Dissident Muslims, Dissonant Times: A Window into the Politics of Islamic Reform

Article excerpt

Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2005. 272 pages.

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Raheel Raza, Their Jihad ... Not Mg Jihad!: A Muslim Canadian Woman Speaks Out. Ingersoll, ON: Basileia Books, 2005. 176 pages.

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Although hardly a rigorous way of ascertaining what Canadians are reading about Islam, visits to major bookstore chains such as Chapters can be quite revealing. Content on the shelf (on occasion two shelves) labelled "Islam" varies, yet a certain genre almost always appears to be well stocked. Titles in this genre invoke themes of alarm or dissidence: The Trouble with Islam Today, Infidel, Their Jihad ... Not My Jihad!, Standing Alone in Mecca. Intriguingly, the authors of these books are typically women who take a stance at odds with their faith tradition and community. Their message is one of righteous, risk-taking dissent.

The ubiquity of these self-conscious dissident publications in mainstream Canadian bookstores finds a dramatic counterpoint in their virtually complete absence from shops oriented toward Muslim minority communities. Few Muslim book merchants would expect to profit by promoting these books to their customers--not only because they directly challenge conventional wisdom and communal authority, but also because they were not written for a specifically Muslim audience. Rather, they are largely books by Muslims (or in some cases "ex-Muslims"), about Muslims, for non-Muslims.

For the most part, their modes of argumentation do not resonate with the sensibilities of those arguing for change from within the Muslim community, and their generalizations about Islam and about the state of contemporary Muslim communities leave out experiences and issues that are of great importance to the larger Muslim readership. While the non-Muslim reader will often appreciate the bold, outspoken manner in which dissident books such as Irshad Manji's The Trouble with Islam Today and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel attack the misogyny and narrow-mindedness of reactionary thinkers, even exceptionally well-integrated members of Muslim diaspora communities often wince at the way these best-selling authors represent Islam to an eager non-Muslim readership.

Given recent events, the mainstream success of these books is not surprising--which says something not merely about what booksellers deem worthy of promotion but also about what engages the North American reading public. In their preoccupation with the question "What's wrong with the Muslims?" the books appeal to cultural liberals as well as to political conservatives, and they meet the demands of a market that was created in North America after the events of 9/11.

While one would expect "edgy," journalistic books to perform well in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and wars, there are nonetheless grounds for lamenting the more limited appeal of academically weighty studies of Islam and stories of cross-cultural and interreligious bridge-building. Beyond the very real problems of contemporary Muslim communities lies a rich and deeply varied Islamic tradition--a tradition whose historical contributions to the larger story of Western civilization and Abrahamic faith has too often been neglected. In the present climate of escalated political and cultural conflict, popular and accessible accounts of "what was right" in Islamic history or accounts of "missed opportunities" in Islamic-Western relations could provide a powerful corrective to the biases of defensive Muslim and suspicious non-Muslim readers alike. Instead, both Muslims and non-Muslims are more often turning to reading material that confirms impressionistic hunches and overgeneralizes about the "other." By crowding out a wider range of voices, they create problems for majority-minority relations in a multicultural society.

While assertive in its efforts to break Muslim taboos, the "dissident" literature about Islam and Muslims is unlikely to genuinely surprise the reader with new or unexpected information. …