Irshad Manji is a Canadian journalist, television producer, scholar, feminist, and activist for LGBTQ and Muslim communities. Manji called for reasonable debate concerning the progressive interpretation of scripture rather than a single preemptive mandate that is only enforceable through intimidation and violence. Her openness concerning her orientation, refusal to back down despite multiple death threats, and willingness to engage in dialogue have made her an icon in the LGBTQ Muslim community.
Born in Uganda to parents of Gujarati (India) and Egyptian descent, she and her family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1972 when the dictator Idi Amin Dada ordered people of Asian descent to leave the country. She attended secular and Islamic schools, but says she was dismissed from the Islamic school for asking too many questions. Nevertheless, she continued learning Arabic and studying Islam on her own.
Manji graduated from the University of British Columbia and became a journalist, television producer, and author. In 1998, Manji hosted QT: Queer Television, a program on LGBTQ news and issues that was broadcast until 2001. In 2004, she published The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith in which she counters Muslim condemnation of homosexuality by asking: “If the all-knowing, all-powerful God didn’t wish to make me a lesbian, then why didn’t He make someone else in my place?” and further: “How can the Koran at once denounce homosexuality and declare that Allah ‘makes excellent everything He creates’?” Three years later, she released Faith Without Fear, a documentary chronicling her travels and conversations with people in Canada, the Middle East, and Europe. In 2008, she founded the Moral Courage Project at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.
It was during her time with QT that Manji began formulating her ideas on the reform of Islam, including her condemnation of human rights violations perpetrated in the name of the Qur’an and the manipulation of religion for terrorist purposes. She advocated for a return to ijtihad, the Islamic tradition of independent thinking, including an acknowledgement that the Qur’an gives women the right to think for themselves. Manji called for reinterpretation, not rewriting, of the sacred text, and created Project Ijtihad, a charitable organization that promotes positive views of Islam along with acceptance of diversity.
Manji and Islam
Manji’s approach toward Islam is worded succinctly in her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, an international bestseller published in almost 30 countries, banned in others, and translated into many different languages. The book opens with a letter in which Manji says,
My Fellow Muslims,
I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I’m hanging on by my fingernails, in anxiety over what’s coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah.
When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment. Don’t you? I hear from a Saudi friend that his country’s religious police arrest women for wearing red on Valentine’s Day, and I think: Since when does a merciful God outlaw joy — or fun? I read about victims of rape being stoned for “adultery,” and I wonder how a critical mass of us can stay stone silent.
This direct style sets the tone for Manji’s plea to the Muslim community, which she urged to speak up against “the imperialists within Islam.” Manji called herself a Muslim refusenik, a term used for Soviet Union Jews who tried to flee the communist regime and who stood up for religious and personal freedom. Manji identified with their “persistent refusal to comply with the mechanisms of mind control.” She explained that she appropriated this term not because she refused to be a Muslim, but because she refused to join “an army of automatons in the name of Allah.” She also called for greater tolerance in the Muslim community towards intermarriage with people of other faiths.
Faith Without Fear, the documentary Manji produced chronicling her travels to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, and her parents’ home in Canada, further expands on her ideas about Muslim history, art and theology. In the documentary, she speaks with one of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguards, talks to a former member of the Dutch Parliament and Dutch Muslim youth, and debates with her mother.
Despite death threats, Manji continues to travel to various Muslim communities in countries to give speeches and workshops on how to stay a faithful Muslim while resisting those Muslims who use violence to enforce their views.
“Praise Allah for the Internet,” says Manji in The Trouble with Islam Today, acknowledging that the worldwide web has allowed intellectual risk-takers to become more visible. Her own presence online reflects her interest in building networks of like-minded people who promote non-violent reform. At the request of young followers who wanted translations of her book (which is banned in several countries), she responded by posting free downloadable translations in Arabic, Urdu, Malay, Persian and Bahasa Indonesian on her website. Hundreds of thousands of the Arabic translation have been downloaded.
Manji, Irshad. The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.
Faith Without Fear. Director/Co-writer Ian McLeod. 90th Parallel Film & Television Productions, 2007.