 3 introduces two aspects which I consider are problematic. The first aspect is a reference to the alleged ‘golden age’ of Islam between 750 and 1250 of the Common Era in which tolerance and independent thinking flourished. I am very sceptical of such looking back to so-called ‘golden ages’ for two reasons. First, this golden glow can be a result of a high degree of intellectual selectivity with regard to the historical record. And of course, this ‘record’ itself is a selected product of an ancient intellectual elite. Second, these ’ages’ are often so far in the past that they invite reactionary and inapplicable pre-industrial outlooks rather than progressive ones.  In this regard, the myth of the Golden Age’ of the Caliphate is probably what is motivating many modern Islamic fundamentalists such as ISIL to try to replicate it in the 21st century.

The second problematic aspect of chapter 3 for me is a selective and supportive reference from  the Jewish religious scholar Maimonides ‘Guide to the Perplexed’. Now in my opinion, this particular document is more likely to further perplex the reader than guide them in humanitarian directions. However, it is absolutely clear about sentencing to death any Jews who transgress ‘divine precepts’ (see for example pages 348/349 of this ‘perplexing’ guide) and within two-score pages of Maimonides internecine sectarian nastiness, we read of non-Jews;

“The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition…..I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey. …those who posses religion, belief and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines…These are worse than the first class, and under certain circumstances it may become necessary to slay them, and extirpate their doctrines, in order that others should not be misled.” (Maimonides, ’Guide to the Perplexed’. page 384. Emphasis added. RR)

To my mind the career of someone who seeks to guide fellow religionists in these kind of directions is not something I would choose to admire, let alone classify the man as a genius – as the Muslim author of this book does. The rest of the chapter covers some more of the problems with Islam before we encounter chapter 4 and her visit to Israel. It becomes clear in this chapter that the author admires the openness of the Israeli state and contrasts this with the conformity of Islamic opinion among  Palestinians. She writes;

“Israeli society endows citizens with the permission to inquire and accumulate experiences. Here a feminist can sue the government for equal access to the Western Wall. Here, a teenage girl can conceive of leaving her yeshiva without stigma. Here, too, a Hasidic boy can zip around on an emblem of consumer cool. Here then, a people will witness their potential to be many things at once, reflecting the multitudes of God Himself.” (Chapter 4.)    

Apart from belief in a mystical, invisible male entity known as god, what she recognises and admires in this extract are actually not so much the products of Israel and Zionism, as the products of relative economic well-being. These are all available in most of the advanced capitalist countries!  And of course in Israel, these ‘freedoms’ are only fully available to Jews. To negatively contrast this fully military protected openness and these choices, with a people under brutal occupation  – will not significantly help her case for assisting an Islamic reformation – at least not in the occupied territories of Palestine and Gaza. For living under brutal occupation requires a high degree of conformity in order to exist within it and to resist it.  Nor will her regurgitation of much of the Israeli narrative surrounding the Nakba of 1948, help her cause. Whilst much of what she says about Islam in Palestine is undoubtedly true, it needs to be mediated by the fact of occupation and the lack of even basic economic and social freedoms.

Chapter 5 among other things, deals with the disgusting lack of support for Palestine by other Muslim countries, both historically and contemporarily. In this chapter she also includes the fact that many among the Muslim elite in this region of the world supported the national socialist (Nazi) Hitler in his later aggressive Imperialist expansion during the Second World War. A word of caution here. This tragic allegiance of working people and intellectuals to a secular version of militant patriarchy which became known as Fascism, was not a feature unique to Palestinian, Arab and other middle-eastern peoples.

It was replicated throughout Europe and deserves much more sensitive and analytic treatment than raising it, as Zionists often do, as a disparaging put-down to Palestinians. How and why many middle-class and working people, impacted by the 20th century crisis of the capitalist mode of production, backed secular versions of militant patriarchy (ie Fascism and Stalinism) is a complex issue, requiring understanding rather than just revulsion.

There is much more than this in chapter 5 which apart from other important things, goes on to indicate the hope of many Muslims, particularly young Muslims that America will help them achieve democratic reforms in the Islamic countries of the world. However, speaking to other Muslims, the author notes that the ‘cancer begins with us‘ and argues that Muslims have been taught ‘to imitate the power dynamics of an Arabian tribe‘.  She notes that mainstream Islam has been colonised by desert Arabia and it is this that Muslims need help to reform. This colonisation of Islam by the Arabian founders and the ‘privilege’ this creates is part of the theme for chapter 6, ‘The Hidden Underbelly of Islam‘.

In chapter 6 she argues that when Arabs claim privilege to set Islam’s agenda this reveals how ’intimidation has displaced intellect‘. She asks why, even at the (supposed) height of Islamic tolerance, have Muslims treated certain people as inferior, and can the norms of the desert be dislodged from Islam? She notes that whilst Saudi Arabia’s oil money has for decades helped spread hard-line Islam these habits have a much longer history. If the early spread of Islam carried with it the ethics of tribal paternalism was this not grafted onto the religion, she asks? From the Sunni perspective of Saudi for example, Shia Muslims are ’heretics’ or closet Jews.   This chapter ends with what the author considers three challenges that might represent a way forward. Thus

“The road forward, it seems to me, must try to tackle three challenges at the same time: first, to revitalise Muslim economies by engaging the talents of women; second , to give the desert a run for its money by unleashing varied interpretations of Islam; and third, to work with the West, not against it.” (Chapter 6)

The above three challenges are condensed at the beginning of the following chapter (Chapter 7) as; ‘God-fearing, female-fuelled capitalism might be the way forward to start Islam’s liberal reformation‘.  This formulation in one form or another indicates the recurring weakness in her presentation of how to initiate the much needed reformation or de-politicisation of Islam. A substantial part of the motives of Islamist opposition to the domination of American and European capitalism and their puppet regimes, is caused by its effects upon the lives of white and blue-collar Muslims. Despite its proliferation of desirable gadgets, many millions of Muslims detest the exploitation and injustices of American and European capital and its foreign investment. God-fearing or not, they are not going to work with the west to pursue its neo-liberal economic devastation of their lives.

Sadly, missing from the authors understanding is a recognition that the globalisation of capitalism has created a global proletariat, much of which is surplus to the labour requirements of international capital. This fact together with the need of capital for international markets and guaranteed sources of raw materials has introduced the latest phase of the capitalist mode of production. It is not possible to re-vitalise economies by micro-enterprise loans or engaging the talents of anyone, women or men. Capitalism has been vitalised for so long it has again reached a stage of relative over-production. Besides this, economies are not Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or any other mystical form erected upon them.  In the modern world economies are industrial, global and capitalist no matter what religion the regional or national population adheres to.

Nevertheless, after acknowledging a different view from Tasmin Nasrin, in chapter 7, she makes a wider appeal to non-Muslims suggesting that the interpretation of the Qur’an has become everybody’s business. Operation Ijtihad, the title of chapter 7, is a call for an open critical dialogue within Islam, but she invites non-Muslims to take part. In chapter 8 (In Praise of Honesty’) she asks are non-Muslims censoring themselves?  Undoubtedly they are. In fact the climate of political correctness, multiculturalism and cultural diversity has almost completely gagged people from commenting negatively about Islam. In the professions of civil-service, local government, teaching, and many other economic activities, negative comments upon Islam can be job and career threatening if not life threatening. She addresses this problem.

“Muslims exploit Islam as a shield, and that’s destructive too. It protects Muslims from self-inquiry and non-Muslims from guilt. ‘You have no right to question my religion’, the shield-wavers often sermonise to non-Muslims. ‘You’ll never understand Islam’.”…Note to non-Muslims: dare to ruin the romance of the moment. Open societies remain open because people take the risk of asking questions – out loud.”  (Chapter 8)

Non-Muslims are doing the world no favours, she argues, by pushing the moral mute button as soon as Muslims start speaking. The final chapter entitled ‘Thank God for the West’ she describes the plurality of the west, particularly North America, and the role this played in saving her faith in Islam’.  This is an interesting admission for to my mind there is a constant contradiction throughout the book. The author displays a very analytical brain and well-honed crap detectors in relation to much (but not all) of the mythical  material of religion, but not at all concerning the foundation of all Abrahamic religions – the myth of an invisible, eternal, all-powerful, male entity.

It reminded me of a thought I had on reading a history of Martin Luther’s and his repeated emphasis on faith. ‘Faith! The decision not to use ones critical faculties to question the founding premise of religion – the existence of a male god. This leaves one’s critical abilities free to be developed and honed in criticising unwanted aspects of the religion and at the same time defend the central myth by sophisticated detail and sophistry.

The final section of the book ‘Confessions and Reflections of a Muslim Refusenik’, outlines some of the responses to her book, but the final extract I choose to quote is one from the final chapter. In many ways this encapsulates what I have understood as the essence of her message.

“We in the West can be the harbingers of this transformation. We can do so not merely by condemning Islamo-fascists, but by refusing to become Islamo-fetishists, those who stoke the Muslim inferiority complex by leaving the heavy lifting of change to somebody else. We need to depose our own victim mentality.” (Chapter 9)

The book is well worth the read, despite what I consider its flaws and shortcomings. I would urge others to engage not only with the book but with the issues she deals with and in the courageous manner she exemplifies. A final word.  The author cannot be criticised too harshly for seeing liberal capitalism as the only alternative to fundamentalist totalitarianism.  She, like many other workers and intellectuals, understands the horrors attendant upon the so-called anti-capitalist theory and practice of Bolsheviks, Stalinists, Maoists and their imitators and rejects this dogmatic and sectarian perspective.

The lack of a strong and genuine revolutionary-humanist movement, emerging from the ashes of previous failed anti-capitalist revolutions, is not her fault or the fault of the working classes. This failure is the responsibility of those within the anti-capitalist movement who have not conducted their own reformation with regard to the 20th century theoretical distortion of the 19th century revolutionary-humanism of  Marx and others. To tweak her Chapter 3 challenge to Muslims for us anti-capitalists: ‘Anti-Capitalists have studiously avoided addressing the paralysing sickness of the entire movement – the untouchability of  Bolshevism’.  We have our own ‘reformation’ to conduct.

Roy Ratcliffe (July 2014)

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This entry was posted in Critique, Fundamentalism, neo-liberalism, Palestine, Patriarchy, Reformism, Religion, Revolutionary-Humanism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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