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Muslim Rebel Sisters: At Odds With Islam and Each Other
by Barry Gewen
AYAAN HIRSI ALI and Irshad Manji are two of the most prominent and outspoken critics of what they and others see as "mainstream Islam." Brilliant, dynamic women — the overused word "charismatic" is not inappropriate for either one — they have each rebelled against a Muslim upbringing to become public figures with large and devoted followings. Both are successful authors: Ms. Hirsi Ali's autobiography, "Infidel," was a New York Times best seller; Ms. Manji's combination memoir-polemic, "The Trouble With Islam Today," has been published in almost 30 countries. They are firm and unyielding in their support for the West, feminism, reason, freedom — and they have paid a price: both have been targets of death threats and have required protection; in Ms. Hirsi Ali's case, around-the-clock protection.
Yet though they are allies on one level, their approaches to Islam are strikingly different, with one working outside the religion and one within. Neither one can be considered a spokeswoman for a significant Muslim constituency in the Middle East. (Indeed, their most sympathetic audiences are probably Western.) But their differences have implications for all the big issues the West grapples with in considering the Muslim world. How much popular support do terrorists have? Is a secular Middle East possible, and what's the best way to promote it? Is Islam itself an enemy of the West?
Ms. Hirsi Ali is an avowed atheist whose criticisms can be seen as attacks not only on radical Islamism but on the religion of Islam over all. George W. Bush was wrong, she says, when he announced that Islam was being held hostage by a terrorist minority: "Islam is being held hostage by itself." About the 9/11 attacks, she declared: "This is Islam," and "not just Islam, this was the core of Islam." The attacks forced her to decide "which side was I on?" she writes in "Infidel." And further, "Where did I stand on Islam?" Her book is the story of how she chose the West.
For Ms. Manji, there has been no such either-or choice. She is a practicing Muslim who — though she can be as caustic about her coreligionists as Ms. Hirsi Ali — seeks to change her faith from within. As founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, she assists other maverick writers and scholars who dissent within their communities. "What I want," Ms. Manji has said, "is an Islamic Reformation," and in contrast to Ms. Hirsi Ali, she adds, there is "no need to choose between Islam and the West."
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