Progressive Muslims Debate with Irshad Manji
Staff Writer, March 28, 2007

On March 28, 2007, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) affiliate KCET in relation to their special series entitled "America at a Crossroads" organized a lively discussion and debate with three prominent Muslim figures in the historic Downtown Central Library, Los Angeles, the author Irshad Manji ("The Trouble with Islam Today"), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati and Muslims for Progressive Values co-founder Ani

Following a brief preview of Manji's documentary "Faith Without Fear", which is a part of the "America at a Crossroads" series, the panelists engaged in a debate about reform, diversity, freedom of speech, theological and political schisms within the Muslim world, efforts to make progressive changes with regard to women in Muslim societies, the state of Muslims in America and Europe, and how Muslims in the Middle East perceive the West. The panel was moderated by award winning journalist Val Zavala of KCET's "Life and Times".

Do Muslims learn to be offended?

To the question whether Muslims have learnt to be offended when living in a diverse society, Salam Al-Marayati responded that the idea of tolerance and living in diversity is not a new idea in Islam and for Muslims. He said that Muslims learnt from the Quran that Prophet himself was offended a number of times. The Quran documents that Prophet was called liar, he was called crazy and Prophet himself tolerated all these abuses. He said that if we had taken the example of Prophet and not necessarily any society over there or here, we would have come to that understanding a long time ago.

Panelists' reaction to the documentary

Responding to the question on what was their reaction to the documentary; Salam said that he did not see the Mainstream Muslim community voice except for Irshad Manji while there are many people that had such voice for a long time. He presented the book "In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam" by Dr. Maher Hathout, a MPAC publication, to Irshad Manji that addresses the same issues that she is talking about and indicated that the book is written within the Islamic framework and what Muslims would consider acceptable discourse within Islamic jurisprudence; not alienating the people that they are trying to reform. Salam reiterated
the fact that to talk about real reform, they must have concepts, analysis, a study of what exactly that one is talking about, and then they should be relevant to the people that they are trying to reform and not alienating the
people that they are trying to reform.

He also sensed that Irshad is coming around in her spiritual journey. He said what he read Irshad Manji in 2003 is very different from what he heard even few weeks ago in Detroit or even that day where she claims that she is
not critiquing Islam these days but she is challenging Muslims. And Irshad agreed to that and said that it was because of the transformation she underwent in this documentary.

Ani Zonneveld responded that those visuals that she saw were especially due to Prophet Muhammad's cartoon but however what she said that was really missing in the documentary was the Muslim reaction in the Middle East. She remembered an incident of the publishers in Jordan and in Yemen who published the pictures of these violent reactions and besides that they also published the picture of someone who was about to be beheaded in the name of Islam and captioned those pictures saying 'Which pictures should we be more outraged?", in other words challenging the Muslims saying we should be more outraged about innocent people being decapitated in the name of our faith. She said these people are in jail now and the charge of the publisher in Yemen is elevated to an apostasy, which means according to the Yemen version of Islamic law, he would be hanged. She did not know if that was his end result but that is what she would have wanted to see which she thought was lacking
in the documentary. She said that if one wanted to show a particular reaction, she wanted to see another Muslim reaction that is something different and something that gives more depth.

Freedom of expression

Responding to the question for having Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch Parliamentarian featured in her documentary, Irshad Manji said that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not a Muslim and she did not choose her as a representative of Muslim voice. Irshad indicated that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a very interesting case study when she was exploring the issues of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Irshad considers that Ali has pushed the parameters in a way that Muslims will never accept or at least in our life time but that exactly is the point Irshad wanted to make in exploring the whole notion of what freedom of expression means in a very multi-cultural world.

Ani said that the problem with Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the fact that she frames the issue of Islam in a completely wrong way. According to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Allah permits violence against women in the Quran, which is completely false. Ani said even though she agrees with the issues Ayaan Hirsi Ali discusses but when she lies about the Quran, then Ani considers that the whole premise is wrong.

Salam also made an interesting point that the idea of free speech in Europe is a misassessment because of the political situation over there. According to the New York Times, Muslims do not even have the right to be buried in some of those countries. Also, there is a double standard that one cannot deny the Holocaust; one cannot deny the Armenian genocide, which is a punishable offence. Hence he thinks what Muslims are trying to achieve in that situation is that if one cannot deny what happened to Jews in Holocaust and Armenians, then do not deny their (Muslims) dignity as well. The Muslims try to apply that law in terms of these depictions (cartoons) of the Prophet. Hence from political stand point, they have all the right to do so but from theological stand point, we should to be tolerant to the offenses made against our religion and to our Prophet.

Critical thinking in Islam

Responding to the question, if there is a room for Critical thinking in Islam, Salam said that there is not only room for critical thinking but it is mandatory to be a good Muslim because the Quran itself says it is made for the people who think. So if one needs to adhere to Quranic values and be a good Muslim, then the critical thinking becomes imperative.

Irshad quoted Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Chair of Islamic Jurisprudence at UCLA, who said to Muslim only audience in Toronto, Canada three years ago, "Civilization is built by the artist, by the literary exponent, by the
ability to generate beauty, music and new methods of expression. The civilization advances when there is a premium; not a fatwa (religious edict) on originality of thought."

Irshad said that all civilizations today need more itjihad (human reasoning) and more critical thinking.


Irshad in her concluding remarks said she will try to be as authentic as possible as she is undertaking a public spiritual journey. She also said that every single fact that is stated in the documentary was researched and
backed up by multiple sources and by two fact checkers.

Ani said she really wanted to see real American Muslim issues being discussed and she thinks that the journalist standards were just not there in the documentary. She felt that Irshad Manji being a North American and given the privilege she had, Irshad could have dug more into the confronting issues like Women religious council, reinterpreting the Quran in contemporary matter, reformation etc.

Salam said he thinks that they all agreed with the diagnosis of the problems, lack of critical thinking, need of more open debates etc., but they disagreed on the prescription of the approaches. He said that it is
okay and wanted all approaches to be pursued and see if they can make a difference. Finally, he said that they need to have more of such discussions, which will definitely enrich the Muslim community.