Book reviews

Arafah Fakier reviews Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam Today and Kwanele Sosibo reviews Death in the New Republic by David Dison.

The Trouble With Islam Today

by Irshad Manji

(Vintage)

Arafah Fakier

Plenty of media scrutiny has been trained on Islam and Muslims since September 11 2001 and there has been no dearth of books on Islam and Muslims. It seems that focus on the Middle East has filled the Western media’s void left by the Cold War.

While Muslims have been receiving exaggerated flak from the West, there has been little critique coming from Muslims themselves. It is not solely the accusatory cry of blasphemy from the dogmatic that stifles creative thought. Freedom of thought and expression have yet to blossom in the Middle East amid draconian regimes. Thus, Irshad Manji believes in engaging both Muslims and non-Muslims in debate about how to support the liberal reformation of Islam.

Politicians, Middle East “experts” and Muslim scholars have tried to explain the rise of Islam as a global phenomenon. And while external forces can be cited for the vilification of Islam in today’s media, one aspect remains sorely lacking on the part of Muslims—their lack of self-criticism.

The Trouble With Islam Today is “an open letter” asking pertinent and pressing questions about a religion that has more than one billion adherents. While it might defensively be argued that the book’s title and its critique rather be labelled “the trouble with Muslims today”, Manji believes that the core of reform should come from the religion itself.

Manji describes herself as a Muslim refusenik. “That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim, it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.”

This is a central theme in the book: the author urges Muslims to question the modus operandi of their faith. She counters the expected response that a religion should not to be prejudiced by the aberrations of its minority. Which brings to mind an existential question: Do the adherents make the faith or is it vice versa?

She also asks: “Who is the real coloniser of Muslims—America or Arabia?”

Manji claims that Islam today is on the backfoot as mainstream Muslims have lost their gift of ijtihad (independent reasoning). During Islam’s golden period ijtihad was at its peak, thus enabling Muslims to build a civilisation that was once the envy of the Western world, a Western world that lurked in darkness during its Middle Ages. The chapter “Operation Ijtihad” gives readers a basis from which to address the current burning issues.

Her solution to the faith’s woes is to engage critically, arming Muslims to overcome the myriad issues, whether dealing with bringing democracy to the Middle East, women’s rights, deep-seated anti-Semitism or shedding tribal insularity.

Manji also provides insight into whether 70 virgins are the true reward for martyrs and her alternative viewpoint is sure to stimulate debate.

According to Manji it is pluralism of thought that is sorely needed because mainstream Islam has ossified, making all forms of “innovation” a violation of the creed, thus stifling new methods of responding to the challenges of our postmodern world.

The Trouble with Islam Today has an easy-to-read narrative as it is written in the form of a letter, no doubt borrowing from Manji’s journalism background. It also includes six pages of recommended further readings.

A book such as this is a long time coming, as it is mind-opening to both Muslims and non-Muslims or anyone trying to gain a no-holds barred insight into the state of Islam today.

If you wish to buy the book, log on to www.muslim-refusenik.com

Death in the New Republic

by David Dison

(Jacana)

Kwanele Sosibo

Death in the New Republic is a crime thriller set mainly in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The plot revolves around a drug-related murder witnessed by a migrant traditional healer and the ensuing investigation, which uncovers a well-connected syndicate with its roots in the apartheid-era police force.

The novel’s protagonist is Jerome Michael Nossel, a middle-aged former struggle lawyer whose post-apartheid career with the National Intelligence Agency came to a disgraceful end after he took the fall in a cover-up involving his colleagues. Comrade Golfer, as he is known by the caddies at the nearby golf course, lives adjacent to The Wilds, where the murder is committed, and is a friend of the traditional healer who recovers golf balls for additional income. Nossel, moved by a sense of justice and loyalties to former struggle comrades, becomes so compulsively involved in the search for the killer that his marriage is threatened in the process.

Dison’s novel, because of its contemporary setting, weaves in many elements of modern South African scenery and political debate, which lend the book credibility, currency and intimacy.

As a crime thriller, the novel is surprisingly flat and free of suspense and drama. Dison’s writing seems to mirror the personality of his protagonist, who is more resigned than witty and somewhat bitter about and disillusioned with the “new republic”, considering how his own career was sabotaged.

Nossel as a character is, frankly, quite boring and bland, his personality stalling much of the book’s narrative pace. He spends much of the time moaning about the rampant cronyism and the insular nature of BEE. As it is told primarily from Nossel’s idealistic viewpoint, the book inevitably regurgitates clichéd and oversimplified views about the new South Africa.

It is not surprising when the narrative reaches an anticlimactic ending. The investigation, it seems, is a mere device for airing out Nossel’s jaded political outlook.

While Dison clearly has the potential to craft an interesting South African thriller, his protagonist has limited appeal and the thin plot makes for a lacklustre read.

 

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