Divinely inspired moderation
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
Osama bin Laden's nemesis is small and female, with spiky orange-tipped hair and an unshakeable Muslim faith which equips her to declare that the mullahs have no clothes.
Irshad Manji - her first name, appropriately enough, means 'the divinely inspired moderate one' - blew into London like a whirlwind last week on her revolutionary mission to provoke an Islamic reformation which would defeat the mullocracy, allow Islam to accommodate itself to the modern world and neutralise the forces of secularism.
Last year she published a book, The Trouble with Islam, a tour de force in which she argues that her religion has been hijacked by the forces of reactionary and murderous darkness. A whole tradition of critical thinking and religious debate - itjihad -was suppressed centuries back and replaced by a hidebound tribalism which destroyed independent thought and eventually mutated into the hideous sacrilege of the human bomb.
Her book is a feat not merely of astounding personal courage but also of intellectual confidence. Arriving in Canada at the age of four after her family fled Idi Amin's Uganda, she was educated in mainstream schools but attended the madrassah at weekends. There she was taught two overwhelming doctrines - that women were inferior, and that the Jews were not to be trusted. When she asked for evidence of the supposed Jewish conspiracy against Islam, she was thrown out.
Unlike many who would have promptly repudiated their faith, she never lost it. Instead, she set out to educate herself in her religion away from the intellectual tyranny of the madrassahs. And what she discovered, she says, revealed that the imams were teaching lies about Islam in order to shut down free thought and exercise total control.
Manji's book along with her defiance of Islamic sexual codes - she is a lesbian and prominent feminist campaigner in Canada - have marked her out for death threats by the bucketload. Undaunted, this Muslim refusenik has set out to gather support among Muslims across the world for a revival of itjihad and with it the best chance of an Islamic reformation.
Her articulacy is awesome, her scholarship formidable and her tenacity extraordinary. But is she right? Is Islam at root a religion that can accommodate pluralism, or has she exaggerated its capacity for adaptation?
She maintains that its lethal intolerance derives not from its religious tenets but from the characteristics of Arab tribalism which drove out the more open-minded traditions of the faith itself. This may well be so. After all, Judaism and Christianity can be interpreted in ways that either maximise or minimise their more disobliging bits. So doesn't it follow that Islam, too, can be interpreted to separate mosque and government, the essential precondition for reconciling religion with individual liberty?
The crucial question, however, is surely where the core of a religion resides. Judaism has been able to accommodate itself to its host societies because its precepts do not require it to colonise other cultures. Christianity's reformation managed -however bloodily - to separate church and state without unpicking the fabric of the faith itself. But since Islam holds as a fundamental tenet that all authority, both spiritual and temporal, comes from God, how can it ever separate religion from politics?
And even if Manji has got the theology right, what chance does she have of persuading anyone else?
She claims that her book is causing huge excitement among young Muslims living under tyrannies around the world and who are desperate to hear her arguments. Secret groups of Muslim dissidents are downloading the book's Arabic translation that she has placed on the internet, and educating each other in the lost traditions of their faith.
This holds out the dizzying hope of emerging from the nightmare of religious fanaticism. Nevertheless, there is one issue on which even Manji's eloquence cannot prevent the shutters from slamming down. That issue is Israel and the Jews.
One of the most remarkable passages in her book is her passionate defence of Israel and her attack on the lies told about it by the Arab world. But on this issue, even would-be reformist Muslims will not follow her. For Muslim hatred of Israel and prejudice against the Jews are fundamental, and fuel much of the Muslim paranoia and animosity against the west.
Whether or not Manji's analysis is entirely realistic, her goal is heroic. But she is being undermined by the very western culture that has given her such personal freedom. As she says, it is remarkable that in this society, fanatical Muslims feel confident while Muslims committed to reform feel intimidated - and non-Muslims who speak against the fanatics are pilloried in turn as racists and Islamophobes.
But her cause is the key to the future, and all of us who love freedom should give Irshad Manji - and all the other courageous Muslim refuseniks struggling towards the light - unequivocal backing in this war for civilisation.