“The Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Manji’s Mantra in the context of the War on Gaza

GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.


Manji’s Mantra in the context of the War on Gaza


Arab and Muslim women are often afforded the spotlight on the stage of oppression as indicated by the space made for such women who “dare to speak out” or those who “unveil” themselves or their sisters. A quintessential example of this tendency is the ballyhoo afforded self-appointed spokeswomen Irshad Manji.

Manji has led the rallying cry to reform Islam—not governments or policies which shape society, not aspects of Islam, but Islam. In fact she went on journey around the world to document her efforts to “reconcile Islam and Freedom” in the PBS documentary about her, “Faith Without Fear.” She describes herself as a “Muslim refusenik” or someone who refuses to “join an army of automatons in the name of Allah” and equates her act to Israeli refuseniks who refuse to join the Army that occupies the West Bank. Equating servitude in a military occupation to religious faith and piety seems like logical acrobatics; the huge leap being the assumption that Islam is the problem and not the political and economic circumstances underpinning Islamic societies or the external forces shaping them. Odd as it may sound, Manji thinks that Islam should be reformed without addressing international politics, power relations, and economics.

In exchange for her reductionist approach, Manji has been bestowed numerous awards including Oprah Magazine’s “Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness, and conviction,” as well as an honorary doctorate from Puget South claiming that Manji has “dedicated [her] life to the rescue of faith’s flames from the caldron of hatred and ignorance.” Her honors come as no surprise as commentators are eager to applaud those who speak out against Islam as a religion, Arab as culture but who make no reference to the U.S. funding that perpetuates the rule of authoritarian regimes and military occupations, the marginalization of minorities, and the economic crises that hurt woman the first and the most.

In fact, in the journalist’s only column on the horrific offensive against Gaza, Manji described her meeting with a leader of Islamic Jihad, Mohammed al-Hindi years prior. She describes how she challenged him to show her the Qur’anic texts where it reads that you should kill yourself for a higher cause and how he fumbled in frustration until her camera’s battery died apparently saving her from death at the hands of this religious extremist. She concludes by proclaiming her disappointment that she is the first western journalist to ask al-Hindi for evidence that the Qur’an justifies suicide bombings. Published on January 8, 2009, the 13th day of the Israel’s 22-day offensive against Gaza, Manji does not so much as mention the Gazan death toll dealt by the Israeli offensive.

Her omission of the most basic issue affecting Gaza in order to expose “the problem with Islam” is precisely the problem with Manji’s apolitical approach to controversial matters: the consideration of Islam as a test tube religion, immune from the impact of international politics, power relations, and economics. While I cannot apologize for any attacks on civilians—I find Manji’s topic of choice troubling during a military campaign that killed Palestinian civilians and children en masse. The absurdity of her choice may seem more apparent had she approached an Israeli general and asked him to show her the text in the Torah that excused the killing of children in the name of national security. She would not ask him that because she would know that the Israeli military’s choices are based on politics and not religion and yet she should know the same of Hamas’s choices. And this is the point that many in the mainstream media, and not just Manji, keep missing.

To understand the crisis in Gaza, Manji must examine the historical subjugation of Palestinian liberty to Israeli security concerns. Well before Hamas’s ouster of Fatah from Gaza in June 2007 and even before its electoral victory in January 2006-Gaza has been the site of a belligerent military occupation. Its enduring population includes 750,000 refugees, displaced and dispossessed since Israel’s establishment in 1948, they are denied repatriation because they constitute a demographic, and not a security, threat. Their return might make Palestinian Christians and Muslims the majority population in Israel thereby upsetting the State’s Jewish majority and threatening its Jewish character. (For more information visit http://www.adalah.org/eng/backgroundhistory.php)

Since June 2007, Israel has imposed a debilitating blockade of basic goods on Gaza. The blockade has made 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million population dependent on food aid for survival and created an approximate 50 percent unemployment rate. In addition to preventing the flow of goods into the 365 square kilometer strip of land, Israel also sealed Gaza’s borders making it impossible for its residents to travel for work, for medical care, and in and out of one’s own territory. These devastating circumstances existed before the launch of “Operation Cast Lead.”

The military operation purportedly launched to halt Hamas rocket fire resulted in more than 1,300 Palestinian deaths, including 400 children; approximately 5,500 injuries; and the destruction of more than 4,000 homes. This is to say nothing of the psychological impact the isolation and starvation policy has had on Gaza’s population. In early February, I participated in a National Lawyers Guild fact-finding mission to Gaza to investigate whether or not Israel violated laws of war during its offensive. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/noura-erakat/investigating-war-crimes_b_167609.html)

Our delegation visited Khoza’a, an agricultural neighborhood of Khan Younis in southern Gaza where we spoke with members of the al-Najjar family who described the loss of its matriarch Rouhiya al-Najjar. On January 3rd at approximately 11 pm, Israeli aerial shelling forced Khoza’a’s residents into their homes. At 3 am Israeli tanks rolled into the neighborhood and bulldozed nearly 30 homes in their path. Fearful of being pummeled with their homes, 120 women gathered in front of Rouhiya’s home.

At 8 am, Israeli soldiers ordered the women to march to the city center. To protect them from harm, Rouhiya distributed the white scarves she brought from her pilgrimage to Mecca to indicate their civilian status. Upon entering the main street, an Israeli soldier shot a bullet into Rouhiya’s left temple killing her instantly. Her fourteen year old daughter, Hiba, grabbed at her mother’s body but the other women pulled her away to save her from the incessant and oncoming bullets. They retreated to the alley and into a residential yard where they stood for 5 hours until a bulldozer knocked down the wall of the house they huddled near. They were ordered to march to the city center again and forced to enter a school where they joined hundreds of other residents rounded up from nearby neighborhoods. Shortly thereafter Israeli airplanes shelled the school. The survivors fled into ambulances that transported them to Panacella, a nearby neighborhood where they remained until Israeli tanks and troops rolled out at 8 pm.

Only then, twelve hours since Rouhiya was shot and killed, was an ambulance driver able to retrieve her body, which had become swollen and stiff from death.

Rouhiya’s death and the horror inflicted on Khoza’a’s residents is one of too many stories that we documented during our trip. It happened only a few days before Manji published her article bemoaning the manipulation of Islam to perpetuate violence. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that Manji’s perspective as a Muslim woman could garner legitimate global media attention while the story of another pious Muslim woman who had just returned from hajj and killed while raising a white scarf did not warrant mention. It is more unfortunate that as a self-professed advocate for women’s rights that Manji did not recount Rouhiya’s story and put it into the context of the how structural violence in the form of war and military occupation works to disproportionately harm women in those regions. Instead Manji focused on Islam as the problem.

Her disregard for the political context and structural violence among Muslim societies will certainly be a counteractive force in her mission to “reform” Islam. Still, self-styled liberal audiences who are more preoccupied with the Arab culture and Muslim religion than the political and power dynamics underpinning the societies in which they exist, will continue to provide stages and spotlights for Manji to speak her piece. Meanwhile, the communities that we, Manji, radicals, and liberals alike, care about will continue to suffer—not at the hand of an “oppressive Islam” but instead at the behest of misguided U.S. policies which continue to fund authoritarian regimes, military occupations, and neo-liberal economic programs which marginalize civil societies and make more room for non-representative actors to take center stage.

Noura Erakat is a Palestinian attorney and activist.  She is currently an adjunct professor of international human rights law in the Middle East at Georgetown University. Most recently she served as Counsel for a Congressional Subcommittee in the House of Representatives. Prior to her time on Capitol Hill, Noura received a New Voices Fellowship, in which capacity she helped seed BDS campaigns nationally as well as support the cases brought against two former Israeli officers in U.S. federal courts for alleged war crimes. Noura holds law and undergraduate degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. She has previously interned at Adalah: The Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel Proper and volunteered in refugee camps throughout the West Bank and Lebanon.  Noura has appeared on Fox’s “The O’ Reilly Factor,” HBO’s “Politically Incorrect,” MSNBC, and Al-Jazeera International. In February, she participated in a National Lawyers Guild fact-finding mission to Gaza.

3 thoughts on ““The Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Manji’s Mantra in the context of the War on Gaza

  1. Superb article. I think Manji’s failure to mention the horrific toll of Israel’s murderous onslaught on Palestinian women demolishes any credibility she may have had. How a woman who conveniently ignores the sheer magnitude of the human suffering around her caused by a Western backed Israeli occupation can claim to “reform” anything is beyond me.

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