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Generalizing undermines cry for Islamic reform

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Allah, Liberty and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

Random House Canada, 293 pages, $30

It's hard to top the title The Trouble with Islam. But with Allah, Liberty and Love, Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji has come up with another provocative name for her sophomore work of non-fiction.

Manji, who was raised in B.C. but is now based in New York, continues with her efforts to call for the reform of Islam through liberal reinterpretations of the Qur'an, this time by espousing "moral courage," a term she borrows from Robert F. Kennedy and what she defines as "the willingness to speak truth to power within your community for the sake of a greater good."

However, Manji's sweeping generalizations and failure to define critical terminology undermines her call to arms. Her central premise is that Muslims live in an environment where their fear of dishonouring or offending their families or communities by asking hard questions about their religion stifles their capacity to grow as individuals and prevents any Islamic renaissances from occurring.

She argues that a "tribal" mentality, more specifically an Arab tribal mentality, is to blame for this, where individuality must be sacrificed in order to maintain the "honour" of the family, group, culture or tribe.

Manji asserts that in order for Muslims to be able to have the moral courage to speak truth to power against these "Islamo-tribalists," they must abandon their own cultural identities and psychologically disassociate themselves from the cultural communities that they belong to, making them "counter-cultural Muslims."

There are a few problems with Manji's arguments. First of all, even ignoring the racist undertones of Manji's anti-Arab narrative, what exactly is an Arab mentality? Generalizations are never a good idea and only serve to offend the intelligence of the reader. Moreover, the casual manner in which she presents weak and discredited prophetic traditions as factual only further undermines her scholarship and credibility.

Second, Manji neglects to give the reader a proper definition of what she means by culture and, problematically, she uses it interchangeably with tribalism. There also never is any discussion or answer as to what humans are without their cultural experiences, let alone on whether the separation of culture from the human experience is even possible.

Finally and perhaps most crucially, Manji's argument of abandoning culture and adhering only to scripture is ironically consistent with the ultra-conservative Wahabi school of thought that sees cultural identity as something that contaminates Islam.

While a large part of this book is about challenging the group labels and cultural identities that Manji argues society uses to simplify or reduce one's individuality, her point about individuality becomes self-defeating when she attempts to divide Muslims into three categories: "Islamo-tribalists," "moderates" and "counter-culturalists."

Her argument about the diversity and depth of Muslim identity is an important one, and yet it only seems to apply to "Muslim reformers" such as herself and not to the vaguely defined "Muslim moderates," who she argues are all "orthodox" because they are all "mainstream."

This attempt to make a nuanced picture out of joining three dots together may be a bit of a stretch of the imagination for some readers, or at least for those that don't have an appreciation for really awkward looking triangles.

Non-Muslims may want to consider picking up a translation of the Qur'an itself. The recent English translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem published by the Oxford University Press would be the best buy.

Not only will they be able to learn exactly what Allah has to say about liberty and love, they will also be able to derive their understanding of Islam and Muslims directly from the source.

And don't worry. Manji would surely approve.

An Oxford graduate, Winnipegger Nadia Kidwai was born and raised in the U.K. and is one of the founding members of the Canadian Muslim Leadership Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2011 J8

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