I’ve written many times of the need for moderate Muslims to take a stand against their reactionary brethren, and the need to support mass movements toward reform in the Islamic world. One of the key voices for reformation today is that of Irshad Manji. Born in Idi Amin’s Uganda, Manji’s family fled to Canada where she grew up. She is the author of The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, a book that declares unequivocally:
“Not solely because of September 11, but more urgently because of it, we’ve got to end Islam’s totalitarianism, particularly the gross human-rights violations against women and religious minorities. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now.”
Salman Rushdie has said in interviews that reform in the Muslim world will most likely be led by women, who understand the problem of Islam better than anyone else. With the rise of Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, Azar Nafisi in Iran and now the US, Asra Nomani in India and now the US, and Asma Jehangir in Pakistan (among many others), this is proving prophetic. Their personal stories are immense, as is their courage. For speaking out against the barbarism of so much of the faith they were born into, they have each faced death threats, fatwas and assassination attempts.
Jehangir, an attorney in Pakistan, has been beaten and thrown in jail. She’s had her home attacked by gangs of armed thugs, and has had to send her children abroad to keep them safe. But she stays in Pakistan and fights the forces of reaction. She has defended Christians against blasphemy charges, saving a 12 year old boy from hanging in one case. She’s defended women accused of adultery and led the fight to reform the Hudood ordinances in that country.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled Somalia, where as a child she endured the brutal event of what is euphemistically called “female circumcision” (the removal of the clitoris), and ended up in the Netherlands. She rose to become a member of Parliament there and an outspoken critic of Islamic radicalism. She co-wrote a movie about the status of women among the Muslim extremists with Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was later murdered by a Muslim who was upset over the film. Ali is now in the United States, where she will no doubt continue to speak out.
I have written before about Azar Nafisi, an Iranian literature scholar who is now in the US. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran was an incredibly powerful account of a group of women in Iran who had a secret book club. They met clandestinely to talk about literature, something all but forbidden in their country, and managed to escape the religious police most of the time. It’s a story of extraordinary courage. It’s also the story of one of the most basic realities of human nature – the longing for freedom, both of body and mind.
All of these women have powerful and compelling stories. Over the long run, I believe they and others will do more to improve the world and change Islam than all the presidents and prime ministers of the West combined. We should support their work, talk about them, publicize them, help get the word out that there are voices of moderation and reason within Islam. We must support them and applaud their courage. Ultimately, our struggle against terrorism and their struggle to make Islam more humane and moral are one and the same struggle.
Update: I somehow left Taslima Nasrin off this list, and she surely deserves to be on it. Nasrin is a Bangladeshi who has written widely of the place of women in Muslim society. She was placed under house arrest in 1990, then had a fatwa put a $5000 price on her head. She had to go into hiding, literally being hidden in the homes of supporters like Anne Frank, until she escaped and was given asylum in Sweden (where she continued to live under armed guard for years out of fear for her life). Nasrin has this to say to those who take the “different cultures, different rules” position and refuse to call oppression what it is:
Those liberal Western intellectuals think that the West is against Islam so they feel sympathy for Islam. But by supporting Islam, they are supporting fundamentalism. It’s very bad for the Islamic countries, which need to be secularized. Westerners often support Islam in the name of multiculturalism – “We don’t use the veil, but in their culture, in their religion, they do.” Have they bothered to ask why women even have to veil themselves? The veil is a sign of oppression. Some people try to portray female genital mutilation as culture. Does that mean it should be followed? I love my culture – my food, my music, my clothing – but I never, ever accept torture as being culture. The real conflict is not between the West and Islam, or even Christianity and Islam. It’s been secularism and fundamentalism, irrational blind faith and a rational, logical approach, between innovation and tradition, between past and future, between those who value freedom and those who do not.