Engagement is Everything

A battle cry against bristly extremism and watery relativism.

books Updated: Sep 16, 2011 22:49 IST
Kanika Gahlaut
Kanika Gahlaut
Hindustan Times

Allah, Liberty and Love
Irshad Manji
Simon and Schuster India
Rs 399
pp 288

Irshad Manji can claim to be in the unique position of finding herself compared to Osama bin Laden by both the Islamic world and the West. The New York Times called her “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare”. According to her book, Allah, Liberty and Love, the mosque attended by Manji’s mum in Vancouver deemed her “a bigger criminal” than bin Laden.

In a sense, one can see why Manji, a practising Muslim and a ‘Kafir lesbian’, who has set the cat among the pigeons with her critique of Islam, is a Lit bin Laden for some. She, too, champions a form of extremism. But while the terrorist created a rift between Islam and the rest of the world with jihad, a decade later, Manji advocates ijtihad, an “Islamic tradition of dissenting, reasoning and reinterpreting”.

Islam, she argues, has been twisted to be portrayed as a religion of herd mentality and fear while it was once a religion of individual integrity. Referencing a variety of diverse sources from Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi and Schopenhauer to the TV sitcom Will & Grace and the Quran, she calls on the world, within Islam and outside of it, to commit an act of moral extremism by intervening and speaking up against extremism in mainstream Islam.

Used as we are to conversations around us of ‘respecting all cultures’ and ‘condemning all acts of terrorism’, Manji shakes us out of our reverie to tell us that these are signs not of tolerant but tired times. Those who fail to actively engage — and when need be, question — each other’s beliefs are held guilty of moral ennui. With a breezy sarcasm, a general disdain for ethnic mollycoddling and the spunky audacity that can only be the domain of the truly agenda-free, Manji argues that the non-Islamic world’s absence from participation in dialogue on Islam is not just an indictment of them but a reason why Islamist extremism continues to flourish.

Manji spares no one in the accountability stakes. She takes on mullahs and other self-appointed keepers of Islam. But she’s equally contemptuous of the moderates within Islam, arguing that they are a cop-out. As for the non-Islamic world, we’re just wusses for falling for multiculturalism, relativism and other mumbo-jumbo. In a world where we sanctimoniously pussyfoot around racial sensitivity, cultural diversity and community rights, Manji tells us that all we’re doing is moving further away distinguishing right from wrong.

Whether it is wearing the hijab or gender segregation in places of worship or attitudes towards mixed marriages, if ‘a cultural ethos’ goes against individual dignity and equal rights for all, it’s not just your right but your duty to question it, she says.

Dialogue is omnipresent in Manji’s book, in the form of letters from her readers, fans and critics alike, woven into the narrative along with information from the wide range of sources, experts and historical figures. It’s not unusual to stumble across exchanges between an Irshad-baiter and the writer. Sample: “So when my brothaz explode/They’re using free will/You can speak against it/But hey, it’s not yours to kill/Gotcha BITCH.” To which Manji gives her own poetic rejoinder, “Just because roses are red/Doesn’t mean violets are too…/Gotcha, gangsta.”

The format is unusual — high-brow Aristotleans and illiterate defenders of the Detroit bomber rub shoulders in her pages. But if you’re factoring in Manji’s rules — in which putting your money where your mouth is features right on top of the Commandments of Courage — it serves its purpose.

Engagement, argues Manji, is Everything. Not selective engagement, but a no-holds-barred discourse that pierces through politics and identity, believers and non-believers, cultures and societies and everything in between.

By pitting integrity against identity and politics against participation, Manji’s book goes beyond Islam and could just as well be titled “Ram, Liberty and Love”. Its arguments may centre around Islam. But the self-reflection and human values it prescribes are universal.

First Published: Sep 16, 2011 22:46 IST