The Trouble with Islam

You may wonder who I am to talk to you this way. I am a Muslim Refusenik. That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim; it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah. I take this phrase from the original refuseniks—Soviet Jews who championed religious and personal freedom. Their communist masters refused to let them emigrate to Israel. For their attempts to leave the Soviet Union, many refuseniks paid with hard labor and, sometimes, with their lives. Over time, though, their persistent refusal to comply with the mechanisms of mind control and soullessness helped end a totalitarian system.

You know what happened after the show [about gay and lesbian Muslims] aired? Of all the complaints I got from Toronto area Muslims the most common was that these homosexual “pigs” and “dogs” who I had featured must have been—brace yourself—Jews. Never mind the heinous video of Iranian stoning practices, or Anan’s willingness to accept a theological thumbs-down about his sexuality, or the religious advisor’s call for God-conscious humility on everyone’s part. None of it registered with the incensed Muslims who wrote and phoned in. Only one thing scanned—that gays and lesbians couldn’t possibly be part of “us.” Homosexuals are manifestly moles for “them.” This, from the bosom of a twenty-first-century cosmopolis.

I was nauseated. Whatever the culture in which Muslims lived, be it rural or digital, and whatever the generations, whether symbolized by a 1970’s mosque for immigrants or by a media-connected city for the new millennium, Islam emerged as desperately tribal. Did we ever need a reformation.

But what did that mean—a “reformation”? Truthfully, I had only the sketchiest idea. What I knew was that believers in the historically “reformed” religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations—and many do—none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicize disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into the Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Koran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves

In trying to answer how I reconcile my Muslim faith with the barbaric lashing of a rape victim, I concluded that I couldn’t reconcile them with breezy confidence. I couldn’t glibly say, as I’ve heard so many Muslim feminists do, that the Koran itself guarantees justice. I couldn’t cavalierly shrug that those whacko Nigerian jurists who apply Sharia law have sodomized my transparently egalitarian religion. The Koran is not transparently egalitarian for women. It’s not transparently anything except enigmatic. With apologies to Noam Chomsky, it’s Muslims who manufacture consent in Allah’s name. The decisions we make on the basis of the Koran aren’t dictated by God: we make them of our free human will.

A few weeks before September 11, I joined a panel of Muslims on national TV to “discuss images of the Islamic world.” Taking this politely worded invitation as a euphemism for “let’s complain about the West,” my fellow panelists indulged in the usual castigating of North American pop culture: Hollywood casts us all as fanatics, the fanatics always look swarthy, and every other standard line in the victim’s canon.