The threat to Western democracy posed by unassimilated Muslim immigrants in Europe has been discussed for years. Given that background, it's remarkable that Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam, can imagine powerful and positive influence running in precisely the other direction, from the democracies to Islam. She argues that the West's traditions, embraced by young Muslims, can save Islam from intellectual atrophy and moral failure. And she's enlisted as an agent of that change.
It's now only about a year since Manji and her book, having made a good start in Canada, set off to tell the world that Islam desperately needs free inquiry, self-criticism, an honest examination of the Koran and women's rights.
By any standards, the results have been spectacular. Seen in a Canadian context, The Trouble with Islam has notably expanded the international sweep of Canadian writing; no other Canadian polemic has ever reached so far so fast. But her book would be a phenomenon wherever it came from.
There are 15 editions in print, from Brazil to Pakistan, and this year brings at least three more, in Israel, Bulgaria and Poland. Lately there have been nibbles from India, Bangladesh, even an underground publisher in Iran. Meanwhile, Arabic and Urdu readers can download the book free from the author's Web site, muslim-refusenik.com.
On the Web she delivers the same autobiographical message that brought her book to life. Muslims may believe the West will corrupt their faith, but that's not been her experience. A refugee from Uganda who grew up near Vancouver, she insists that freedom saved her belief. With her Canadian education and Canadian free speech, she learned how to live as a dissenting Muslim, a "Muslim refusenik" who refuses to join "an army of automatons in the name of God."
Because she can practise her religion freely, she's never abandoned it. "Had I grown up in a Muslim country, I might well be an atheist in my heart. The West has saved my faith in my faith." She headed one chapter in her book, "Thank God for the West." Defying the views of almost every articulate Muslim alive, she says: "The Islamic reformation begins in the West."
At a different moment in history, that might be optimistic nonsense. But the 21st century has given her message the electronic means to reach distant places where governments and imams condemn her ideas but citizens may be willing to consider them. Reading muslim-refusenik.com leads us to a renewed respect for the freedoms created in cyberspace.
Managing all the material that comes her way, Manji sets an example of tolerance by quoting or linking every kind of criticism of her work, from the Palestine Solidarity Review's claim that she's a lying imperialist through a correspondent's regret that Idi Amin didn't kill her and her family to The Economist's friendly but condescending notice ("struggling to get out of this hodgepodge of a book, there are some sensible ideas").
She also deals in a calm and tolerant way with remarks many would consider outrageous, like a message from Pakistan: "You are a courageous lady. Keep telling the truth and please try to change your sexual orientation." When people say she shouldn't mention she's a lesbian because it's unrelated to her argument, she replies that she includes pluralism among her goals; Muslims must acknowledge the existence of gays and lesbians.
Those writing to her reveal that remarkable kinds of pluralism already exist among some Muslims. From London a Hindu writes that he and his Sunni Muslim wife are loving her book: "We live in the same funny, infuriating, insane world as you." A Muslim woman (self-described as Anglo-Polish, pale and freckled) sends from France a defence of her right to wear hijab and adds that her live-in boyfriend, a Roman Catholic, supports her.
Anyone trying to understand the movement of ideas and feelings in this era could do worse than study Manji's career. No one can know whether she will have the effect on history that her admirers hope for; religions rarely change that fast. But it's already clear that she embodies and illustrates the special nature of the historic period in which we live. Archimedes, explaining the function of the lever, famously said that if he were given a place to stand and the right kind of lever, he could shift the position of the planet. On the World Wide Web, Irshad Manji has found both a place to stand and a lever capable of tilting the world.