Powered byWebtrack Logo


The lipstick lesbian daring to confront radical imams

Irshad Manji has already been dubbed ‘Osama’s worst nightmare’ for her criticisms of Islam. Now she wants Britain’s Muslims to stand more firmly on the side of freedom.

No wonder Irshad Manji has received death threats since appearing on British television: she is a lipstick lesbian, a Muslim and scourge of Islamic leaders, whom she accuses of making excuses about the terror attacks on London. Oh, and she tells ordinary Muslims to “crawl out of their narcissistic shell”. Ouch.

Manji is a glamorous Canadian television presenter whose book, The Trouble with Islam, has made her so famous in America that she won something called the Oprah Winfrey Chutzpah award. Even at a conference in Oxford last week she felt unsafe — despite extra security — with police sifting through “disgusting e-mails” and threats after her appearance on Newsnight.

Doesn’t the violent Muslim minority show Islam is flawed? “I ask myself the same question,” she grimaces. Far from regarding Muslims as oppressed they have a “supremacy complex — and that’s dangerous”. This, she contends, is true even among moderates. “Literalists” who consider the Koran the “perfect manifesto of God” have taken over the mainstream; and far from misreading Islam, as Tony Blair and the Muslim Council of Britain insist, terrorists can find encouragement for murder in the Koran.

The underlying problem with Islam, observes Manji, is that far from spiritualising Arabia, it has been infected with the reactionary prejudices of the Middle East: “Colonialism is not the preserve of people with pink skin. What about Islamic imperialism? Eighty per cent of Muslims live outside the Arab world yet all Muslims must bow to Mecca.” Fresh thinking, she contends, is suppressed by ignorant imams; you can see why she has been dubbed “Osama’s worst nightmare ”.

“The good news,” she insists, “is it doesn’t have to be like this.” She wants a reformation in Islam, returning it to its clever, fun-loving roots. “The world’s first ‘feminist’ was an 11th-century Muslim man. Baghdad had one of the first universities in the 9th century; the Spanish ‘Ole!’ comes from ‘Allah’; Islam even gave us the guitar.”

But now it gives us the suicide bomber: why? She does not rule out alienation and all those Muslims-as-victims explanations, but thinks the Muslim Council of Britain is negligent for “not even acknowledging religion might also have played a role”. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, said terrorists could not be Muslims but Manji hits back: “The jury is out on what Islam is.”

The dispute centres on whether the Koran justifies suicide bombers. Manji argues terrorists can find succour in the holy book: “It says anyone who kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or villainy in the land, shall be regarded as killing all mankind.” The caveat is crucial; Bin Laden invoked it when America imposed sanctions against Saddam, so after the war in Iraq “four young men could decide to punish British taxpayers for re-electing a government that went to war there” — endorsed by the Koran.

But could religion be an excuse? Might the gang of four have just been nihilist punks who, if raised in different cultures, might otherwise have railed against life through, say, hip-hop? “A hip-hopper will still wake up in the morning. That doesn’t explain a willingness to take your own life.” To do that you need belief in an afterlife, which means these men must have been devoutly religious. Waiting to be rewarded, I suggest, with their 72 virgins.

But Manji says recent research shows all that virgin stuff was based on an erroneous translation of the Koran: what awaits in heaven are 72 raisins. What? Could 54 people really have been blown up for a bag of raisins? “Well in 7th century Arabia raisins were so exalted as to be promoted to paradise.”

Our 7/7 was especially hard to take, being committed by those brought up here; America’s 9/11 was by outsiders. Is America better at integrating Muslims? I fill Manji in on our botched attempt at citizenship ceremonies that, far from inculcating British patriotism in newcomers, taught them how to work the benefit system. “Boy, it’s sexy being British these days,” she laughs.

“In continental Europe people of faith are regarded as second-class citizens. In America Muslims are allowed to earn their status by competing. In Europe, Britain included, your past establishes your identity much more than your future. If you don’t have the lineage here people might well feel disaffected.” She points out that American mosques display signs proclaiming: “God bless America”; inconceivable here.

If we are at fault for not encouraging Muslims, they fail to “celebrate the precious gift” of British freedom: “Why do they protest against France for making it illegal to wear hijabs, but not against Saudi Arabia for making it illegal not to wear them?”; more Muslims, she contends, have been killed in recent years by fellow Muslims than by westerners.

Manji thinks Muslims should take tolerant parts of the Koran and ignore the hellfire. Does this, I ask, include Koranic references to “lewd acts” of homosexuality? She offers counter examples of its tolerance but they seem faintly absurd — should it matter what a bunch of people over a millennium ago made of homosexuality, or indeed anything else? She, not unlike the fundamentalists, picks and chooses the bits that suit her.

The state has a dilemma: to encourage moderate Islam — absurdities and all — or shirk from interfering, which will let extremists blossom. Isn’t a key problem of Islam that it has no structure? Any Church of England vicar calling for a jihad would receive a pretty sharp summons to Lambeth palace; imams are autonomous. “Yes, decentralisation would be good if it encouraged people to debate. But instead people just cower to their local imam.”

She excuses Blair glossing over violent aspects of Islam as “he is only trying to divert a backlash against Muslims, bless him” but she despises the Muslim Council for not coming clean. “Even if Muslims are only interested in slick PR, it would be a great move to recognise the problem; it would spread trust. And I am not asking them to do anything Jews and Christians haven’t done.”

Britain, she says, has been slow to introduce tests for imams on their mastery of the Koran. She recalls asking Mohamed al-Hindi, political leader of Islamic Jihad, where the Koran glorifies martyrdom; he insisted it was there, but even after looking up books and phoning colleagues, he couldn’t find one reference.

“His translator suggested I better go if I wanted to leave alive,” she recalls. “I asked why he had even given an interview, and the translator said, ‘Oh, he assumed you would be just another dumb westerner’.”

Muslims, adds Manji, must find positive role models rather than jihadists: “Martyrs are the rock stars of the Muslim world, shown on the internet against a background of funky music. They feed on the self-esteem crisis of young Muslims.” That could be addressed by history lessons paying greater tribute to the Muslim contribution to the Renaissance.

She denounces terrorism and the response to terrorism, which is not sufficiently robust. It is no good, she argues, for respectable Muslims to say “violence is not the Islamic ideal” if violence has become Islamic practice. And she attacks the proposed religious hatred laws, saying: “Society needs people who offend, otherwise there will be no progress.”

Indeed. But can Manji and her followers provoke Muslims into progress?

# reads: 472

Original piece is,,2092-1696968_2,00.html

Printable version