Review: Allah, Liberty and Love - The courage to reconcile faith and freedom

When radical reform is needed, moderation simply won't do. Irshad Manji's newest book cements her credentials as the ideal candidate for dealing with the link between faith and freedom

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Is a cultural revolution in Islam on the horizon?
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 19 March 2012 08:00

‘Allah, Liberty and Love – The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom’ is the title of a new book by the best-selling Canadian Muslim author Irshad Manji. Irshad first burst onto the scene in 2004 when she released her first book, the controversially titled ‘The Trouble With Islam Today’. This book generated much anger, heated debate and soul-searching within Muslim communities, which is exactly what Irshad intended.

Irshad isn’t out to win a popularity contest; she is a woman on a mission to instigate nothing short of a cultural revolution in Islam. The fact that she remains a controversial voice even amongst moderate Muslims, in many ways validates her critique of contemporary Muslim practise and thought. Her egalitarian spirit, moral courage and taboo-busting approach make her an ideal candidate, in my mind, for dealing with a vexatious issue such as the link between faith and freedom.

‘Allah, Liberty and Love’ is a thematic book that seeks to examine the frailties that exist in contemporary Muslim societies and minds, whilst seeking remedies for the same. Irshad does this by intertwining her colloquial, yet eloquent, prose with examples of correspondence she has received from around the world. This technique makes the book’s contents appear more real, more personal and more pertinent to the age we are living in. She also frequently references the civil rights struggle in the American Deep South, drawing an interesting analogy between the challenges faced by the likes of Martin Luther King and Muslim reformers today.

Irshad identifies what she refers to as ‘Islamo-tribalism’ as one of the key factors in retarding Muslim intellectual growth. The tribal nature of many Muslim communities insulates them against objective introspection, encourages group-think and stifles individuality.  It also instils in the minds of many Muslims a fear of speaking or even thinking out of line, confining many potentially great minds to a mental straitjacket.

This, in turn, cultivates a climate within which real problems are simply not dealt with or even discussed in a meaningful manner. Islamo-tribalists, Irshad maintains, are themselves Islamophobic because they “…fear the wide path of Islam – the path that leads to freedom of conscience, thought and expression.”

I have experienced this insulated group-think approach in Muslim communities on many occasions myself. When faced with serious issues such as extremism, honour-killings or domestic abuse, many self-elected Muslim representatives go into denial and deflection mode. Their instinct is to protect the group and its reputation, but their overt suppression of reality actually ends up harming that which they seek to protect and insulate from criticism.

In turn, reform and liberal minded Muslims are often accused of being ‘unrepresentative’, as though there can only be one voice to represent the interests and feelings of highly diverse Muslim communities. This faux desire for unity and tendency to ostracise those who deviate from the script, undermines what is needed most in Muslim communities today, namely individuality, creativity and the freedom to think freely and make decisions based on rationality and not the perceived interests of the group.

Irshad is also very critical of moral and cultural relativism, which is something many western liberals incline towards when dealing with Muslim issues. Refusing to judge or criticise aspects of other cultures may appear to be the sensitive and enlightened approach to dealing with difference, but the net effect is often the empowerment of more reactionary elements. In fact, certain western liberals are often seen making strategic alliances with reactionary Muslim elements, whilst shunning Muslim liberals.

The reactionary Muslim tendency to externalise all Muslim faults chimes with the worldview of some modern western liberals who see the western imperial war machine as being solely responsible for all the worlds’ ailments. They both undermine Muslim agency, both seek to conceal Muslim faults for political expediency and both hold Muslims to a lower standard.

This point is brilliantly illustrated in a chapter of the book entitled ‘Culture Is Not Sacred’, when Irshad recounts a question a Bosnian Norwegian man asked at a meeting of political party leaders in Oslo. He asked “Why is it that if a Norwegian won’t let his daughter marry an immigrant, it’s called racism, but if an immigrant won’t let his daughter marry a Norwegian it’s called culture?

‘Allah, Liberty and Love’ is very critical of contemporary Muslim practise and thought. It is critical to the extent that its author frequently uses the term ‘counter-cultural Muslims’, thereby acknowledging that the mainstream is also part of the problem. However, the author is not merely a critic. She has a vision. She dreams of a brighter future and knows how to get there.

Reading this book can leave one feeling elated because it illustrates what freedom combined with courage can really achieve. It can also leave one feeling a little sad because you realise how right the author is and yet you know how few there are like her.

Irshad’s chutzpah is not everyone’s cup of chai, but when radical reform is required, moderation simply won’t do. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a consultant and commentator on Cultural and Identity related issues as well as Middle Eastern and South Asian politics

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