Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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International: The freedom to criticise the Koran

The battle for the soul of Islam will be fought by young Muslims - in the West, writes Irshad Manji.
Tuesday's murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who criticised Islamic practices, reminds all of a nagging truth: that more than 15 years after the Iranian Government issued a death warrant against novelist Salman Rushdie, dissenting with Muslims remains a risky business.

As a Muslim reformer, I speak from experience. My book, The Trouble with Islam, has put me on the receiving end of anger, hatred and vitriol. That's because I'm asking questions from which we Muslims can no longer hide. Why, for example, are we squandering the talents of half of God's creation, women? What's with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam today?

Above all, how can even moderate Muslims view the Koran literally when it, like every holy text, abounds in contradiction and ambiguity? The trouble with Islam today is that literalism is going mainstream.

Muslims who take offence at these points often wind up reinforcing them in their responses to me. I regularly get death threats through my website. Some of my would-be assassins emphasise the virtues of martyrdom, wanting to hurl me into the flames of hell in exchange for 72 virgins. Others simply want to know what plane I'm next boarding, so they can hijack it. Somehow, I don't feel the urge to share my schedule.

A few threats have been up-close and personal. At an airport in North America, a Muslim man approached my travel companion to say, "You're luckier than your friend." When she asked him to explain, he turned his hand into the shape of a gun and pulled the trigger. "She will find out later what that means," he intoned.

But, for all of the threats, there's good news: I'm hearing more support, affection and even love from fellow Muslims than I thought possible. Two groups in particular - young Muslims and Muslim women - have flooded my website with letters of relief and thanks. Relief that somebody is saying out loud what they have only ever whispered. Gratitude that they're being given the permission to think for themselves.

That's why I don't take my bodyguard everywhere I go. It may be necessary to have one when I visit France next week. But in my day-to-day life, I refuse to be closely protected. If I'm going to have credibility conveying to Muslims that we can, indeed, live while dissenting with the establishment, I can't have a big, burly fellow looking over my shoulder. I must lead by example. So far, so good.

To be sure, I haven't tried visiting Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan since the release of my book. (One challenge at time, please!) Still, the relative safety with which I've debated Islam in the West - from Britain to Belgium, from Australia to Canada, from the Netherlands to the United States - convinces me that Muslims in the West have a sterling opportunity.

Muslims in the West are best poised to revive Islam's tradition of independent reasoning. Why in the West? Because it's here that we already enjoy the precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged all without fear of state reprisal.

I'm not denying that some Muslims have been targeted for harassment, profiling and discrimination by Western governments. I faced the same during the 1991 Gulf war, when I was marched out of a federal building in Ottawa, Canada, for no apparent reason.

However, none of this negates a basic fact: that if Muslims in the West dare to ask questions about our holy book, and if we care to denounce human rights violations being committed under the banner of that book, we need not worry about being raped, flogged, stoned or executed by the state for doing so. What in God's name are Muslims in the West doing with our freedoms?

I know what many young Muslims would like us to be doing: thinking critically about ourselves and not solely about Washington. Indeed, a huge motivation for having written my book came from young Muslims on US and Canadian campuses. Even before September 11, 2001, I spoke at universities about the virtues of diversity, including diversity of opinion.

After many of these speeches, young Muslims emerged from the audiences, gathered at the side of the stage, chatted excitedly among themselves, and then walked over to me. "Irshad," I would hear, "we need voices such as yours to help us open up this religion of ours because if it doesn't open up, we're leaving it." They're on the front lines in the battle for the soul of Islam. Whatever the risks to my safety, I won't turn my back on them - or on the gift of freedom bestowed by my society.

Irshad Manji is author of The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith (Random House Australia, rrp $32.95).

Originally publised in The Sydney Morning Herald, November 4, 2004