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The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change

by Irshad Manji

In The Trouble with Islam, broadcaster and commentator Irshad Manji calls for a revival of ijtihad, the Koran’s tradition of independent thinking. Manji, a Muslim of Indian origin who immigrated to Canada from Uganda in the 1970s, calls herself a “refusenik” – she refuses to go along with Muslim hatred of the West and with what she sees as Muslim collective victimhood. She criticizes Islamic fundamentalism, but says even mainstream Islam has “totalitarian impulses.” She says the problem with Islam is that it forces people to choose between thinking and being spiritual.

The book consists mostly of questions posed by Manji, which she then answers with factoids, brief quotations, and other bits of research. In this sense, the book is less an argument than a collection of challenges. Manji makes some good points. She says that 70% of Muslims can’t understand Arabic and are dependent on religious leaders to interpret the Koran. She says that Muhammad was illiterate and relied on scribes, which means the Koran was likely mistranslated. And she says that sharia law isn’t divine law but merely the legal opinion of classical jurists.

But she also stereotypes all Muslims as relentlessly anti-Semitic and ignores the racist, exclusionary practices of the Israeli government toward Palestinians, pointing instead to bilingual road signs and Hebrew schools that teach Arabic to argue that Israeli society is a paragon of virtue. Manji is good at picking and choosing, but not so good at presenting a fully developed argument.

The book’s biggest problem is Manji’s repeated demonization of the concept of “tribalism.” She says that stoning and the mistreatment of women is a “tribal custom,” that tribalism is incompatible with equality or individual identity. She doesn’t consider that men might mistreat women because they are afraid of women, and that non-tribal entities, such as Fortune 500 companies, are also sexist. She describes local custom, religious doctrine, the brainwashing practised by totalitarian states, and various human failings as “tribal” customs, demonstrating a colossal ignorance of human psychology and sociology as well as a misunderstanding of tribal societies.

Manji dislikes tribalism’s “elaborate web of social relationships” because she wants a world without rules and responsibilities, one that will not impede her upward mobility. She’s big on the Western idea of “progress,” and believes the West needs to invest in the Middle East in order to generate wealth. The resulting “cultural and economic pride” would be an instant cure-all for Islam’s woes. Manji doesn’t mention the place spirituality would play in this cure or the interdependence that would be lost at the multinational factory doors.

Manji shouldn’t worry about someone issuing a fatwa against her for writing this book – The Trouble with Islam simply doesn’t carry enough intellectual weight to threaten anyone.