The Trouble With Islam - reviewed by Poonam Srivastava

"The Trouble With Islam"by Irshad Manji 240 pages St. Martin's Press

In 2003 Irshad Manji wrote an "open letter" to fellow Muslims which was published as \work{The Trouble With Islam}. The 229 pages are a mix of the personal and the political which read at times as thoughtful essay and at others as diatribe or a heartfelt plea. Autobiographical truths and socio-historical enquiry are gathered together and presented in unequal and often confusing proportions. The whole effect is a missile directed at the entire faith of modern Islam. "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 whats coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah." Thus begins the book.

Since its publication, The Trouble With Islam has caused quite a stir. Supporters wave the book as proof positive that indeed Islam is a renegade religion and applaud Manji's bravery as a Muslim, and a female homosexual Muslim at that, for daring to be a "lone voice of reform." Detractors point their fingers and denounce the book as an apology for Muslim Bashers everywhere to shed their chains of politesse and political correctness and loudly equate Islam with mindless fundamentalism. Manji, they say, is an arriviste profiting on the notoriety of her faith since the unfortunate events of September 11th, 2001. The fact that the author is a Muslim is very important to the authority of this book.

Manji is clear as to who these self appointed ambassadors of Islam are: Arabs. Only the book paints them more as usurpers than ambassadors. "Who is the real colonizer of Muslims--America or Arabia? Why are we all being held hostage by what's happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis?" The Trouble With Islam rails against the worldwide reading of the Koran in Arabic, a language so nuanced that a single word haram may be interpreted as "something forbidden or something sacred, depending on which 'a' you stress." 13 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arab yet Arab tribalism rules the faith. Through Arabic language, the power of mullahs -- the Muslim clergy, and perpetuated through the madressas, Islamic schools Arab tribalism controls the expression of this religion that counts nearly a quarter of the world's population.

There is no doubt that Islam is the subject of much media attention and popular contempt currently. In an international culture and commerce that is dominated by first worldism; where easy answers are always preferable to complex presentations of reasonings; where bumper stickers and slogans sink deeper into individual and cultural psyches than paragraphs -- The Trouble With Islam serves up an easy scapegoat to the tragedy of international fundamentalism and the tragedy of the World Trade Center. On the one hand The Trouble With Islam presents the complexity of the Islam in the twenty first century as a homogeneous entity; when in reality Islam inhabits cultures in the first, second, third and fourth worlds; the black and white world; north and south. On the other hand The Trouble With Islam offers the personal truths of an articulate woman's personal tryst with her religion. It is the story of an immigrant girl from Africa, of South Asian heritage, in her new home in Canada with an abusive father. Neither hand is fully developed, unfortunately. Thus both flip flop over one another causing an affectation greater than is merited by either. Its conclusions are not in accord with either type of information present. I am convinced that at any other historical moment The Trouble With Islam would probably not see the light of day in its present form. Were there not this contemporary hunger for anything on Islam, Manji would be held to a higher level of responsibility for her claims on the Arab dominance of a mindless Islam.

After several readings of The Trouble With Islam, I suggest that this book be read with the precaution that Manji treats lightly and simplistically a situation that is very complex and nuanced. The Arab world is not homogeneous, neither is Islam. Fundamentalism is a problem that is not exclusive to Islam. Economic, historic and political factors that have resulted in the paradigm within which fundamentalism has grown world wide need to be considered. The following passage from "The Pressure to Modernize and Globalize" by Helena Norberg-Hodge in The "Case Against The Global Economy", edited by Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith and published in 1996 will illustrate the point:

Perhaps the most tragic of all the changes I have observed in Ladakh is the viscous circle in which individual insecurity contributes to a weakening of family and community ties, which in turn further shakes individual self-esteem....  A gap is developing between young and old, male and female, rich and poor, Buddhist and Muslim....  men leave their families in rural sector ... become part of the technologically based life ... and are seen as the only productive member of society.

In a world where fundamentalist Christians are in power in Washington D.C., where a fundamentalist Hindu party, the B.J.P., took control of the federal government of the world's most populous democracy, India, The Trouble With Islam cannot be forgiven its ignorance of the effects of an international corporate culture on all religions. Most thinking folk would have to see that the troubles that Manji presents with her religion are endemic to all organized religions in the twenty first century: subjugation of women; homophobia; no room for discourse or dissent; dogmatism. These aspects of religion are growing in all religions. Muslims are taught to hate Jews, she says. Hindus are taught to hate Muslims. A Christian woman told me that I would burn in the fires of eternal hell for not accepting Jesus Christ. Add to this the international arms trade and the possibility of fringe groups or individuals procuring dangerous materials and you have Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center. The Trouble With Islam at best expounds not on the trouble with Islam but with the troubles of all religions in the complex world of high fundamentalism and high technology that is the mix today.

Read it if you can. Buy it if you must.