Original guest post
By Steven Zhou
From Cleaver to Manji:
By the 1980s, the former black power activist Eldridge Cleaver had completed his transformation from an outspoken radical to a Bible-quoting conservative Republican. Having served time in jail for rape in the 1960s, Cleaver became Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. After a period of exile overseas, he returned to the U.S., embraced Mormonism, and in 1986, tried to seek the Republican nomination in California to become a senator—and lost.
Despite his many personal and political failures, Cleaver clung onto his eventual claim-to-fame as a reformed black radical who stopped participating in what was portrayed as an “extremist” movement. He characterized his former murderous hatred for Ronald Reagan and “white America” as the kind of emotion that animated the black power movement. So he moved on and became an anti-welfare Republican.
Regardless of what one thinks of his remarkable about-face, Cleaver’s trajectory affected the American public’s perception on race by drawing a line within the African American community. The line separated those “good blacks” who didn’t want to alienate systems of power, from the “radicals” who believed that state power couldn’t be trusted. It’s an old story: the right kind of minority versus the wrong kind. Cleaver represented the former camp, “dissidents” who are able to denounce their radical counterparts and embody an image of moderation.
But the black community isn’t the only one to have experienced such a phenomenon. Similar to the way Cleaver helped the American public distinguish good blacks from bad ones in the 1960s, there are figures in today’s post-9/11 West that fulfill a similar function. The playing field has changed, as have the players, but it’s still the same game. The game is fear, and in the 21st century, the most fashionable kind of fear is, of course, the fear of the Muslim (and of Islam). There has been no shortage of figures to fulfill the Cleaver-esque role of the “good Muslim,” a lone voice of dissent in a sea of “extreme backwardness.”
In that sense, there is no better Muslim in this day and age than the irrepressible Canadian writer and TV personality named Irshad Manji.
Filling the Vacuum:
A vacuum of frustration and confusion within the Western public was just one of 9/11’s painfully entrenched legacies. Anger at the murder of over 3000 people in downtown Manhattan prompted public discourse in the West to focus on Islam and Muslims. The imagery of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, so alien to Western sensitivities, fulfilled a part of that vacuum in a seemingly inevitable way. Others who became “experts” on Islam in short order also jumped at the opportunity to explain the religion to the masses via sound bites and newspaper columns.
Among them is Irshad Manji, who, along with a host of other individuals, has taken the opportunity to explain Islam in a way that squares with the public’s crudest ideological assumptions. It’s indeed difficult in retrospect to imagine a public sphere in the immediate post-9/11 years tolerated anyone who could explain the religion without hostility.
Self-identifying as a Muslim, Manji’s critiques not only aligned her with the times, but also inherited the kind of credibility that only a “Muslim refusenik” can provide. She often uses the term “refusenik” to demarcate herself as one of the few Muslim voices that refuses to “join an army of robots in the name of God.” By “robot army” she means all of mainstream Islam as practiced throughout the world, upheld by key institutions, and cutting across geographical and ethnic lines. With this as her starting point, Manji’s “refusenik” status was solidified for good after the 2004 publication of her much talked about book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith, (originally, simply titled The Trouble with Islam) which has been translated into 30 languages. It was lauded across the board by so many in the Western press who fear a rising “Muslim threat.”
Without going into the 1400 or so years of Islamic scholarship and thought that have grappled with the revelatory content of the Holy Quran and Prophetic traditions, Manji neatly presents to the world the state of Islam as she sees it. And as the world has come to expect, unfortunately, it’s not a pretty sighte: intolerance, domestic abuse, petty sectarianism, etc. The picture she paints is a reflection of public fears. Having confirmed this, Manji also consolidated her own position as a foremost dissident in the Islamic world, courageous enough to shun orthodoxy and interpret scripture on her own. A modern day Martin Luther of sorts.
A closer look at how Manji constructs her arguments (insofar as they can be referred to as such) reveals that her conception of the Muslim world doesn’t amount to much more than an extrapolation of her own (mostly bad) experiences with it. It’s a sporadically anecdotal account. Her negative experiences with family members who were supposed to be good Muslims and her frustrating encounters with mosques and Islamic schooling, combined with a host of other disillusionments, led her to conclude that Islam as a system of interpretation and understanding needs to be changed. It follows, then, that the mainstream Muslim community also needs to be fixed (hence The Problem with Islam Today), and it’s “reformers” like her who should lead the effort.
Nevermind the Facts:
Parts of the Muslim community in North America and Europe have since caught up and tried to explicate, with data and evidence, that the Muslim world is not “one big family of backward barbarism.” Over the years, many leaders within the Muslim community with gigantic followings have made convincing arguments that disrupt the received notion that violence, sexism, and intolerance are the central characteristics of Islamic orthodoxy.
In a 2008 public conversation with analyst and commentator Dalia Mogahed at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Manji was simply unable to counter Mogahed’s argument that Muslim extremists reside outside the magisterium of mainline Muslim scholarship. That is, extremist violence doesn’t jibe with orthodox Islamic jurisprudence as honed over a thousand years inside traditional schools of thought.
As the Chair of Gallup’s Centre for Muslim Studies at the time, Mogahed also led serious surveys of the global Muslim population. The findings directly contradict the broad-brush portrayal of lived Islam as a cesspool of intolerance and extremism, characterized mainly by violence and hatred for women. That much was clear enough even for George Bush, who had the sense to seek advice from American Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf in lieu of the “War On Terror.” It’s probably safe to say though that the ex-President didn’t take Yusuf’s words too seriously.
The more interesting phenomenon here is how the post-9/11 climate was affected by Manji’s (and other “refuseniks,” Islamophobes, etc.) self-characterization as a Muslim dissident who, against all odds, had the guts to be liberal and independent. The empirical evidence, as it turns out, are stacked up against her. Muslim communities in the West don’t criticize her because she’s too “pro-West.” They criticize her for reinforcing those broad stereotypes that have become so entrenched in the post-9/11 era, and for casting herself as a dissident reformer when she hasn’t proved that Muslim communities around the world need her version of “reform.”
Islam and Public Opinion:
There’s not much overlap between the post-9/11 era and the 1960s and 70s, but Eldridge Cleaver and Irshad Manji share the ability to brand themselves in the most conformist ways with respect to the conventional wisdom of their times. In that sense, they belong in the same ignoble tradition of dishonest self-aggrandizement at the expense of critiquing concentrated power.
They draw a circle around themselves small enough to make the public believe that they’re dissidents, dividing their communities into the “acceptable” and the “extreme.” They keep such a division legitimate in the eyes of the public by peddling old, played-out stereotypes.
Meanwhile, the actual grievances of the community they say they belong to become overshadowed by the assumptions made about them—assumptions that the likes of Manji help reinforce. By juxtaposing themselves against the false portrayals that they help erect, the public is taught to revere their “refusenik” attitude.
Hucksters and charlatans are good at influencing public opinion if those with better answers and explanations don’t effectively strategize to breakthrough the media and cultural blackout of mainstream Muslim voices. Islamophobes capitalize on peoples worries and confusion in the post-9/11 era, wondering if Muslims really are as bad as they are portrayed on television and in movies. If mainstream Muslim institutions and their allies in the fight against xenophobia and marginalization don’t take this battle for public opinion with a serious sense of urgency, the likes of Irshad Manji will continue to fill the public void for them.
The praise and success Manji has received for her “dissenting” position outweighs any resulting backlash. Dissent is supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to anger mainstream society by casting doubt over entrenched assumptions. Manji doesn’t represent this kind of doubt. Her legacy is built on her alignment with the most popular of unquestioned suppositions.
Steven Zhou graduated from Carleton University with a Masters of Journalism and went on to work for the CBC and The Ottawa Citizen as a reporter. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Counterpunch, Electronic Intifada, and J-Source, among other publications.