Irshad Manji speaks up for freedom of speech and thought in Islam.
Last year, Al Jazeera aired an intense debate about Muslim reform between me and the British commentator Mehdi Hasan. Hate mail followed. So did love bombs. But I did not receive any death threats. To be sure, the reality remains that those who shatter age-old taboos within Islam do have to fear for their lives. While it is true that every religion has its extremists, in no other religion do mainstream believers routinely shrug off the murder of dissenters. This is a life-and-death difference. All the more reason for ijtihad to be revived in the 21st century.
Nowhere does the necessity of ijtihad seem more urgent than in the wars over freedom of expression. One might say that the UK led the way. More than 25 years ago, a puny hive of British Muslims demanded the death of novelist Salman Rushdie even before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa.
Yes, but that was after India banned The Satanic Verses. The Bradford book-burning took its cue from the Indian ban. Not that I’m disagreeing with her, just mussing up the picture a little.
Earlier this year, I watched the British brouhaha over my friend Maajid Nawaz, the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Kilburn and co-founder of the counter-extremism outfit Quilliam. Nawaz had tweeted a cartoon called Jesus and Mo. Jesus to Mo: ‘Hey!’ Mo: ‘How ya doing?’ The end. That was it. Two top-tier prophets swapping props.
I call that catchy: two top-tier prophets swapping props.
The question is simple: can Islam be reconciled with free expression? The answer is yes. The Qur’an points out that there will always be nonbelievers and that it is for God, not for Muslims, to deal with them: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills — let him believe; and whoever wills — let him disbelieve.’ (18:29). Moreover, the Qur’an states that there should ‘no compulsion in religion’. (2:256). Nobody should be forced to treat tradition as untouchable, including traditions that result in the messed-up Muslim habit of equating our very human prophet with an inviolable idol. Monotheists are to revere one God, not one of God’s emissaries. That is why humility requires people of faith to lampoon themselves, and each other, once in a while.
But even revering one god is revering a human conception of that god. But I’ll try to stop quibbling. I’d rather have believers of the Manji & Nawaz type than the Just Follow Orders type, so I shouldn’t quibble.
For me, embracing freedom is an act of faith. Recognising the Almighty’s infinite wisdom means acknowledging my limited human wisdom. As a monotheist, I am not God. Nor am I entitled to behave as God. Hence my duty to let a thousand nonviolent flowers bloom. In short, to devote myself to Allah is to love liberty.
Ok, but you can do that without Allah. You get to the same place. And if you take seriously the idea of an “almighty” who has infinite wisdom, it seems all but inevitable that you try to figure out what that Almighty thinks, and back come the orders and limits and veils and priests.
I just can’t stop quibbling, can I.