Irshad Manji, according to the jacket of her book, is “a broadcaster, author, public speaker, and media enterpreneur, born in East Africa and raised on the west coast of Canada.” She was the producer and host of QueerTelevision and calls herself “a journalist with a reputation for flinging open doors” (pg. 76). Her new book, “The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change”, is on Canadian bestseller lists and, with a glowing profile in the NewYork Times, will no doubt do well in the United States as well. Her book is supposed to be an “Open Letter to Muslims and Non-Muslims”, asking “tough questions”: “Why are we all being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? What’s with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam? Who is the real colonizer of Muslims – America or Arabia? Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God’s creation?” (pg. 2).
A critique of Islam, like a critique of any religion or ideology that has doctrines preventing people from exercising their moral sense, solidarity, and reason, is welcome. Orthodox (or mainstream) Islam, like dominant strains of Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, is deeply sexist, homophobic, and authoritarian.
Addressed as a letter to Muslims by a Muslim who is struggling with hard questions, the book seems to live up to a simple moral rule: that people should focus their attention on problems that they can influence, should ‘look to their own backyards’. For Manji, this ‘backyard’ would seem to be the Muslim community, making her critique one that, whatever factual errors, biases, manipulations, or distortions it contains (and it contains many), is fundamentally morally responsible. When she describes “Arab hypocrisy” (pg. 106) without ever using a phrase like “US hypocrisy” or “Western hypocrisy”, or “delusional Muslims” (pg. 109) without ever referring to “delusional Americans” or “delusional Westerners”, this harsh criticism is to be understood as self-criticism. When she whitewashes crimes by the United States and Israel, citing the reports of mainstream human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Muslim countries but not on Israel or the United States, this is to be understood as the focus of a moral agent on her own community.
Manji’s own words suggest otherwise. Late in her book, she talks about reasoning being “entirely compatible with the ideals I hold as a Westerner.” (pg. 229) Describing her visit to Israel, she describes the moment of her visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem: “As I spend time in search of an unused crack that will clasp my prayer, I realize I’m holding up the Jews behind me. Still, I don’t feel like an interloper. I feel at home. More viscerally than ever, I know who my family is.” (pg. 93).
Reading her book, it becomes clear that it is not the work of a self-critical individual trying to hold the Muslim community accountable, but a self-congratulatory Westerner, cheering for powerful states and whitewashing the crimes of her “family”.
Manji, the disinterested intellectual
To open Irshad Manji’s website or book is to be exposed to quite a bit of posturing. The site accompanying her book launch is called ‘muslim-refusenik.com’. She uses the word ‘refusenik’ to invoke the dissidents of the former Soviet Union. In the contemporary context, the word ‘refusenik’ invokes the Israeli refuseniks(1) , the conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. These courageous youths are serving jail terms because they don’t want to violate the human rights of an occupied people. They see themselves as the ‘true zionists’, and believe that Israel would be far better defended if it withdrew to its pre-1967 borders. They say that they are prepared to serve in a military that would defend those borders – but not one that systematically violates the human rights of people in an occupied territory. Manji, the ‘Muslim Refusenik’ who spent time in Israel, seems never to have heard of them. Perhaps this is because these refuseniks, like their Soviet predecessors, suffer jail terms and state repression for their views, while Manji is profiting handsomely from hers.
Opening the website, one is exposed to the picture of a young woman in an elaborate hijab, an outfit that covers all but her face. This type of picture invokes the women of Afghanistan, who have suffered over 25 years of brutality, rape, and torture at the hands of Soviet invaders, the jehadis trained by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in order to fight the Soviet invaders, and the factions that those jehadis split into – the ‘Northern Alliance’, the Taliban, and now the Northern Alliance again. Afghanistan’s women have become the symbol of oppression by Islamic regimes. But Afghanistan’s women have been resisting this brutality and sexism from the beginning. One of the most remarkable organizations in the world is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). But there is not a word about RAWA in Manji’s book. The story of how these women built a covert organization to teach women to read, to document the atrocities that the West suddenly became interested in for the duration of the US bombing of Afghanistan, to strive for a secular democracy under the most repressive conditions imaginable, gets only an oblique mention: “Old Afghan women, some of them refugees, now attend schools that younger women run, and that they ran in secret during the Taliban’s time.” (pg. 180). Manji might not have had access to Anne Brodsky’s excellent book on RAWA, ‘With All Our Strength’, which was just published(2) , but she certainly had access to their website(3) and to their words. There are real women, fighting and dying for secular democracy and against the fundamentalism that Manji decries. But Manji has no time for them.
Perhaps this is because RAWA was against the US bombing of their country while Manji wanted to say “America, your thrashing of the Taliban made millions of Afghanis happy. Since then, though, your failure to post soldiers beyond Kabul has made only tribal warlords and Taliban sympathizers smile.” (pg. 143). America’s “thrashing of the Taliban” also left at least several thousand Afghani civilians dead by cluster bombs, ‘daisy cutters’, and other weapons, by conservative estimates. An inconvenient fact, and one Manji makes no mention of, no doubt because her moral responsibility as a Muslim compels her to ignore it.
As the photo of the young woman fades, two quotes appear. One is from the Koran. The other is from an article by the late Edward Said, from an article he wrote for Le Monde Diplomatique in 1998. It says: “The intellectual’s role is to speak the truth as plainly, directly, and honestly as possible. No intellectual is supposed to worry about whether what is said embarrasses, pleases, or displeases people in power.” Manji presumably presents this quote to claim that she is engaging in an act of moral courage in publishing her book. But while she has use for Said’s words on her website, she smears and misrepresents him in her book. Her summary of him? “He’s the Arab-American intellectual who, in 1979, used the word ‘Orientalism’ to describe the West’s supposed tendency to colonize Muslims by demonizing us as the exotic freaks of the East.” (pg. 22) In Manji’s world, Said’s “acolytes” were so powerful that they created a “chill” that harmed discussion of “just about anything that affronted mainstream Muslims.” (pg. 22)
In fact, Said talked about actual colonization, not a “supposed tendency” – he talked about the British colonial conquests. He talked about the way scholarship was deployed as a weapon of empire and a rationalization of it. Manji’s summary dismissal suggests, if anything, that she hasn’t read Said’s “Orientalism”. Indeed, her later use of the same Le Monde Diplomatique article suggests she read only a part of it. As part of a multi-page long section (pp. 116-123) of rhetorical questions intended to refute the idea that Israel is an apartheid state, Manji quotes Said as evidence: “Even the eminence grise of Palestinian nationalism, Edward Said, states flat out that ‘Israel is not South Africaâ€¦’ How could it be when an Israeli publisher has translated into Hebrew Said’s seminal work, Orientalism?”(4) . But the very article Manji cites explicitly says Israeli is an apartheid state. A fuller version of the quote is as follows:
“Israel is neither South Africa, nor Algeria, nor Vietnam. Whether we like it or not, the Jews are not ordinary colonialists. Yes, they suffered the holocaust, and yes, they are the victims of anti-Semitism. But no, they cannot use those facts to continue, or initiate, the dispossession of another people that bears no responsibility for either of those prior facts. I have been saying for twenty years that we have no military option, and are not likely to have one anytime soon. And neither does Israel have a real military option. Despite their enormous power, Israelis have not succeeded in achieving either the acceptance or the security they crave.”
Just a few paragraphs below this, Said says:
“What Azmi Bishara and several Israeli Jews like Ilan PappÃ© (4) are now trying to strengthen is a position and a politics by which Jews and Palestinians inside the Jewish state have the same rights; there is no reason why the same principle should not apply in the Occupied Territories where Palestinians and Israeli Jews live side by side, together, with only one people, Israeli Jews now dominating the other. So the choice is either apartheid or it is justice and citizenship.”(5)
Indeed, Manji could have benefited from reading the entire article in more than one way. Said’s points about the intellectual’s role were to distinguish intellectual from political behaviour.
“Speaking the truth to power means additionally that the intellectual’s constituency is neither a government nor a corporate or a career interest: only the truth unadorned. Political behaviour principally relies upon considerations of interest – advancing a career, working with governments, maintaining one’s position, etc.”
With features in the New York Times, the New York Post, and Canada’s Globe and Mail, Manji’s book seems to be something that “pleases people in power”, and she is on her way to “advancing a career”, by distorting citations and ignoring facts.
Manji, the journalist of Israel/Palestine
Said’s 1998 article is not the only source Manji distorts, nor the only cited piece one is forced to wonder whether Manji actually read, to which we return.
Manji’s posturing includes a stance that she is “asking questions, not providing answers”. But her account of her trip to Israel is filled with answers – the standard answers of apologists for Israel’s occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Palestinian territories.
It turns out that Manji was in Israel at around the same time that I was in the Occupied Territories. I was there from June 18-July 3, 2002. Her interviews, conversations, and photo notes indicate she was there in mid-July of 2002. She took a series of photos, as did I.
I would encourage you to look at her photos, available online (see the table below, with her photos in the left-hand column and mine in the right-hand column), since she took them, as I said, at approximately the same time as I took my own, not very far away. One of them is of a woman leading a column of Israeli male troops (to show that Israel’s armed forces have women in positions of power). One is of Manji in front of the Al-Aqsa mosque. One is of a group of children. Another set is of Manji, posing with various people at the site of Al-Aqsa. The last is of an Israeli boy on a scooter in the old city. Also compare five photos that I took at around the same time. Please, as you look, note that I did not have to go digging to find these photos. I was in Jenin, Ramallah, and Gaza, and these scenes were quite typical (6) .
|the Israeli army||Checkpoint wire|
|Manji at al-Aqsa||Checkpoint lineup|
|Children||Destruction of Trees|
|Manji al-Aqsa||Jenin Destruction|
|A boy in the old city||Blowing up a bank in Jenin|
That Manji could travel to the Israel and the Occupied Territories and not notice the ongoing, physical destruction of Palestinian society, instead publishing numerous photos of herself, despite being a “journalist with a reputation for flinging open doors” should not come as too much of a surprise. That might be a disservice to Israel which, Manji finds (and the photos suggest), “brings more compassion to ‘colonization’ than its adversaries have ever brought to ‘liberation’” (pg. 123).
Manji’s thesis is that Israel is an open society that debates issues openly, is self-reflective. As proof, she provides various citations to newspaper articles in the Israeli press, primarily Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post for the period June 24 – July 9, 2002, when she was there, but also a few other periods. These newspaper articles are supplemented by some interviews she conducted herself. Manji paints a picture of Israelis debating openly and honestly in their media questions of whether Israel should accept more religious immigrants from North America; whether state lands should be allocated to exclusively Jewish towns; and whether CNN was too biased against Israel to be shown on Israeli airwaves. (pp. 82-83) The open debates on these topics impressed Manji, who thinks Arabs and Muslims do not debate issues so openly. But – and again, to be fair, it’s not clear whether or not she was checking Ha’aretz every day in detail – she didn’t cite a very good article by Gideon Levy that was published in Ha’aretz on July 5 (7) . That article describes the murder of an 11-year old child in Jenin in some detail:
“The video shows it all: Here are the three kids on their bikes, three black dots on the slope of the road, two on the right, close together, the third on the left, and a white car passes between them. A woman calls out something unclear, maybe a warning to the children about the tank; the car disappears down the hill, and then the tank suddenly appears from the corner on the left. First you see the tank’s turret gun, then the base of the turret and then the tank itself, charging after three little kids on their bicycles a few dozen meters ahead. The picture freezes for a second to show the details better. Then suddenly the screen goes dark. Sound of firing. Boom. Lots of noise, dust and smoke everywhere, and that’s it. The anonymous photographer stopped filmingâ€¦
“The IDF spokesman, this week: “The incident is still being dealt with.” Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer issued an apology. No one from the IDF came to the family’s home; no one even bothered to watch the video.”
Amira Hass, also in Ha’aretz, on July 9, 2002, described the destruction of the economy in Gaza:
“The Gaza Strip’s welfare is dependent on several border-crossing points where Israel has absolute control. During April and May, for example, there was a serious shortage of flour, one of the main dietary components of a society where two-thirds of the population are living below the poverty line. And construction was almost suspended because of a shortage of building materials.”(8)
If Manji’s point is that Israeli journalists often have more integrity, empathy, and openness than North American ones about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, it is well taken. Gideon Levy and Amira Hass are exemplary in this regard. That Manji, a North American journalist, cites Ha’aretz repeatedly without mentioning these fine writers (just as she mentions the debate within Israeli society without mentioning the refuseniks, or Gush Shalom, or Ta’ayush), reinforces the point with some irony.
Manji the historian
On Israel’s History
Manji claims her book is an “open letter” to Muslims, as opposed, perhaps, to a work of historical scholarship. Since her sources are, with few exceptions, from 2001-2002, this claim holds up. But when she discusses Israel/Palestine, Manji suddenly becomes a historian, citing primary sources and documents like the Palestine Royal Commission Report, Cmd 5479 (London, July 1937)(9) , “Beirut Telegraph, September 6, 1948, no page number assigned to article. Confirmed by the Newspaper Archive Division of the American University of Beirut.”(10) . She reads 50-year old books like “Maurice Pearlman, Mufti of Jerusalem: The Story of Haj Amin el Husseini (London: V.Gollancz, 1947)”(11) . She reads an article from the Journal of Palestine Studies, and books on the Palestinian refugee problem (12) . She also relies heavily on a single article in the Jerusalem Post on the history of the current intifada (13) .
Her history is as dishonest as her journalism. Discussing Benny Morris, an Israeli historian who shows that Israel did expel Palestinians en masse but claims that it did so because of war and not by design, she says: “Acknowledging war as the root of the refugee problem doesn’t mean you can’t be balanced or even sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. For proof, see Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).”(14)
When she talks about being “balanced or even sympathetic to the Palestinian cause”, Manji must be talking about Morris’s book and not Morris himself, since, as Norman Finkelstein reports, quoting Benny Morris:
“Benny Morris explicitly justifies expulsion of the Palestinians not only in the event of a regional war but in the name of Lebensraum: ‘This land is so small that there isn’t room for two peoples. In fifty or a hundred years, there will only be one state between the sea and Jordan. That state must be Israel.’â€¦
“Morris professes that as a historian his only concern is truth. Indeed, finding evidence of yet more ‘massacres’ of Arabs in 1948 ‘makes me happy.’â€¦
“The Palestinians, according to Morris, are ‘a sick, psychotic people’. They refuse to acknowledge that ‘Jews have a just claim to Palestine’ and that ‘Zionism was/is a just enterprise.’ Yet, Morris further states that this ‘just claim’ couldn’t be redeemed and this ‘just enterprise’ realized without expelling the Palestinian Arabs: ‘a removing of a population was needed. Without a population expulsion, a Jewish state would not have been established.’(15)
Finkelstein’s careful assessment of Morris’s work concludes that there was an element of design in the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, and not only war as Morris claims. Indeed, Finkelstein provides evidence cited by Morris himself that supports this conclusion, including a quote from the diary of a prominent Zionist from 1940, 8 years before the war, saying “There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, and to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Arabs of] Bethlehem, Nazareth, and old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one [bedouin] tribe.”(16)
Another excellent work on the origins of the refugee problem as the first attempt in Israel’s ongoing campaign of “politicide” against the Palestinians is the book of the same name by Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling. Using an eight-volume Hebrew series on Haganah history never published in English, Kimmerling shows how a military plan developed in advance to expel the Palestinians was implemented on the ground during the 1948 war (17) .
On ‘Muslim complicity in the Holocaust’
Citing Maurice Pearlman’s work on the Mufti of Jerusalem’s relationship with Hitler, Manji concludes there was Muslim ‘complicity in the holocaust’. This is true, as true as there was Christian, and particularly US complicity in the holocaust (18) . Inconveniently for Manji, the Zionists’ own record on the holocaust is not spotless either. Tim Wise, a Jewish anti-racist writer based in the US, along with many others, has used the Zionists’ own words to argue that elements of Zionism embrace anti-semitism:
“Far from resisting Nazi genocide, some Zionists collaborated with it. When the British devised a plan to allow thousands of German Jewish children to enter the U.K. and be saved from the Holocaust, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister balked, explaining:
“‘If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to (Israel) then I would opt for the second alternative.’
“Later, Israeli Zionists would again make alliances with anti-Jewish extremists. In the 1970′s, Israel hosted South African Prime Minister John Vorster, and cultivated economic and military ties with the apartheid state, even though Vorster had been locked up as a Nazi collaborator during World War II. And Israel supplied military aid to the Galtieri regime in Argentina, even while the Generals were known to harbor ex-Nazis in the country, and had targeted Argentine Jews for torture and death.”(19)
Complicity in the holocaust against the Jews was not the monopoly of any religion. And neither was resistance to the Nazis. In a review of Manji’s book for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress addressed this issue:
“Has Ms. Manji ever heard of the Palestine Regiment, a unit in which Jew and Muslim fought side-by-side against Hitler’s Afrika Korps in Libya? In the cemeteries of El-Alamein lie the dead Muslims, the Mohammeds, the Alis and the Ismails who gave their lives so that Nazism could be defeated. The cemeteries of Stalingrad bear the names of the young Central Asian Muslims who lie buried, unable to refute the falsehoods being spread by fast-food historians. And what about the hundreds of thousands of Indian Muslims who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with our own Canadians in Italy and France?” (20)
On the Second Intifada
On the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, Manji cites Khaled Abu Toameh’s article of September 19, 2002 in the Jerusalem Post, in order to suggest the intifada was ‘planned in advance’, as opposed to a spontaneous response to Sharon’s visit to the al-Aqsa mosque accompanied by hundreds of armed men who proceeded to fire into the crowds and kill nearly a dozen people (21) . This article, too, is a distortion of the facts of both the intifada and the breakdown of the Camp David talks, presented for example by Tanya Reinhart, an Israeli intellectual. An article written several days after the outbreak of the intifada shows that there was, indeed, advance planning of what happened on September 28, 2000:
“His visit was carefully planned, with a thousand soldiers securing it and taking shooting positions on the roofs in advance. It is not Sharon who is responsible for the present massacre, but Barak, Ben Ami, the Israeli government, and Israel’s “peaceniks” who have been supporting them all the way through.”(22)
There are numerous analyses of the failure of Camp David that include what was actually on offer. Tanya Reinhart’s (23) relies on the Israeli press, Baruch Kimmerling’s uses books and other accounts (24) . A readily available account of what was on offer comes from Seth Ackerman of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (25)
“Although some people describe Israel’s Camp David proposal as practically a return to the 1967 borders, it was far from that. Under the plan, Israel would have withdrawn completely from the small Gaza Strip. But it would annex strategically important and highly valuable sections of the West Bank–while retaining “security control” over other parts–that would have made it impossible for the Palestinians to travel or trade freely within their own state without the permission of the Israeli government (Political Science Quarterly, 6/22/01; New York Times, 7/26/01; Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, 9-10/00; Robert Malley, New York Review of Books, 8/9/01).
“The annexations and security arrangements would divide the West Bank into three disconnected cantons. In exchange for taking fertile West Bank lands that happen to contain most of the region’s scarce water aquifers, Israel offered to give up a piece of its own territory in the Negev Desert–about one-tenth the size of the land it would annex–including a former toxic waste dump.
“Because of the geographic placement of Israel’s proposed West Bank annexations, Palestinians living in their new ‘independent state’ would be forced to cross Israeli territory every time they traveled or shipped goods from one section of the West Bank to another, and Israel could close those routes at will. Israel would also retain a network of so-called ‘bypass roads’ that would crisscross the Palestinian state while remaining sovereign Israeli territory, further dividing the West Bank.
“Israel was also to have kept ‘security control’ for an indefinite period of time over the Jordan Valley, the strip of territory that forms the border between the West Bank and neighboring Jordan. Palestine would not have free access to its own international borders with Jordan and Egypt–putting Palestinian trade, and therefore its economy, at the mercy of the Israeli military.”
Manji may think that her distortions and omissions of history make her a better ‘supporter of Israel’. But, to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase, she is more of a ‘supporter of the moral degradation and ultimate destruction of Israel, and not Israel alone’ (26) . She is doing Israelis no better service than she does Muslims.