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Canadian Muslim Calls for More Critical Debate in Islam

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Rediscovering her faith has been a quest for . The Canadian Muslim calls herself a "refusenik," because she refuses to join what she calls 'an army of robots in the name of God.'

"The trouble with Islam today is that literalism is the mainstream worldwide," says Ms. Manji. "We, Muslims, even in the West, are routinely raised to believe that because the 'Koran' (Muslims' holy book) comes after the Torah and the Bible, historically and chronologically, it's the final and therefore the perfect manifesto of God's will. Even moderate Muslims embrace as an article of faith that Koran is not like any other holy book and none shall come after it. This is the supremacy complex."

Ms. Manji, 33, says that's a dangerous attitude. "Not because I believe that moderates will suddenly become radicals," she says. "No. This supremacy complex is dangerous because when abuse happens under the banner of Islam today, most Muslims -- even those of us with fancy titles and education -- don't know how to debate and dissent with radicals. That's not because we are stupid, it's because we've not yet been introduced to the possibility of asking questions about our Holy Book."

But that sort of dialogue is not unknown in the religion, and in her book, The Trouble with Islam Today, Ms. Manji calls for a new emphasis on Ijtihad to bring about reform. "Ijtihad," she says, "is Islam's tradition of independent thinking and independent reasoning. Ijtihad is all about critical debate."

In reviving this tradition, she suggests setting up a leadership center for young reform-minded Muslims. This center, she told VOA, would achieve many goals:

"(First,) help them get educated and develop the confidence of debate and dissent," she says. "Second, learn about the golden age of Islam when Muslims, Jews and Christians worked together in relative harmony. And finally, give these kids a physical space, in which they can network with one another face to face."

Irshad Manji suggests New York City as the ideal place to set up the leadership center. "We reach out (to) the first and second generation of immigrant Muslims," she says, "who in turn take what they're learning at the center and create conversations at their dinner tables, in their mosques, and in their madrasas (schools), so that real people are hearing these ideas. "

Ijtihad is a great Islamic concept that has always been practiced, according to Wahida Valiante, Vice President of the Canadian Islamic Congress. Adapting to the requirements of modern life has been an ongoing task for Muslims for the past 1400 years. And in that sense, she says, Irshad Manji's call for reform is not new.

"The Koran's message consistently says you read, reflect, understand and apply," Ms. Valiante says. "Using independent thought is part and parcel of Islam. This is the religious book, in which faith and rationality ultimately find a perfect fusion. So it really doesn't say that the interpretation of this book is carved in stone. It's guidance to people in history and society and it will be. So you need to reflect, renew and find new ways."

Ms. Valiante sees political conflicts as the real trigger of tensions between Muslims and followers of other religions. And to Ms. Manji's charge that women's rights have been violated in the name of Islam, she says social traditions, not the Koran, are to blame.

"I'm a North American woman," she adds. "I lived my entire life here and we fought very hard for our rights as women in this part of the world. What's wrong with the Muslim women? They should get up out there and fight for their rights. If they choose not to, you can't blame the Koran and say what's wrong with this book. There is something wrong with those who are practicing it."

Confusing social traditions and political decisions with religious values is a dangerous approach that, Ms. Valiante says, will not solve today's problems. She says the title of Ms. Manji's book, The Trouble with Islam Today, puts the blame in the wrong place.

"If she had written a book saying, you know, 'The problem with the Muslims. I'd say, 'Wow, Irshad, thank you so much, you've done a great job,'" Ms. Valiante says. "But she's going after a text book, which provides guidance for the last 1400 years and will continue to do so, based on our understanding of what it's saying."

Irshad Manji welcomes the debate. She says everyone has the right to express his or her ideas, and everybody else has the right to accept or disagree.

"Two weeks after the book came out in Canada," Ms. Manji says, " my mother went to the mosque. She fully expected criticism and she got it from the Imam who gave a 'Khutba' -the sermon- about why Irshad Manji is worse than Bin Laden. Afterwards, she got something she didn't expect, individual members of the congregation coming up to her to say, 'I've read Irshad's book and what she's saying absolutely needs to be expressed.' They didn't say, 'we agree with everything she's written.' Even my mom didn't agree with everything I've written. That's fine."

Ms. Manji says today's technologies make it easy for her to reach young Muslims around the world, spread her ideas and receive feedback. Positive or negative, she says, it doesn't matter. What matters to Irshad Manji, is that she practiced her religious right as a Muslim to think, ask questions, and initiate debate.

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