In the 21st century, anyone who chooses to be a “dissident Muslim” must deal with serious loneliness. Non-Muslims imagine that all Muslims are more or less the same. Muslims usually regard their faith as obvious and true, so who could dissent from it?
But a dissident Muslim refuses to accept official dogma. A dissident Muslim wants to step out from under the weight of traditional consensus and “rethink” Islam.
Salim Mansur, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont., is a dissident Muslim. He defines himself against the Islamists who support Islamic militancy and fundamentalism. Islamists believe they are duty bound to achieve, by persuasion or force, God’s law in an Islamic-directed world.
“I am one of those Muslims who is at home in the West,” Mansur writes. He was born to an Indian Muslim family and received much of his education in the West, including his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. He believes he’s deeply aware of the culture and politics on both sides of the West/Islam divide.
Mansur’sThe Qur’an Problem and Islamism: Reflections of a Dissident Muslim (Mantua Books), is an attempt to clarify the Islamist teachings that have placed Muslims at the center of a long-running international crisis.
He dates this tragic period from 1989, the year Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa of death on Salman Rushdie for his allegedly blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses. The Union of Islamic Students’ Associations in Europe infamously offered its services to help Khomeini. A London property developer told reporters at the time, “If I see him, I will kill him straight away. Take my name and address. One day I will kill him.”
Since the fatwa, Mansur says, “a significant segment of the Muslim world has been ideologically mobilized” against the West and its governing principles.
In recent years many in the West have felt self- conscious when talking about Islam. The hideous word “Islamophobia” has been invented to frighten away those who question Islam, even if their concerns are entirely legitimate. Mansur, on the contrary, tells us that the world of Islam needs criticism.
In Mansur’s view, Islamist regimes have distorted the Qur’an to provide an aura of authority and legitimacy. With the holy law on their side, terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS have made their ideas appear relevant to the Muslim world.
Many in the West, including even some Muslims, think that they can discuss Islam and its needs on the basis of a few words fished at random out of the Qur’an. Barack Obama took an excerpt literally when he spoke of Islam as a religion of peace. That proved, he said, that the so-called Islamic State could not be Islamic. But Mansur’s book shows that over the centuries Islam has believed many ideas, not all of them consistent with others.
In careful, clear prose, Mansur takes us through the tangle of theories and inner conflicts that have shaped Islam, in which Islamists have played a large plot. It’s a pathology that encourages conflict with others who can be seen as enemies, such as Jews. This compulsion has “turned into Muslim- on- Muslim violence, a raging sectarian conflict of Sunnis against Shi’ites and ethnic conflicts of tribes against tribes or nations against nations.” Many of these have come accompanied by new or altered doctrine.
At the end of the 20th century, most of us viewed Muslims as adherents of an outdated but harmless religion, limited to one region and one cultural group, the Arabs. Since the eruptions that followed 2001 we have been learning how wrong we were. Mansur’s cool, intelligent overview of his own faith tells us we still have a lot to learn.