It is an outstanding spectacle of hypocrisy to watch Canadian author, tv personality and huckster Irshad Manji making the rounds on American television talking about "moral courage." Her proponents describe her as some sort of courageous Muslim reformer, and most of her critics attack her as an Islamophobe, but I think she is neither. Her claim to be a reformer, or even a critic, are incompatible with the fact that she simply knows virtually nothing about Islamic theology, history or civilizations. The woman is an ignoramus, pure and simple. However, I would argue that she cannot reasonably be called an Islamophobe if that word is to have any meaning, since she has a lot of positive things to say about the religion, the prophet, the Quran, etc., and especially since she continues to identify religiously as a Muslim herself. However Manji is, in fact, a rather crude and vitriolic anti-Arab racist, and on those grounds watching her parading around the media talking about moral courage is perfectly outrageous.
Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (St. Martin’s, 2005), as its title suggests, poses a simple question: what’s the trouble with Islam today? And it provides a simple answer: the Arabs.
Manji knows little, and did not bother to find out much, about her main subject when she sat down to write a book about Islam. In a manner similar to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Manji bases much of her critique on wild, grossly inaccurate generalizations about Islam, and extrapolates from her own personal experiences to construct a generalized, and absurdly and offensively reductive, model of supposedly “Islamic” mentality, practices, attitudes, etc. Not only does this frequently dispense with any distinction between culture and theology (actually what both of these woman do is employ these distinctions sometimes and dispense with them at others according to whim and expediency), it obliterates the heterogeneity of Islam as a social text and replaces it with an imaginary unity, which is generally negative.
Unlike Hirsi Ali, however, Manji does not turn her back on Islam completely. Instead, she seeks to recuperate it, at least in part, by identifying the source of “the trouble with Islam today.” Manji’s wretchedly written and annoyingly conversational book (reading it sometimes feels like getting hectored by an overconfident, belligerent and tipsy teenager) crosses the line when it comes to stigmatizing the Arabs.
She blames most if not almost all of the “trouble with Islam” on the Arabs and their culture. To underline this point, she almost compulsively refers to “desert Arabs,” “desert culture” and “the desert culture of Arabia.” Her obsession with sand – the vast majority of Arabs of course not being desert-dwellers or nomads – can really only be understood as part of an effort to create an aura of barrenness, harshness and desolation and to thereby suggest that the Arabs come from not only a physical but also a cultural and moral space that is devoid of anything good.
Using this imagery of the desert as a barely veiled and often overt code for Arabs and their culture, Manji engages in the most blatant anti-Arab racism imaginable, which may well account for the otherwise inexplicable popularity of her book in some quarters.
First of all, the Arabs are aggressors, spreading a corrupt and irredeemable version of Islam around the world. According to Manji, Arabs have used Islam to “colonize” the other Muslims. “Seems to me,” she writes, “that in Islam, Arab cultural imperialists compete with God for the mantle of the Almighty.” The veil, for example, is “a brand victory for desert Arabs.” In this way, Arabs have forced their own cultural degradation on the other Muslim peoples, forcing millions to “parrot the desert peoples,” and propagating “myths [that] have turned non-Arab Muslims into clients of the Arab masters.” “Who is the real colonizers of the Muslims,” she asks, “America or Arabia?" She even refers to “Arab-occupied Sudan.”
Manji seems to think that all Arabs live in conditions defined by nomadic Bedouin tribes, and that this is the source of most of the main problems facing the over one billion Muslims around the world:
…Muslims are a community brought together by faith in God. Everyone says we are. We believe we are. We must be. Suppose we’re not. Suppose we’re not really joined together by faith in God but by submission to a particular culture. Could it be that Islam, even of the passive sort, is more a faith in the ways of the desert then in the wisdom of the divine, and that Muslims are taught to imitate the power dynamics of an Arabian tribe, where sheikhs rule the roost and everyone else chafes under their rule?
Saudi Arabia, which she calls a “cauldron of duplicity,” according to Manji, “has mastered the art of colonizing Muslims.” Since the Arabs are, she apparently feels, innately or irredeemably backward, corrupt and tyrannical, as well as closed-minded, “as the Arab mind has become addled, so has the Muslim mind – as all Muslims must walk (or hobble) in lockstep with the initial followers of the faith.” Apart from the incredible notion that one-fifth of humanity shares something that can be in any meaningful sense called “the Muslim mind,” this passage holds “the Arab mind” (also a preposterous concept) responsible for any problem that might be identified with Muslim cultures around the world.
Oppression of other faiths by Muslims around the world? Fault of the Arabs: “Maybe it’s the desert mind-set that manufactured dhimmitude, the systematic repression of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands.”
Oppression of women in non-Arab Muslim societies? Fault of the Arabs: "And maybe the desert personality of Islam is why the rape of a woman in Pakistan can be made to compensate a dishonored clan, even if that clan’s honor was violated not by her but by someone else“ (even though such practices are completely unknown in any Arab society).
Lack of equality and democracy in Muslim societies? Fault of the Arabs: “Let me propose this much: equality can’t exist in the desert, not if the tribe’s integrity is to remain intact.”
Anti-Semitism among east Asian Muslims? Fault of the Arabs: “Mahathir has betrayed his own susceptibility to Arab influencers by holding Jews responsible for Malaysia’s currency crisis.”
Rise of Islamists in east Asia? Fault of the Arabs: “Desert Islam is also encroaching on Southeast Asia.”
Lack of reform in Islam? Fault of the Arabs: “this intellectual renaissance eroded under anti-colonialist rhetoric and the political pressures for Arab solidarity, which meant rejecting all things Western.”
A supposed lack of spiritual sophistication among Muslims? Fault of the Arabs: "A God, that is, who’s will you can’t predict. Too preposterous a thought for most Arab Muslims?”
She also holds the Arabs to be completely racist against other Muslims, telling a most implausible and unverifiable story about an Arab Muslim student who tells some Pakistanis they are not “real Muslims” because they are not Arabs. She goes on to describe another student who wanted to dissent from “Arab central command” and deal with “the Arab racism within her club.” To top this all off, she presents one of her observations as “another barometer of Arab hypocrisy,” as if that were a congenital condition of an entire people, or a category of hypocrisy all its own.
All trouble, real or imagined, “with Islam” in Manji’s account boils down to one central negative influence: the Arabs. Everything is their fault. Manji has virtually nothing positive to say about not only the Arabs in general or their culture (about which she seems blissfully ignorant) and almost nothing positive to say about any individual Arab either.
Moreover, according to this breathtakingly racist account, the Arabs contributed almost nothing positive historically either. Manji holds that Arab culture (which, she does not seem to realize and certainly never acknowledges gave rise to Islam in the first place) had infected the faith with its corruptions from the outset:
Isn’t it also plausible that Arab warriors, more familiar with their sturdy customs and with their novel faith, grafted many of these customs into the Islam they exported? It’s not hard to see how the cultural baggage of desert Arabs, such as tribal walls, would pose as Islam proper.
Having corrupted Islam from the beginning, the Arabs also did not contribute anything of note, according to Manji, to Islamic civilization beyond the purely brutal and martial. But with such an inauspicious opening, “what went right?” she asks, in the glorious heyday of Islam when the whole thing was lead by a bunch of vile, backward and despicable Arabs. Her brilliant explanation: having run amok militarily, the Arabs had to turn to others to provide the learning, the culture, the civilization of Islam, they being strictly incapable of such things:
…the realization that absolutism doesn’t bring prestige may be what fired up ambitious emirs to engage the best minds of the day – those of the Jews and Christians, of course, but also those of non-Arab Muslims. It was non-Arabs who created the vast corpus of Islamic law up to and during the golden age.
So the edifice of Islamic civilization was developed without significant contribution by the Arabs, except as rulers, but was created instead by everybody else: Jews, Christians and to some extent non-Arab Muslims. And now, the Arabs singularly stand in the way of Islamic reform: “Can the norms of the desert be dislodged from Islam? If not, we have no hope in hell of reform.” She asks, rhetorically of course, “Is colonization by desert Arabia the problem [in Islam] we need to help reform?”
Manji’s deep-seated anti-Arab racism is complimented, or rather compounded, by her equally intense philo-Semitism. Indeed, having stripped the Arabs of any claim of credit for the achievements of Islam and Islamic civilizations historically, she points us helpfully in the right direction for whatever credit might be available, asking, “How many of us [Muslims] know the degree to which Islam is a ‘gift of the Jews’?”
Manji complains at length about the extent to which non-Arab and non-Palestinian Muslims are pressured by their religious leaders on the basis of religious affiliation to side with Palestinians in the conflict with Israel. “Arab grudge matches have no business covering Islam,” she writes (as if the problem of the longest military occupation in modern history were simply a grudge).
And, to be sure, many Muslims may feel or have been made to feel bound to side with Palestinians on religious grounds – just as millions of Jews and Christians of various denominations have been religiously coerced into adopting a knee-jerk pro-Israel position. It goes without saying that a religiously-inflected stance on any clash between two competing forms of ethno-nationalism is strictly irrational and invalid. The relative merits of competing claims and forces should be judged by fairly, dispassionately and rationally according to universal standards and through the essential documents the human family has adopted to regulate relations between different states and societies such as the UN Charter, UN Security Council Resolutions and the Geneva Conventions. This standard might not always be easy to achieve, but it is in every way preferable to a default to some automatic affiliation based on racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors.
What Manji does, sadly, is not to rid herself of an irrational attachment to Palestine and the Arabs, and hostility towards Israel and the Jews, on spurious religious grounds, as would be wise and proper, and as every Muslim would be well advised to do. Instead, she inverts this all-too-common error and simply adopts the opposite, equally illogical and indefensible position of an irrational attachment to Israel and the Jews, and hostility towards Palestine and the Arabs, also on completely spurious and emotional grounds. Manji buys into some of the crudest mythology about the origins and history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even referring to “the land the Arabs belatedly minted Palestine,” as if Palestine were somehow an ersatz construction and an Arab plot.
She also has swallowed the lines that Palestinians were made refugees largely because they left at the urging of Arab leaders, that the Arab states bear more responsibility than Israel for their suffering, and that the UN is part of the problem for caring for the refugees.
Manji believes in a weird fantasy version of Israel in which, “As a Muslim, I could become a citizen of Israel without having to convert,” without, of course, explaining how that would work (and if she were a Palestinian, she would be legally barred from moving to Israel even by marrying an Israeli citizen, the only path that otherwise springs to mind).
Her profound ignorance about Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, not to mention the millions of stateless Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, is further evinced by her claim that Israel is “the only country in the Middle East to which Arab Christians are voluntarily migrating.” There is, of course, no mechanism for Arab Christians to “migrate” to Israel.
But then, Israeli forms of discrimination are not only fine with Manji they are justified and laudable:
When it comes to citizenship, Israel does discriminate. In the way that an affirmative action policy discriminates, Israel gives the edge to a specific minority that has faced historical injustice. In that sense, the Jewish state is an affirmative action polity. Liberals should love it.
The problem is that in Israel, its Jewish citizens are not a “specific minority” but a dominating majority that holds and disseminates power in its own interests to the detriment of a 20 percent Arab minority and millions of completely disenfranchised and stateless Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The bottom line is that, for Manji, Israel even as an military occupier and colonizing force is still wonderful and praiseworthy: “Israel, I find, brings more compassion to ‘colonization’ than its adversaries have ever brought to ‘liberation.’”
She even praised the Israeli construction of the separation barrier that snakes through much of the occupied West Bank in an article for the New York Times called How I learned to love the wall.
On the other hand, if there is one group of Arabs that Manji particularly dislikes, it is the Palestinians. In an amazing passage in her book, she recounts going to meet a group of Palestinians including the noted lawyer and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh. After speaking with these Palestinians living under occupation, she decides to discount everything they have to say, which she describes as “the script,” because they focused on the way in which the Israeli occupation has made their lives wretched and needs to end.
After two others have tried in vain to explain to her the problems and hardships of life under foreign military occupation, she remarks that, “Two of the three Palestinians have dutifully delivered their lines,” assuming that these men did not believe a word they were telling her. When Shehadeh too dares to focus on Israeli policies and the problems of living under occupation, Manji marvels at how, “An otherwise robust intellectual would censor himself in front of two compatriots.” In a later passage she complains that, “Raja Shehadeh doesn’t dare venture beyond the hallways of half-truth.”
She gives no consideration to the idea that these Palestinians were in fact telling her what they wanted her to understand, and which she plainly reveals in her book that she does not understand at all, which is that Israel operates a brutal occupation in these territories and has used it to take land away from one people and giving it to another (perhaps the settlements also qualify as “affirmative action” in her mind). Manji proved completely incapable of listening seriously to Palestinians and instead of considering what they had to say about their lives, took the whole thing to be a demonstration of the tyrannical nature of Palestinian society. She has produced a novel (and exceptionally arrogant and mean-spirited) approach to the old art of dismissing and delegitimizing the Palestinian narrative and experience in order to protect Israeli policies from justified criticism.
And this is the individual who now presumes to lecture us all about "moral courage."