Oversimplifying “Women and Islam”

Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, has written an excellent review of two books: Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam Today, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin. The review is titled The Missionary Position and appears in The Nation Magazine. While acknowledging the very real and often horrific inequities faced by Muslim women in some countries, Lalami cautions against generalizing and oversimplifying the problem – in which she finds both authors guilty.

I read the article while looking for a second opinion about Irshad Manji, whose talk I happened to hear on the Berkeley Webcast archive. I was impressed by her courage and her ability to communicate clearly and effectively, but I admit to being slightly put off by what I can only call her attitude of persistently trying to be very “in your face” and unnecessarily patronizing. Perhaps this is only an individual, knee-jerk reaction and unfair on my part, but it made me a little more attentive, a little more skeptical than I would otherwise have been. (Arundhati Roy speaks with none of the bravado, but her language is so powerful and filled with so much anger, that I become similarly skeptical when I listen to her.). In particular, while I was convinced that Irshad was sincere and passionate about wanting to eliminate the injustices committed against women in the name of Islam, I wondered whether her advocacy of Israel and Western society was a strategy to gain favor with the (Western) powers that be. I eventually decided that I had too little information about Islam, Islamic society, Irshad Manji’s book, and the Koran, to judge Manji’s position. But, remembering my first reaction now, I find myself in agreement with this excerpt from Laila Lalami’s review:

Acknowledging anti-Semitism in some parts of the Arab world, therefore, should not require us to gloss over anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings in Israel. This reductionist way of thinking permeates The Trouble With Islam Today and gets tiresome very quickly. When Manji argues that Arabs and Muslims must learn to think differently about their present, she writes, “liberal Muslims have to get vocal about this fact: Washington is the unrealized hope, not the lead criminal.” For all her advocacy of new modes of thinking, she seems not to have entertained another possibility: Washington can be both.

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