Islam's Marked Woman ; Irshad Manji Is a Lesbian Muslim Who Says Her Religion Is Stuck in the Middle Ages. the Outspoken Author Tells Johann Hari How She Became a Target for Assassination

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The death threats began six months ago. One morning, Irshad Manji opened her e-mail and read the first of many pledges to kill her. "It contained some pretty concrete details that showed a lot of thought had been put into the death threat," she explains now, unblinking. She can't say how many she has received - "The police tell me not to talk about this stuff" - but she admits that "they are becoming pretty up- close and personal".

Sitting with Manji in a London boardroom, it would be hard for anybody to guess that she is the star attraction on jihadist death lists. She has the small, slender body of a ballet dancer, and a Concorde-speed Canadian voice that makes her sound more like a character in a Woody Allen movie than an enemy of Bin Laden. So, what has she done to earn a bullet in the head?

Manji is a key figure in the civil war within 21st-century Islam. She is the Saladin of progressive Muslims, an outrider for the notion that you can be both a faithful Muslim and a mouthy, fiercely democratic Canadian lesbian. "What I want is an Islamic reformation," she says, leaning forward, her palms open. "Christianity did it in the 16th century. Now we are long overdue. If there was ever a moment for our reformation, it's now, when Muslim countries are in poverty and despair."

We are all going to have to learn about this battle, because it will be raging - and, occasionally, blasting its way on to our city streets - for the rest of our lives. Manji's bestselling book, The Trouble with Islam - a Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change (Mainstream Publishing), is both a crash course in its terminology and a manifesto for the progressive side. The core concept in Manji's thought - and that of all progressive Muslims - is "itjihad". It's a simple idea, and devastatingly powerful. Itjihad is the application of reason and reinterpretation to the message of the Koran. It allows every Muslim to reconsider the message of the Koran for the changed circumstances of the 21st century. "What was true for ninth-century Mecca and Medina may not be the best interpretation of Allah's message today," Manji explains.

This seems obvious to post-religious European ears, but it is heresy to conservative and even most mainstream Muslims. "At this stage, reform isn't about telling ordinary Muslims what not to think. It's about giving them permission to think. We mustn't be afraid to ask: what if the Koran isn't perfect? What if it's not a completely God-authored book? What if it's riddled with human biases?

"We Muslims have to understand our own history," she says. "Itjihad isn't some wacky new idea. When Muslims were at their most prosperous, innovative and respected, it was when we practised itjihad, in Islam's golden age, from 750 to 1250 CE. The greatest Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd, championed the freedom to reason.

"It was the closing of the gates of itjihad that led to disaster for Muslims, not the Crusaders or the West or anything else. Sure, they were all bad, but the decline started with us," Manji continues. "It's the refusal to believe in independent reason that has created a totalitarian culture in the Muslim world. Of course, if Muslims can't reason for themselves they become dependent on mullahs and outside authorities. If you think all truth is contained in one book and all you have to do is adhere to it - a belief I call `foundationalism' - then you won't be dynamic and seek new solutions for new problems. Others have responsibilities, too, but we Muslims closed the gates of itjihad on ourselves. We must take responsibility for that and turn it around."

It was in the 12th century that Baghdad scholars "formed a consensus to freeze debate within Islam", she explains, and "we live with the consequences of this thousand-year-old strategy. …