The Trouble with Islam

The recent picture of the president walking hand-in-hand with Saudi Prince Abdullah prompted a torrent of juvenile jokes. Left mostly unasked were important questions, however, about Saudi Arabia’s role in fomenting and supporting militant Islam. A recent controversial book asks these questions—not only about Saudi Arabia, but the Islamic world as a whole. The book is The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith by Irshad Manji. Manji calls herself a “Muslim Refusenik,” a politically loaded term. “Refusenik” was originally used to describe Soviet Jews who refused to go along with the “mind control” and “soulnessness” of Soviet Communism. Her provocative use of the term mind control sends a clear message: Manji raises subjects that you normally don’t bring up in polite Islamic circles. Interestingly enough, she credits evangelical Christianity for some of her willingness to do this. A few years after her family immigrated to Canada, her parents left her at a local Baptist church while they worked. The South Asian who taught her Bible class made Manji believe that “[her] questions were worth asking.” So, she asked more—so many, in fact, that she won “Most Promising Christian of the Year” award when she was eight. That’s when her father “plucked” her out of the church school and enrolled her at a madrassa. The contrast between the two schools left Manji convinced that the problem with Islam is not that the religion has been “hijacked” by extremists, as many said following September 11. Rather, it’s that the extremists, the Koranic literalists, comprise what she calls “the intellectually atrophied and morally impaired mainstream” of Islam. Which brings me back to Saudi Arabia. In her book, Manji asks a question that infuriates mainstream Muslim groups: “Who is the real colonizer of Muslims—America or Arabia?” According to Manji, many of mainstream Islam’s worst features, like its treatment of women and its “deep-seated anti-Semitism,” are the product of “Arab Imperialism.” Within the Islamic world, being a “real” or “good” Muslim means being more Arab. Thus, while Christians aren’t required to learn Hebrew and Greek to read the Scriptures and pray, Muslims must do both in Arabic. And it isn’t only language. It is culture as well. The Saudi-funded madrassas and other religious institutions are not spreading an abstract version of Islam. They are spreading what one Egyptian writer calls the “Islam of the Desert.” The influence of Saudi money and the institutions it creates makes it difficult if not impossible to separate Islam from what Manji calls the “harsh habits of the desert.” As you might expect, her views haven’t made Manji many friends in Islamic circles. One professor at my alma mater, Brown University, called her a “racist” and an “imperialist.” She has received more than a few death threats. You don’t have to agree with everything Manji writes or think that her proposals to “reform” Islam are plausible in order to understand the importance of her work. Her “open letter” asks the kind of questions that must be asked in the Muslim world. Here’s hoping it gets an honest reading and the discussion it deserves.


Chuck Colson


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