Part one 

Mehdi Hasan: One point six billion Muslims and this figure is rising. That's one in four of the world's population, in all four corners of the globe.

Archive: "Islam is a religion of peace"

Mehdi Hasan: But Islam has an image problem, critics see Muslim women as oppressed, Sharia law is considered barbaric, sectarian conflict dominates the headlines - and then there is terrorism.

For Muslims this is a gross misrepresentation, but not for Irshad Manji whose controversial first book "The Trouble With Islam Today" describes Muslims as an army of automatons.

I'm Mehdi Hasan, and tonight in the Oxford Union, I'll be going head to head with the outspoken Canadian author and self-described Muslim refuser. 

Ladies and gentlemen, Irshad Manji.

She believes that Muslims need to rely much more on their own Islamic tradition of Ijtihad or independent reasoning, and completely rethink their attitudes to the West.

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome Irshad to Head To Head, thank you very much for joining us. Let's kick off this discussion with perhaps the most important question because a lot of people know you from your first book, which was called The Trouble With Islam Today. What is the trouble with Islam today in your view?

Irshad Manji: In a word, Muslims. We are the trouble with Islam today. We have allowed tribal culture to colonise the faith of Islam. But the good news in saying this is that we are also the source of reform. Meaning that we can literally draw inspiration from our own scripture, from the Quran in order to reform our hearts, our spirits and our beings. And one passage that has been profoundly inspirational for me, is the one that states, "believers conduct yourself with justice and bear true witness before God". And here is the revolutionary part, "even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your relatives". This is a call for moral courage, this is a call to stand up when others want you to sit down.  And it is part of what makes Islam as a faith revolutionary in the 21st Century, not just in the 7th.

Mehdi Hasan: It's fascinating to hear you say this because a lot of your critics, and you have a fair few critics, especially within the Muslim community, their objection to you over the years, my understanding is, that you say that there's a problem with Islam, and a lot of Muslims say, and I would count myself among them, who say there's a problem with Muslims, certainly with many Muslims, definitely need some form or reform, change, revolution whatever you want to call it, but Islam is the religion, don't bring Islam into it. Where do you stand on this?

Irshad Manji: It is a problem with Muslims, however Mehdi let's ask ourselves, what is Islam? Islam isn't some theory. Islam is a way of life, and it is we Muslims who define what that way of life is. And so, if we are stopping one another from expressing our diversity, then the message we are sending to each other, not just to the rest of the world, to one another is that this is Islam. I don't buy that. Tribal culture is not Islam. But we have made ourselves the problem with Islam today. 

Mehdi Hasan: We'll come to tribal culture, but I would question the premise which says Islam is defined by what Muslims do.  Because if that's the basis, then what is the point of a holy book? What is the point of a holy prophet? What is the point of scripture, revelations ...?

Irshad Manji: To guide. To guide.

Mehdi Hasan: But they're not the defining features of a religion?

Irshad Manji: It's the behaviour ...

Mehdi Hasan: The tenants of the faith, the law … 

Irshad Manji: It's the behaviour of Muslims that defines, in every generation, what Islam is. I understand ... 

Mehdi Hasan: So on that basis ... Christianity is defined by Christians? 

Irshad Manji: Of course.  

Mehdi Hasan: So I can condemn Christianity for something say George W Bush has done. 

Irshad Manji: You can condemn the way Christianity is being practised. And if a Christian is practising Christianity in the name of Christ in a way that is violent, in a way that is intolerant, I don't believe that there is anything blasphemous about saying that there is trouble within Christianity today. 

Mehdi Hasan: It's almost a chicken and egg argument. What came first the Islam or the Muslims in terms of defining … 

Irshad Manji: Let me ask you this Mehdi ...  Sure.  And, and I understand, you know, where so much of the criticism of just this phrase, "the trouble with Islam today", is coming from. But so many people who hadn't read the book, and still haven't, said, oh you know you're black-balling Islam with a wide brush. And I said to them have you read the book? Because most of the book is about Ijtihad, it's about , you know, thinking creative, creatively and independently and this is a tradition within Islam itself, so in fact, there is nothing wrong with Islam that cannot be corrected by what is right with Islam.  

Mehdi Hasan: Just to be clear, we hear this phrase bandied about in the West a great deal, about moderate Muslims. You're not a fan of moderate Muslims? You think moderate Muslims, quote, "are part of the problem, not the solution".

Irshad Manji: Correct, basically I make the case for being a reformist Muslim, not just a moderate one.  And here's why. Moderate Muslims do denounce a violence that is committed in the name of Islam, very much so.  But they deny that religion plays any role in that violence. The very first thing you will hear from the mouth of a moderate, typically, after an act of violence committed in the name of Islam is, please don't misunderstand, Islam has nothing to do with this. But that's not true. Because those who are committing the violence cite Islam as their inspiration. What reformist Muslims do ... 

Mehdi Hasan: But you allow ... 

Irshad Manji: Wait, let me finish. 

Irshad Manji: ... terrorist to define their religion. 

Irshad Manji: What reformist Muslims do is that we acknowledge there is violence, but we also say that the way in which some people are using our religion is that they are inspired by religion to commit that violence.

In other words, when moderate Muslims say that Islam has nothing to do with this, they are the ones, in my humble view, who are seeding the ground, who are handing over the ground of theological interpretation to those who already have malignant intentions. But we have to acknowledge that there are verses that terrorists are using, and that they should not have the last word. You can't do that if you're going to say Islam has nothing to do with this violence. 

Mehdi Hasan: But why not ... You say the last word, many Muslims would say why not go back to the first word. Why a reinterpretation, when there is already a massive body of scholarship, classical scholarship, which says you do not kill civilians. You do not launch pre-emptive surprise attacks on innocent targets, so why get into this re-interpretation debate with people who don't really deserve to be debated with because they are criminals, they are mass murderers who are using the Quran as cover for their crimes. 

Irshad Manji: Sure. When I talk about re-interpretation, I am indeed talking about ... taking away these malignant interpretations from terrorists. And so what, many Muslims, and not just none Muslims will know about Islam is what makes the headlines today. That is why I use the word re-interpret, because already power is being given through our passivity, through our silence, relative silence ... Already power is being given to terrorists defining Islam, we need to re-interpret it. 

Mehdi Hasan: You say silence and passivity. I mean I heard that in 2001. I remember after the September 11 attacks, people said where are the Muslims, even though lots of Muslim scholars around the world came out and condemned the 9/11 attacks quite quickly. Over the last, over the last ... 

Irshad Manji: No, not quickly. No. Not quickly. They had to be pressured into doing so. 

Mehdi Hasan: I think you'll find, for example, Sheik Fadlallah, who has condemned as a Hezbollah cleric, and we can have a debate, who died recently, he condemned the 9/11 attacks within 24 hours.  

Irshad Manji: Most clerics came out about ... 

Mehdi Hasan: For ten years I've been hearing Muslims ...

Irshad Manji: ... about three, four, five years later. 

Mehdi Hasan: ... condemn 9/11.  Condemn 7/7, and do so on the basis of the Quran. And yet you come here and you say that their silence, and their passive ... and I worry that you're playing into all sorts of stereotypes about Muslims that already exist. 

Irshad Manji: Yeah. You know, I tell you what plays in to stereotypes.  What plays in to stereotypes is the relative silence, and defensiveness of Muslims who say, "Irshad you're empowering Islamophobes".  When Muslims become defensive about this, what the message that they're sending to actual Islamophobes is "We have something to hide. Because now we're just getting angry and emotional over an argument like hers, rather than calmly debating it." 

Mehdi Hasan: If I say to you calmly ...

Irshad Manji: ... and silence?

Mehdi Hasan: ... that the Quran condemns violence against civilians, the Quran does not justify al-Qaeda attacks on... 

Irshad Manji: Not all of it. No! 

Mehdi Hasan: ... the Twin Towers. Is that defensive? 

Irshad Manji: I'll give you an example. 

Mehdi Hasan: Is that defensive, is that passive, is that silent? 

Irshad Manji: No.  No, of course not, but the point is …

Mehdi Hasan: There were Muslim scholars in Britain, coming out in 2001, saying this is against the Quran, the Quran condemns these things.

Irshad Manji: But these are the same kinds of people who have said things like, "Islam and the Quran in particular is just unequivocal, that if you kill a human being it is like killing all of mankind". Not true. Actually the verse itself, Chapter Five, Verse 32, reads, "If you kill a human being it is like killing all of mankind, unless you are killing that human being as punishment for violence, or murder, or other villainy in the land." Okay, so I'm saying that moderate Muslims cannot simply sanitise what does exist in the Quran. We need to get real, we need to get honest, and we need to offer bold and competing re-interpretations of what is actually in the Quran, rather than putting periods, and other punctuation marks that don't exist. 

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well let me bring in Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary-general to the Muslim Council of Britain. He's an imam at several mosques in Leicester. You heard the verse she cited. Is the Quran, are Muslims behaving defensively about such verses? Are they hiding behind punctuation in your view? 

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra: I feel that Irshad's also being very selective and quoting the punctuation marks where they're not necessary. The verse of the Quran certainly talks about the sanctity of human life, and the need for the preservation of human life, and how wrong it is to take human lives. And when you extend your argument to say that it talks about except in response to violence, or murder.  Well it is not for lay Muslims, people on the street, to take the law in to their own hands. And when you say that we have not engaged with you for 10 years, I'd rather that you would have approached the scholars instead of sitting down to write a book, and say, "Guys this is what we want to talk about".  

Irshad Manji: Sir, with all due respect, you guys, as you put it, have not actually engaged with people like me. In fact I've received a number of invitations from ordinary Muslims who are part of congregations all over the world, who are excited about these arguments. But in every single case, no exaggeration, in every single case, they have written back to me to say, "Actually I'm sorry Irshad, the board has decided that they're not ready and the congregation is not ready to hear these arguments."  

Sheik Ibrahim Mogra: You seem to be suggesting that this is the best thing since sliced bread. Right. We are always willing to engage and when you talk about the lack of condemnation of terrorism, the Muslim council of Britain without any prompting from anywhere, were one of the first to condemn it. Just because you have not heard of that, doesn't mean it is not happening. 

Mehdi Hasan: Before I bring in Irshad to respond, Dr Halla Diyab  is a Syrian writer, broadcaster, filmmaker, you're shaking your head as Sheik Ibrahim is speaking. 

Dr Halla Diyab: First, I want to say that I do agree with Irshad that the problem is not with Islam, as a religion, as much as a problem with us the Muslims. If we go back to what happened September 11, or July 7 in London, those people who did that, they believed they were performing an act of jihad. Not an act of terrorism.  And if you look to most of the videos which have been sent by those terrorists, they were doing that in the name of Allah, and in the name of Islam.  

Mehdi Hasan: Myriam Francois-Cerrah is also here, she is a journalist, a broadcaster, an academic. What do you make of what Dr Halla Diyab has been saying?

Myriam Francois-Cerrah: Actually, I think part of the problem is that they are going back to those verses.  I've just been teaching a course on religious extremism and the extremist are, generally speaking, politicised individuals who are operating in a framework where the dominant lexicon is Islam. That is the idiom of the society in which they operate.  And, therefore, in order to make themselves audible to the population, of course they express themselves by reference to Islam. 

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra: This is a specialist area. When I have a medical issue, or a legal issue, or a financial issue, I will go to the experts. We're talking about spirituality, we're talking about religion and faith, we're talking about the hereafter. And I wouldn't want to allow lay people to start reinterpreting … 

Mehdi Hasan: Interpreting the experts, you're doing, you're doing DIY Islam.

Irshad Manji: No. Spirituality, spirituality ... 

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra: Please don't misunderstand me.   

Irshad Manji: I do very much understand that it's ... I've heard it over and over and over again, and I remember in Indonesia, when this point was made to me and a scholar, certified scholar, sitting right next to me, said to the person making your point, Sir.  He said, "If you're going to go as far as to compare spirituality to medicine, or accounting, well in medicine there is a principle called first do no harm."  You can actually sue a doctor for doing harm. Maybe we should be able to sue mullahs too for doing harm. 

Mehdi Hasan: Why are you against expertise? Specialisms. 

Irshad Manji: The Quran, you know, it's interesting because the reason I can embrace the Quran is that, you know, three times as many verses in the Quran call on Muslims to think and rethink and analyse, as you've pointed out. Rather than submit blindly. So, by that criterion, actually all of God's creatures, Muslims especially, are called upon to keep thinking. It's not about expertise. 

Sheik Ibrahim Mogra: But we can't ... 

Irshad Manji: ... it's about, remember Sir, that you are not God, and I am not God. And therefore none of us can claim to have the quote "right interpretation".  

Mehdi Hasan: Would you get rid of all scholars, imams, mullahs as you call them, anyone ... get rid of all of it? 

Irshad Manji: I would help equip a new generation of Muslims with the self-confidence to recognise that they are allowed to think for themselves. 

Mehdi Hasan: No, no we understand thinking for ourselves. 

Irshad Manji: Even if, even if Imams, even if ... 

Mehdi Hasan: I've been thinking for myself for 33 years, I didn't need anyone's permission...

Irshad Manji: Imams ... Right. 

Mehdi Hasan: I'm asking about specifically coming up with laws, understanding versus of the Quran, understanding traditions of Islam, understanding what, you know, ethics, Islamic ethics are. How can every single person just make that up as they go along? Surely in every religion, in every society, in every field of life ... 

Irshad Manji: Yeah. 

Mehdi Hasan: ... you defer to experts.  People with specialist knowledge. 

Irshad Manji: Well again. 

Mehdi Hasan: Which you and I don't have. 

Irshad Manji: Which. Well, wait a minute. You know, as we found out with the 2008 global economic meltdown, which was not predicted by the experts, experts often aren't experts. Okay.  So let's stop playing the power game Mehdi. Let's stop playing on the terms of people who call themselves experts, and who like to use their power as a cudgel, as a sledge hammer over everybody else.  

Mehdi Hasan: Who are the people who know in your view?  Who are the people you ask? 

Irshad Manji: ... Who I ask? 

Mehdi Hasan: Yeah. 

Irshad Manji: If, I'm thinking for myself. But I will tell you ... 

Mehdi Hasan: Everything? 

Irshad Manji: Certainly 

Mehdi Hasan: Everything? You don't need any help in understanding the Quran. 

Mehdi Hasan: The Tafsir, the interpretation ... the history, the ethics, the context. 

Irshad Manji: I'll tell you. I'll tell you. One of the most common questions that I get from young Muslims is about inter faith relationships. I am a Muslim, I've fallen in love with a none Muslim. Is there any hope for us? 

Mehdi Hasan: Yes. 

Irshad Manji: And they usually say something along the lines of, that "my parents and their imam insist that Islam, you know, stops inter-faith marriage, is that true?" Rather than me giving them my personal interpretation, what I've come to realise is that they're actually not asking about themselves, they're asking about their parents. They need an argument that will convince their parents that love is borderless.  

Mehdi Hasan: What my worry is, if you buy this argument that the mullahs are all bad, everyone thinks... 

Irshad Manji: No, not all bad, come on. 

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. A lot of, a lot of them are bad. 

Irshad Manji: ...  stop pipping that. 

Mehdi Hasan: A lot of them are bad. 

Irshad Manji: Don't be a typical journalist. 

Mehdi Hasan: A lot of them are bad, a lot of them are bad, a lot of them are bad. I read two of your books, they didn't come out very well. 

Irshad Manji: Don't polarise. Don't polarise. 

Mehdi Hasan: A lot of them, a lot of them are bad.  We think for ourselves, we don't allow them to monopolise power. End the power game, etcetera.  

Mehdi Hasan: My worry is, my worry is if I'm in al-Qaeda, that's very appealing.  I don't need to worry about a classic law, scholarship, I just make up my own religion.  I give a fatwa saying kill the Jews. 

Irshad Manji: And they do. And they do. That's exactly what they are doing. 

Mehdi Hasan: Aren't you validating ... Aren't you validating them.  Because if you're saying from a liberal perspective ... 

Irshad Manji: I'm saying... 

Mehdi Hasan: ... we make it up as we go along ... 

Irshad Manji: No. 

Mehdi Hasan: ... and they from an extremist perspective say, let's make it up as we go along.  You're almost empowering the very people you claim to be fighting with. 

Irshad Manji: You know that's, that's a very... (applause) I think that's an excellent point. I've heard it before, and I've said it before, that's an excellent point.  Good in theory.  Wonderful in theory.  But again, I live in the world of reality. And the reality is that people like this already exist. And this is why progressive thinkers ... And I wish there more people in positions of religious authority who would take that power, and actually democratise so Ijtihad, so that young people know that they are worthy of thinking about these issues for themselves, yes in a non-violent way. But actually developing that personal relationship with Allah, rather than believing that they are here to worship Allah's self-appointed ambassadors. 

Mehdi Hasan: And just to be very clear before we move on. Just for the viewers. You talk about Ijtihad. How do you define Ijtihad? 

Irshad Manji: Ijtihad is Islam's own tradition of independent thinking, of critical reasoning, of debate, dissent and reinterpretation.  And yes, I have heard a thousand times, that only certain people are allowed to exercise Ijtihad, but even that is up for debate. 

Mehdi Hasan: Well let me just come back to the point you made a moment ago.  You said let's not play the journalism game, let's not generalise ... 

Irshad Manji: The polarisation game. 

Mehdi Hasan: The polarisation game. It's a very good point. I'm glad you raised that. Because I re-read both your books and I found myself nodding through a lot of the pages, saying "I agree with this, she's right about the way women are treated in a lot of Muslim countries, in a lot of Muslim communities. She's right about violence, predilection for violence.  She's right about a lot of areas. Ignorance. Critical thinking. A lot of things ..." but here's where you and I differ. I read your books and I see only polarisation. I see you painting in primary colours.  It's all black and white. It's West is great, Muslim world is all backward. 

Irshad Manji: Oh my gosh. 

Mehdi Hasan: They don't think for themselves, they don't ... they're all automatons to use your phrase, when the programme opened. 

Irshad Manji: Yeah. Well then I have to say then, then you're reading those books from your particular lens … 

Mehdi Hasan: What do I do with this sentence ... one sentence. "Under the Arab code of honour... 

Irshad Manji: Yep. 

Mehdi Hasan: "... Muslims are taught to abdicate our individuality and accept our fate as the property of our families."  What all 1.6 billion of us?  I don't do that. 

Irshad Manji: Under the... 

Mehdi Hasan: My parents didn't do that. None of my friends did that. 

Irshad Manji: The ... When … 

Mehdi Hasan: When you say one billion Muslims need permission to think, you're not just talking about Arabs.

Irshad Manji: I'm saying that there is too much fear, still, among the new generation. When I went to Cairo, five years ago, even. You know, massive protests against the Mubarak regime. A young woman, comes up to me and she says, "Irshad, I know you get a lot of questions from young, young Muslims, here's mine." She said I have fallen in love with a Jewish man.  And, I don't know how to tell my parents. She said, "Here I am putting my life on the line to achieve political change in my country of Egypt, but the more frightening thing for me is to speak with my own family about love." Frightening thing!  

Mehdi Hasan: Why not say, some women in Egypt need the permission to think freely? Why say one billion Muslims?  Why feed into the Islamophobes you mentioned earlier, by implying that a billion Muslims do not think for themselves? 

Irshad Manji: Again, when you read my point, in its context, you understand that I am giving shades of grey and nuance, but of course like any person who's making a particular argument, you make particular statements in order to drive the point home.  

Mehdi Hasan: But if you're trying to win over Muslims and reform the community, when you say things like we have to own up to quote, "Muslim complicity in the Holocaust."

Irshad Manji: Yes.  Yes.  As ... 

Mehdi Hasan: Muslim complicity? 

Irshad Manji: As there was Christian ... 

Mehdi Hasan: Am I complicit in the Holocaust? 

Irshad Manji: I think that anybody who denies that Muslims played a very important role in the Holocaust is ... 

Mehdi Hasan: A Palestinian Muslim ...

Irshad Manji: ... passive.

Mehdi Hasan: I think is your example. 

Irshad Manji: More than just a Palestinian Muslim. 

Mehdi Hasan: Well what about all the Muslims who died fighting Hitler? 

Irshad Manji: People who ... 

Mehdi Hasan: What do you do to their memories? 

Irshad Manji: I ... what I do is I write about it in Allah, Liberty and Love.  That's what I do okay. 

Mehdi Hasan: Agreed. So you …So you disown this statement from your first book that said Muslim complicity... 

Irshad Manji: No. No. Just as I do not disown the notion of Christian complicity in the Holocaust. I'm simply saying that we Muslims ... 

Mehdi Hasan: You essentialise. You, you break everything down to Muslims. 

Irshad Manji: We Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department.  

Mehdi Hasan: One thing I noticed when I was reading the book, you say, well there are plenty of women, you would agree, in the world, in the Muslim world who wear the headscarf, who wear hijab, and they are fighting the battles you would want them to fight against domestic violence, against rape, against female circumcision and the rest. 

How do you think they feel when you refer to having worn a hijab as wearing a condom over my head. Or calling it a faux symbol of modesty, a symbol of Arab tribal culture. They're not really gonna get on board your reform project are they when you refer to them as that way? 

Irshad Manji: No, actually that's not true.  Because again, you are assuming that the only people who care about this subject are people who would be offended by notions like this. Quite the opposite. I can't begin to tell you how many women who do choose to wear the hijab have said, "Thank you for making this point." And I want you to know, in many cases they say, "I choose to do this for myself, but I have struggled with it." Just as you are calling on me to now defend the rights of women on whom hijab is opposed, you're calling on me as someone who has the luxury to choose it, you're calling on me to fight for the rights of other women, who don't want to choose it. And that's exactly the point. You are perfectly free to choose. But the point is choose.  

Mehdi Hasan: You see your role, part of your role is speaking truth to power. When you say I speak truth to power, I also worry that there are people in power, not in the Muslim world, in London, in Washington DC, Toronto, Tel Aviv, who you're not speaking truth to. You're telling what they want to hear. They want to hear that this is a problem with Islam, it's not a problem with our policies, and Irshad Manji is saying I agree with you. 

Irshad Manji: Nope. I have not let anybody off the hook. I am in fact distinguishing between politics, culture, and religion.  

Mehdi Hasan: You talk about the Armenian genocide in 1915, carried out by the Turks. The Turks deny it was a genocide. Armenian genocide, recognised by many countries. You refer to it as a Muslim crime, why is not a Turkish crime? Why does everything gets boiled down ... it's almost, again, that you're playing, at, which unwittingly perhaps, the extremist game. Because you're defining everything through an Islamic prism. 

Irshad Manji: When something is done in the name of a particular religion, or a particular God, that is when I think we can legitimately apply the name of the religion to that crime. The moment people, you know, sincerely believe that the Quran has nothing to do with this violence, is the moment when terrorists who commit these crimes in the name of Allah will no longer be able to get away with them. 

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Strong views. We are going to come back and continue this in part two. We are speaking very freely here and having a very interesting debate. Join us for part two when we'll be talking to Irshad about all of those other issues that she challenges in her book. And we'll also be hearing from our audience here in the Oxford Union. Join us for part two after the break. 



Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to part two of Head to Head. We are talking with Irshad Manji  author of Trouble with Islam Today and Allah, Liberty and Love. Irshad, we've been talking about whether Islam needs reform, what role the Quran plays in violence, the hijab. I want to talk about where this all comes from, in a sense, if we take a step back, dare I say, because, er, a lot of both of your books are quite autobiographical in a way and you, you talk about your childhood a great deal. How much of your crusade, if I can call that – a loaded word – a reform project … 

Irshad Manji: You know that's not fair. 

Mehdi Hasan: …a reform project, how much of a reform project is to do with your childhood and your upbringing and your background? Because you write very movingly in your first book about how your father beat you, he chased you around with a knife at one stage; you talk about your madrassa teacher in school being very stern, austere, anti-Semitic, not wanting you to ask questions. I'm wondering whether that's where this impetus came from to question, to demand reform etcetera, and I'm also wondering whether you've extrapolated from your childhood experiences and made perhaps universal or global conclusions on the basis of what happened to you. 

Irshad Manji: First of all I don't think that that's what I'm doing, but I'm fallible and you know, acknowledge that, perhaps subconsciously that's where it's all coming from. I will say, however, that we've just finished talking about a number of human rights abuses that are committed in the name of religion. Now, with or without my childhood, those things would still be committed … 

Mehdi Hasan: Of course. 

Irshad Manji: … So of course I'm not using my childhood as the impetus for some, you know, universalising, but my childhood, as anybody's childhood will influence how you think, whether you think and whether you give yourself the permission to think and so, for example, that episode of my father chasing me through the house with a knife in his hand – incidentally, my father was nominally a Muslim.

He didn't really practise and I knew that from the get-go, but that one night I flew out of my bedroom window and crawled up to the very top of the roof and I surveyed the neighbourhood, I remember making a pact with myself and with Allah that I'm gonna use education, not just for my own liberation, but also for the betterment of whoever else is around me.

This is a young woman's journey to reconcile her faith with the freedom that she has been given in a part of the world in which her own parents did not grow up; and one could say that this is the kind of journey that a whole generation of Muslims is also undergoing right now. 

Mehdi Hasan: Do you believe that your experiences say, for example, in a madrassa where you weren't taught about other faiths, you were taught a lot of hateful things, a lot of ignorant things. I get the sense that you, you think that's a common experience to many other Muslims and many madrassas. 

Irshad Manji: No, no, and you know I've not said that and I wouldn't say that, because how would I know? But certainly, I use not just the experience of what happened within the madrassa but also, Mehdi, remember – when I talk about being kicked out of the madrassa for asking too many questions, I also make the point that I did not leave the faith. Why? Because even at that age of 14, I realised that maybe this is just an individual, this teacher of mine, who is telling me the wrong things about Islam and so I need to figure this out for myself. 

Mehdi Hasan: Those Muslims who didn't go through that journey, who didn't have those experience, do you understand why they perhaps, when they read your book and the chapter says 'Thank God for the West, we owe the West our ability to critically think and question', they don't agree with you? They think, "Well, I didn't have that experience." 

Irshad Manji: Well, I didn't, I don't write that we owe the West our ability to think critically, not at all. In fact, a huge part of my argument is that, again, Islam has its own tradition of critical thinking and that there is nothing, except for petty politics, that should stop us from rediscovering that tradition in the 21st century. 

Mehdi Hasan: The refusenik line, the kind of outsider, the critical thinker, do you think that mantle came to you, partly because you're a gay Muslim in a faith where gay Muslims have their human rights abused in a lot of Muslim majority societies? 

Irshad Manji: Maybe, but the reality is that I didn't know this about myself when I was a kid, never even thought about it, so I personally don't think that if I was straight, I would like to believe that I would be arguing exactly what I'm arguing now, but only Allah knows. 

Mehdi Hasan: I just want to bring in Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra here, who is an imam in several mosques. When you hear about Irshad's journey, what do you say to those people who do say, Muslims and non-Muslims, that mosques are places where, not just Irshad's mosque but other mosques, are places in the West, there is this accusation, where children are being indoctrinated, brainwashed, being taught all sorts of reactionary things?  

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra I pity the teacher who threw you out for asking too many questions. One of the key reasons what makes me go to madrassa to teach every single day is looking forward to the kids asking those questions. 

Mehdi Hasan: You are shaking your head once more. 

Dr Haladir: Yeah [LAUGHS]. I was brought up in, in Middle East as, as a child in North Africa, in Syria and in several places in the Middle East and Islam which I was taught, it was very strong and brutal Islam where you as women should not do many things because you are women, because you are an inferior creature to man. You can't ride bike because you are a woman. You can't walk in the streets on your own because you are a woman.

Islam which I knew when I lived in the Middle East and actually my journey from Middle East to the West, at certain point I was thinking of Islam as a very, very brutal religion to women.

However, when I came to the West, I had an opportunity to really discover my faith, and really to reconcile with my faith because, I will tell you, we have ability here as women to debate with the scholars like Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra and other scholars; we are allowed to go to the mosque; we are allowed to talk about Islam and also we learn about democracy and freedom of speech. 

Mehdi Hasan: We're talking about embracing, Irshad, and not being harsh. I read through your book and I see that time and again, you know, you and I, I would argue, both hate the violent extremists in our religion; we hate the people who were treating Dr Haladir badly.

We both agree on that, we don't like what they do, we don't know what they stand for. But there seems to be a moment where there's a lot of name calling in your books, Islamo-tribalists, freedom haters, fundamentalists, Islam supremacists. 

Irshad Manji: That's very interesting because … 

Mehdi Hasan: How would you define Islam supremacist? 

Irshad Manji: Islam supremacist is anybody who believes that Islam is the only truth available to humankind and, from my point of view, that is actually un-Quranic because, again, the Quran calls on us to be humble in our interpretations. Now, in calling the behaviour of an Islam supremacist un-Quranic, am I name-calling? Am I being divisive? Am I being dismissive? 

Mehdi Hasan: You are being a little bit divisive. 

Irshad Manji: No, I'm being descriptive and you have to stand for something, Mehdi. I stand for human rights and that means that I have to call, I have to call out … 

Mehdi Hasan: A lot of the people you call Islam supremacists … 

Irshad Manji: … I have to call out… 

Mehdi Hasan: … would say they stand for human rights as well. 

Irshad Manji: … violations of human rights. 

Mehdi Hasan: They would say that they stand for human rights as well. They just happen to believe that Islam is the truth, as a Christian believes … 

Irshad Manji: And then? 

Mehdi Hasan: … Christianity is the true … 

Irshad Manji: But, but, but there are … 

Mehdi Hasan: … and a Jew believes Judaism is the truth. 

Irshad Manji: … plenty of Christians and plenty of Jews and plenty of other people, including atheists, who do not believe that their truth, their particular truth, is the one and only truth that is available to humankind.

Anybody who believes that is a supremacist, a dogmatist of some kind, and I make no apologies for saying so. 

Mehdi Hasan: Well, on that note… 


Mehdi Hasan: … on that note about the names, I agree, you should be able to criticise people you disagree with and there's a lot of Muslims to be criticised, we read at the beginning … 

Irshad Manji: And they, and they can criticise me, as they have … 

Mehdi Hasan: … but here's the difference … 

Irshad Manji: … in very vehement terms. 

Mehdi Hasan: Here, but here's the difference, here's the difference, here's what a lot of Muslims would say. They would say Muslim communities, particularly in the West, where you're taught to feel besieged, they feel under fire, they feel discriminated against. I believe you came here from France to the UK. In France, many Muslims would argue there's rampant Islamophobia and there's very little context of that in your book. 

Irshad Manji: The point is, is that, you know, if we Muslims are going to claim to the rest of the world, as we should, that we are a diverse lot, then that diversity needs to be heard and felt from within. 

Mehdi Hasan: Agreed. Agreed. 

Irshad Manji: So if we're suppressing each other's freedom of expression, then we are the first people to be stereotyping ourselves. Diversity begins at home. 

Mehdi Hasan: But put yourself in the position of a Muslim male or female who is living in an area in Europe where the far-right are on the rise, there's racist attacks in your street or in your community, there are politicians saying they want to ban your meat or your clothing, and here comes Irshad Manji to tell you that the problem is all of you lot, not the West, which gave us the enlightenment and freedom and democracy and doesn't engage with the far right and the discrimination. 

Irshad Manji: Again, again, if we are going to get ultra-defensive about the need for critical thinking in our faith then the message that we convey to the very people whom you say are Islamophobes is that we have something to hide and that's why we get angry and that's why we hurl fatwas at one another and that's why we get emotional about arguments like mine and Dr [Dihab]'s.

Mehdi Hasan: Last year I wrote an article,  in a British newspaper about how Muslims should take the Holocaust much more seriously. In my experience, there's far too much Holocaust denial in the Muslim communities I move in here in the UK and Muslim groups have not joined in Holocaust memorial day celebrations in the past; and when I wrote that article it got a lot of lot of support … from people I really didn't want to get support from. A lot of people go, "Ha,ha, look, here's this guy, Muslim guy, and he's saying what we've been saying about all these backward Muslims." It felt very uncomfortable. Does it bother you that some of the West's best known Islamophobes are such ardent cheerleaders of yours? 

Irshad Manji: It's interesting, you know, the very fact that I proudly and happily and joyously hang on to my faith irks a lot of people who would otherwise want to support me. I've lost many fans by writing a book called Allah, Liberty and Love because many people thought after the first book that, merely by critiquing religion, merely by doing that, I was going in the direction of atheism.

The exact opposite has happened. I've deepened my faith with God and have therefore incurred the wrath of many people who would rather that I ditch Islam. And I haven't, and I won't. 

Mehdi Hasan: And you have been for sharing platforms and going to events with the, you know, members of the so-called Counter Jihad Movement, the kind of American far-right Islam, Sharia law obsessives. 

Irshad Manji: But I've also shared platforms with people on the far-left and people in between. The point is honest conversation is important and needed everywhere, and rather I would have a faithful Muslim speaking truth to that power, to right-wing power when I'm facing them, than to just leave that space empty and cede that territory to these folks altogether. Won't do that. 

Mehdi Hasan: Let's open it up to our audience here in the Oxford Union. The gentleman here in the front row. 

Audience member: Thank you. I admire your spirit and, and love the passion with which you speak and I know you're a passionate advocate of freedom of expression and, as I understand freedom of expression, that involves tolerating bigots, tolerating deeply offensive opponents of your own views. Now, do you really see that as compatible with Islam? Because as an atheist standing outside of this debate, it doesn't come across that way, Islam. 

Irshad Manji: And it doesn't come across that way precisely because behaviour is not living up to the theory of Islam, which is why Muslims are the problem or the trouble with Islam today. Do I see freedom of expression as compatible with Islam? You're looking at somebody who lives both realities every single day, and does not feel at war with herself for doing so. So once again, the beautiful paradox here is that belief in one God obliges believers to defend human liberty. 

Mehdi Hasan: The lady here in the third row. 

Audience member: You've spoken a lot about clarity, about being sincere, you've been trying to contextualise your books, and I have read your first book, I haven't read your second, and in actual fact I don't feel any sincerity, I don't feel you've been clear, I don't feel any humbleness or humility in anything that you've stated in your books particularly.

I feel some this evening in your attempt to clarify what you said, because you interchange Islam and Muslim consistently. You've tried to clarify that this evening. You haven't really, because I work with Muslims, I work with the Safra Project, we work with Muslim lesbian, bisexual and transwomen. A lot of the work you've been doing actually contradicts our work, has actually detrimentally affected our work.  

Mehdi Hasan: How? How so? 

Audience member: Because you haven't clarified, you've generalised. You said, "Oh, let's add a context" – you add a context in this debate but in your books, the books that millions of people read, does not contextualise. It generalises and essentialises. When you say more people need to speak up … we don't get the platform. The reason you get a platform is because what you say continues to support the racialisation of Muslims … 

Mehdi Hasan: Irshad, do you wanna come back? 


Irshad Manji: Simply to say that I'm sorry you feel that way. I do find it interesting that when people accuse me of essentialising, they too, presume to be speaking on behalf of all of these Muslims who are very angry about my so-called essentialising, but again there are plenty of other Muslims who would disagree with you and, you know, so I, I don't hold it against you or hold it against them. This is the discussion we need to be having. I'm sorry, as I say, that you feel the way that you do, and good luck in your work, because we all have something to contribute. 

Mehdi Hasan: Can I …, one thing we didn't get to talk about time permitting, is, for example, you hold views that most Muslims don't hold, the vast majority. For example, you believe the Quran is an imperfect book, a flawed book, a contradictory book. It's very hard for you to round up Muslims to speak out on that issue because they just don't agree with you. 

Irshad Manji: Sure, sure, there are, of course there are lots of Muslims who don't agree with me and, Mehdi, there are lots who do, even on this point. But you, surely you would acknowledge that surely … 

Mehdi Hasan: You think there's a big contingent of Muslims who agree with you on the … 

Irshad Manji: Surely you would acknowledge that it is far less frightening to speak up in support of the perfect Quran than it is to speak up about contradictions within the Quran … 

Mehdi Hasan: Oh, that wasn't my point. My point was that you have a … 

Irshad Manji: No, no, no, but that is the point. That is the point, that you don't know. 

Mehdi Hasan: My point is, on violence, lots of Muslims agree with you … 

Irshad Manji: You don't know. 

Mehdi Hasan: … on the Quran, most don't. Therefore, it's very hard for them to come and share a platform with you when they … 

Irshad Manji: But how can you say that most don't when we don't have a world in which it is safe for people to speak up about their real view of the Quran, Muslims included? Or Muslims especially.

How can you say that most don't? 

Mehdi Hasan: The gentleman there, right there, yes, you, who was, at the back who's been waiting there. 

Audience member: Hi. Yeah, I was gonna say, it's very hard to think of anything, any injustice you could expose that couldn't potentially be exploited by people with a bad agenda. Take an example, like say you exploit, er, talk about American atrocities in Iraq. I mean, Bradley Manning leaked film of Americans shooting civilians in Iraq. Now, potentially some jihadist could use that as propaganda. Is that an argument, that you shouldn't expose that? Or should you expose all injustice?

You know, you can get anti-Semites start putting stuff about, yeah, the Jews. If I put something criticising Islamism, I get people who hate Muslims agreeing with me. 

Irshad Manji: Right. And that's, and that's a very real fear that many Muslims who have talked to me have, that if I say something, you know, "How is it going to be held against me? Who's going to use it?" But that becomes a self-imposed censorship in that case, if we want the world to see us as the diverse community that we are, then we have to give ourselves the permission to be diverse, and that means lifting the lid on our own censorship. 

Mehdi Hasan: But why not also, and this is to come back to the gentleman's question, so for example, [Ziauddin Sardar] is someone you quote in one of your books. He would call himself, I don't know if he'd call himself a reformist scholar, but he  attacks Islam, Muslims, er, Islamic interpretation.. 

Irshad Manji: He attacks Islam? 

Mehdi Hasan: Well … 

Irshad Manji: No he doesn't. 

Mehdi Hasan: He is very critical - I'm a great admirer of his work - but he's also written a book attacking US foreign policy. Do you think you would have a little bit more credibility in the Muslim community if you do that too? If you said, "Okay, I'm going to take attack, I'm going to attack Muslim extremists but I'm also going to attack the neo-conservatives who want to start wars in the Middle East," or whatever it is? 

Irshad Manji: Yeah  

Mehdi Hasan: Would that give you more credibility, do you think? 

Irshad Manji: Probably and strategically, but again, I'm not, honest to God, but the … 

Mehdi Hasan: Well, it would seem fair, wouldn't it, as well? 

Irshad Manji: Well, but wait a minute. Once it get …

Mehdi Hasan: If you're speaking truth to power, speak truth to all power. 

Irshad Manji: Mehdi. Mehdi. Sure, and here's the reality - there are so many people who are speaking truth to neo-conservative power and rightly so.

The world doesn't need me to be doing that. You know, my question is what can I contribute to the wider discussion about justice? So just like I'm not gonna write a book about the trouble within Christianity simply because there are plenty of people who are already doing that, same thing in this case. 

Mehdi Hasan: Let's take another question from the audience. There's that lady here on the end of the front row. 

Audience member: Yeah, I'm interested in just following this up about change on the ground, particularly in respect of the polemics, and women's rights, for example, minority rights, which are very sensitive and there are people at the grassroots trying to change debate, trying to influence actual people's lives, when the polemics and the kind of elite debates that perhaps we're all having can actually shut down debate. How do you envisage bridging this and, and moving forward? 

Irshad Manji: By encouraging honesty, and that's really very key, because even grassroots activists will tell you that there are, that there's censorship within, that there are abuses of power within and because there are ideologies, correct ideologies that must be supported in the name of any particular cause, you wind up actually having very little honesty in some cases, so my unique, self-chosen but personal goal is to help people of different backgrounds actually engage with one another in ways that answer the following question: what can I learn about you that I didn't already know? 

Mehdi Hasan: The gentleman here in the second row on the end with his hand up. 

Audience member:  You talked about, having friends or or rather sharing platforms with people and having honest relationships, and I wonder to what extent you have honest, open friendships with traditional Muslim scholars who are representing their traditions which go back, you know, generations, and are voices of moderation? Because you seem to be undermining them as opposed to empowering the very people who are doing all the hard work on the ground. 

Irshad Manji: Right. Well, I can only tell you that, now more and more traditional scholars are willing to engage. In the past they haven't been, and not because they're bad people, not at all, but because they too have feared the stigma of in anyway sharing a platform with Irshad Manji. I think people are getting rather fed up with that. They're getting tired of courting the approval of, you know, some spokesperson. So once again, signals of hope, signs of hope. 

Mehdi Hasan: This lady here. 

Audience member: I think what sort of can become an issue here is that we have this idea that there's this monolith of Islamic expression and that everyone is backwards and everyone is, has some very archaic ideas. I think it's a shame if we are tarring the whole of the Muslim community in the West, in the East with this one brush and I think sometimes you can play into that. 

Mehdi Hasan: You're tarring everyone with the same brush in that sense. 

Irshad Manji: I'll be more careful going forward. 

Mehdi Hasan: Gentleman there. 

Audience member: I agree with you, there's a fragmentation of religious authority in the world today but if Islam is what Muslims do, what, and how Muslims live and the context in which they live, why keep going back to the religion and to the Quran? I mean, do you think that if we edited out all the verses in the Quran which are violent or patriarchal, that there wouldn't be militancy in the Middle East or that domestic violence would end?

I mean, I think, don't you think Islam isn't the problem and it isn't the solution? That's what Islamists say. Islam is, in the end, a distraction if you're talking about the politics of the Muslim world today. 

Irshad Manji: I don't think it is a distraction, and you know, going back to Mehdi's point about trying to win hearts and minds, I mean, I remain a Muslim for a very sincere reason – because I love Allah. End of story.

The reality, though, is that when you come from within the fold, you know, you can say to fellow Muslims that, look, the Quran itself, we can draw inspiration from it. People need to hear that there are these verses in the Quran and it is shocking and I would say very, very sad that more madrassas are not teaching these aspirational verses to their children in order to have them really understand that as children of God, not slaves of God, as children of God, they have the capacity to make a difference within their faith. 

Mehdi Hasan: Irshad, you say you stayed a Muslim, you say, "I remain a Muslim sincerely" … 

Irshad Manji: Yeah. 

Mehdi Hasan: how would you define that? How would you define it? Just believing in God? 

Irshad Manji: As I, as I just … 

Mehdi Hasan: But would that not just make, how is that different to a theist who believes in God without believing in the Quran, the Prophet? 

Irshad Manji: Maybe it's not. Maybe it's not and therein again is, you know, one of the things that we have to think about. Why do we need to be so different or so special from other people who believe in one God? 

Mehdi Hasan: So believing in the prophethood of Mohammed, which is one of the convention, you don't think is a criteria for being a Muslim? You don't have to believe in the Prophet of… 

Irshad Manji: I believe in the prophethood of, of Mohammed. 

Mehdi Hasan: And I'm wondering if you believe that's a criteria for… 

Irshad Manji: I do believe in the Prophet

Mehdi Hasan: But is that, should that be a criterion for being a Muslim as it conventionally is? 

Irshad Manji: I don't think so, because, what has happened is that, um, in, in, in making that one of the criterion, we have inadvertently as Muslims, many of us, and I would argue most of us, have put Prophet Mohammed on a pedestal, when he himself reportedly said, "I'm just a human being who's been given this special mission from God, but I am a fallible human being." And so I believe that going back to the Quran rather than also supplementing it with [Hadiths] and you know, the traditions of the Prophet, the Quran itself contains the raw materials for the diversity of thought that we are capable of. We know, we don't need to go any further. 

Mehdi Hasan: Gentleman in the white cap. 

Audience member: So I just wanna ask is there any basis for just punishment in war in Islam, bearing in mind the prophet and his companions performed both? And is there any practice in Islam which is not open to choice?

Irshad Manji: The central tenant of Islam is belief in one universal God.

The central sin in Islam therefore, in my view is, playing God with one another, and beyond that, this is your relationship with your creator. Do not impose on other people, do not intimidate other people. Understand that you will have the conversation you need to have on the day of judgment with your creator and why does it need to be more complicated than that? If you keep it that simple, then I think that part of the contribution you, one would be making is liberating spirituality from the cage of organised religion. That's it (khalas).

Mehdi Hasan: That's is (khalas) is a nicer line that I'm going to steal.


Mehdi Hasan: Thank you very much for coming here to address this audience. Thank you for you all on the Oxford Union for coming here today er and thanks to you all for watching at home. We will be back for another Head To Head next week.



Source: Al Jazeera