The Agenda: Irshad Manji Interview [transcript]
Feb. 19, 2007, Human Rights Campaign
"The Agenda with Joe Solmonese" is a broad-strokes radio program that looks at gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgender America. It is opinionated, political, informative, funny
and unpredictable. Solmonese is Human Rights Campaign President The show airs live
every Monday night from 6 - 8 p.m. ET on XM Live Channel 200.
On Feb. 19, 2007, Joe and co-host Mary Breslauer talked to Irshad Manji, the lesbian
activist who authored The Trouble with Islam Today. They had a fascinating
conversation about faith, politics and the how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
issues are viewed in the Muslim world.
But right now we’re pleased and honored to have with us Muslim dissident Irshad Manji.
Her bestselling book “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform”
caused such a storm that her home is now literally armed for attack. The cause of these
daily death threats is her message: that Islam has been exploited by contemporary holy
wars. Manji believes that humanity, reason, and debate must be restored to Islam. Her
film, “Faith Without Fear,” will be featured in a sweeping PBS program in April entitled
“America at a Crossroads.” Irshad Manji, thanks so much for joining us.
It’s such a pleasure to be with you guys. Thanks.
Now, first, set the stage for our listeners. You believe that your faith has, in essence,
been hijacked by extremists. Give us that overview, if you would.
You know what, Joe? Actually, I don’t believe it has been hijacked by extremists, and I
actually make that point quite clearly in my book. To say that it’s been hijacked is to
suggest the metaphor of a plane, that Islam is a plane that has somehow been cruising to
some kind of a human rights haven. And were it not for those nasty, nasty terrorists on
9/11, everything would be just peachy now. I’m saying in my book that everything was
not peachy even before 9/11, and that we Muslims are not mere passengers on a plane.
We are all the pilots on the plane. And that it is up to us, reform-minded Muslims, to
steer that plane in a direction of humanity and reason. So I’m saying to my fellow
Muslims, please snap out of your victim mentality, and recognize this beautiful verse in
the Koran, Islam’s own holy book, and that verse states that God does not change the
condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. So it is up to us Muslims,
with the help of progressive non-Muslims, to take Islam into the direction of human
But why is that debate so difficult to have within your faith? What is wrong with that
One word, Mary: fear. Fear. And that’s why I call my forthcoming PBS documentary
“Faith Without Fear.” I’m on a journey in this documentary to reconcile Islam with
freedom. And the journey is ultimately about having faith in ourselves and each other to
conquer fears of various kinds. The fear of asking questions out loud, the fear of being
ostracized or worse within your own community – for example, Joe, I see you mentioned
that I have bulletproof windows at home. There is a deep, deep fear, not just of violence
within our religion today, that is to say Islam today, but also a fear of bringing shame and
dishonor upon the family by speaking out. And also, I have to add, there is a fear among
progressive non-Muslims, and that fear is of offending minorities in a multicultural
world. So I’m saying in this documentary, by facing our fears, individuals can find their
unique voices. And, guys, that too is a frightening prospect, because with voice comes
the responsibility to use it, which in turn means taking ownership of the solutions. So
you can see the title, “Faith Without Fear,” is meant to have universal resonance. Its
message applies not just to Muslims, but to anyone who’s ever been told that they’re
victims. Women, Jews, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, aboriginal Americans.
“Faith Without Fear” reminds all of us that in this part of the world, we do have personal
agency. Whether we have the courage to exercise it is the bigger question.
Now, “Faith Without Fear” is obviously very revealing. In fact, it clearly portrays the
enormous personal risk you take in your mission. There’s a scene, I know, with your
mother, where you’re having a conversation about the daily death threats you receive.
Clearly you are – at least, in watching you, in reading about you – without fear. Where
does this courage come from?
I think it comes from the definition of courage that I’ve decided to adopt. Courage is not
the absence of fear. Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than
fear. And there are many things, Joe, that are more important to me than fear. Pluralism
of ideas, universal human rights, the ability to speak our minds freely and thereby
challenge abuses of power. All of these things give my life meaning. And when I say
“my life,” maybe it comes from the fact that I’m a refugee to this part of the world. I was
born in a pretty closed society in Uganda, which is a small country in Africa. And when
we were expelled by the dictator who ran that country, a military general by the name of
Idi Amin, we mercifully and miraculously ended up in Canada. And I remember one
night scrambling up to the roof of my house after my father chased me through the house
with a knife in his hand, and I remember surveying the neighborhood and reminding
myself (though not in these words, because I was only eleven years old) that there’s a
reason that we ended up in an open society. And that an open society is one in which
everybody gets to contribute to the grand story. We are all authors of our own destiny in
this kind of a society. So the choices that we make have consequences. Let’s make those
choices not just on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of all those who don’t yet have the
privileges we do. That is the privilege we have in this part of the world. And I’ve carried
that gratitude with me in everything I’ve done. I truly believe this is why I don’t fear
losing what I have. I’m grateful for what I do have and I’m interested in using my voice
to further the prospects of those who aren’t nearly as fortunate as I am.
What did you make of it, Irshad, when the New York Times called you “Osama bin
Laden’s worst nightmare”?
I tell you something, I took it as a major compliment! I also chuckled, as I did just now,
because I think they’re referring not just to my progressive values, my feminism, my
sexual orientation, and all of those other heinous crimes that Islamists despise, but they’re
probably also referring to my hair, which is quite spiky. And I have refused to put what I
call in my book “the intellectual condom,” the burqa, over it. So I have a feeling Mr. bin
Laden – excuse me, Brother bin Laden – would not be very pleased with me. And I must
tell you, I wear that as a badge of honor.
Now, I saw in the film that you have a very chilling conversation with Osama bin
Laden’s former bodyguard who says he’s willing to turn his young son into a martyr.
That’s a sort of daunting statement, isn’t it?
He put it in the context of people – by which he means Muslims – are being slaughtered
in places like Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine. And his interpretation of Islam
requires him to fight back with everything he’s got, and that includes his lovely six-year-
old son Habib. And by the way, “Habib” in Arabic means “sweet.” And that gives that
moment in the film so much more poignancy for me. But here’s the problem with his
argument, with the bodyguard’s argument: the fact of the matter is, in the last 100 years
alone, more Muslims have been raped, maimed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered at the
hands of other Muslims than at the hands of any foreign imperial power. And, Joe and
Mary, I don’t want to suggest that, therefore, Western imperialism doesn’t exist. Of
course it exists. Remember, I was born in Uganda, which is a country colonized by the
British. I know Western imperialism firsthand. But the point is that imperialism is
borderless. It doesn’t just spring from white people. It doesn’t know particular skin
tones. It comes from any group of people who is interested in controlling power and
authority. And that includes certain Muslims as well. So that when I ask non-Muslims,
particularly progressive non-Muslims, to speak up for human rights in Islam, I remind
them that because Muslims are the first victims of Islamic terror, when they speak up for
human rights in Islam, the people they are first and foremost defending are Muslims, not
themselves. And there is nothing racist about that. Exactly the opposite.
Now, do you think you create an even greater depth of anger because you’re also not
afraid to acknowledge you’re a lesbian?
Oh, no question about it. No question about it. A disproportionate number of angry e-
mails I get come from those who love to hurl the words “whore” and “prostitute” and
throw the word “lesbian” in front of that. So it’s not just anymore about being a woman,
though that of course would be enough for them too, it is also the fact that I defy social
and cultural customs by being out and being happy with who I am. Now notice, Joe, that
I said social and cultural customs. I believe there is a possibility of reconciling Islam as a
faith with acceptance of homosexuality. And my belief is based on Scripture itself. No
question, there are some passages that suggest homosexuality cannot be tolerated. But
there are many more pro-diversity passages which suggest that God created the
breathtaking multiplicity of our world. For example, the Koran tells us that everything
God made is “excellent.” That nothing God has made is “in vain.” And that God creates
“whom He will.” Now, all of this suggests that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and
incapable of making mistakes. So if God did not wish to make me a lesbian, why would
He have not made somebody else in my place? My critics say, “Ah, but He did make
somebody else in your place, Irshad. He made straight people.” I say, “Sure, but He also
made female people and white people. Does that mean God never intended to make male
people or brown people or black people? Oh, and by the way, the fact that He did make
gay and lesbian people – does that mean that He never intended to make heterosexual
people?” You can see how tedious such an argument becomes. And finally, I just have
to add one more point here, the critics then become that much more sophisticated, they
think, by saying I’m just like bin Laden himself. That I’m cherry picking one or two or
three verses from the Koran in order to support my “special interest agenda.” I remind
them that what I don’t do is use violence to impose my so-called “special interest
agenda” on everybody else, whereas bin Laden does. That is a life and death difference.
But the other point to make is that it isn’t simply one or two or three verses. The Koran
contains three times as many passages calling on us to think and reflect and analyze than
passages that tell us what is absolutely right or wrong. In other words, the Koran has
plenty of room for debate or dissent, even on as thorny an issue as homosexuality.
Do you see a connection, Irshad, between the anti-woman attitudes of Islam and the anti-
gay attitudes? Or at least, as they’re expressed?
Certainly. And I think one could make that linkage in every major religion, too. That at
the end of the day, as we all know, being anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-diversity, is really
about power and control. And it’s exercised by those who fear losing authority. That’s
why in my book, “The Trouble With Islam Today,” I make the distinction between
authority and authoritarianism. You know, authority can be legitimate. Parents can have
authority. Teachers can have authority. Elected politicians can have authority. But
authoritarianism, by definition, is never legitimate, because it is the abuse of authority.
And that is what I am challenging: in my book, in my documentary, in all the human
rights work I do.
Now, just to change tracks for a minute here, you’ve lived in Canada most of your life.
Canadians’ views of LGBT issues are definitely different than Americans’ views. How
do you account for that?
Well, you know, Canada is a pretty interesting mélange. A pretty interesting mixture of
differences. Not least of which is the fact that we live next door to the world’s only
remaining superpower – at least, only remaining superpower for now. And so Canadians
often take an attitude to simply distinguish ourselves from Americans. So that if we
know, for example, that gay and lesbian rights are being heavily challenged in the United
States, many Canadians – I don’t want to suggest all – but many Canadians will become
that much more pro-gay and lesbian simply to be able to say, “We’re not American.” I
have to tell you guys though, I find that attitude to be highly immature, because it is a
reaction to something as opposed to a celebratory embrace of human rights for all. But,
listen, some would argue on purely strategic grounds that whatever allows for gays and
lesbians to have basic human rights, let us embrace that strategy. And if that means
distinguishing ourselves from the Americans, so be it. Me? I guess I’m a bit more
idealistic, and I believe human rights should be celebrated on their own merits and not
because someone else is pushing back against them.
Sort of in closing, Irshad, are you optimistic about the future in terms of this incredible
uphill fight you’re waging within your faith?
Mary, that’s a great question, and I want to tell you I’m very optimistic. I believe that
2007 is going to be a breakthrough year for reform Muslims to gather openly, visibly, and
transparently and to push our vision onto the public agenda. In fact, in early March, right
here in America – I say “here” because that’s where I’m talking to you, in America –
there will be history’s first international congress of reform-minded Muslims. It’s called
the Secular Islam Summit, and I encourage people who are interested in this to come to
my website, www.muslim-refusenik.com, and get information about this conference.
And it’s not the only conference that’s happening this year. There will be more. But the
point is that we’re gathering, not to change the minds of fundamentalists – forget that –
we’re gathering to show other, closeted, reform-minded Muslims that they are not going
to be alone when they come out of the closet and speak their minds freely. You know,
our enemies can pick us off individually, but collectively we’re going nowhere but
forward. That’s why I’m optimistic.