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An Islamic Reformer Who Can’t Be Silenced

In the April 5 edition of The New Republic I published an essay called “The Thought Police” on Islamist campaigns to suppress independent thinking, as described in a Hudson Institute human rights report by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. My essay listed a great number of reformers from Muslim backgrounds who have come under threat or have actually been attacked, with the names drawn largely from Marshall and Shea’s study. I mentioned in passing that Irshad Manji, a Muslim writer from Vancouver, Canada, had been threatened. Now I have to report that Irshad Manji is all right, but she has, in fact, come under attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, and not everyone around her is all right.

Manji is a fellow of the European Foundation for Democracy. The EFD has issued a press release describing the attack, which I quote:

Irshad was presenting her latest book Allah, Liberty and Love which has been translated into Indonesian at an event in Yogyakarta, when the building was stormed by masked Islamic extremists wielding iron bars and sticks, intent on disrupting the panel discussion and silencing the Muslim reformist thinker. A group of women activists who attended the discussion formed a human cordon around Irshad, protecting her from the worst excesses of the attacks. Her assistant, however, was rushed to hospital, having been struck by an iron bar. Two others sustained head injuries. It is regrettable that the authorities capitulated to the fundamentalists and closed down the event. Freedom of speech and democracy are not served by giving in to those—radicals Islamists—who shout loudest.

The EFD statement quotes Ms. Manji: “Four years ago, I came to Indonesia and experienced a nation of tolerance, openness and pluralism. Things have changed. Islamic radicals have been allowed to close down legitimate debate about issues which Indonesians hold dear to their hearts—the reform of Islam from within. But we will not be silenced. Our work of speaking truth to power has in fact been strengthened by this cowardly attack. We are not going away and will continue to fight for freedom of speech!”

In case you think Ms. Manji makes such statements only to her own supporters, I quote an interview with her from last Sunday, which I find online at the Jakarta Globe: “If you want to talk about foreign imperialism, believe me, it’s not America or Israel that is the problem in this part of the world,” she said. “It’s Saudi Arabia.” This is known as not mincing words.

It is fashionable among the Western apologists for the Islamist movement to insist that genuine reformists and liberals have no audience in the Muslim world. The claim is false. Manji’s earlier book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, has been published, according to the EFD, in more than 30 countries. Manji runs a website,, offering translations in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi, which are said to have been downloaded more than 2 million times. But then it shouldn’t be necessary to cite numbers to demonstrate the ability of the genuinely independent thinkers to make themselves heard. Why else are they attacked, after all? Nor do these attacks occur only in Muslim-majority countries. Manji has lately had trouble in Amsterdam, too—where, as everyone will remember, she is hardly the first person to come under attack.

Who will defend these people, these truest heroes of modern freedom? That is the only question.

Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic.