Religion – Philosophy – Project Ijtihad – Irshad Manji – Reformism Bridges "Essentialist" Divisions – 9 April 2012

I spoke in my last post about Irshad Manji’s Project Ijtihad as a kind of “liberation theology for Islam”. Here’s a link to what she’s doing with this project.

Note that one of the real limiting factors to her movement has been getting around the hostility, coming from both other Muslims and Western leftists, to the idea that reformists inside and outside of the Muslim community can work together.

This passage from the website is really interesting in that regard: “Progressive non-Muslims are crucial partners in our mission. When non-Muslims work with reform-minded Muslims, they’re sending notice that moderates and fundamentalists are no longer the only voices that count in Islam. When non-Muslims recognize reform-minded Muslims, they’re spurring a healthy competition of ideas and interpretations. Above all, they’re affirming that reform-minded Muslims are as authentic as the mainstream, and quite possibly more constructive. Some worry that involving non-Muslims is a recipe for ‘illegitimacy’. We respectfully disagree. If reform is to mean anything, it must involve transcending the petty tribalism that has calcified all religions in God’s expansive name.”

That’s an important thing to say. Part of what frustrates me about how Irshad Manji has been treated, in fact, is that she is far more reduced to her essential characteristics by an unwillingness to engage her universalistic ideas than she is by an acknowledgement of her group identities (about which she is in any case proud).

A while back, I incurred the wrath of friends by referring to Manji as “one of my favourite Muslim women”. It was argued that this reduced Ms. Manji to her essential characteristics and treated her as if she were not fully human. That’s ironic, because that’s exactly the kind of thinking Manji herself wants to put behind us. It would only be reducing her to essential characteristics if we thought that being a Muslim or female person was so different that a non-Muslim or non-female person has _no basis or referent_ for understanding that person. Manji’s entire point is that non-Muslims _do have a referent_ and can relate to Muslims, and presumably she would extend the point to non-females having a referent for understanding females. A common commitment to reform can “transcend” this kind of “petty tribalism” in favour of an “expansive” vision.

The realism of the matter is that the world Muslim community still is unreceptive to reform, and that it will continue to stigmatise reformers as being Western stooges. But one possible reading of the Arab Spring is that the reform-oriented community that organised the protests has dragged at least some Islamists far enough to be considered “Islamic democrats”, and perhaps more movement is possible. Now is not the time to settle for “moderately” narrow visions – it’s the time to engage.

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