Irshad Manji, Israel, & the Jews: People of God, or People of the Book?

The progressive Muslim, Irshad Manji, asks very probing questions in her book The Trouble with Islam Today. In her open letter at the beginning of the book, entitled ‘My Fellow Muslims,’ Manji asks a series of probing questions, from which ‘we can no longer hide,’ the collective pronoun ‘we’ referring to her fellow Muslims (Mainstream Publishing, 2005, 12). The first two questions of the five that immediately follow are: ‘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?’ Reasonable questions, even if they make followers of relatively extreme forms of Islam uncomfortable… let alone privileged liberals of a particular cast of mind!

These two questions are actually framed pretty well. By saying ‘we all,’ Manji avoids weasel words and euphemism; she eschews overly vague and ‘particularizing’ fluff and spin. But in addition, by saying ‘the stubborn streak,’ she avoids painting with an overly broad brush too. This is quite important in an era where two of the main threats are as follows.

On one side, the carnivorous resurgence of the worst aspects of liberalism and of a particularly unenlightened humanism leads to backward-looking progressives banging the drum for war. On the other side, those who take the often perfectly reasonably insights and critical possibilities of postmodernism and ‘the postplex’ too far, plunging into a morass of nihilism.

So, Manji is certainly a modernist Muslim; but is she also a metamodernist, oscillating between perspectives as the demands of nuance and context demand, or at least invite? If so, this is a truly welcome development in Jewish-Islamic and Israel-Muslim relations.

Of course, the relationship between Muslims and Israelis, between Islam and Israel, is still no doubt still fraught with tensions and mistrust, and at times, even hatred. But Manji’s invitation to a serious interrogation and self-critique is certainly superior to any didactic handing down of high and solemn truths.

But more…

It is fundamentally egalitarian.

Manji, unlike the Regressive Left, believes that Muslims are capable of the same reflective behavior as everyone else. It is this that outrages a proportion of Muslims, and a proportion of liberals. God forbid that anyone should refuse to dehumanize Muslims, and should take the path, instead, of considering them as having similar cognitive and emotional capacities to everyone else!

In other words, instead of particularizing Muslims, and leaving them in a brutally paternalistic, ruthlessly pedagogical and mercilessly neocolonialist ‘waiting room of history,’ Manji depicts Muslims in terms of true universality. Muslims need not be deemed a class apart, and are certainly not to be deemed a different species.

However, in addition to this, Manji’s self-description as a ‘Muslim Refusenik,’ provides her with an opportunity to identify with the courage, integrity and stubborn hopefulness that has characterized so many Jews over history. Manji explicitly says (p.13): ‘I take this phrase from the original Refuseniks – Soviet Jews who championed religious and personal freedom.’ She goes on to credit these same Refuseniks for ‘help[ing] end the worst elements of a totalitarian system’ (ibid.)

So for Manji, it is not remotely repugnant to identify oneself with the Jews, or with some Jews. By drawing an analogy between her vocation and that of the Refuseniks, she challenges the boundaries erected by centuries of mutual mistrust. Here, the Jews are not merely ‘people of the Book,’ i.e. those who were once given a commission from God, and who ended up betraying this same commission. Rather, for Manji, they appear to be the people of God… the people of Allah. Far from corrupters of scriptures and spiritual well-poisoners, the Jews are every bit as much the creations of God as any Muslims.

Later in this thought-provoking letter (p.14), Manji acknowledges that there is ‘no shortage’ of books about (to allude to the title of her book) ‘The Trouble With’ Christianity or Judaism. Manji sighs (or shouts in encouragement?):

‘We Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department. Whose permission are we waiting for?’

Well, in recent times, many other Muslims have followed Manji’s invitation. And why not?

Let’s hope that liberals and progressives will not fail in our responsibility to not throw people like Irshad Manjai under the bus. Obviously, it would be deeply problematic for non-Muslims to dictate what course Islam ought to take…

But why not support those who are trying the very best they can, rather than hammering down on them purely in the name of political expediency and opportunism?

If Irshad Manji, Maajid Nawaz, or many, many others, make you feel uncomfortable as a non-Muslim, then…

That is for your healing, and not to your hurt.

And if nothing else will convince you to entertain the vision of brave progressive Muslims, then perhaps the thought of your own privilege will.

It is too easy for privileged liberals to make much of the imperfections of the writings of Manji and of so many others.

What can we do to avoid adding an extra burden on top of the perils and discouragements such courageous and principled individuals are already facing?

Be wise.

About the Author
Jonathan Ferguson is a Chinese graduate of the University of Leeds (BA, MA) and King's College London (PhD). He has written on a range of publications including Times of Israel, Being Libertarian and Secular World Magazine. He is a strong believer in individual liberty, individual justice and individual equality before the law. He stands with Israel, with the girls of Revolution Street and of course, with anyone who takes the courage to prefer the David Gilmour and Phil Collins eras to the pretentious artsy-fartsy dark ages of 80s rock... in the face of the all-too-predictable vitriol that is hurled at us!
Related Topics
Related Posts