Reconciling Islam with Freedom
On May 14, GMF Berlin hosted a discussion with Irshad Manji, a Senior Fellow with the Brussels based European Foundation for Democracy, entitled, "Faith Without Fear: Irshad Manji's Quest to Reconcile Islam with Freedom," in cooperation with the Hanns Seidel Foundation. Manji supported her talk by presenting clips from her latest television documentary Faith Without Fear, which premiered on PBS in April. Seyran Ates, lawyer and women's rights activist for Muslim women in Germany, responded to the presentation by adding the German perspective to Ms. Manji's views on how to reform Islam and the current status of reform efforts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Manji, an observing Muslim, opened her talk by stressing that her quest to reconcile Islam and freedom has often been called an impossible mission. However, she maintains that Islam began as a religion of justice which has been corrupted by fundamentalists and reform necessary. Reforming Islam, however, does not mean secularization, but fighting the manipulation of religion.
According to Manji, Islam fostered the tradition of ijtihad in its golden ages, known as Islam's very own tradition of critical thinking. Reviving and spreading this tradition once again, Manji would like to see mainstream Muslims in the West to start thinking more critically, taking responsibility for their religion instead of leaving it to fundamentalists. This means that Muslims need to rethink religious values and traditions, in addition to openly questioning the perfection of the Koran that contains the permission to be reinterpreted with a 21st century angle. Rather than only blaming others e.g. for the violence done in the name of Islam, Muslims should also engage critically with themselves and fellow Muslims. "You can point four fingers at others," Manji said, "but you should at least point one finger at yourself. Or are we this perfect?"
She strongly emphasized that Muslims should not equate feeling offended with actually being discriminated against. Living in a diverse society can more often lead to offense, but this should be accepted because diversity needs to defend the pluralism of ideas and thoughts.
Manji furthermore confirmed Salman Rushdie's statement, who she interviewed for her documentary, that a reform of Islam will start in the Western hemisphere as it allows for a more open debate without fear of retaliation, but it will above all start with Muslim women, as they are the ones who, "have very little to lose but a lot to gain." Yet, the reform of Islam will also need the help of non-Muslims who will have to move away from the idea of cultural relativism and idyllic multiculturalism and instead speak up against injustices committed in the name of Islam. However, this will ask for a fine balance as many Muslims in Western Europe are faced with a rather aggressive, almost missionary, request to secularize and they feel that they are in between chairs: Non-Muslims ask them to abandon their religion which is seen as irrational and dangerous. On the other hand, the Muslim community tell them that they can only be Muslims and nothing else. In Canada and the U.S., people are generally not questioned for being religious, it is an accepted part of their identity and thus it is easier for Muslims to keep and practice their faith and at the same time be part of the society.
In one of her film clips of her documentary, the viewer meets the ex-bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, Nasser, who remarks that his son Habib will hopefully die as a martyr one day. This statement came as a little suprise, Manji elaborated, because while searching for "reformed" interview partners in Arab States, Nasser was officially introduced by the Yemeni government as a "deprogrammed reformed terrorist" who obviously was not deprogrammed at all. Asked by the audience if her project ijtihad will be able to ever reach especially the children or mainstream Muslims in Arab societies, Manji remained realistic that she personally will not be able to change the views of fundamentalists. However, her book reaches young Muslims in the Arab World, due to the free download on her website, and among those readers are also young ex-terrorists who in turn can try to reach out to children like Habib. She sees herself more like planting seeds.
"Dissidents can create spaces where other people can step in later and reach people dissidents would never reach by themselves," Manji explained, "project ijtihad is not a solution but an approach, "it can always be used for good or bad intentions but in using it we do not leave the floor to fundamentalist interpretation as the only option."
Seyran Ates generally supported the views of Irshad Manji stating that her presentation once again showed that reformers do need to organize more and build a network to support each other and to counter djihadist networks. So far, Reform Islam is only in its early stages, also in Germany and it is still more a work of single people, especially women, who have to fear for their lives. Muslim women still have to live under patriarchic structures, also in Germany, and to Ates it is a form of racism to actually leave it the way it is - archaic. As a member of the German Islam Summit, summoned by the federal president of Germany, Ates quoted one prominent Non-Muslim member of the summit addressing the male Muslim participants: "We had to quarrel with our women, now you have to quarrel with yours."