09.13.11

Islam’s Civil War

Muslims are torn between radicalism and reform. A new book by Irshad Manji illuminates the path of hope—offering faithful dissent against a suffocating orthodoxy.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is over, but America is still wrestling with the role of Islam in our society. And Islam, no less significantly, is struggling with its own internal tensions as a faith battered between radicals, reactionaries, and reform.

Perhaps the most fearless advocate for reformation in Islam is Irshad Manji, director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU and author of the important and timely book Allah, Liberty and Love:  The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom.

Manji’s work is centered around advancing ijtihad–which she describes as "Islam’s own tradition of dissenting, reasoning, and reinterpreting." It is an uphill battle.  Not many authors can claim to have been called “a bigger criminal than Osama bin Laden” in a sermon as her mother listened from the audience.  But then few can claim that free translations of their work have been downloaded millions of times in countries where its publication is banned.

She is controversial precisely because she offers hope for change–faithful dissent against a suffocating orthodoxy at odds with the facts of life in an evolving world.

Allah, Liberty and Love—the long-awaited follow-up to The Trouble With Islam—offers glimpses into the front lines of the fight to reform Islam and reconcile it with the modern world.  The primary problem is Islamo-tribalists who preach a troubling troika: “Unity equals uniformity; debate equals division; and division equals heresy.” In contrast, Manji presents a vision of Islam that distinguishes theology from ideology, explaining to young Muslims that “dogma isn’t the rock it appears to be:  Dogma is insecure and compels us to cling.”

While making a case for her faith, Irshad is unafraid to call out the “rabbit hole of relativism” that masquerades as multicultural tolerance in the West.  She rightly calls out Attorney General Eric Holder for refusing to discuss the undeniably Islamist impulses behind Maj. Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood.  And she has little patience for so-called moderate Muslims who refuse to unequivocally condemn the violence perpetrated in their religion’s name.

For example, the imam initially behind the Park51 Islamic community center, two blocks from Ground Zero, Feisal Abdul Rauf, quoted the Quran after the London Tube bombings, saying, “Whoever kills a human being … it is as if he has killed all of humankind.” Irshad unflinchingly pointed out the missing words behind the ellipses: “except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land.” Excluding that critical piece of text papers over the deeper problem—literalists who use lines of their holy book to justify violence against people they deem to be unfaithful. It’s a slippery slope on a razor’s edge that too often leads to threats and bloodshed.

Honestly engaging in this debate is especially relevant to Muslims and non-Muslims learning to coexist in the West.

In the days after 9/11, American leaders from George W. Bush to Rudy Giuliani cautioned against engaging in group blame for the attacks. Those impulses were therefore restrained, but they have erupted more recently in recent years as the role of Islam in America has increasingly become a political issue—tapping into anxieties ranging from the imposition of Sharia in Oklahoma to the building of a mosque in Tennessee to the unhinged belief by some that President Obama is secretly Muslim.

Manji’s example is essential in helping the rising young generation of Muslims have a positive model of how to be Muslim in modern America today.

At the same time, a landmark new survey of Muslims in America by Gallup offers a hopeful view of Muslims in America 10 years after 9/11, showing that Muslim-Americans are hopeful about their future in the U.S. and more likely than any other domestic religious group to oppose the targeting of civilians. But they are also the most likely to oppose U.S. military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan and show the least confidence of any religious group in the military and the FBI.

But the deeper domestic tensions come from questions about assimilation.  In the waves of immigration that have come to American shores in the past, first generations have often cloistered together and resisted aspects of Americanization—but no major wave of immigration has occurred at the same time that fundamentalist members of their religion have declared war on American and attacked us on our shores. This is a new challenge in our nation’s history with no shortage of complexities, compounded by an old-world culture that condemns young Muslim women to second-class status in the name of preserving their family honor.

Manji’s example is essential in helping the rising young generation of Muslims have a positive model of how to be Muslim in modern America today.  She is an advocate for a frank and open dialogue, free from the stifling hypocrisies of political correctness. She offers a pluralistic vision of how Islam and democracy can coexist in a free society—confronting Islamist arguments about the right not to be offended by free speech that undergirded the Danish cartoon threats.  “Muslims and non-Muslims who live in democracies have to develop the spine to expand individual liberty, not stunt it,” Manji says, “because without the freedom to think and express, there can be no integrity of the self or integration of society.”

There are undeniable tensions in the relationship between Muslims and Americans here at home—and much room to grow.  But there are hopeful signs as well. I remember attending a briefing a few years after 9/11 where security analysts tried to account for the fact that even a small-scale attack on a bus or train had not been successfully attempted in the U.S., even though explosions rocked London and Madrid. The reason given, without a hint of triumphalism, was that America worked. Even in densely populated Muslim communities like Dearborn, Mich., it was difficult to re-create the kind of anger and hopelessness needed for terrorist recruitment and radicalization. Even in the post-9/11 years, young Muslims in America felt positive about their future here—and that’s a sign of mutual success, part of forming a more perfect Union.

There is a struggle between freedom and fundamentalism in our time, both at home and abroad. Manji points to a path of fearless reform that can expand freedom’s reach. That’s why Allah, Liberty and Love is such a vital book—and why I’ll be continuing this conversation in person Tuesday night with Irshad at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Please feel free to sign up and attend. The struggles discussed have a relevance that transcends all tribes. “People who act on their moral courage will always encounter disapproval,” Manji writes. “To have moral courage is to challenge conformity within our own tribes—be they religious, cultural, ideological or professional—and to do so for a more universal good.”