Sunday, November 25, 2007

Review: The Trouble with Islam Today

I met Irshard Manji when she visited Google to give a talk. She seemed to be a very brave woman with a major goal, which is to bring about a Reformation, as it were, to modern Islam. As others have pointed out, the kind of reformation that she espouses is a requirement before the many Islamic cultures in the middle east can begin to consider having a successful economy or development beyond what has turned out to be The Curse of Oil in the recent century.

Manji points out that there was a period of time in the Islamic empire when open discussion and questioning of tradition was welcome --- during which ijtihad flourished. The period was relatively short (about 500 years or so) before the Islamic empire collapsed and Islam (or perhaps just the middle-eastern variant) retreated back towards tribal traditions and the desert.

She further points out that both the United States and Israel, whom many Arabic Muslims blame for their humiliation, both tolerate and support dissent within their countries --- it is the Arabic countries that do not have a free press. All through the book, her pleas are impassioned (especially her complaint about Foundamentalism, the Arabic view of Islam being held supreme over other views), and her history well-researched. In person, I asked her why she thought fundamentalism had become more popular throughout the world, not just in troubled countries. Her response was a very straightforward, "Globalism. When the world becomes smaller, you lose what you think you used to have, and you try very hard to cling to traditions which you think you might be losing." I would have appreciated further development of that theme, but did not find that in this book.

All in all, I'm convinced that a Reformation of some kind is necessary before the middle east can make progress. I am not sure what form it will take, however, and perhaps a little disappointed that Manji ultimately veers away what I consider would be the ultimate destination of her religious exploration, which is secular humanism, a philosophy that is more fruitful and less condemning of human reason than even a reformed Islam would be. But ultimately, that is a religious choice, and as it is, I would not want to condemn her for standing out there in the face of death-threats --- in her position I would probably not be as brave!
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