Irshad Manji often falls asleep with a reading lamp beaming on her face. Her mother, Mumtaz, remembers going to bed, leaving her teenage daughter doing schoolwork in the living room of their Richmond, B.C., home. In the morning, Irshad would be dozing under the coffee table, lights still on, books and eyeglasses scattered about. When Mumtaz asked why she worked so hard, why she didn't have more fun, Irshad answered, "You have to understand, when I'm working I am having fun."
Work has always been fun for Irshad Manji, but she's learning it can also be emotionally, even physically, dangerous. For two years, her mind has been filled with writing and defending her abrasive challenge to fellow Muslims, The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change. Since the Canadian release in September, she's been overwhelmed by her self-assigned role as Muslim Refusenik. She has a mission: to change the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world, even to slow the tide of global war. She hopes to rekindle the lost Islamic tradition of independent thinking called ijtihad, and imagines Islam being led toward pluralism and democracy by Muslims of the West, free people who have learned to express themselves without fear. "In that sense," she states, "the Islamic reformation begins in the West." Perhaps it already has. With her two-toned spiked hair and hyper-kinetic style, Irshad Manji may appear an unlikely reformer, but who better to lead an international revolt than a former political refugee, a dimpled, brown-skinned lesbian, a supercharged, Blackberry-toting, 35-year-old media entrepreneur who now lives around the clock in the burning light of public scrutiny?
I got to know Irshad in July 2002, when we were part of a small group of journalists on a fact-finding mission to Israel. The trip was sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee and led by Paul Michaels, its communications officer. This was Irshad's first time in the Middle East, and she was concerned that allowing a Zionist organization to underwrite her trip would cast doubt on her findings, so before signing up she asked for, and received, two assurances: she had to help shape the agenda, and she had to be free to ask questions without restraint. While there, we met with dozens of novelists, poets, journalists, professors, civil servants and human rights activists—Jews, Arabs (Christian and Muslim) and a Druze. Irshad rejected everyone's easy answers, often softening her interrogation with humour, an embrace and a promise to keep in touch.
Under the auspices of Steve Hibbard, Canada's representative to the Palestinian Authority, we travelled to Ramallah on the West Bank. For one morning, we were joined by a few Toronto academics and a pair of rabbis who thought it best to remove their skull caps and not disclose their profession. In the Canadian government office, we heard from three Palestinians: a political scientist, a development engineer and a legal activist. Each talked about "the situation" before fielding questions. Irshad began: "Since there are rabbis among us..." There was an audible intake of air. The greatest lesson of the day came from Irshad: total honesty permits no exceptions, even in difficult situations.
Our last night's guest was Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer and religious Jew who had recently completed a year-long spiritual pilgrimage into Islam and Christianity. He and Irshad started a conversation, which blossomed into the lengthy e-mail correspondence that appears in The Trouble With Islam. It was Halevi who urged her to inject more love into her narrative, "not for the mullahs but for the billions of souls over the centuries who prostrated on little embroidered prayer rugs and offered their small, unhappy lives to God's glory."
"Excuse me for ruining the moment," Irshad bounced back, "but why should so many lives be 'small' and 'unhappy,'especially under a merciful God?" She has little patience for Westerners willing to tolerate human rights violations in the Muslim world. She calls it "the soft racism of low expectations."
Before the week in Israel ended, I'd shared more than a dozen meals with Irshad, an experience I can compare only to viewing a foreign film without subtitles: What is she doing now? What does it signify? In keeping with Islam, she rejected alcohol. In accordance with her own preferences, she guzzled tea with cream, gobbled Chicken McNuggets and picked her way through Middle Eastern delicacies. Before sitting down, she would slip away to customize her order and to snag a container for leftovers. Why, I asked, did she always take away part of every meal? "I have never forgotten what it means to be a refugee," she replied. "That's probably the seminal experience of my life." She always tries to keep something filed away—a reserve of energy, of intellect, cash, candy or dinner. "I can't take for granted that it will be there tomorrow. But that's OK because, look, that's life."
In 1972 Idi Amin's brutal regime expelled some 70,000 South Asians from Uganda. Four-year-old Irshad and her family were among them. Forced to leave their prosperous life—her father ran a Mercedes-Benz dealership—they started over in the Lower Mainland of B.C., her dad working first as a carpenter and later as a real estate agent. In the pleasant suburb of Richmond, he terrorized his three daughters and beat his wife until, after 20 years of marriage, she divorced him and he departed from their lives. This might explain Irshad's distrust of authority and her early embrace of feminism, but not her appetite for original thought. That seems hard-wired. In her mother's mind, one early memory plays like a video. Whenever there was a family gathering, her older cousins running and screaming, Irshad would mount her tricycle and ride around the coffee table reading a book. "Honest to God," Mumtaz remembers, "she would be so inside her book that she wouldn't know what was going on."
In public school, she was showered with honours, but in madressa, the Islamic religious school, she was barely tolerated. When she was nine, she asked, "Why can't girls lead prayer?" and was labelled a trouble-maker. At 14, she demanded proof of the often cited "Jewish conspiracy against Islam" and was told "Believe or get out." She threw open the madressa's heavy metal door, yelled "Jesus Christ" and left to study Islam on her own. That day, she removed her itchy polyester chador forever. She went on to attend the University of British Columbia on scholarship, winning the Governor General's Medal in 1990, when she graduated in honours history. After a series of jobs with federal politicians—all women, all NDPers—she worked for The Ottawa Citizen and, in 1994, moved into Toronto television, starting opposite Michael Coren on TVO's Friendly Fire, a segment of Studio 2.
Of all the gifts the West has given Irshad, the greatest is the Question. Confined to a world of limited inquiry, she would shrivel or flame out. She demands answers and feels compelled to broadcast her new-found knowledge to the world. A relentless media manipulator, she's in your face and on your screen, an easy target for critics but a godsend to the curious.
On the plane home from Israel, while I was settling into my first bloody mary, Irshad was rummaging in her knapsack for a notebook. She'd discovered that her seatmate was a University of Haifa professor, an expert on Iraq. While others slept, she conducted one more interview.
John Pierce, then acquisitions editor at Doubleday, was impressed by Irshad, both in her role at TVO (she's been hosting Big Ideas since 2001) and as the author of Risking Utopia: On the Edge of a New Democracy, published in 1997, in which she set out to prove that her generation could exercise extreme individuality and still remain part of the larger community. Pierce wanted a peek at her next project, so she brought him a 25-page proposal for The Trouble With Islam, a book she'd long contemplated.
When Anne Collins of Random House (which owns Doubleday) read the outline, she "leapt up like a maniac," as she recalls. "I loved Irshad's voice, free of academic pretense. It could seize readers by their throats." Michael Levine, supremo agent, negotiated the deal, and Irshad retreated to read widely, burrow deeply and write like crazy. In the spring of 2003, she brought in her first draft. Disaster.
"Something had happened that I don't think any of us had anticipated," Collins says. "Irshad had lost her voice." She was hiding behind scholarly quotations, too nervous to speak. What right did she have to cover such vast terrain? She'd questioned her faith all her life and learned to live within its contradictions; she'd commented on television and published controversial articles. But pour her objections into a book? The experience paralyzed her. Accused of betraying the qualities that would appeal to young Muslims in the diaspora, she was sent home to start again.
"As a nursemaid," Irshad acknowledges in her book, "Anne needs practice. As my editor and publisher, I couldn't be blessed with better." It didn't feel that way at the time. She took to her bed, cowering. Michelle Douglas, her live-in partner, had grown accustomed to Irshad's vaulting ambition. Performance anxiety was something new.
Five years earlier, the two women had shared a pew at the Metropolitan Church's
multi-denominational Sunday service for gays, lesbians and those who worship "God in
His Many Names." During the greeting, they shook hands but weren't introduced until tea
and cookies in the basement.
"Your name again?" Irshad asked.
"The Michelle Douglas?"
"I think so."
Irshad blurted out that her first assignment writing editorials for The Ottawa Citizen was
a piece about Michelle taking the Canadian Forces to court.
"Did you support me?" Michelle teased.
"Completely," Irshad replied.
Michelle looks no more the giant killer than Irshad does. She's blond and blue eyed but has a similar megawatt smile. Early in her career, she could have been a poster girl for the military. She was raised in Ottawa in circumstances sharply different from Irshad's—civil servant dad, stay-at-home mom and a sister who, like Michelle, was a fine athlete. She went to Carleton, got involved in student politics and, as a Liberal, treasured her photo with Trudeau.
She entered the military in 1986. Two years later, as a 26-year-old second lieutenant, happily employed in a special investigations unit at the Downsview base, she fell in love with another female officer who, as it happened, was under military surveillance. More than three decades after homosexuality had been decriminalized, the Canadian military considered it a gross indecency and a security threat. When the woman's supervisors privately accused her of being a lesbian, she resigned, leaving Michelle desperate to know what had happened. She opened her lover's file and read the charges.
As a result of the surveillance, Michelle was now suspect. The military conducted a series of stealth interrogations, the sort usually reserved for double agents. Investigators demanded intimate details of her sex life and questioned her loyalty. To clear things up, Michelle agreed to a polygraph. Wired and strapped to the chair, she cracked and admitted she was gay. Soon after, her security status was taken away. Unlike Irshad, Michelle was reluctant to make her grievances public. But Svend Robinson, who had been looking for the right case to end military discrimination against gays, heard Michelle's story, sought her out and introduced her to Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby, famous for taking on civil rights cases. Still, she didn't agree to fight until after she learned she was to be honourably discharged because of "admitted homosexual activity contrary to Canadian Forces policy."
Ruby, Robinson and Douglas first took their case to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which cleared Michelle of any breach of security and chastised the military for its "deplorable" conduct. Then they sued in federal court for damages and a declaration of unconstitutionality under the Charter. Douglas vs. Her Majesty the Queen became a landmark case. In 1992, the Department of National Defence settled and allowed homosexuals to serve openly. By then, Michelle had joined another arm of the public service, and she's now an executive assistant in the Toronto branch of the Department of Justice, working comfortably alongside some of same people who opposed her in court. "A tunning irony," as she says.
Despite differences in their backgrounds, or perhaps because of them, Michelle and Irshad were drawn to one another. After exchanging phone numbers, they met in Irshad's backyard. "We hit it off beautifully," Michelle says, "talked at pepper pace. Basically, that was it." On their second date, Irshad spelled out the ground rules. "If this is going to get serious," she said, "then you have to ask yourself, Can I stand people asking me 'Why is your girlfriend such an asshole?'" Irshad had worked both sides of the camera for a public affairs segment on Vision TV and was then doing the same at Citytv's breakthrough QueerTelevision, a forum for gays and lesbians, where she'd been labelled a maverick. She warned Michelle that what was merely work for most people was for her a life's passion. Michelle had the same response as Irshad's earlier girlfriends: it was the passion that attracted her. She moved in with Irshad on the tiny top floor of the east end duplex Irshad owns.
Together they have travelled North America, dropping in on "God in His Many Names," visiting mosques, synagogues and churches, including a Nation of Islam hall in Pittsburgh and a Baptist congregation in Harlem. "It's difficult to put your finger on what motivates her," Michelle says. "Maybe, at rock bottom, it's insatiable curiosity about everything."
In late spring 2003, Irshad picked up her poor tattered manuscript and started over. Within the 480 square feet the women shared, she prowled and moaned, brewed chai and snarfed cheesies. When she was appointed writer-in-residence at Hart House, she moved much of her labour out of their confined space.
To add balance to their lives, Michelle introduced Irshad to long-distance running. They started slowly, around the city. "When Michelle and I would do our long Sunday morning runs on the beach," Irshad says, "we'd say, 'How lucky are we? Thank you, God. What a great city.' You know?" Michelle scrupulously prepared for the Boston half-marathon; Irshad was more casual, but she did it. Michelle was thrilled: "I cried when she came across." In her book, Irshad called the half-marathon a "two-hour suspension of sanity" that left her feeling "the oneness of God's creation, which happens to be the first pillar of Islam."
Four months after Irshad started over, Anne Collins received the fearless manuscript she had hoped for. In it, Irshad argues that while every faith has its literalists, like Christian Evangelicals and ultra-Orthodox Jews, only Islam has made literalism its mainstream. Questions that are commonplace in other religions are heretical in Islam. "What if the Koran is not a completely God-authored book?" she asks. "What if it's riddled with human biases?" If adherents can't argue with the text, they have no way "to dissent, debate, revise or reform."
She writes about faith-sanctioned abuse of women, slavery in Islamic regimes, ingrained Jew bashing, and the oil-fuelled extremism of Wahhabism, a combative version of Islam spread around the world by Saudi Arabia. If, as the Prophet Muhammad said, "Religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others," Irshad wants to know "Who is the real colonizer of Muslims—America or Arabia?" The book appeared first in Germany, then Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, France and Quebec; next year, it comes out in Greece, Bulgaria and Italy, with other countries to follow and an Arabic version in the works.
Concern shifted to questions of security. There were worries about Irshad, her home, her mother, her publisher. Precautions were taken. Irshad's ground-floor tenants moved out, and shatterproof glass was installed. Phone numbers were changed. A large bald man with big shoulders was hired to shadow Irshad. A week before the book was launched, stories about these safety precautions reached the press.
Michael Posner of The Globe and Mail was the first to flash words such as "provocative" and "incendiary" and compare Irshad to Salman Rushdie. He reported that Random House had asked the federal solicitor general to grant Irshad international protected person status, which was ultimately denied for jurisdictional reasons. Dennis Mills, the MP for Irshad's riding, worked behind the scenes to get some protection but reminded her privately that he had to consider the sensitivities of his large Muslim constituency. Local police and the RCMP, Posner wrote on September 16, were "maintaining a watching brief."
The next day, Leslie Scrivener, the Toronto Star's faith and ethics reporter, ran a piece summarizing The Trouble With Islam. She called it "beyond controversial," suggesting "it may ignite a firestorm of protest." Muslims "can't blame intellectual stagnation or complacency on the White House, the Jews, even the house of Saud," she quoted Irshad as saying. "We have only ourselves to blame." The paper ran four letters in response to the article, all anti-Irshad. A few days later, the Star's media columnist, Antonia Zerbisias, wrote that Islam was no more culpable than other religions, called Irshad a "professional lesbian," and insinuated that she and her publisher were "playing the media to max out publicity, issuing a fatwa on themselves."
Irshad and her publisher both deny leaking the security story for publicity. Collins says she doesn't know who first talked to the press but assumes it was someone who thought they were helping Irshad. "Instead, it was like an invitation to come after her." While it's true you can't publish any book critical of Islam without safety concerns, Collins worried that media coverage would focus on Irshad's security rather than the book's content. "Luckily," she says, "that soon shifted." But not before public heat brought domestic tensions to the boil.
Perhaps Michelle had hoped never again to enter the trenches, and here was Irshad, attacking "little men with beards," as Michelle called them."Irshad was living the life she always had in mind for herself." But Michelle wasn't at all sure that it was right for her, especially now. She would be turning 40 in a couple of months and was starting to imagine what the second half of her life should look like.
By September 23, the day of the launch, Michelle was living on her own in the first-floor apartment of Irshad's house. For those who knew about the couple's fraying relationship, the opening words of the book's acknowledgements were especially poignant: "I wear two rings, one to symbolize my love of God and the other to convey my commitment to Michelle Douglas, my partner."
A few days after the launch, I'm sitting with Irshad in her home office. She's angry at the media, and at Michelle. Even before the book, her risk-taking spirit clashed with Michelle's desire for stability. Michelle had said she understood how important work would be. "That was great in theory," Irshad says, "but in reality, it doesn't quite work that way."
She hopes I won't draw parallels between Michelle's fight with the military and her fight with Muslims. "There's a big difference. Michelle had Clay Ruby and Svend Robinson to do the fighting for her." Irshad has her allies, but ultimately she's the one "answering the questions in front of pro-Palestinian sympathizers about why I'm a sellout, 'a witless dupe to the Jewish community.'" She doesn't mind being on the front line. "I crave open-ended possibility," she says. "I've based my life on it." She describes Michelle as "Madam Protocol. Madam Diplomacy. The quintessential Canadian." But she sees herself as another kind of Canadian, one who dreams of a country in flux, being shaped by bold, creative thinkers.
She tells a story to illustrate. "Once, we had a mouse problem in our house. Michelle didn't want to kill them, only to capture them and throw them out. I said, 'Michelle, they're terrorizing you, and they're terrorizing me. Use the sticky traps.' I told her, 'There's no compromising with terrorism.'" Out came the traps.
Organized Jewry and the CBC have been going at each other for years over accusations of a pro-Palestinian bias in the broadcaster's Middle East coverage. While Irshad was writing her book, she stumbled into the crossfire. It began when she and Stuart Coxe, executive producer of CBC-TV's Sunday Morning, discussed transforming The Trouble With Islam into a television program. Coxe took the idea to the documentary head, who was enthusiastic. Michael Levine negotiated an hour-long show, to be called Saving Faith, for CBC's "point-of-view" series The Passionate Eye. The CBC issued a press release declaring that "Irshad Manji is preparing for a fatwa" and promising to follow the author as she "tackles anti-Semitism, fights for women and tries to launch Operation Ijtihad—the Islamic tradition for independent thinking." As it turned out, the only effective fatwa brought against Irshad Manji was executed by the CBC.
Tony Burman, executive director of CBC news, current affairs and Newsworld, has been the broadcaster's point man in the ongoing conflict with the Jewish community. His most dedicated critic has been Paul Michaels, the man who had organized our trip to Israel. When Burman found out about Irshad's participation—which occurred 11 months earlier, before she'd been contracted to write the book or do a documentary—the CBC suddenly became collectively concerned about "perceived bias."
If the CBC always enforced its journalistic policy—to avoid a "reasonable apprehension that a journalist or the organization is biased or under the influence of any pressure group"—there would be no point-of-view documentaries or commentaries. Nevertheless, at a hastily convened meeting, Coxe announced that the documentary was cancelled, for policy violations. Discussion over. Irshad, who had been above board about her trip from the start, was never given the opportunity to state her case, to argue that the perception of bias is not real bias. Instead, CBC edicts were applied with the literalism of fundamentalists.
Levine, who frequently acts on the CBC's behalf, asked if this meant that if anybody, say 10 years before they worked for the CBC, did anything under the auspices of a "sponsor," they were forever precluded from having a voice on the public airways. He still hasn't had an answer. Irshad felt censored and ready to sue. Friends asked, "Do you want to be known for taking the CBC to court or for challenging Islam?"
Fortunately, she has the Internet. Her Web site, www.muslim-refusenik.com, spreads information about herself and her book, and provides a forum for discussion. It's the first time Random House has published a book with a Web site as an intrinsic part of its conception. Irshad updates the site weekly. The remarks she reprints can be brutal. She has been called "a no-good lesbo," "a self-hating Western wannabe" and "an agent for Mossad." She has received veiled threats: "We should see flames eat your living flesh" and "I wouldn't piss on you if you were burning." But there's deeply felt appreciation as well. "Allah's blessings always on you, my dear!" a reader self-described as "a very sad 56-year-old man" wrote. A young Muslim woman cheered: "You go, girl! I have asked questions for years about women in Islam and the Qur'an but have always received that one-day-you-will-understand attitude." A young father wrote: "You are the role model for my three daughters." Most rewarding, and revolutionary, are plaudits from young Muslims in places the book cannot yet reach. From a 17-year-old Moroccan man: "You are a beautiful image of Muslim freedom. I would never want my wife to bow to me or to put on the hijab because I said so." A man in Beirut wrote: "Your brave voice, inshallah [God willing], will help many of those young people (including me) who have lost much of their faith to restore it."
Local Muslim leaders congratulate themselves that no fatwa was issued but ignore the threats on her Web site and elsewhere. They criticize her inability to read Arabic, a trait she shares with about 87 per cent of Muslims. In his newsletter, Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress, attributes her anger to childhood relationships. "She did not enjoy her parent's [sic] love and affection in her formative years...and blames her religion, its Holy Book and its teachings." In response, Irshad asks Elmasry if honour killings would have stopped in Turkey and Jordan, if the shooting of Christian humanitarians would have ended in Yemen and if a half-dozen other outrages committed by Muslims would have been eliminated if her father had hugged, not hit, her. "Using my parental history as an excuse to ignore these human rights transgressions is a transparent tactic in diversion."
In November, Muslims Against Terrorism, with the co-operation of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, issued a press release announcing a series of public seminars, "Exposing Islam," in several Canadian cities. "Recently, a Canadian claiming to be a Muslim," they wrote, "joined the very demanded [sic] profession of 'bad-mouthing Islam'...a profession so popular that many people want to join this profession." Irshad's name is rarely mentioned in these tirades, but she casts a huge shadow across Islamic organizations.
"Even among my long-time Muslim friends," she complains, "those who love to call themselves progressive and reform minded, I am persona non grata." Daniel Pipes, an eminent American academic who specializes in Islam, wrote that "Manji's predicament is unfortunately all too typical of what courageous, moderate, modern Muslims face when they speak out against the scourge of militant Islam."
Her sexuality gives detractors another weapon. Since the Koran repudiates homosexuality, they insist she must be ignored. One woman asked if she had to be so open about her lesbianism. "Your personal baggage smacks one in the face and detracts from the integrity of the ideas presented." Irshad replied, "Since I'm calling for honesty among Muslims, I have to lead by example." Perhaps being gay allows Irshad to see more clearly and speak more openly than would be possible for a Muslim with a conventional outlook and wifely responsibilities. Still, not all gay Muslims share her views. When word of her forthcoming book circulated in the spring of 2003, she was "disinvited" from the First International Queer Muslim Conference in Toronto because, she thinks, the organizers considered her too right wing. Sometimes even those who are well disposed recoil at her tone. She admits in her book that she's blunt and says readers "are just going to have to get used to it." Vintage Manji.
Despite the hostility, she speaks wherever people will listen. She comes with no string of degrees, no international renown, only an urgent message and personal determination, refusing to be stifled by closed minds. She addresses women's groups, synagogues and universities. But so far, she has not been invited to speak at a single mosque.
Ramadan began last year on October 26. It's "a month of blessing," with fasting during the daytime, prayer and charity. It is said to be the time when Allah revealed the Koran to Muhammad and when Allah grants military victories to believers. During her fast, Irshad spoke one night at Ryerson and the next day at both the University of Toronto and York, all under the auspices of the Jewish students' organization, Hillel, and a few willing co-sponsors.
Her topic, "Defending Israel Is Defending Diversity," was certain to spark controversy. Universities in the West are outposts of the Middle East conflict, with the most vocal support for Palestinians. At Ryerson, the student counsel approved Irshad's talk, then withdrew its approval, then seemed uncertain of its position. John Cook, chair of the English department, began his introduction: "Universities ought to be places where we explore all ideas. We don't necessarily have to agree with Irshad's views, but we are committed to hearing them."
Irshad onstage is like Muhammad Ali in the ring. "Am I, as I'm accused, a self-hating Muslim?" Right jab. "If I didn't care about Islam, would I have spent 20 years studying it on my own?" Left hook. "I defend Israel because I defend diversity, which combines the ideals of Islam, Canada and social justice." Knockout.
Next day, in the Great Hall of Hart House, before a lunch-time crowd of about 200, Irshad was introduced by a 20-year-old science major, Sarah Nasser, an embodiment of ijtihad—tall, athletic, wearing a hijab and a button: More Hummus, Less Hamas. She said of Irshad's book that it "shakes those who need to be shaken and comforts those who thought they were alone in similar struggles." She and Irshad have led parallel lives as refugees, early madressa dropouts and tireless questioners, with many Jewish friends and plenty of Muslim critics. Some call Nasser "Mini-Manji."
That afternoon, Nasser joined an audience of 350 at York's Burton Hall, where Irshad was at her best—same words, punchier delivery, probably inspired by two television crews. It was all thrust and parry. She criticized Israel for its second-class treatment of Arabs, then praised its independent judiciary. She mentioned Rabbis for Human Rights, then asked, "Where are the Mullahs for Human Rights?"
She followed her public performance with an hour-long book signing, after which she, Nasser and a Moroccan Muslim woman went to the Hillel lounge to break the fast and chat with Jewish students, cameras still rolling. An hour later, the doors to the lounge opened, and 10 Muslim students in kaffiyehs or hijab walked in. They were members of a radical pro-Palestinian group and organizers of anti-Israel protests.
"They were quiet but determined," Irshad recalls. "We fell silent for about 10 seconds, pretty shocked that this was happening." Then she welcomed them and resumed talking. The new arrivals sat and listened. One by one, they started to speak. The Jewish students moved to sit beside them. They asked each other questions never asked before; they exchanged personal histories. "It was amazing," Irshad says. "I've never detected such a lack of defensiveness on the part of overt Palestinian activists as I did that night." It peaked when Irshad challenged the Muslim students to recognize the shortcomings of the Palestinian leadership and admit that they had possibly done more harm to their people than anybody else. Most agreed. Then she asked, "If this is the feeling, why don't we organize a Muslim student conference against suicide bombing and against terrorism?" Fine, they said. Why didn't Irshad do it? She shot back, "I've written a book. I'm pulled in a thousand different directions. Don't we all want to be part of something precedent setting?" After an awkward pause, a Muslim woman stood and said, "I'll do it." Everyone burst into applause. For one glorious moment, Irshad had caused lions to sit down with lambs.
Two days later Irshad is exhausted and starting to unravel. She hasn't learned to say no without guilt. "I'm frightened for my energy level," she says. "The good news is I lost my appetite before Ramadan." Occasionally, she slips through the sensible loophole that says no one should become sick by fasting. On days when she has a public appearance and feels shaky, she'll have tea with lots of sugar. She says that fasting builds discipline but might also cloud her judgment. Michelle is still living downstairs, and although Irshad is reluctant to go into details, she's concerned about their chances for reconciliation. "I would hate to say anything, even inadvertently, that might embarrass her. Talk to Michelle," she suggests, adding, "Whatever happens, I know that we will love one another. Always."
Michelle's downstairs flat, despite being hastily assembled, is beautifully decorated, the chairs nestled around a brick fireplace close to a large, well-used dining table. "Irshad's book has been extremely stressful for me," she says. But it isn't her celebrity that has caused strain. Over the years, Michelle has been amused, even touched, when people on the street whispered, "That's that girl." Irshad's wisecrack retorts—"I'm not that girl; I'm her twin"—she considers slightly less charming but insists, with a chuckle, that Irshad's getting more gracious.
It's still hard for Irshad to accept criticism. "She's an expert at argument. I've yet to hear her say, 'That's good. I take your point.' What she says is, 'You haven't read what I've said' or 'You've completely misinterpreted what I said. Did you not read X?'" But she will mull things over and concede a point or two. "She often comes back to me and says, 'Remember what you said? Well, OK. I'm sorry.' It just takes time."
Living with Irshad has convinced Michelle that she's been resting too long on her own laurels. Being the woman who took on the military and won is "an enormously difficult thing to top." She's often invited to speak in the U.S. about Canada's human rights record, and continues to represent gays and lesbians, not just on military matters. As a leading member of the Foundation for Equal Families, a same-sex rights organization, she's intervened four times before the Supreme Court. But, as she says, "It's not the high-profile stuff that attracts the attention my own case did." She wants to try new things, though she's not sure what. She's considered politics, but for now it doesn't feel right.
Meanwhile, she trains for another half-marathon and "keeps the home fires burning," maintaining a watchful eye on the house when Irshad is away, planning get-togethers when she comes home. But domestic accomplishments aren't as compelling as dragon slaying. And, as with most couples, responsibilities are rarely distributed equally. Michelle knows that Irshad has become the needy one. "She's a tiny person and goes until she runs out of energy." She mentions a friend of Irshad's who just committed suicide. It was devastating, the second suicide of someone close. Worried about Irshad's health, Michelle asked a mutual friend to intervene, to tell her that she's pushing too hard. Last night, Irshad relented. She came downstairs and stayed for an evening of TV and a blazing fire. "It was kind of like a date," Michelle says.
"If your relationship were to end now," I ask, "would you regret the past five and a half years?" Voice trembling, she answers, "I would never regret it. She's made me question everything. A pretty nice gift, don't you think?"
In the past few months, Irshad has flown several times across North America, given more speeches and interviews than she can remember, and dispatched innumerable e-mail messages into the ether. "The amount of stress that I'm dealing with is crushing," she says, starting to cry. Every time she puts her head on the pillow, the room spins. "Something is happening, and it's not transitory," she says. Her inherent optimism leads her to hope she is only experiencing "maturation at warp speed," the necessary result of standing naked in the marketplace of ideas while enemies hurl stones and inflict painful injury. "Intellectually, I knew it was coming," she says. "Emotionally, it's taken me a while to catch up." She toyed with, and dismissed, the idea of adding a sentence in her book saying she was deeply sorry for the polarization she would cause. "That was never my intention." But it's hard simply to dismiss critics. "What would be right or moral about me closing my ears to them? It would be a violation of my own principles of self-criticism and debate."
In her new vulnerable state, she's keenly aware of Michelle. "There are nights"—her crying begins anew—"when I desperately need to confide in her about what's happening, to let her know that, no matter what, I love her and I know she loves me, too. It sounds so melodramatic." Her tears seem unstoppable. "How's it ever going to end?"
Irshad is overwhelmed, too, by concern for her mother, by the effects of the book's fallout on Mumtaz, after all she's lived through. When her husband left, Mumtaz was selling Avon products door to door, learning English, her sixth language, along the way. Then she did shift work at CP Air as a "groomer," cleaning planes between flights. She now works in shipping and handling at Air Canada. The two speak long distance almost daily, each careful not to increase the other's anxiety. Mumtaz was pleased to tell Irshad about two women in her congregation who said the book was "100 per cent true." And a man who said, "You must be very proud. Our community needs more truth tellers." Irshad passes on the praise she's getting, especially from the young.
On the phone to Mumtaz, I ask about the trouble Irshad's book has caused her. "This can't be easy for you," I suggest. There is a short silence, and I hear her crying. "I have felt the effect of people's negative judgments." At work, other Air Canada employees give her looks that say, "Your daughter did this!" On the other hand, when people congratulate her, she beams. She's proud of all three of her daughters. Her eldest works in information technology, the youngest is a respiratory therapist. For now, her main concern is Irshad's safety. "My heart is in my throat every day."
It upset Irshad when the imam at her mother's mosque announced he was devoting four sermons to Irshad's book. Mumtaz hoped to keep her cool. She never asked her daughter not to publish the book but, as Irshad writes, she did ask her not to anger God. Irshad promised she'd try, as long as her mother wouldn't confuse angering imams with angering God. "I didn't have to write this book," Irshad tells me, then pauses. "But at a deeper level, I did have to."
Mumtaz, too, must be honest with her daughter. After listening to one of her daughter's interviews, she left this voice message: "What you're saying is true, but we live in a world where truth is not always appreciated. I wonder if there's too much truth being told?" Here, Irshad and her mother part company. Too much truth? Not possible. "I don't know if I'm going to be OK," Irshad says, "but I'm comfortable with uncertainty. I just wish this wouldn't cause so much pain and uncertainty for those who love me." Also not possible.
A few weeks after our last interview, Irshad e-mails via Blackberry from New York, where she and Michelle have gone on holiday. "Feeling great. Way more relaxed than when u last saw me. I'm developing emotional armour, and the support I feel in NY is awesome." Later Michelle e-mails photographs taken as she crossed the finish line in that half-marathon. "I may not be looking up, but I am most certainly happy!"
Irshad feels tired but triumphant. Outside Canada, the response to The Trouble With Islam has been enthusiastic. Positive articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek International, and favourable reviews where they matter—The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. The Times called her "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare." In his Jerusalem Post article, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote: "As a friend, as an Israeli, I cherish Irshad. With the publication of her book, Irshad has joined the moral elite of those ready to risk their lives for truth."
She's been on NPR several times and on PBS with Bill Moyers. Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine referred to her in the same sentence with Bernard Lewis and Azar Nafisi, internationally recognized authorities on Islam. Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times described The Trouble With Islam as "a revelation," and in the U.K., The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai Brown commented that it was "hot with revolutionary questions, anger and challenges....We should read and debate it." According to Irshad, a documentary is definitely in the works. "The National Film Board and Global TV have said they're on board." PBS is interested, as are other U.S. and British broadcasters.
After hearing her deliver a barnburner of a speech at the Reform temple Holy Blossom, one admirer leaned over and whispered, "She's going to be really big, isn't she? A feature story in Vanity Fair with a photograph by Annie Leibovitz?" Irshad's celebrity is assured; the effect of her words will take longer to gauge.
She comes home often between gigs, to hide out, recharge, be with Michelle, but America beckons. Her health remains a worry. There was a trip to an emergency ward—breathing trouble. She's promised to slow down. Really not possible. Under the glow of her eternal light, Irshad Manji continues to question her God and debate every answer.