Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thinking does not negate Islamic faith

Special for THE REPUBLIC.
Apr. 15, 2007

When I first read about Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, I prayed for his safety - and that of his family. My worries can't be chalked up to paranoia. They have to do with the stark realities that I face every day.

Welcome to my morning routine: I check my overnight e-mails and forward any chilling messages to the police. Then I de-activate my top-of-the-line alarm, get the paper and sip my coffee while gazing out of my bulletproof windows.

Life went on high alert three years ago. That's when my book, The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, came out. The book challenges sexism, anti-Semitism and other prejudices that pervade the Muslim world right now.

Almost immediately, I became an internationally best-selling author, cheered by people who believe in universal human rights. But along with this support came threats from would-be terrorists: "You will pay for your lies," "Enjoy your short stay on earth," and "This is your last warning."

Do I have a death wish? No. But what would be sadder for me than a life ended is a life wasted.

As a Muslim woman who is lucky enough to live in North America, I insist on using my precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged. Put bluntly, I have the opportunity to shatter deadly silences. How irresponsible would it be not to?

I have been asking questions since childhood. My mother, a devout Muslim from Africa, brought me and my sisters to Canada. We attended a public school during the week and a madressa (Islamic school) on the weekend. There, I would find myself being lectured about the inferiority of girls and Jews.

From under my scarf, I began defying the hate. My mother struggled with my outspokenness. "Whatever you do," she lovingly warned me, "please do not anger God."

But I had to ask: Was infuriating my teacher the same as angering my Creator? Did God really want me to be a second-class citizen? Did He seriously condemn an entire people - Jews - to eternal hell?

In short, is this the same God of mercy and compassion that Islam's holy book, the Quran, describes at the start of almost every chapter?

"Either you believe or you get out!" my teacher bellowed one Saturday afternoon. I kicked open the hefty madressa door and yelled back, "Jesus Christ!"

Little did I realize just how memorable such an exit it would be: Jesus was a Jew.

I walked away from the Islamic school but not from the Islamic faith. Over the next 20 years, I took time to search for the beauty in my religion.

That is when I discovered Islam's own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. It is called ijtihad (ij-tee-had). By engaging in ijtihad, Muslims can modernize. We can be faithful and thoughtful at the same time. We can also live our faith without fear.

Of course, all people of conscience have moments of wondering whether we have transgressed. Which is why courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear.

To me, much more important than fear is freedom - the ability to exercise it and grow from doing so.

That vision is entirely consistent with the spirit of Islam. For example, the Quran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to think, analyze and reflect than verses that tell us what is absolutely right and wrong.

I believe passionately that Islam and freedom can be reconciled as long as Muslims and non-Muslims develop the courage to discuss these issues honestly and face their personal fears - the fear of being ostracized (or worse) in their communities, the fear of offending minorities in a multicultural world and, above all, the fear of asking questions out loud.

By confronting our fears, we can finally take ownership of the solutions before us. This, too, might be frightening, but the status quo is a far bigger risk.

Despite all the death threats, I am hearing more support. Most gratifying is my mother's blessing. Recently, she slipped a card into my suitcase. The front of it says, "Bravo." Inside, she writes, "I'm so proud of your achievements. You go, girl!"

That is my credo, too. In a free society, using our voices is not just a right; it is a responsibility. May more people of faith marshal our voices to break deadly silences - for good.

Irshad Manji is author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith." On Thursday, PBS will premiere her documentary film, "Faith Without Fear."

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At 4/18/2007 6:41 AM, Anonymous mo said...

it's all about ummah films.


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