How I Became a Muslim Refusenik
By Irshad Manji
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Manji, winner of Oprah’s first Chutzpah Award, directs the Moral
Courage Project at New York University. Her New York Times
Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith in
Her Faith (St. Martin’s Press), is published in more than 30
languages. In countries that ban her book, Manji reaches readers
by posting free translations on her
website. The Arabic, Urdu and Persian editions have been
downloaded nearly 1.5 million times. Manji’s Emmy-nominated PBS
documentary, “Faith Without Fear,” is also being watched in the
Muslim underground worldwide. Irshad Manji is currently writing
her next book: a leadership guide to advance the 21st-century
reformation within Islam. Join her Facebook
community and follow her on Twitter.
This excerpt from The Trouble with Islam Today
consists of two parts: “The Letter,” which is Manji’s opening appeal
to her fellow Muslims, and “How I Became a Muslim Refusenik,” which
reveals the struggles of a young Muslim girl to reconcile her love
of Allah with her love of freedom. All claims are substantiated
Believers! Conduct yourselves with
justice and bear true witness,
even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your kin.
My Fellow Muslims,
I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very
thin ice with me. I'm hanging on by my fingernails, in anxiety
over what's coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of
When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by
the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment. Don't
you? I hear from a Saudi friend that his country's religious police
arrest women for wearing red on Valentine's Day, and I think: Since
when does a merciful God outlaw joy—or fun? I read about victims
of rape being stoned for "adultery," and I wonder how
a critical mass of us can stay stone silent.
When non-Muslims beg us to speak up, I hear you
gripe that we shouldn't have to explain the behavior of other Muslims.
Yet when we're misunderstood, we fail to see that it's precisely
because we haven't given people a reason to think differently about
us. On top of that, when I speak publicly about our failings, the
very Muslims who detect stereotyping at every turn then stereotype
me as a sellout. A sellout to what? To moral clarity? To common
decency? To civilization?
Yes, I'm blunt. You're just going to have to get
used to it. In this letter, I'm asking questions from which we
can no longer hide. Why are we all being held hostage by what's
happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? What's with
the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam? Who is the real
colonizer of Muslims—America or Arabia? Why are we squandering
the talents of women, fully half of God's creation? How can we
be so sure that homosexuals deserve ostracism—or death—when the
Koran states that everything God made is "excellent"?
Of course, the Koran states more than that, but what's our excuse
for reading the Koran literally when it's so contradictory and
Is that a heart attack you're having? Make it fast.
Because if we don't speak out against the imperialists within Islam,
these guys will walk away with the show. And their path leads to
a dead end of more vitriol, more violence, more poverty, more exclusion.
Is this the justice we seek for the world that God has leased to
us? If it's not, then why don't more of us say so publicly?
What I do hear from you is that Muslims are the
targets of backlash. In France, Muslims have actually taken an
author to court for calling Islam "the most stupid religion." Apparently,
he's inciting hate. So we assert our rights—something most of us
wouldn't have in Islamic countries. But is the French guy wrong
to write that Islam needs to grow up? What about the Koran's incitement
of hate against Jews? Shouldn't Muslims who invoke the Koran to
justify anti-Semitism be themselves open to a lawsuit? Or would
this amount to more "backlash"? What makes us righteous
and everybody else racist?
Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous
silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We're in
crisis, and we're dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever
there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it's now. For the
love of God, what are we doing about it?
You may wonder who I am to talk to you this way.
I am a Muslim Refusenik. That doesn't mean I refuse to be a Muslim;
it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name
of Allah. I take this phrase from the original refuseniks—Soviet
Jews who championed religious and personal freedom. Their communist
masters refused to let them emigrate to Israel. For their attempts
to leave the Soviet Union, many refuseniks paid with hard labor
and, sometimes, with their lives. Over time, though, their persistent
refusal to comply with the mechanisms of mind control and soullessness
helped end a totalitarian system. Likewise, I tip my hat to the
newer refuseniks—Israeli soldiers who protest the military occupation
of the West Bank and Gaza. In the same spirit of conscientious
dissent, we've got to protest the ideological occupation of Muslim
minds. The trouble with Islam today is that Muslims have taken
literalism mainstream, worldwide.
You'll want to assure me that what I'm describing
isn't "true" Islam. I hope you're right. That's why I'm
writing this open letter -- because I believe that we Muslims are
capable of being more thoughtful and humane than most of our clerics
give us credit for. But for the sake of an honest discussion, I
have to challenge you to come clean about the Islam that you reflexively
defend. Is this Islam in its real form or Islam as an ideal?
Let's face it, everything is wonderful as an ideal.
Communism is egalitarian as an ideal. Capitalism is fair as an
ideal. The United States Constitution guarantees liberty and justice
for all, as an ideal. Muslims know that the reality is very different.
As people of conscience, we have to address Islam's realities too.
I think the Prophet Muhammad would have embraced
this distinction between the real and the ideal. When he was asked
to define religion, he reportedly replied that religion is the
way we conduct ourselves toward others. A fine definition – simple
without being simplistic. And yet, by that definition, how we Muslims
behave, not in theory but in actuality, is Islam. Which means our
complacency is Islam. It also means the power is ours to restore
Islam's better angels, those who care about the human rights of
women and religious minorities. To do that, though, we have to
snap out of our denial. By insisting that there's nothing the matter
with Islam, we're sweeping the reality of our religion today under
the rug of Islam as an ideal, thereby absolving ourselves of responsibility
for our fellow human beings, including our fellow Muslims. See
why I'm struggling?
By writing this open letter, I'm not implying that
other religions are problem-free. Hardly. The difference is, libraries
abound in books about the trouble with Christianity. There's no
shortage of books about the trouble with Judaism. We Muslims have
a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department.
Whose permission are we waiting for?
HOW I BECAME A MUSLIM
Like millions of Muslims over the last forty years, my
family immigrated to the West. We arrived in Richmond, a middleclass
suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972. I was four years
old. Between 1971 and 1973, thousands of South Asian Muslims
fled Uganda after the military dictator, General Idi Amin Dada,
proclaimed Africa to be for the blacks. He gave those of us with
brown skin mere weeks to leave or die. Muslims had spent lifetimes
in East Africa thanks to the British, who brought us from South
Asia to help lay the railways in their African colonies. Within
a few generations, many Muslims rose to the rank of well-off
merchants. My father and his brothers ran a Mercedes-Benz dealership
near Kampala, benefiting from the class mobility that the British
bequeathed to us but that we, in turn, rarely granted to the
native blacks whom we employed.
In the main, the Muslims of East Africa treated
blacks like slaves. I remember my father beating Tomasi, our domestic,
hard enough to raise shiny bruises on his pitch-dark limbs. Although
my two sisters, my mother, and I loved Tomasi, we too would be
pummeled if my dad caught us tending to his injuries. I knew this
to be happening in many more Muslim households than mine, and the
bondage continued well after my family left. That's why, as a teenager,
I turned down the opportunity to visit relatives in East Africa. "If
I go with you," I warned my mother,
"you know I'll have to ask your fat aunties and uncles why they practically
enslave their servants." Mum meant the trip to be a good-bye to aging
relations, not a human rights campaign. In order to avoid embarrassing her,
I stayed home.
While Mum was away, I thought more about what it
means be "home." I decided that home is where my dignity
lives, not necessarily where my ancestors put down roots. That's
when it dawned on me why the postcolonial fever of pan-Africanism
-- "Africa for the blacks!" -- swept the continent on
which I was born. Many Muslims made dignity difficult for people
darker than us. We callously exploited native Africans. And please
don't tell me that we learned colonial ruthlessness from the British
because that begs the question: Why didn't we also learn to make
room for entrepreneurial blacks as the Brits had made room for
I don't apologize for being offended by slavery.
Most of you, I'm sure, oppose servitude, too. But it wasn't Islam
that fostered my belief in the dignity of every individual. It
was the democratic environment to which my family and I migrated:
Richmond, where even a little Muslim girl can be engaged -- and
I don't mean for marriage. Let me explain.
A couple of years after the family settled down,
Dad discovered free baby-sitting services at Rose of Sharon Baptist
Church. (Say "free" to an immigrant and religious affiliations
take a backseat to the bargain at hand.) Every week, when Mum left
the house to sell Avon products door to door, my less-than-child-friendly
father dumped the kids at church.
There, the South Asian lady who supervised Bible
study showed me and my older sister the same patience she displayed
with her own son. She made me believe my questions were worth asking.
Obviously, the questions I posed as a seven-year-old could only
be simple ones. Where did Jesus come from? When did he live? What
was his job? Who did he marry? These queries didn't put anyone
on the spot, but my point is that the act of asking -- and asking
some more -- always met with an inviting smile.
Maybe that's what motivated me, at age eight, to
win the Most Promising Christian of the Year Award. My prize: a
brightly illustrated edition of 101 Bible Stories. I look back
now and thank God I wound up in a world where the Koran didn't
have to be my first and only book, as if it's the lone richness
that life offers to believers. Besides, 101 Bible Stories riveted
me with its pictures. What would 101 Koran Stories look like? At
the time, I hadn't seen such a thing. Today, there's no dearth
of children's books about Islam, including A Is for Allah, by Yusuf
Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). Free societies allow for the reinvention
of self and the evolution of faiths.
Shortly after I earned the title of Most Promising
Christian, Dad plucked me out of the church. A madressa, or Islamic
religious school, would soon be constructed. This little geek couldn't
wait. If my Sunday school experience was any barometer, the madressa
would be fun, or so I innocently assumed.
Meanwhile, my new world was growing up with me.
A sprawling mall that would be pivotal in my education as a Muslim,
Lansdowne Centre, opened. The names of Richmond's founding Scots,
emblazoned on outdoor signs -- Brighouse, McNair, Burnett, Steveston
-- soon jostled for attention with words in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu,
Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese. These languages blanketed
the interior of Aberdeen Centre, built several years later and
billed as "the largest enclosed Asian-themed shopping plaza
in North America."
Well before then, it struck me that a place like
Richmond could accommodate just about anybody who expressed initiative.
In the tenth grade, I ran for student body president at J.N. Burnett
Junior High School. The year before, I'd lost my bid to become
homeroom representative, the deciding vote being cast by a grungy
twerp who didn't want a "Paki" in charge of his classroom.
Only a year later, a majority of students in the whole school made
this Paki their duly elected leader. In Richmond, racism didn't
have to fence my ambitions any more than race itself had to define
A few months after I became student body president,
the vice-principal of my school was strolling past my locker and
stopped dead when he glimpsed the poster of Iranian revolutionaries
that I had taped inside. Sent to me by an uncle in France, the
poster depicted women in black chadors smashing the wings of an
airplane. The left wing had the Soviet hammer and sickle painted
on it and the right wing sported the U.S. stars and stripes.
"This isn't appropriate," he cautioned
me. "Take it down."
I pointed to the next locker over, whose door had
an American flag hanging from it. "If she can express her
opinion openly," I asked, "why can't I?"
"Because you're trivializing our democratic
values. And as president of all students, you should know better."
I confess to not realizing that Ayatollah Khomeini's
regime oozed totalitarianism. I hadn't done my homework. Seduced
partly by propaganda and partly by the pride of living in a free
society, I wanted to advocate diversity of opinion so that the
Star-Spangled Banner wouldn't strangle other perspectives. So I
argued. "I'm trivializing democracy? How is it that you're
supporting democracy by telling me that I can't express myself,
but," pointing to the flag-draped locker, "somebody else
We stared at each other. "You're setting a
bad example," the vice-principal said. He stiffened his back
and walked away.
You've got to credit him for letting diversity
of opinion survive at Burnett Junior High. It's all the more admirable
given his own embrace of evangelical Christianity. He didn't veil
his personal beliefs, but neither did he foist them on the students
– not when the student council president appeared to be a booster
of Khomeini's theocracy, and not even when the students lobbied
for school shorts that revealed more leg than our vice-principal
thought reasonable. After a heated debate with us and a few strategic
delays, he okayed the shorts, bristling but still respecting popular
How many Muslim evangelicals do you know who tolerate
the expression of viewpoints that distress their souls? Of course,
my vice-principal had to bite his tongue in the public school system,
but such a system can only emerge from a consensus that people
of different faiths, backgrounds, aspirations, and stations ought
to tussle together. How many Muslim countries tolerate such a tussle?
Lord, I loved this society. I loved that it seemed
perpetually unfinished, the final answers not yet known -- if ever
they would be. I loved that, in a world under constant renovation,
the contributions of individuals mattered.
But at home, my father's ready fist ensured his
family's obedience to an arbitrary domestic drill. Don't laugh
at dinner. When I steal your savings, shut up. When I kick your
ass, remember, it'll be harder next time. When I pound your mother,
don't call the police. If they show up, I'll charm them into leaving,
and you know they will. The moment they're gone, I’ll slice off
your ear. If you threaten to alert social services, I'll amputate
your other ear.
The one time my father chased me through the house
with a knife, I managed to fly out of my bedroom window and spend
the night on the roof. My mum had no idea of my situation because
she was working the graveyard shift at an airline company. Just
as well; I'm not sure I would have crawled down for any promise
of safety she might have offered. For the same reason that I liked
my school and Rose of Sharon Baptist Church and, years later, Aberdeen
Centre, I liked the roof. From each of these perches, I could survey
a world of open-ended possibility.
In the East African Muslim community from which
I came, would I have been allowed to dream of a formal education?
Of landing scholarships? Of participating in political races, never
mind holding office? To judge by the grainy black-and-white photos
that showed me, at age three, playing a bride with her head covered,
hands folded, eyes downcast, and legs dangling from the sofa, I
can only guess that unremitting subservience would have been my
lot if we'd stayed in the confines of Muslim Uganda.
The bigger question is this: Why did the Richmond
madressa, set up by immigrants to this land of rights and freedoms,
choose autocracy? From age nine to age fourteen, I spent every
Saturday there. Classes took place on the upper floor of the newly
built mosque, which resembled a mammoth suburban house more than
it did Middle Eastern architecture. Inside, however, you got stern
Islam through and through.
Men and women entered the mosque by different doors
and planted themselves on the correct sides of an immovable wall
that cut the building in half, quarantining the sexes during worship.
Set in this wall was a door that connected the men's and women's
sides. This came in handy after services, when men would demand
more food from the communal kitchen by thrusting their bowls through
the door, banging on the wall and waiting mere seconds for a woman's
arm to thrust back the replenished bowls. In the mosque, men never
had to see women, and women never had to be seen. If that isn't
the definition of assigning us small lives, then I'm missing something
One flight up was the madressa, with its depressing
decor of burnt-brown rugs, fluorescent lights, and portable partitions
that separated the girls from the boys. Wherever classes congregated
within the wide expanse of that room, a partition would tag along.
Worse was the partition between mind and soul. In my Saturday classes
I learned that if you're spiritual, you don't think. If you think,
you're not spiritual. This facile equation rubbed up against the
exhilarating curiosity in me that Richmond indulged. Call it my
personal clash of civilizations.
The solution wasn't simply to accept that there's
a secular world and a non-secular one, and that each has its ways
of being. By that logic, the decidedly non-secular Rose of Sharon
Baptist Church should have quashed my questions. Instead, my curiosity
brought me praise there. At Burnett Junior High, a secular school,
my questions bugged the bejeezus out of my vice-principal but nobody
shut me down. In both places, the dignity of the individual prevailed.
Not so at my madressa. I entered its premises wearing
a white polyester chador and departed several hours later with
my hair flattened and my spirit deflated, as if the condom over
my head had properly inoculated me from "unsafe" intellectual
Before airing more dirty laundry, let me be fair
to my madressa teacher -- we'll call him Mr. Khaki. He was as sincere
a Muslim as they come. This bony brother with a finely trimmed
beard (signifying cleanliness) and a Honda Mini Compact (indicating
modesty) volunteered his services each weekend (proving charity)
to give the children of Muslim immigrants the religious education
that they might otherwise forfeit to the promiscuity of values
in a multicultural country. No easy task, since the madressa attracted
students from across the age spectrum: self-conscious pre-pubescents
struggling with acne, giggly types who took cover in the bathroom,
adolescents sprouting moustaches -- and that's just the girls.
I'm kidding . . . sort of.
Most of us saw the madressa not so much as a place
of learning, but as a pond from which to fish out our future mates.
Because mouthy chicks don't get husbands, my girlfriends rarely
argued with Mr. Khaki. So what was my problem? Didn't I want to
be somebody's wife someday? Don't get me started. My problem was
this: Enamored of that multilayered world beyond the madressa,
I insisted on being educated rather than indoctrinated.
The trouble began with Know Your Islam, the primer
that I packed in my madressa bag every week. After reading it,
I needed to know more about "my" Islam. Why must girls
observe the essentials, such as praying five times a day, at an
earlier age than boys? Because, Mr. Khaki told me, girls mature
sooner. They reach the "obligatory age" of practice at
nine compared to thirteen for boys.
"Then why not reward girls for our maturity
by letting us lead prayer?" I asked.
"Girls can't lead prayer."
"What do you mean?"
"Girls aren't permitted."
"Allah says so."
"What's His reason?"
"Read the Koran."
I tried, though it felt artificial since I didn't
know Arabic. Do I see you nodding your head? Most Muslims have
no clue what we're saying when we're reciting the Koran in Arabic.
It's not that we're obtuse. Rather, Arabic is one of the world's
most rhythmic languages, and weekly lessons at the madressa simply
don't let us grasp its intricacies. Haram, for instance, can refer
to something forbidden or something sacred, depending on which "a" you
stress. Forbidden versus sacred: We're not talking subtle shifts
in meaning here.
To the inherent challenges of this language, add
the realities of life. In my case, a violent father who practiced
religion mostly for show and a mother who did her best to be devout
while striving to sustain a household on shift work. You can appreciate
why Arabic study failed to rate as a family priority. Frankly,
Mr. Khaki's stock reply to my questions -- "Read the Koran" --
fell about as flat as my chador-chastened hair.
Over time, this read-the-Koran response generated
more questions: Why should I perpetuate the fib of reciting Arabic
if it makes no practical sense and strikes no emotional chord?
Why must we suspect that every English translation of the Koran "corrupts" the
original text? I mean, if the Koran is as straightforward as the
purists tell us, then aren't its teachings easily translated into
a thousand tongues? Finally, why should stigma stalk those of us
who haven't been weaned on Arabic when the fact is that no more
than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs? Translation: At
least 80 percent of us aren't Arabs. "Know Your Islam," they
say blithely. Whose Islam? Is this a faith or a cult?
All right, time-out.
Let's pick up my original question to Mr. Khaki:
Why can't girls lead prayer? Figuring that the Koran's answer would
be repeated in some other book I might have a prayer of understanding,
I attempted to access the madressa's library. What a production
to arrange that trip. The library was a series of racks situated
at the top of the stairs on the men's side of the mosque -- off-limits
to ladies without advance approval.
Being eleven years old and of "obligatory
age," I couldn't consort with adult males. So I had to persuade
a boy under the obligatory age -- twelve or younger -- to run upstairs
on my behalf and secure permission for me any time I wanted to
browse. Assuming I got the green light, all the men had to clear
the area before I could ascend the stairs and pick through the
collection of cheap brochures in the racks. Of course, my time
was severely restricted since the men were waiting to return to
I managed to borrow a few pamphlets each time,
but their contents were so hard to follow, I don't know where their
authors went to school. Two years of getting the runaround inside
the mosque proved fruitless. At thirteen, I realized that I'd have
to circumvent Mr. Khaki and the madressa in order to have my question
addressed. I became a mall-rat.
My mission? To track down an English language Koran.
Lansdowne Centre delivered, may God bless my town's bazaar of beliefs.
Freedom of information might have frightened Mr. Khaki, but it
was exactly this freedom that allowed one of his students to find
more meaning in her religion – a meaning the madressa wouldn't
What did I learn about why girls can't lead prayer?
I can't tell you right now. Because even if mullahs and madressa
teachers supply pat answers, the Koran doesn't. What I can tell
you is that in between elections, drama rehearsals, part-time jobs,
volleyball practices -- up to, into, and beyond university -- I
made my way through the scripture with the "woman question" top
of mind. I'm still reading. To divulge my conclusions at this point
would be to leapfrog into my adult life. First, I have to deal
with something else.
The Jews. It's the other question that perturbed
me during my madressa years because the Jews came in for a regular
tarring. Mr. Khaki taught us with a straight face that Jews worship
moolah, not Allah, and that their idolatry would pollute my piety
if I hung out with them. What planet, I wondered, did Mr. Khaki
inhabit? Was he willfully blind to our surroundings? Richmond,
a below-sea-level suburb, was more likely to drown in Asian commercial
influence than to become submerged by any mountain of money the
Jews could stockpile. If Richmond had even one synagogue at the
time, I didn't know about it.
Then again, maybe I was an agent of their shadowy
power, because I certainly managed to disrupt Mr. Khaki's passionate
history lessons with questions about Jews. I remember asking why
the Prophet Muhammad would have commanded his army to kill an entire
Jewish tribe when the Koran supposedly came to him as a message
of peace. Mr. Khaki couldn't cope. He shot me a look of contempt,
gave an annoyed wave of the hand, and cut short history class,
only to hold Koran study next. Me and my big mouth.
A year after I bought my English-language Koran,
Mr. Khaki and I reached an impasse. Nothing I had read so far convinced
me of a Jewish conspiracy. Granted, a year is scarcely enough time
to digest the Koran and, at fourteen, there's a lot of mental maturing
still to do. I couldn't quite brush off Mr. Khaki's anti-Semitic
harangues. Who was I to decide he was full of bunk until I had
all the evidence? So I challenged him to provide proof of the Jewish
plot. What he provided was an ultimatum: Either you believe or
get out. And if you get out, get out for good.
Really? That's it?
With my temples throbbing and my neck sweating
under the itchy polyester chador, I stood up. As I crossed the
partition checkpoint, I could have uncovered my head for all the
boys to see, but I didn't want to risk the humiliation of being
chased out by an even more scandalized Mr. Khaki. All I could think
to do was fling open the madressa's hefty metal door and yell, "Jesus
Christ!" A memorable exit, I hoped. Only later would I realize
just how memorable. Jesus was a Jew!
ARE YOU WONDERING WHY, after my expulsion from
the madressa, I didn't damn the whole religion and get on with
celebrating my "emancipated" North American self? In
part, the imperative of identity kicked in. You know what I'm driving
at. Most of us Muslims aren't Muslims because we think about it,
but rather because we're born that way. It's "who we are."
My madressa meltdown embarrassed my mum, yet she'd
lived with me too long to believe she could order me to grovel
for Mr. Khaki's forgiveness. Not a chance. Nor did she force me
to go to the mosque with her. For a couple of years, though, I
actually did. It was the one place that remained open to me on
the map of my fragile Muslim-hood. I loved God, and I wasn't about
to punish the mosque for the sins of the madressa -- until it gradually
sank in that the madressa I loathed was an extension of the mosque.
Attending the mosque might have allowed me to identify as a Muslim,
but it also obliged me to sacrifice that other, equally sacred,
part of my identity: thinker.
Let me tell you another story. Among Islam's five
pillars is charity. So a buzz of approval permeated the air one
evening when the loudspeaker on the women's side of the mosque,
blaring the voice of the mullah on the men's side of the mosque,
announced a drive to raise money for our Muslim brothers and sisters
overseas. We were to have our checks ready in a few days.
During that interval, I asked a member of the ladies'
auxiliary where the money would be sent. She mentioned an Islamic
organization with a clunky name. I asked her what the funds would
be used for. To feed our fellow Muslims, she replied. Recalling
TV news stories about fraud charges against Christian charities,
I asked how we'd know that the money would end up where we intended. "It's
going to Muslims," she snapped. "That's all you need
Do you buy it? I didn't. My quarrel wasn't with
alms-giving, but with information-hoarding. Why should I rest easy
merely because people who call themselves Muslims will have my
donation? Is it that by virtue of being a Muslim, every Muslim
is, well, virtuous? Talk about faith. Where was the crime in my
queries? Or were the queries themselves the crime?
My beleaguered mother didn't appear altogether
shocked when I explained that I couldn't add to the family's donation
because, really, who cares what religion a hungry person is, and
besides, I was wary about the scheme being sold to us. Instead,
I said, my alms would go to a non-religious charity whose credentials
I would research.
The more the mosque felt like the madressa, the
less I attended. I started to decentralize my faith, cultivating
a personal relationship with God rather than assuming it had to
be mediated through a congregation. In that spirit, I prayed in
solitude. Every day for years, I'd wake up early and shiver my
way into an unheated bathroom -- my refugee mother believed in
low bills as much as in a higher power. After washing my feet,
arms, and face, I'd unfurl my velvet rug in the hallway, position
it toward Mecca, lay down the piece of Iraqi clay that my
forehead would touch, and spend the next ten minutes praying. It's
a discipline-building exercise, especially since you cleanse yourself
two more times a day, and utter four more sets of prayers.
Still, the entire exercise of washing prescribed
parts of the body, reciting specified verses, and prostrating at
a non-negotiable angle, all at assigned times of the day, can degenerate
into mindless submission -- and habitual submissiveness. If you
haven't seen this tendency in your parents or grandparents, you're
some rare Muslim, my friend. I realized that what began as a guide
to godliness had become rote, compelling me to replace my prayer "routine" with
something more self-aware: candid, unstructured conversations with
my Creator throughout the day. It may sound flaky, but at least
I can say those words were my own.
It wouldn't have been a much greater leap at that
point to renounce Islam wholesale and walk away from my Muslim
identity. You know what stopped me? A devotion to fairness. I've
always believed in giving Islam a fair shake because, to my Enlightenment
sensibility, merit ought to matter. I needed to discover Islam's
personality instead of its posturing.
An analogy: When I was thirteen or so, my mother
urged me to make nice with an obnoxious cousin. "She's family," Mum
reasoned. "She's our blood." I retorted that blood meant
nothing to me. The relevant question was whether I would choose
to be her friend at school if we weren't related. With a personality
like that, forget it. To expend energy "liking" my cousin
would be a charade, and I had better things to do with my time.
Although Mum understood, she didn't agree. For her, family took
precedence. For me, lineage didn't equal merit. Personality did.
I brought the same standard to religion. In order
to decide whether I should practice Islam, I had to discover its
merits – or lack of them. And I had to discover this for myself,
replacing the mosque and its programmed pieties with my own quest
for the personality of Islam. Maybe the Koran really does dehumanize
Jews and subjugate women. Or maybe Mr. Khaki was a lousy teacher.
Maybe God commands that everyone speak Arabic.
Or maybe that's a man-made rule to keep most Muslims dependent
Maybe diverging from the spiritual script insults
the Almighty. Or maybe we pay tribute to Allah's creative powers
when we use our own. I didn't know. But without exploring the alternative,
walking away would have felt like running away.
The good news is, I knew I lived in a part of the
world that permitted me to explore. Thanks to the freedoms afforded
me in the West -- to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge,
be challenged, and rethink -- I was poised to judge my religion
in a light that I couldn't have possibly conceived in the parochial
Muslim microcosm of the madressa. No need to choose between Islam
and the West. On the contrary, the West made it possible for me
to choose Islam, however tentatively. It was up to Islam to retain
I DIDN'T OBSESS ABOUT RELIGION, but every now and
again, a question would pop up, and I hunted for answers in the
only place I thought might have some. Picture it: The public library
in the pre-Internet period of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of
what I'd read about Islam exuded a textbook tone. Lots of reference,
Then, on February 14, 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini
declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic
Verses. This "unfunny Valentine," as Rushdie would later
call the fatwa, demanded of Westerners more than a collective tiptoe
around theocracy. Many people in the West did take a stand against
the death warrant and I'd be disingenuous to deny that. But the
commentaries I tracked down at the public library seemed satisfied
with merely explaining Muslim outrage; they steered away from asking
if the Koran is as virgin, as divine, as the effigy-burners would
have us believe. What happened to the religiously respectful yet
intellectually messy West I'd fallen in love
with? Was multiculturalism losing its mind?
In a crucial sense, I think so. I say this because
my trips to the library coincided with the era of Edward Said.
He was the Arab-American intellectual who, in 1979, used the word
“orientalism” to describe the West's supposed tendency to colonize
Muslims by demonizing us as exotic freaks of the East. A compelling
theory, but doesn't it speak volumes that the "imperialist" West
published, distributed, and promoted Said's book, Orientalism?
Within a decade, Said was all the rage among young
academics-turned-activists in North America and Europe. Their worship
of him effectively stifled other ideas about Islam. By the time
Salman Rushdie came out with The Satanic Verses, Said's acolytes
stood ready to denounce as "orientialist" (read: racist)
just about anything that affronted mainstream Muslims. In my experience,
the public library didn't escape this chill.
I began to regain faith, in both the West and Islam,
after the mid-1990s. Praise Allah for the Internet. With the Web
making self-censorship less relevant -- someone else is bound to
say what you won't -- it became the place where intellectual risk-takers
finally exhaled. They reasserted what makes the West a fierce if
imperfect incubator of ideas: its love of discovery, including
discovery of its own biases.
And as the critics probed Islam, I picked up on
some jaw-dropping aspects of my religion. How many Muslims know
the degree to which Islam is a gift of the Jews? The unity of God's
creation, the inherent and often mysterious justice of God, our
innate capacity, as God's creatures, to choose good, the purposefulness
of our earthly lives, the infinity of the afterlife -- these and
other biggies of monotheism came to Muslims via Judaism. This discovery
astounded me because it suggested that Muslims need not be steeped
in anti-Semitism. If anything, we have reason to be grateful rather
than hateful to Jews.
Nor, until educating myself, did I appreciate that
Muslims worship exactly the same God as do the Jews and the Christians.
The Koran affirms this fact. Truth is, though, I had to read a
recent book by religion scholar Karen Armstrong before that point
penetrated my madressa-molded mind. (What can I tell you? Deprogramming
is a many-splendored thing.)
Armstrong emphasizes that the Prophet Muhammad
didn't claim to introduce a new God to the entire world. His personal
mission was to bring Arabs into the "rightly guided" family
of Abraham, the first prophet to receive the revelation that there's
one sovereign God. Growing up, I never heard Abraham's name in
a history lesson. A glaring omission, given that Abraham's progeny
went on to found the Jewish nation. Being the debut monotheists,
Jews laid the groundwork for Christians and, later, for Muslims
to emerge. So, you see, Muslims didn't invent one God; we renamed
Him Allah. That's Arabic for "The God"—the God of Jews
Where in the madressa curriculum was that acknowledgment?
It's as if nothing happened before Islam. Yet, if all pre- Islamic
experience counts for naught, then so must a slew of our principles
as Muslims. If more of us knew that Islam is the product of intermingling
histories, as opposed to a wholly original way of life -- if we
understood that we're spiritual mongrels – wouldn’t more of us
be willing to accept the "other"?
I began to wonder why we're so reluctant to acknowledge
outside influences, except when blaming the West for assorted colonial
injuries. Which, in turn, raised a fundamental question: Is Islam
more narrow-minded than the rest of the world's religions?
There's a party-wrecker of a topic. From university
on, whenever people did agree to a discussion about Islam's intolerant
bent, they would caution me not to confuse religion with culture. "Stoning
women has everything to do with tribal customs and nothing to do
with Islam," tutored one woman at a dinner. I remained a skeptic.
If Islam is flexible, then Muslims can adapt it for good and not
only for ill, right? So why didn't anything about my mosque resemble
Richmond's democracy -- the very democracy that allowed Muslims
to erect a mosque there? I came full-circle. Muslims are, indeed,
the trouble with Islam today.
It wasn't just the modern Muslim in me who had
to wrestle with these issues. My career as a TV journalist and
commentator placed me on the front line of the public's own questions
about Islam. Having seen my face in their living rooms, average
folks feel no hesitation about approaching me in shops, restaurants,
and subway cars to voice a basic concern: If you're going to be
a beard-busting, chador-defying Muslim, God help and save you.
But as long you choose to stick with Islam, how do you account
for so much bigotry under its banner?
More precisely, they've asked, "Are you allowed
to be a Muslim and a
“What does it take to turn a devout Muslim into
a suicide bomber?”
“Why aren't more Muslims speaking up? Why aren’t
you afraid to speak up?"
And, "How come I've never heard a joke about
a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah?"
Since getting hit with that last stumper, I've
done some serious digging, and I think I've gained an insight.
Permit me a quick diversion.
Islam has a popular teaching against "excessive
laughter." No joke. In a booklet titled Problems and Solutions,
Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid spells out the teaching. While "the
Muslim is not expected to be dour-faced," an abundance of
laughter proves that we Muslims have been manipulated by charm
and wit, which softens our character and piety.
I recall an uncle lovingly but firmly warning me
one New Year's Eve not to laugh too hard as doom would be sure
to follow. Here's where my uncle and the sheikh lose me: If the
black magic of laughter is so offensive, why isn't the hypnotic,
lyrical effect of the Arabic language, recited aloud, also frowned
Given that I glimpsed this silly side of Islam
because of someone's expressed hope for a punch line involving
a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah, I have to say that I love the
curiosity of the public. For years, that curiosity has nourished
my own. The more opportunities I've seized to be in the spotlight,
getting noisy about this social problem or that global trend, the
more I've needed outsiders to keep me on my toes about why I bother
associating with a faith that beats at the center of so much international
turmoil and individual torment. People are right to ask. Two questions,
in particular, have rocked my world -- both for the better, but
neither without pain.
The first question is, "How do you reconcile
homosexuality with Islam?" I'm openly lesbian. I choose to
be "out" because, having matured in a miserable household
under a father who despised joy, I'm not about to sabotage the
consensual love that offers me joy as an adult. I met my first
girlfriend in my twenties and, weeks afterwards, told my mother
about the relationship.
She responded like the wonderful parent she is. So the question
of whether I could be a Muslim and a lesbian at the same time barely
unsettled me. That was religion. This was happiness. I knew which
one I needed more.
I carried on, intermittently studying Islam, learning
the fine art of sustaining relationships with women (which is another
book unto itself), producing television programs, and generally
living the multi-directional life of a twenty-something in North
America. As my TV work made me a more visible public figure, my
hope of reconciling homosexuality with Islam evolved into a preoccupation.
Viewers wanted me to justify my improbable combination of identities.
I was plunged into a serious bout of introspection, even flirting
with the possibility of finally giving up Islam for the sake of
love. Hey, what better motive is there to sacrifice anything?
But each time I reached the brink of excommunicating
myself, I pulled back. Not out of fear. Out of fairness -- to myself.
One question begged for more thought: If the all-knowing, all-powerful
God didn't wish to make me a lesbian, then why didn't He make someone
else in my place?
Hostile challenges to "explain myself" became
a near daily occurrence after 1998. That year, I started hosting
QueerTelevision, an unprecedented TV and Internet series about
gay and lesbian cultures. The show was about people, not porn,
and yet avowed Muslims joined Christian fundamentalists in petitioning
against my presence on their screens. In truth, I expected nothing
less. But was I naive to expect a little more -- conversation instead
of mere condemnation?
Believe me, I tried to do the dialogue thing. As
a lover of diversity, including diversity of perspectives, I never
trashed my detractors' missives. In fact, I regularly aired them
on the program. An example:
I am writing to inform you that the one and only real God, the
God of the Bible, makes it painfully clear that all Sodomites (meaning
'homosexuals' or like deviants) have forsaken their humanity for
their deranged, perverted, evil lusts. Thereby they have become
abominations, no longer human, and are to be executed immediately
according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy…
The many Muslims who called and e-mailed QueerTelevision
agreed with these Christians. (Except for the part about the one
and only real God belonging strictly to the Bible.) Yet not a single
Muslim addressed my counter-challenge, my repeated stab at conversation:
How can the Koran at once denounce homosexuality and declare that
Allah "makes excellent everything He creates"?
How do my critics explain the fact that, according to the book
by which they scrupulously abide, God has deliberately designed
the world's breathtaking multiplicity? The question that pits homosexuality
against Islam tested my faith alright. But thinking it through
has made me realize that a healthy exchange is possible if we all
care less about where we stand than where God might.
Now for the second question I promised to tell
you about. It was asked of me mere months before September 11,
and it precipitated my biggest test of faith.
In December 2000, an inter-office envelope arrived on my desk at
QueerTelevision. The envelope came from my boss, Moses Znaimer.
Scrambling to complete as many episodes of the program as possible
by Christmas break, I felt at once drained and in need of distraction.
So I opened the envelope and pulled out a newspaper clipping. It
featured a brief report from the Agence
GIRL COERCED INTO
SEX TO RECEIVE 180 LASHES
Tsafe [Nigeria] -- A pregnant 17-year-old
whom an Islamic court sentenced to 180 lashes for premarital
sex will give birth within days, her family said yesterday. Bariya
Ibrahim Magazu told the court in September that she had been
pushed into having sex with three men who were associates of
her father. The girl produced seven witnesses. The girl's family
said she was due to give birth within a couple of days and was
expected to receive her punishment at least 40 days later, AFP
In vibrant red ink, Moses had circled the word "Islamic," twice
underlined the number "180," and penned a comment, Talmud-style,
in the margins. It read:
ONE OF THESE
TELL ME HOW
THIS KIND OF
Oy vey. Wasn't it enough that viewers of QueerTelevision
goaded me to choose between my sexual orientation and my spiritual
orientation? Did my boss have to burden me ethically, too? Especially
at a time of excruciating deadlines? I pushed the envelope aside
and got on with working for the man.
But over the next several hours, Moses's challenge
shook my conscience. Tell me it doesn't do the same to yours. The
story of this young rape victim has to haunt any decent human being
because, whatever the minutiae of her case, one reported fact couldn't
be rationalized away: The woman, her dignity already violated,
had gone to the trouble of rounding up seven witnesses. Seven!
And she still faced 180 lashes! How the hell could I reconcile
such an elemental injustice with my Muslim faith?
I was going to have to address it head-on. Not
with defensiveness, not with theories, but with total honesty.
Less than a year before much of the world was to be unmoored by
September 11, I prepared to enter the next chapter of my life as
a Muslim Refusenik.
— Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill