Canadian writer Irshad Manji has made headlines in Indonesian media during the past few days. A wave of protests was sparked by Islamic hard-liners against her speaking at the launch for her new book, “Allah, Liberty and Love,” first in Solo and then at the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta last weekend.
Has any of these protesters read her books? And on last Friday, why did they have to stage a protest while Manji speaking in front of Indonesian intellectuals, scholars, students and activists? Why didn’t they let her have a chance to speak peacefully, to debate her ideas, to bring up issues and arguments in an open and healthy discussion?
Born in Uganda, Manji and her family moved to Canada when she was 4, during the time when Ugandan President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the Indian/Asian minority. Manji started her career as a researcher, journalist and activist in Canada. In 2003 she wrote and published her first book, “The Trouble With Islam Today.” The book serves as a letter to fellow Muslims across the world. In the book, Manji states that the problem with Islam doesn’t lie only in the militant groups but also in the majority of mainstream Muslims that turn religion of peace into an ideology of fear.
“The Trouble With Islam Today” became best seller months after its release in the United States. Because of the sensitive issues brought up in the book, Manji received a harsh response from Muslims all over the world yet at the same time she garnered heartfelt confessions from those with similar opinions in many different countries. In the years that followed, “The Trouble With Islam Today” was translated into numerous languages and subsequently Manji received death threats along the way.
In her latest book, “Allah, Liberty and Love,” Manji attempts to answer questions about how Muslims’ defensive attitude toward “the other” brings about negative perceptions.
As a community, Manji argued, Muslims need to be brave and to ask critical questions even of one’s own family and community. The answer to some of the questions posed by Manji in her book have been answered by God within his verses in the Koran. The task for Muslims then is to find the perfect verse to support their arguments and to speak with love.
Manji also testifies of boldly arguing with her family about her belief and her own interpretation of Islam. Manji quotes verses from the Koran that say: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do” (4: 135).
“Allah, Liberty and Love” mentions the Moral Courage Project — a movement Manji founded with some friends. This project challenges individuals to speak up in the world where we have always have been silent. Her vision in this journey is to connect the reform mission in the Muslim community with a universal moral courage for all mankind.
As one of the participants of Irshad Manji’s book launch at Salihara last Friday, I am deeply disappointed by the way police handled the protests staged by Islamic militants outside (and later in) the venue. As participants of an intellectual discussion, we respected the protesters who were unfamiliar with Manji’s works. We allowed them to debate in an open and healthy manner yet the Islamic Defenders Front — one of the religious groups that demonstrated on the day — acted harshly, using threats and insulting Manji because of her sexual orientation — she’s widely known as a lesbian Muslim. The police — who supposedly act as protectors — let protesters come into the venue, damage the gates and further facilitated them to act inappropriately. The police also suggested we adjourn the discussion because, not surprisingly, they could not guarantee our safety. I see that as a threat to our freedom in a public space.
Irshad Manji seeks to connect the idea of religious interpretation with liberty, courage and love. Her controversial statements were contested and confronted by Islamic hard-liners and militant religious groups. Prior to her visit to Indonesia, she had received death threats in the Netherlands a few months ago. The courage Manji showed us in the forum in Salihara last week, her choice of words, her daring arguments, challenged us Indonesians to be brave, to open our minds, to liberate ourselves from social and moral repressions, and to strengthen bonds as a community in a plural environment.
To end this, I would like to quote her, “Identity can trap you, but integrity will set you free.” She believes that society today is caught up with Islamic identity rather than acting with integrity. With all the troubles and hard times thrown in her face, Manji still embraces the day with love and the spirit to continue to spread her message.
I believe, in any religion, we all should be ready to fight for equality and justice with integrity and in a nonviolent approach.
Olin Monteiro is a writer and feminist working in Jakarta