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Faith without Fear, Irshad Manji - Arts and Opinion
1.       Roswitha
4132 posts
 10 May 2008 Sat 01:30 am

"My name is Irshad Manji. I can't show you where I live. My home has bullet-proof windows and a lock on the mailbox to prevent letter bombs. My journey is about speaking out against injustice, no matter who's offended. As a Muslim, my faith is unshakable. But my conscience is being shaken. Terrorists are killing civilians under the banner of Islam. I won't abandon my God - or my voice."

Thus begins Irshad Manji's new PBS documentary Faith without Fear, a film which explores Manji's journey into Islam in the 21st century. On first glance, Faith without Fear mirrors the contents of Manji's internationally best-selling book, The Trouble with Islam Today. Like the book, the film deals with the injustices that are committed in the name of Islam. Yet for those of us who have followed Manji's work closely, Faith without Fear represents a significant departure in the public intellectual's thinking. In particular, Manji seems to have mollified her criticism of Islam-arguing that it is not so much the religion that is at fault, but rather the way in which some Muslims have interpreted their religion.

Faith without Fear comes across as a voyage of personal and collective discovery. The film documents Manji's quest for knowledge as she visits a number of countries and engages in conversation with an ideologically diverse group of people. These include Osama Bin-Laden's former body guard, fellow dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Manji's own mother, who is a devout Muslim.

"This film began not as a critique of Islam but as a quest for the beauty in Islam," Manji explains. "I soon realized that to find the beauty of my faith, I needed to have basic questions addressed: Is the problem religion itself or the manipulation of religion? Does Islam contain the seeds of a solution to the horrors that are committed in its name? How much responsibility should mainstream Muslims take? Above all, if Islam never existed, what would the world be missing?"

Manji travels the globe in search of answers to these questions. In Yemen she tackles the problem of veiling, pointing out that it is a 7th century tribal tradition that was originally designed to protect women from being the spoils of war. Today, she argues, the very principle behind such an endeavour is being distorted when Muslims use the burqa and niqab (veil) as a means to keep modern women oppressed.

In Amsterdam, Manji explores the way in which repression of free expression in the ummah (Muslim community) is masquerading under the imperative of unity. Manji comes to the conclusion that if Muslims are going to accept the fruits of modernity, including their right to worship freely, then they must make room for debate and dissent. As Manji says, "When Muslims shield ourselves from that challenge, we declare we're incapable of growing, and that our faith is too. Islam deserves better from us." Finally, turning to Spain, Manji illuminates with much excitement an historical vision of Islam that Muslims can embrace in the 21st century-an Islam that is vibrant, tolerant, and intellectually dynamic. As Manji puts it, "This is the Islam that I love."

Another interesting component of Faith without Fear is Manji's focus on her mother. Whereas in her book The Trouble With Islam Today Manji describes a stern and abusive father who unwittingly showed her the difference between authority and authoritarianism, in the film Manji turns the lens on her devout mother who symbolizes the dignity and beauty that she is searching for in Islam. In one particularly raw scene, Manji and her mom are told to leave the premises of her mother's mosque. The episode clearly embarrasses and infuriates Manji's mother. But, as Manji explains, "Her dignified response in a moment of humiliation taught me important lessons about having faith without fear."

When asked what she thought was the most compelling aspect of the film, Manji replied, "My mom. She's a pistol in this film! Dynamic, funny, humane, humanizing. I can't say enough about her. And believe me, that's not because she agrees with everything I say and do, quite the opposite. Unlike me, she shows herself to be the kind of Muslim whom liberals and conservatives will have a hard time hating. More than anybody else I can think of, my mom represents the hope for Islam today."

There are aspects of Faith without Fear that may disappoint Manji purists. As noted above, whereas in the past Manji had argued that Islam cannot be differentiated from the collective behaviour of its adherents, today she believes that it is Muslims and not Islam that need to change. Moreover, the film sees Manji showing some unusual deference for her critics, such as Imam Syed Soharwardy who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada and believes that Manji is undermining Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Lastly, in an omission that will surely raise some eyebrows, Manji, who has been open and outspoken about being a lesbian, chooses to leave out any discussion of her sexual orientation in the film. "The journey is already a provocative one," she explains, "I'd like to believe I've matured to the point where I can say no to a weapon of mass distraction."

Even Manji herself is grappling with the challenges and transformation that this movie engendered. "My integrity demands that I stand up to injustices that take place under the banner of Islam. My transformation requires that I have more reverence for Islam. Is there a healthy balance? Am I selling out one side or the other by trying to achieve such a balance? I'm still struggling with these questions."

There are no doubts that some will see these changes as a form of "selling out." But such a perspective would miss the big picture: Namely, that by approaching her subject matter with more reverence, Manji stands to gain a wider audience whose ears, minds, and hearts are open for a change. And while Manji has evolved as a thinker, her concern for human rights and dignity is as strong as ever. Faith without Fear pulls no punches with regards to the harrowing atrocities sanctified by Muslim extremists and the silence of moderates. It challenges its viewers to take responsibility for the wrongs perpetuated in the name of Islam, while simultaneously calling them to regain ownership of the spiritually and morally arresting power of their faith.

As Manji observes, "One of the most persistent criticisms of me is that I should question Muslims, not Islam. That's what I'm challenging myself to do in this film-without compromising intellectual freedom and human rights. By pushing myself to change, I'm extending an olive branch to my fellow Muslims. Whether they reciprocate will speak volumes about their open-mindedness."

In Faith without Fear, Irshad Manji remains the spiky-haired public intellectual who speaks truth to power, but now her indignation at the injustices carried out under the banner of Islam is grounded in respect and love for her faith. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, wrote that all great journeys must go through three stages: separation, initiation, and a return. Going into the unknown, experiencing a transformation, and bringing back the prize of the quest. In this wonderful documentary, Manji takes us with her on a journey of discovery, we experience her transformation and reap the benefit of the boon of knowledge that she carries back with her.

This review is published with the permission of Voices-Unabridged

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