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Lauding Raheel Raza's reformist zeal

Being a reformer like Raza in Islam is to flirt with danger, says Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2006 19:48 IST

Being a reformer in Islam is to flirt with ridicule, danger, vituperation and anger. It is not an easy job. It becomes doubly difficult when one goes public. It becomes even more problematic when one tries to overturn centuries old traditions.

It could even become dangerous when it is a woman who is trying to enter a male dominated patriarchal arena. It is frankly amazing when all this is happening in the "hot-house" atmosphere of immigrant societies.

Raza's fight against orthodoxy
This is a story of a Canadian lady Raheel Raza and her journey over the past five years as expressed in her recently published book (

I came across her mention few months back when it was announced that she had led a mixed congregation of Muslims in prayers in Canada. I have been keeping a beady eye on Muslim activists/reformers. While nowhere near anything like an expert, I am an interested observer for obvious reasons. In the past, we have explored two American ladies, Dr. Amina Wadud and Asra Nomani ( and

This is the third in that rather interrupted series and will be followed by another reformer, Tariq Ramadan.

Raza is an immigrant from Pakistan, settled in Canada since 1989. Married with two grown up sons, she is a polyglot, an award winning writer, public speaker, media consultant and interfaith advocate. In her book, entitled "Their Jihad... Not My Jihad", she has put together a collection of her newspaper columns in the Toronto Star over the past five years arranged in themes.

The first theme is "Political Jihad - A Struggle for the soul of Islam". The second theme is "Gender Jihad - A Struggle for Women's Rights", while the last one is "Spiritual Jihad - A Struggle to Know Each Other".

A collection of newspaper op-ed columns is a tricky piece to pull off. I know by personal experience that a newspaper op-ed column does not allow one to do full and in-depth justice to a topic. Hence one can only express one's opinion and hope the editor will allow the extra words to slip past.

The format and medium of a newspaper column is a big tight straight-jacketed.

But once one has put together a themed collection, what one gets is a relatively consistent view of what the author thinks on a high level on those themes and topics. The five-year time horizon also shows how the author's opinions have evolved. It is a fascinating exercise to cross-correlate external events with how a Muslim activist dealt with them and thought about some of the most earth shattering events in recent times.

9/11 and after
Before 9/11, Islam and the West had a rather subdued relationship with each other. Muslim populations in the West were not seen that much on the radar.

There have been some issues, such as the Bradford riots in the UK, some incidents such as the first World Trade Centre bombing in the US, some rather poignant immigrant problems and incidents in France, the Turkish problem in Germany, but nothing earth shattering. They were usually subdued in the generalised cacophony of immigrants (all nationalities) trying to fit into a secular Westernised society.

9/11 changed that equation. It caused the world to look seriously not only at the Muslim world across the wide swathe from Algeria to Indonesia, but also inside into the Muslim minority populations.

The racial profiling, the sideways glances, terrorist incidents in Madrid, London, New York, Stockholm, the Afghan and Iraq war, the shrill propaganda and media war etc. all raised the visibility hugely. What it also did was to shine light on some of the rather medieval practices such as honour killing, patriarchal societal, illiteracy, arranged marriages, mis-representation of religious dictates, etc. This is where liberal Muslims stepped up to fight back on three fronts.

The first front was against the "fundos" of their homelands, as well as other Muslim countries, against their strange interpretations of Islam, their religious justification of terrorist actions and the misogynistic approaches in their homelands.

The second front was against the Western governments who started to tamper with their civil liberties as a reaction against terrorism.

The third front was what I would call as the fight against the immigrant thought processes - the gender/women's right fight, the fight for secularism, the fight against patriarchy and the fight against immigrant antiquated traditions brought over.

Raza seems to have fought this war on these three fronts on a consistent basis over the last five years. This is what jumped out clearly at me once I finished the book.

On a broad basis, the overwhelming feeling I had was of a lady who possesses a very strange quality. That is of innocence and belief in the essential goodness of humankind. I have never met her, but I would not hesitate to treat her as my favourite aunt and talk openly and honestly with her. It is that sort of innocence that shines forth, a sort of earnestness that is clear from every column. They are the plaintive cry mixed with righteous indignation of a Muslim who is revolting against the injustices done by the protagonists of the three fronts.

She is "one of us" crying out against the blood, gore and terror, which have suddenly infested the world. Her words are not dense prose, not dry academic writing, not polemics, but ordinary day-to-day language, something that the common man/woman can read and think, hey, she thinks like me.

I wouldn't dream of discussing the individual columns, that will take away the pleasure of you gentle readers from actually reading the book, but simply discuss briefly the overall themes.

First Published: Jan 07, 2006 19:48 IST