Friday, June 09, 2006

The trouble with Manji et al.

If you have had an absolute-earful of "Muslims should speak out more against extremism" or--Side B--"we're in Afghanistan to help the women," then you must check out Laila Lalami's trenchant critique of Irshad Manji et al. (TheNation.com, "The Missionary Position"):
These days, being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the "burden of pity." The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.
...and about Manji, in particular? Well, our Canadian Manji takes a back-seat to another prominent "reformer," the recently self-exiled Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali told stories of woe and hardship as a Muslim woman and fed the Dutch nationalists everything they wanted to hear to crack-down on Muslim immigration. Funny story...turns out that the crux of her personal story was untrue and even the right-wingers asked her to step down. No matter. Hirsi Ali is safely en route to a cushy position at the American Enterprise Institute.

What's so interesting about Lalami's essay is the comparison between Hirsi Ali & Manji [emphasis mine]:
They were both born, only a year apart, in East Africa--Hirsi Ali in 1969, and Manji in 1968. Both were forced by politically repressive regimes into exile from their homelands at an early age. Both can trace their "emancipation" to a single, significant, life-changing event. Both credit the West for giving them not just freedom of speech but the very ability to think for themselves. Hirsi Ali states that she is "the living proof" that Western culture enabled her to come fully into her own, while Manji declares, "I owe the West my willingness to help reform Islam." Both women express an unabashed disdain for multiculturalism, which they accuse of fostering a climate of political correctness that prevents dialogue and useful criticism. Both supported the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the "war on terror." Finally, both women have recently published books in the United States.
[...] As with Hirsi Ali, Manji's expertise on her subject is incomplete. Take the following statement: "The Koran appears to be organized by size of verse--from longer to shorter--and not by chronology of revelation. How can anyone isolate the "earlier" passages, let alone read into them the "authentic" message of the Koran? We have to own up to the fact that the Koran's message is all over the bloody map." This is simply not true. Each sura of the Koran is identified by whether it is "Meccan" or "Medinan," depending on whether it was revealed early in the Prophet's spiritual life or later on, during his hegira in Medina. Some verses are addressed to specific communities of believers. Others refer to specific historical events. All of these details help establish temporal contextualization. The study of the Koran's chronology is a whole field unto itself. In addition, and despite having written a book called The Trouble With Islam Today,
Manji has not taken the trouble of learning to speak, read and write Arabic fluently, nor of visiting any Muslim country. She left Uganda at the age of 4 and has absolutely no experience of what it is like to live in a Muslim country. Would a scholar who has written a book about China without bothering to speak Chinese or visit the country be taken seriously?
Lalami also adds her voice in support of some fellow Manji-detractors:
[A] In her first edition of "The Trouble with Islam," Manji wrote about "Muslim complicity in the Holocaust" but, as fellow Canadian Tarek Fateh pointed out in 2003:
According to Irshad Manji’s rationale, because one Muslim Mufti accepted the hospitality of Hitler, after being expelled from Palestine by the British colonial authorities, all us 1.2 billion Muslims, a quarter of humanity, deserve to be accused of complicity in the Holocaust.
And what about other prominent Palestinians, such as Hazim Khalidi, a London School of Economics grad who volunteered to serve in the Indian army's "Palestine Battalion” and later assigned to the “Palestine Regiment” that included Muslims, Jews, and Christians? Perhaps Irshad Manji may like to visit the cemetery in Mississauga where Sgt. Hannah Hazineh lies buried, unable to come to his defence. This decorated Palestinian veteran of the Second World War was wounded in the El-Alamein battle while fighting the Nazis. Ah! But why let facts get in the way of a good story.
[B] Manji's views on the Israeli occupation are...how you say? A leeeeeeetle bit bought and paid for. e.g. her trip to the occupied territories was organized and sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee, led by Paul Michaels (the guy who keeps accusing CBC of anti-semitism for its coverage of the region). This raised no end of anger and mistrust and was probably among the dumbest Manji-moves. Furthermore, both Lalani and others have drawn attention to Manji's sourcing for her two "Trouble" books:
[Manji] selectively cit[es] events and anecdotes that fit one paradigm only: Muslim savagery, which of course is contrasted with Western enlightenment. Several of Manji's claims about the Arab world are based on articles translated by the nonprofit organization Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which was founded by Col. Yigal Carmon, a twenty-two-year veteran of military intelligence in Israel with the goal of exploring the Middle East "through the region's media."[Lalani]
In fact, her blind "compassionate occupation" stance has drawn uproars on many campuses. In 2003, Manji took her "Defending Israel is Defending Diversity" schtick on the road.

Ok. Enough of my Manji-madness. I realize this post can sound a bit playa-hating. Time to find some constructive discussion. For that, I'll leave you in Lalani's capable hands:
Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women--and men--in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women's rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women's organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn't this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?

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