I feel safe in New York: Reformist Muslim writer

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi:Ten years after terror struck New York’s Twin Towers Sep 11, 2001, Islamic writer and reformist Irshad Manji who is of Indian-Egyptian descent finds the US financial powerhouse the safest place to live in.

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“I am grateful for the freedom this country has given me and I will not be silenced,” Manji, the author of the controversial “Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom”, told IANS from New York.

New York is the same city that froze with “shock and awe” when Al Qaeda killer planes tore through the towers of the World Trade Centre, killing nearly 3,000 people and maiming many in crowded Manhattan.

“I feel safe in New York city and I don’t say that lightly. I haven’t felt safe in Toronto where I lived earlier. The New York police department (NYPD) knows what it takes to hold the city’s secular fabric together.

“The Canadian police do not take Islamism very seriously,” she said.

Manji admitted that the US has blundered in its policies in Islamist countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It funded the Mujahideen in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sector during Reagan’s presidency.”

“But that is no excuse. More Muslims are killing fellow Muslims than anybody and there is imperialism inside Islam. We have to take on the extremist elements in our community. I am a reformist Muslim,” she said.

The writer is described by critics as a radical in the Islamist literary fold who preaches moderation and individual freedom despite frequent death threats and ‘fatwas’ by hardline Muslims from the Arab world and in the West.

The New York Times called her Osama bin Laden’s “worst nightmare”. Manji is also the winner of Oprah Winfrey’s first Chutzpah Award for boldness.

“I draw my courage and ideals from Mahatma Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (known as the Frontier Gandhi) and Martin Luther King Jr,” said the writer who migrated as a child to the US from Uganda in Africa.

“I happily co-exist in the pluralistic society as an ethical human being, but I need to make my own judgement about what is immoral and moral. My judgement cannot be tempered and conditional. Free speech is so important in a pluralistic society,” she said.

“Allah, Liberty…” is kind of a path-finder – a manual that teaches young Muslims and non-Muslims in a post-9/11 world to live with integrity, open faith and overcome the fear of questioning rigid community strictures and offending others in multi-cultural societies.

Manji, who teaches moral courage in New York University’s Robert E. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, uses e-mails that she receives from youngsters – mostly Muslims – from around the world for counselling to identify the mindsets and fears that stifle them.

She preaches courage and encourages them to take on the fundamentalist forces through her answers. The e-mails also include death threats, “which insinuate about her sexuality and ask her why does she call herself a Muslim?”

“I don’t think reforms in Islam can clash with identity. I am a faithful Muslim. I don’t feel any obscene sheepishness between identity and integrity that is imposed upon individuals.

“I believe in the power of the individuals – that is who you are. It is so important for us to live as individuals. We are unique creations of the creator,” the writer said.

Those who dictate to us are not gods, Manji said.

“As a Muslim, I have no problem with the identity of a Muslim. I have a problem with members of the community who speak for myself. I want to use the concept of ‘ijtihad’ – Islam’s own concept of dissenting, reasoning and reinterpreting – for a reasonable resolution between faith and freedom,” she said.

The writer said ‘ijtihad’ is a tradition of Islamic history which has been lost.

“The power of creative and independent thinking can be applied to real life today – to address crises like mass migration and inter-faith marriages which stop Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims,” Manji said.

Her first book, “Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reforms”, won international acclaim and inspired Emmy-nominated PBS movie “Faith Without Fear”.

Manji will be in India early next year to work on a global youth-related counselling project.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])