NORTH ADAMS -- "Let there be no compulsion in religion."
Irshad Manji quotes, in translation, the second chapter of the Quran.
She has fought hard for the freedom to understand and to question her faith.
Her Pakistani family came to Canada from Uganda when she was 4 years old, and she grew up comparing her Canadian city, varied and rough as it was, with the Muslim elements in her life. At home, her father attacked her and her mother. At her madressa, Islamic religious school, the teacher forced her to leave for asking questions. Why can't women lead prayer? He would only answer, "read the Quran."
She did. She went looking for answers, and for more questions. The search, reaching into her adult life and her career as a writer, journalist and television personality, turned into her first book, "The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's call for reform in her faith."
Now founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, Manji will hold a conversation in MCLA's Public Policy lecture series on "The Future of Islam," at 7 tonight.
She is a political figure in the way she has provoked Muslims and non-Muslims to think about Islam, said Robert Bence, professor of political science and public policy at MCLA. Manji is traveling between France and North Adams and could not be reached by press time.
"She walks a line between western secular values and Islam," Bence said. He is not Muslim (he has roots in Bible belt
Manji had her book translated into Arabic and posted it free on her website. In countries where it was banned, young Muslims downloaded it and passed around photocopies.
After "The Trouble with Islam," she made a PBS documentary and traveled the world, speaking out. Conversations she held on her blog with readers fueled her second book, "Allah, Liberty and Love."
"She offers an alternative to the two most common trends in the media," said Petra Hejnova, professor of history and science at MCLA and a member of the lecture committee that has invited Manji to campus. Those trends are a negative view of the Islamic world of a cultural relativist one -- a view that people of one culture should not criticize another.
"She argues culture should not be a barrier to trying to support people," Hejnova said.
Manji encourages non-Muslims to speak out, Bence agreed. Respect for other cultures, she would argue, should not keep a compassionate and rational observer from protesting when a woman is stoned to death because she is pregnant from a rape.
What future for Islam does
"I think she would say there's a long way to go before Muslim societies self-examine their religion," Bence said.
She calls for reform and for the return of a centrally Islamic idea -- ijtihad, which she translates as "the Islamic tradition of independent reasoning."
"She feels this tradition has been lost and needs to be reinstated," Bencesaid.
She wants to start a conversation, and she writes with a direct challenge, as though she is writing the book her 14-year-old self wanted to read.
She has reached readers of many ages, and provoked responses -- from thankful to hostile.
"I was speaking to an Imam critical of her," Bence said, "because he thinks the criticisms she has of Islam get used by Islamophobes. She has an admiration for some elements of Israel, like its multi-party system. She feels Israel does grant some protection and rights for minorities that may not exist in some Muslim countries. And she criticizes "a knee-jerk anti-Semitism" in Islam. "She feels tolerance is a part of Islam too often taken away."
She refuses to take sides, he said, in this and other debates: She may admire and criticize both sides.
"It must be exhausting, not taking sides," he said. It is easier to accept an argument than to think it through, step by step -- but she insists on the freedom and fierce joy of making her own arguments.
"Had I grown up in a Muslim country, I'd probably be an atheist in my heart," she writes in "The Trouble with Islam." "It's because I live in this corner of the world, where I can think, dispute and delve further into any topic, that I've learned why I shouldn't give up on Islam just yet."
She also gets criticized, Bence said, for not being scholarly, or for painting with a broad brush -- for over-simplifying.
Bence hesitates to explain any Muslim point of view, or to generalize, but he added that here, in the United States, Muslims have been put on the defensive and may need to be careful. He feels that the Muslim clerics he talks with have spent time thinking about the questions she raises and responding with reflection and nuance.
Many Muslim voices are calling for education, tolerance and liberalism, he said, and "there are a lot of reform Muslims who don't seek or get the wide-spread dissemination of ideas that hers have."
Her willingness to speak to the world has risks.
"She is courageous," Bence said.
She has had death threats.
"She makes me think about what moral courage means," he said. "Sometimes courage happens because the environment calls it out, but she chose to do this. How many risks can we take to confront things we believe are wrong?"
If you go ...
What: Author Irshad Manji, founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, to hold a conversation on ‘The Future of Islam'
When: 7 tonight.
Where: MCLA Church Street Center's Auditorium, North Adams
Amission: Free and open to the public. No reservations are required.
For anyone interested in learning more about ijtihad, Muslim voices calling for education, tolerance and liberalism, here are a sampling of possible websites to explore:
Love, InshAllah -- loveinshallah.com
(an anthology and blog by Muslim American women)
Islamicate -- islamicate.typepad.com
The Muslim-Jewish Journal --
Chapati Mystery -- www.chapatimystery.com (commenting on media coverage of Islam, among other topics)
AltMuslim -- altmuslim.com
AltMuslimah -- altmuslimah.com
City of Brass -- cityofbrass.blogspot.com
This is, of course, a tiny sample in a wide and diverse field. If you know other voices, blogs, thinkers and writers, we would welcome your recommendations. Please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, @berkshiresweek on Twitter, or the Berkshires Week Facebook page.