Sunday, August 29, 2004

Irshad Manji @ Melbourne Writers Festival - Last Word

There’s an old saying that used to be heard in all sorts of places, that there are two topics that should never be discussed in polite company – politics and religion. What better way to completely disregard that notion than an evening with a fascinating author, Irshad Manji. Manji is a rare breed. She’s a feisty, well considered intellectual with an extraordinary ability to communicate to a range of people from a range of backgrounds on a range of topics – and keep them entertained the whole way through. Her presentation on the closing night at the Melbourne Writers Festival was breathtaking, with the sort of self-assured confidence (though never cocky) that is rarely found in 33 year olds who aren’t the lead singer of a punk band.

It is tempting to describe Manji using only clinical, demographic descriptions, although this completely fails to do her justice. Yep, she’s a 33 year old woman. Lesbian. Canadian. Muslim. With a cool hair cut. But it’s the idea she is expressing that is truly remarkable – that Islam is being held captive by its fundamentalist adherents, and needs to be reclaimed by moderates. The notion itself should not be controversial, since there is ample evidence from recent times which show it to be correct. We live, however, in an era of heightened racial sensitivity, where discussion of religion is supposed to be deferential, absolutely respectful and unambiguously supportive. And also, it seems, intellectually vacuous.

But not for Manji. She has no qualms about laying down a challenge to the fundamentalists who she believes have taken captive of her religion, from the teacher at her childhood Madrassa to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, all of whom she argues distort the religion for their own purposes. She asks the questions of these figures that should rightfully be asked of any person who claims to have an exclusivity arrangement with Fountain of Knowledge ™. The sort of critical thinking that Manji applies to fundamentalist Islam would be a great service to humanity if it was carried out by those living on the Arab Street, by people who are bullied and persecuted by governments in the name of religion. Hopefully Manji’s ideas will spread beyond the halls of western literary festivals and into the hearts and minds of people who need to be saved from people who claim to be able to save them.


Check out the haircut!




Manji makes it clear that she doesn’t have all the answers. She isn’t presenting a comprehensive, alternative version of her religion to challenge the fundamentalist orthodoxy. Instead she is merely suggesting that an alternative is possible, that the Koran is far from absolute in its view of a range of social issues, and that there is nothing inherently correct about the status quo. The position that Manji takes parallels the movement toward moderation is all monotheistic religions – moderate Judaism and Christianity has challenged the supremacy of their fundamentalist counterparts, and Manji seeks to do the same with Islam. It is a worthy goal, albeit a brave one.

As well as being a fine orator, Manji is a successful author and webmaster, with The Trouble With Islam and www.muslim-refusenik.com being her substantial output. The ideas of Manji are gaining currency, and the world would be a better place if they were to enter the mainstream thinking of Islam’s adherents. At present, unfortunately, it seems that Manji is confined to the margins, dismissed as a mad feminist, a western imperialist and a Jewish sympathiser. As long as she has the freedom and courage to speak her mind, though, she will be the bugbear of those who use religion as a tool of oppression rather than liberation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

She certainly is an amazing woman.
She was on denton recently too, http://www.abc.net.au/enoughrope/archive.htm.

Let's hope more people start to think like her (i.e. for themselves).

Daniel