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Under the Cover of Islam By: Irshad Manji
New York Times | Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Toronto -- As a young Canadian Muslim who has called for reform in Islam, I've been traveling throughout North America and Europe over the past year. Last week, I toured France and Spain. God help me.

I didn't expect a warm reception from fellow Muslims. But now, I'm also not sure that liberal Muslims like me fit comfortably in a secular European crowd. I say this even after the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, who police officials say was shot and stabbed by a Muslim extremist. Mr. van Gogh had exercised his right to criticize Islam - a right that I, as a modern Muslim, defend unequivocally.

What then gives me the sense that even modern Muslims can't be modern enough for Western Europe? It's precisely that, from Amsterdam to Barcelona to Paris to Berlin, people incredulously ask me one type of question that I'm never asked in the United States and Canada: Why does an independent-minded woman care about God? Why do you need religion at all?

I'll answer in a moment. To get there, allow me to observe key differences between the debate over Islam in Western Europe and North America. In Western Europe, the entry point for this debate is the hijab - the headscarf that many Muslim women wear as a signal of modesty. By contrast, the entry point in North America is terrorism.

Some might say that difference is understandable. After all, Sept. 11 happened on American soil. But March 11 happened on European ground, yet the hijab remains the starting point for Europeans. Meanwhile, it makes barely a ripple in North America.

This difference speaks to a larger gulf in attitudes toward religion. To a lot of Europeans, still steeped in memories of the Catholic Church's intellectual repression, religion is an irrational force. So women who cover themselves are foolish at best and dangerous otherwise.

Not so in North America. Because it has long been a society of immigrants seeking religious tolerance, religion itself is not seen as irrational - even if what some people do with it might be, as in the case of terrorism. Which means Muslims in North America tend to be judged less by what we wear than by what we do - or don't do, like speaking out against Islamist violence.

But there's something else going on. The mass immigration of Muslims is bringing faith back into the public realm and creating a post-Enlightenment modernity for Western Europe. This return of religion threatens secular humanism, the orthodoxy that has prevailed since the French Revolution. Paradoxically, because many Western Europeans feel that they're losing Enlightenment values amid the flood of "people of faith," they wind up sympathizing with those in the Muslim world who resent imported values that challenge their own. Both groups are identity protectionists.

We see such protectionism playing out in the debate about whether Turkey may join the European Union. Reflecting a sizable segment of public opinion, European Union commissioners have argued that Turkey is too "oriental." And let us stay that way, proclaim some Muslim puritans who fear the promiscuity of pluralistic values. But is Turkey all that different from Europe?

It's a longtime member of NATO. Its so-called Islamist government has updated the country's human rights statutes to conform to the standards of the European Union. It's home to an astonishingly free press. Recently, a left-wing newspaper questioned the Koran's origins, a right-wing newspaper wrote about gays and lesbians lobbying for sexual orientation to be included in anti-discrimination laws, and a centrist newspaper editorialized that the education system should be reformed to promote diversity.

As one young Turk told me, "If Western values are tolerance, democracy, justice, equality and freedom, then I live in a Western country: Turkey." Try explaining that to those Europeans who want to impose their baggage from the Vatican onto Muslim immigrants. Their secularism can be zealous, missionary - dare I say it, religious.

Which brings me back to the question of why I, an independent-minded woman, bother with Islam. Religion supplies a set of values, including discipline, that serve as a counterweight to the materialism of life in the West. I could have become a runaway materialist, a robotic mall rat who resorts to retail therapy in pursuit of fulfillment. I didn't. That's because religion introduces competing claims. It injects a tension that compels me to think and allows me to avoid fundamentalisms of my own.

Islam today has deep flaws, and I know saying so makes me a blasphemer in the eyes of countless Muslims. C'est la vie. If they move beyond emotion, they'll come to appreciate that for the rationalists among us, religion can be a godsend.

Irshad Manji is the author of "The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith.''




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