An Islam that loves gays and free speech?

Jan 13th, 2016 | By | Category: Featured

By Andrew Harrod, PhD. – Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition

Muslim Reformers Preach Unitarian Universalist Islam

Purple (gay) Jihad

What does the Koran really say about this?

Two self-proclaimed Muslim reformers recently tried to answer affirmatively a December 11 Washington Institute for Near East Policy panel’s question “Is There a ‘Moderate’ Islam?” before a lunch audience of about 60.  However appealing these latter day prophets of an Islam with a human face might be amidst an often desperate global search for Muslim “moderation,” their arguments were largely unconvincing to critical observers versed in Islamic canons.

Irshad Manji, a lesbian from a mixed Egyptian-Indian background who grew up in Canada after Idi Amin’s Uganda expelled her family in 1974, began the panel with excepts from a 2012 video she made with the Guardian newspaper.  Manji emphasized that the Quran has “many verses calling on Muslims to engage in critical thinking,” the curious basis for her approach to Islam, a faith whose name in Arabic means “submission.”  “Muslims are not to worship God’s self-appointed ambassadors, we are to worship God himself,” she states in an unscreened video section, calling into question the Quran’s repeated command to obey Islam’s final prophet Muhammad.

Irshad Manji believes thre is room in Islam for gays like herself

Irshad Manji believes thre is room in Islam for gays like herself

“Islam was always meant to be a faith that gives the believer direct access or a personal relationship with God” is how the videoed Manji interprets Islam in quasi-Protestant terms.  “No Muslim can legitimately behave as if she or he has the monopoly on knowledge and truth.”  “Playing God with others…is the central sin within Islam” in Manji’s revelation, not the polytheistic sin (shirk) of traditional Islamic teaching that can include things arguably prohibited by Islam’s messenger Muhammad like democracy.

Such theological analysis helps explain why Manji’s oft-touted “delicious paradox…that devoting yourself to one God obliges you as a Muslim to defend human liberty,” does not always win Muslim support.  She has written that as child in her “Islamic school, I asked too many questions, and got expelled at age 14” while, her presentation stated, Muslims often criticize her theological radicalism as the “liberal version of Osama bin Laden.”  Yet for younger Muslims “open dialogue and honest debate are almost a given,” she stated and will give rise in her lifetime to Muslim movements for gay rights, women’s equality, and religious tolerance, “all of which are supportable within the Quran.”

Manji’s fellow panelist, the Palestinian professor Mohammed S. Dajani, read from slides to advocate his thesis that “moderation is balance, balance is justice, and justice is humanity; this is my philosophy, this is my religion.”  Numerous quotations from philosophers and religious figures like Plato and Ibn Taymiyyah served to buttress Dajani’s contention that all religions share moral values like the Golden Rule.  He cited Gandhi to argue that all faiths are diverse pathways to the same God, such that a moderate from any religious background “believes in all holy books and teaches his children the wisdom contained in them.”  God, not people, should ultimately judge faith differences.

“Extremists read the Holy books with a closed mind.  They read it selectively, taking verses out of context” irrespective of any extremist’s religion, Dajani stated.  A rabbi had once shocked Dajani before he had read the Quran by condemning it as anti-Semitic, but he advocated an “Islamic understanding of the Quran that is rational, progressive, and humanistic.”  Dajani, for example, interprets the Quranic injunction to amputate a thief’s hand as a command to remove a propensity to steal though vocational training and gainful employment.

Just as Dajani’s previous presentations on moderation in Islamic doctrine have been often unconvincing, to the critical observer Dajani’s numerous Quran quotations did not imply what he wanted to critical observers.  For example, Quran 2:143, the namesake verse of his Wasatia Reconciliation Center in Jerusalem, features the Arabic word wasat, which his slides translate as “center” and more broadly as “centrism” or “justice.”  He accordingly follows various English Quran translations and renders this verse’s description of ummatan wasatan for Muslims as “middle nation,” a term that befits his emphasis on moderation.

Yet other Quran 2:143 translations render wasat as “just” to describe Muslims who, as the verse states, are to be “witnesses over mankind,” hardly a moderate self-conception.  Indeed, some translations of this verse and one hardline Muslim critic of Muslim moderation proponents like Dajani give this word the connotation of “best.”  As Emory University Professor Gordon Newby has written, in Quran 2:143 “Islam is represented as the ‘middle nation,’ so all directions are either away from Islam or toward it.”

Quran 2:143’s context makes clear that this verse does not in any way present Muslims as mediating between opposites, despite Dajani’s denials during a brief interview.  As Daniel Pipes has analyzed, in this and surrounding verses occurs the growing estrangement between the early Muslim community in the Arabian Peninsula and their Jewish neighbors who had once prayed together towards Jerusalem.  In these verses a divine revelation to Muhammad changes the direction of prayer towards Mecca, accompanied by a stern warning against any who would persist in facing Jerusalem.

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Many might criticize Dajani for a selective and biased Quran interpretation, a fact Manji recognized in a fundamental concession that weakens arguments made by her and others for reform in Islam.  “Anybody who reads the Quran and seeks to be coherent about it will be forced to select” among various verses; “I cherry pick, extremists cherry pick,” and so does Dajani, she stated.  “The Quran is an incredibly complicated document.  The question is who is being honest about their selectivity and to what end are they selecting.  I am selecting in order to bring out the better angels of Islam.”

Manji noted that “there is a lot of sanitizing going on in what the Quran says” and, with candor almost unknown among Muslim individuals, discussed the oft-cited Quran 5:32.  Islamic apologetics invariably quote this verse’s words “whoever kills a soul…it is as if he had slain mankind entirely,” she noted, yet almost always omit this verses key exception to the protection of human life.   What she translated namely as “villainy in the land” is a loophole that allows for the killing of all sorts of people such as American military “occupiers” in places like Afghanistan.

However refreshing, Manji’s views are not without superficiality, even as she accurately states that much “interfaith dialogue…leads nowhere; it is all about exchanging platitudes about love and common ground.”  Rather than a final prophet who has established an often threatening Islamic faith with a rigid, detailed, and all-encompassing nature, she seemingly wants to channel a flexible Muhammad who merely offers friendly suggestions for intellectual inquiry.  In this “Fantasy Islam,” she can find Islamic justification for almost anything she would favor, including her homosexuality, notwithstanding numerous, often deadly, Islamic condemnations of this behavior.

To paraphrase Dajani’s William Blake quotation concerning Bible reading, Dajani and his allies often see peaceful whites in Islamic canons while others, both Muslim and non-Muslim, can only see blacker, more foreboding texts.  Dajani and Manji’s vision of an Islam as merely one faith flavor among several equally moral religions guiding various communities towards the same God simply has little basis in Islamic supremacist doctrines and empirical history.  However benign such a Unitarian, universalist understanding of Islam might appear, the Washington Institute and others would be ill-advised to base policy in the Middle East and elsewhere upon such fond yet pious hopes.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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