Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[REVIEW] Irshad Manji: "Israel, Islam, and Diversity"

I arrived at 7:50 pm on Sunday night, at Biosciences 1101.

The room is a vast auditorium, seating hundreds of people. I'd gone there Thursday, for Catherine Bell's networking seminar, and it was mostly full. This night, it was completely full--I was lucky to get a seat at the very back.

Two things of note happened before Irshad Manji began to speak.

  • Two of the student constables standing behind me, opposite the doors, began talking about her. One person said that she was a lesbian; that, in her opinion, was all right, but she couldn't understand how someone could be a lesbian and be involved in the Muslim faith.

  • Members of Queen's Palestinian Human Rights Association passed out small orange pamphlets, 6 inches by 4 inches, which detailed various of the rights violations committed in the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories (arbitrary checkpoints, economic privation, monopolization of scarce water supplies).

Ms. Manji was a dynamic presenter, thanks to her experience as a journalist (particularly for the City TV show QueerTelevision). It was a quick presentation of an hour's length, and you'd really have to have read the book to get the full impact of her argument, I believe, but it was quite compact and comprehensible.

She began by recounting the history of her own personal relationship with Islam, beginning at the age of eight when she was confused by her Saturday madrassa teacher's emphasis on the perfidy of the Jews and their conspiracies, given the lack of proof. (Of course, she laughingly told us later, she didn't realize that such world-embracing conspiracies as that of the Jews lack evidence by their very nature. Oh, and as some of her critics have said, she's also a Mossad agent, though she also made it clear that she's on unpaid leave from the Israeli security agency. I'll get to her sense of humour later.) On a more serious note, she did mention receiving multiple death threats for her writing.

Most of her argument about Israel was based on the premise that diversity--cultural, linguistic, religious, sexual--was always a positive good, requiring an active defense wherever it might be found. Travelling to Israel, sponsored financially by a Zionist organization but setting her own itinerary, she came back wuith a very positive evaluation of Israeli diversity, particularly as contrasted to the diversity of many Muslim countries. One thing that particularly stood out in her speech was her statement that Jerusalem, under an Orthodox Jewish mayor, plans on hosting one of the world's largest gay-pride events in 2005; no city in the Muslim world apparently lodged a bid in the international competition. Although she acknowledged that Israel had serious problems, she felt that its commitment to diversity gave it enough credibility to merit existence.

Manji then argued that the challenge for Muslims was not to unite to destroy it, as former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad suggested last year, but that they should try to emulate the spirit of free inquiry, of pluralism, and of freedom that Israel has achieved despite its difficult circumstances. She concluded by stating the universality of human rights, and their applicability beyond the West to all people--including, she was sure to mention, all Muslims.

I was pleased that all of the questions posed to her at the end of the session lacked the homophobia that often taints many critiques of her writing. I was impressed, for instance, by the young Iranian-Canadian man, a refugee from the Islamic Republic, who told of being educated to believe that the touch of a Jew was contaminatory, and mentioned how, after mentioning that he supported Israel's right to exist, he and his family received death threats for weeks. A Mi'kMaq woman gave a long and somewhat rambling speech, the gist of which was criticism of Canada's pluralism given continued problems for natives wanting to live traditional lifestyles; Manji responded well by pointing out broader societal differences, and the potential for greater pluralism in Canada's case. A girl of Near Eastern Christian descent asked Manji about Israel's responsibility in diminishing the ancient Christian presence in the Palestinian territories, by making life unbearable for them. And so on. I was quite proud of the Queen's community's maturity.

I do see some weaknesses with her argument, as presented Sunday night. (Keep in mind that I haven't read her entire book, only excerpts and various interviews.)

Firstly, there were two places in her speech were Manji didn't adequately explore Israel's problems with diversity:

  • Israel is a multilingual, multiethnic, multiracial, society almost beyond compare. That said, Israel does have continuing serious problems with its own domestic Arab minority which mar its commitment to diversity. The problems in the Palestinian territories have the serious potential of utterly ruining the whole Israeli project, if Israel continues to exercise a sort of negative sovereignty over the territories and alternative structures to deal with the Palestinian question aren't developed. Neither of these problems weakens her thesis. By mentioning them more emphatically, though, her case would have been stronger.

  • In her reply to the question of Christian emigration from the Palestinian territories, she seems to be false. The US State Department agrees that Christian Palestinian emigration is motivated mainly not by Islamic radicalism, but by deteriorating living conditions mostly directly relatable to the occupation. A case can be made that Israel is responsible for this diminution of diversity. However, Palestinian Christian emigration is only part of a wider trend in the Near East towards emigration, whether in comparatively stable Jordan, or in Lebanon and Syria with their ancient and substantial communities. Things, generally speaking, aren't good for many people in the Near East; Christians, though, are more likely to have relatives in the West than Muslims, and are likely to find assimilation easier than their non-Christian colinguals. Israel may be responsible for accelerating the trend in the case of the Palestinian territories, but it didn't start it.

Secondly, her mentioning of death threats levelled against her--including one particularly graphic example witnessed by a travelling companion at Trudeau Airport in Montréal--might have acted to make me more sympathetic to her arguments than I otherwise would be. I don't believe that it was a major factor, but I mention it out for the sake of completeness.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in talking about Islam, she didn't make it clear what kind of Islam she was talking about. The reforms she proposed--including, most prominently, a reawakening of a spirit of critical inquiry, free of threats or reprisals by conservatives, the enfranchisement of female autonomy through Gameen Bank-style microloans, literacy, and education in empowering verses of the Qu'ran--can be fitted into an Islamic tradition of critical thinking and female autonomy. If one is motivated to try. If one isn't motivated to try--and particularly if one doesn't think that any sort of Muslim should listen to a lesbian feminist Canadian of Ugandan Asian background--then these traits can readily be disregarded as Western imports if you're a religious conservative. Which, in a way, they are; had Manji's parents fled Idi Amin and went not to Canada, say, but Pakistan, she probably never would have experienced the intellectual and personal developments she did experience.

But then, there's always the things left unconsidered.

If Islam is, as many of its detractors claim, incapable by its very nature of adapting to principles of liberal individualism, then it must be noted that so is Catholicism. Just look at the Catholic Encyclopedia's explanation of the Catholic Church's official dogma on liberalism:

Usually, the principles of 1789, that is of the French Revolution, are considered as the Magna Charta of this new form of Liberalism. The most fundamental principle asserts an absolute and unrestrained freedom of thought, religion, conscience, creed, speech, press, and politics. The necessary consequences of this are, on the one hand, the abolition of the Divine right and of every kind of authority derived from God; the relegation of religion from the public life into the private domain of one's individual conscience; the absolute ignoring of Christianity and the Church as public, legal, and social institutions; on the other hand, the putting into practice of the absolute autonomy of every man and citizen, along all lines of human activity, and the concentration of all public authority in one "sovereignty of the people". This sovereignty of the people in all branches of public life as legislation, administration, and jurisdiction, is to be exercised in the name and by order of all the citizens, in such a way, that all should have share in and a control over it. A fundamental principle of Liberalism is the proposition: "It is contrary to the natural, innate, and inalienable right and liberty and dignity of man, to subject himself to an authority, the root, rule, measure, and sanction of which is not in himself". This principle implies the denial of all true authority; for authority necessarily presupposes a power outside and above man to bind him morally.

And yet, no one nowadays talks about how Catholic individuals, Catholic communities, and entire Catholic societies, are innately hostile to liberal democracy, or freedom of conscience, or women's rights, or gay rights. If anything, the reverse is true. This despite such things as the current pope striking alliances with Islamic conservatives against, well, a Western liberalism innately devoid of specifically Catholic moral content.


Quite simply, it's because Catholicism exists and thrives, as a great supranational culture, beyond whatever the organizational church. It's in the nature of any large-scale ideological system, once it leaves the tightly organized confines which produce it, to mutate. These ideologies come up against local traditions, against individual consciences, against other ideologies; and very rarely do they go unchallenged. Or, that is, very rarely do they go unchallenged in societies and polities where it is possible to challenge them, just a little at first, and not necessarily without significant personal suffering at first. But then, you see change, in one society after another: France, Belgium, central Europe, Québec, Italy, Spain, the Lusophone world, Ireland, one after another. To say nothing of what happened in Catholic minority enclaves. The end result? Andrew Sullivan can call himself Catholic and not be substantially wrong.

I find it very difficult to believe that in the absence of any coherent transnational institutional structure, or that many common dogmas, or much common culture, Islam will prove any more resistant to the pressure of people who want change. Islam is just as much a diverse supranational culture, existing in forms often quite variant from official dogmas, as Catholicism. The people who would misuse Islam to pressure women into wearing the hijab based on the lie that it's the only form of modest dress that Muslim women can wear, or the people who would misuse Islam to threaten people into voting for a particular political party, and misuse that ancient religion to oppose political reforms that a majority of the electorate might want, should be called on their misidentification of their civilization as something unitary and homogeneous. (Of course, this unitary homogeneity matches their vision precisely. Convenient, that.)

Islam isn't a monolith. Islam shouldn't be treated as a monolith, given the widely differing destinies of its diverse components. People from within that community who want to reveal this diversity, and fight against the people who'd like to suppress it all, should be aided. Including, even--or perhaps especially--people like Irshad Manji.

I enjoyed myself quite mightily.

NOTE, 2:22 AM : My client wouldn't allow me to put in links or much formatting, so I stripped all of it. I can provide the links on request; hopefully, I'll be able to fit them in when it actually works.

UPDATE: 2:24 AM : Coverage from another Queen's blogger here.

UPDATE: 5:13 PM : Hyperlinks added again. Go wild.
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