The Trouble with Islam Today is an open letter from award-winning journalist Irshad Manji to concerned citizens worldwide--Muslim or not. The book is a lively wake-up call, a demand for honesty and change in Islamic countries and the West. With guts and sincerity Manji insists that readers face some of the most important questions troubling the world today.
A self-proclaimed Muslim Refusenik, Manji exposes the disturbing cornerstones of Islam as it is widely practiced: tribal insularity, deep-seated anti-Semitism and uncritical acceptance of the Koran as the final, superior manifesto of God. But the book begins with and repeatedly returns to Manji's own experience of Islam, from a teenage debate with a madressa teacher who couldn't explain to her why girls weren't allowed to lead prayer, to how she discovered what's worth salvaging about Islam, to the surprising conclusions she reached about the Arab-Jewish conflict after traveling to Israel -- a part of the Middle East that few Muslims dare visit.
Irshad Manji doesn't claim to have all the answers, but in the book's first two chapters she relates how, through her journey from childhood to adulthood, she came to ask several key questions about Islam that continue to concern her (and that few other writers have had the courage to raise): Why was her B.C. public school so open and tolerant, but her religious school bigoted and rigid? How could she reconcile her faith with the misogynist, homophobic and anti-Semitic violence committed in its name? Why are rote, literal readings of the Koran the mainstream of Islamic thought today?
"When Did We Stop Thinking?" she asks in chapter three, unearthing Islam's tradition of creativity and curiosity -- a tradition that died for entirely political reasons. Then, trekking through the Middle East, that Islamic countries' difficulties can't easily be blamed on the usual scapegoats: Israel, she discovers, is a fiercely pluralistic society that should be an example to Muslim nations; the United States, surprisingly, is admired by many Muslims and is seen more as an unrealized hope than as lead criminal.
This being the case, Manji wonders if the Muslim world is being colonized not by America, but by Arabia. Because Islam was founded in the land of Arabia, in the language of Arabia, for the people of Arabia, Muslims around the world have succumbed to "foundamentalism." Even non-Arab Muslims -- Islam's majority -- have come to imitate the seventh-century tribal rites of the Arabian Peninsula. But this narrow, intolerant and paternalistic system isn't the only way to be a Muslim.
"Ijtihad" (ij-tee-had) is the positive message of this book. Ijtihad is Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking, which flowered in the Islamic golden age between 700 and 1200 CE. Reviving ijtihad requires Muslims and non-Muslims alike to stop spouting received wisdom, start thinking for themselves and take action. For example, Manji writes, we can revitalize the economies of the Islamic world by engaging the talents of female entrepreneurs. When offered micro-business loans, women accrue assets, become literate, read the Quran for themselves and see the options it gives women for self-respect as well as for respect for the "other." Through this and other practical ideas, Manji shows how ordinary Muslims, with a little help from their friends, can have a future to live for rather than a past to die for.
Of course, her campaign to revive ijtihad raises concerns: For Islamic countries, does becoming more humane mean becoming more Western? Can one sow reform without being a cultural colonizer? Manji addresses these questions head-on -- and reminds us of a crucial fact: In the West one can ask dissenting questions about religion and society without fear of being raped, maimed or murdered by the state. Manji gives thanks for these precious freedoms and she challenges Muslims in the West to exercise them. She also invites non-Muslims to step out of "orthodox multiculturalism" and expect better of Muslims, both at home and abroad.
Irshad Manji remains a Muslim, one who takes seriously the verse in the Quran that states: "Believers, conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness before God -- even if it be against yourselves, your parents or your family." In that spirit, she ends her open letter by asking critics to tell her where her analysis has gone wrong. The result is an intense discussion on her website. Whether you agree or disagree with her argument, one thing can't be disputed: The Trouble with Islam Today has already created a worldwide conversation where none existed before.