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Despite Charlie Hebdo, Optimism On The Future Of Islam In Europe


For another prospective, we are joined in the studio by Irshad Manji. She is the founder of the Moral Courage Project at NYU and the author of a number of books, including "The Trouble With Islam Today."

She's been an outspoken advocate for reform in Islam, particularly for what she feels is the inferior treatment of women, anti-Semitism within the religion and an overly literal reading of the Quran. Irshad, thanks so much for being with us.

IRSHAD MANJI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You have a somewhat different interpretation of last week's events. You have said in the past few days that you feel optimistic. Can you explain that?

MANJI: Yeah. And I realize, Rachel, that's a hard-sell and of course time will tell. But I can report to you that the rate of inter-marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims in France is at its highest level ever and is only rising. And historically, inter-marriage between any so-called races or religions or ethnicities has been a check on the most extreme elements in either party's cultures.

And it's also a wonderful, historically-proven strategy for integration and pluralism. That's this side of the story that we are not hearing. And of course, it's not going to make the news because it's not sensational. But it doesn't mean that piece of the story isn't real.

MARTIN: But when you talk about reforming Islam, I imagine, though, it's still difficult to look at what happened last week in Paris and not see this as a setback to the kind of progress you're talking about.

MANJI: Yeah. It is a setback in the sense that there will be more fear now, more anger, anger and fear on the part of non-Muslims but also on the part of Muslims who will become more and more defensive about, you know, the reality of Islamophobia in their lives.

Nonetheless, I think it's important to realize that there are many reasons for why something like this crime could've happened. Not the least of which is that, you know, these young men, who were petty criminals to begin with, had become hardened and calcified by a much older man who gave them a narrative that, you know, suggested that the world is out of control precisely because of the pluralism I just talked about.

In other words, these crimes, you could say, were a backlash against a more progressive future. And if we remember to look for the hope rather than simply ingesting what's in the headlines, we'll find that, you know, these crimes, as horrific as they are, are actually the exceptions, not the rule.

MARTIN: One of the people connected to the Paris terrorists is a young woman. She's still at large - Hayat Boumediene. What does her involvement in all of this signify about women's role in extremist movements? How do you interpret that?

MANJI: Oh, listen, you know, women have been key in the emergence of extremist movements for, frankly, you know, at least a decade and more. Look, there is an interpretation of Islam that tells us that women historically have been a huge factor in the winning of global jihad or at least in the winning of Jihad.

And so these women are likely sort of feeding off of that interpretation and of course twisting and manipulating it to a more destructive end. But at the same time, people like me, reformist Muslims see how strong women historically have been in Islam; see, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad married a woman 15 years his senior. She, you know, proposed to him, and she was a self-made merchant. The point being that we reformist Muslims have our own role models as well. And frankly, it is our challenge and our opportunity to step up, speak out even more for reform, and the opportunity and challenge of media outlets like this to listen.

MARTIN: At the center of all of this, of course, are larger questions about limits to free speech. And, of course, the terrorists were acting, they say, in retribution for cartoons that the magazine published of the Prophet Muhammad. Is Islam, in your view, compatible with freedom of expression as realized in western secular societies?

MANJI: If I didn't believe it was compatible, I could not be a Muslim today. Freedom of expression is, for me, at the heart of what it means to live in a progressive, pluralistic society. Very briefly, I can tell you that there are plenty of passages in the Quran that defend freedom of conscience and even freedom of disbelief. And in fact, there are three times as many passages in the Quran calling on us to think and reflect and analyze and rethink, rather than merely submit blindly.

So yes, it's up to people like me to, you know, to advocate bold and competing reinterpretations of Islam. You're not going to get that from moderate Muslims, who typically only condemn violence once it happens. And frankly, I don't feel that that's a big deal. It doesn't help matters. I think that media and Americans will want to turn more to reformist Muslims, who are at the forefront of a movement for positive change.

MARTIN: And briefly, you wrote your book, "The Trouble With Islam Today," a decade ago. And at the time, you received death threats for that. How do people respond to your message now?

MANJI: It's interesting. I certainly still receive hate mail, but I have not received a credible death threat in over two years. And I can report to you, I get more love bombs, if I can put it that way, from young Muslims today than anything else. They are hungry - this new generation is hungry for debate and discussion. I think that if we all understood that, there would be less of a need for them to become defensive and less of a need for us, all of us to be fearful.

MARTIN: Irshad Manji. She's the founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU. She joined us here in our studio. Thank you so much.

MANJI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.