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Interview: Irshad Manji on 'Keeping Faith' and 'Ditching Dogma'




Irshad Manji (Jimmy Jeong)

Irshad Manji (Jimmy Jeong)

A self-described "reformist Muslim," author Irshad Manji has become a lightning rod of sorts since the release of her 2003 bestseller, The Problem with Islam, a controversial call for changes to the religion of more than 20 percent of the world's population. Manji, born in Uganda and raised in Canada, is back with a new book, Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, which comes out today (see early reviews here, here and here). Manji — who is founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University’s school of public service — will appear at the Asia Society in New York on Thursday, June 16, in conversation with Keith Ellison, the second-term U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 5th congressional district, and the first Muslim elected to Congress. The discussion will be moderated by Serene Jones, President of New York City's Union Theological Seminary.

For those who can't attend the event, a free live webcast will be available starting at 7:30 p.m. at asiasociety.org/live. If you'd like to submit questions for the speakers, please send them to [email protected].

Manji, in the midst of her book tour, answered some questions for us via email.

Your new book Allah, Liberty and Love calls for greater debate and indeed a kind of full-scale reformation within contemporary Islam. Was the book finished when the popular revolts got underway in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year?

Allah, Liberty and Love shows a path to reform in Islam — and reform in the way we all think about ourselves as global citizens. I've drawn many of the lessons from young Muslims whose voices are reflected in the Arab uprisings. To my editor's chagrin, I was updating until the very last minute!

Do you feel the various 2011 uprisings in Muslim-majority countries might open the way for the kinds of changes you've been advocating? Or is it possible the removal of authoritarian regimes might embolden religious reactionaries in any of these countries?

Anything can happen — and probably will. But at the end of the day, you can't have political liberty without a healthy dose of religious liberty as well.

Moving to the U.S., a spate of events in 2009 and 2010 — the Fort Hood massacre, the failed Times Square bombing, the proposed Islamic center near New York's Ground Zero — led to a wave of xenophobia and public prejudice against Muslim Americans. Did this climate influence the writing of your new book, and if so, how?

Allah, Liberty and Love has emerged from the countless conversations I've had with Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world — in person, via email, through Facebook and on Twitter. That includes the hate I've heard from Islam-bashers as well as Islam-supremacists. Both came out in spades during the events you've referred to, and I write about that in my new book. Their toxicity taught me a lot about keeping faith while ditching dogma.

You have written that "'Moderate' Muslims are part of the problem." What did you mean by that?

I take this lesson from Martin Luther King, Jr. He pointed out to Christians that in times of moral crisis, moderation is a cop-out because it cements the status quo. Instead, Dr. King argued for "creative extremism" (as distinct from the destructive kind!). Muslims today can grow from Dr. King's call for Christian reform.

You are appearing at Asia Society with U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. What needs to happen for more Muslims to be elected in the United States?

Rep. Ellison advocates freedom within the practice of Islam as much as within the lived reality of America. When more Muslims demonstrate their love of liberty, the defenses of more non-Muslim Americans will come down. Some, of course, will never vote for a Muslim; most Americans, however, will transcend their fears of Islam the moment we Muslims show the moral courage to speak truth to our own. Which requires not only conversation, but honest conversation. That's what I hope Rep. Ellison and I will demonstrate.

Here's one of Manji's recent appearances on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher:

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