FAITH WITHOUT FEAR created by Irshad Manji. Saturday (April 21), 8 pm, on Global. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Controversial author and activist Irshad Manji, whom the New York Times describes as "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare" and whose home has bulletproof glass and a special lock on the mailbox to prevent letter bombs, is the Lisa Simpson of lesbian feminist Muslims.
Before you issue a fatwa against me, consider that the similarity runs far deeper than the roots of Manji's precisely pointed hair.
A self-styled Muslim refusenik and the bestselling author of The Trouble With Islam Today, Manji is intelligent and passionate yet preachy, earnest and yet so sincere as to be cartoonish.
In this documentary, which she co-wrote, narrates and stars in, she comes across as the snooty know-it-all at the front of the class who practically falls out of her seat trying to get Miss Hoover to see her raised hand. (In her defence, Manji also has a little Bart Simpson in her, too; she was once expelled from her religious school for being a shit disturber who dared ask why.)
As if to underscore that point, the opening credits of the film boldly declare that Faith Without Fear, which is all about Manji's "mission to find out how Muslims can change in the 21st century," is also "presented by Irshad Manji," much the same way Hero and Hostel II are presented by another famed egoist, Quentin Tarantino. Call it "Manji branding."
The film also includes several clips of Manji being interviewed on American and Canadian TV programs, including Bill Maher. And when she interviews pal Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about pissing off the Muslim community, it comes across as little more than Rushdie giving her a gold star and telling her to keep up the good work.
A proponent of ijtihad, Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking, Manji paints herself as a freedom fighter. "I'm fighting for freedom of conscience," she states. No wonder Oprah honoured her with the first annual Chutzpah Award for "audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction."
There's no doubt Manji's is an important voice - as a Muslim, a woman and a lesbian. Unfortunately, all this Michael Moore-style self-aggrandizing gets in the way of Manji's very important message, that Islam is being twisted into an ideology of fear and that the Qur'an is being manipulated to promote violence. Of course, Manji has been accused of not playing well with others, and her detractors, of whom there are many both in the Middle East and at home in Canada, believe she is trying to undermine Islam.
Even Manji's mother, who, to continue the comparison, comes across a bit like the kvetching Marge Simpson in their staged-sounding debates, worries that her daughter is expressing herself way too much. Oh, and she's also concerned that Manji doesn't pray enough.
But if you can see beneath the burka of the film's Manji-ness, it manages to touch upon some thought-provoking subjects. In Yemen, the birthplace of Islam, she interviews a former personal bodyguard of bin Laden's whose only wish is for his young son to die a martyr. She also speaks with a California woman who is married to a Yemeni and who sees her decision to convert to Islam as the embodiment of the American dream - the right to freedom of religion and expression - even as it restricts her other rights as a woman and a human being.
But Manji chooses not to explore these apparent contradictions too deeply, and often poses her questions in such a way as to provoke precisely the answers she wants.
She turns the experience of wearing a burka into a flip joke when she casually says it should have pockets for gum or breath mints, before adding the astute observation that the all-black head-to-foot garment "erases my individuality." Too little too late.
Manji makes it difficult to disagree with anything she says about Islam, especially when she establishes a point while showing footage of women being stoned for committing adultery. She accuses the Muslim nation of putting unity ahead of individual identity, of putting conformity ahead of freedom of expression. But it's an old argument - one that's been levied against just about every organized religion at one time or another - and disappointingly, Manji fails to add anything new here.
And it's a shame she hasn't offered her critics more than token moments to express their views. She does include a lengthy confrontation with a demonizing protester outside one of her speaking engagements, as if this one ill-informed person speaks for all Muslims who oppose her position.