Fitna Flop: Daisy Khan and Irshad Manji Discuss Geert Wilders’ Film on CNN

On Thursday, February 26, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) welcomed Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders and sponsored a viewing of his short film Fitna. Muslimah feminists Irshad Manji and Daisy Khan were on CNN commenting on the issue, specifically whether or not Geert Wilders should be welcomed by our government and how it impacts Muslims. You can see the movie here.

We have two Muslim women on CNN, commenting on something that is not the headscarf! We have two Muslim women speaking about politics (still very much a man’s domain). Regardless of whether or not we agree with them, we have two educated, professional, successful Muslim women expressing their own opinions. Regardless of what we may think of either of them, we have two Muslim women publicly talking about their faith.

I’m not a fan of Manji’s, so I had my reservations before watching the interview. As expected, she did use the opportunity to promote her own mantra of “Muslims don’t accept diversity and I’m living proof of it.” However, her response was articulate and her delivery forceful. And Daisy Khan obliterates the debate when she calls Wilder intellectually dishonest because he wants to ban the Quran, yet calls for free speech. Irshad contends and says Fitna gives freedom of expression a bad name.

This video is rather groundbreaking for a major American network because it shows Muslim women as regular Americans with an opinion about issues in the American media. It sends a powerful message: Muslim women are sought out to speak about issues that affect Muslims. As a community, we need to promote and encourage each other–men and women–to take an active presence in the public sphere, even if we do not necessarily agree with each other.

Manji and Khan are being represented as credible spokespersons on matters concerning the Muslim community; this is most obviously a success for women, especially because the issue at hand is not specifically a feminist one, but the Muslim community as a whole clearly benefits when women are represented as  being engaged in matters that effect Muslims. The fact that Manji and Khan also spoke about freedom of speech and human rights, issues that affect everyone no matter their religion or gender, is a slap in the face to critics who are so fixated on what they deem to be the oppressive state of women in Islam. At the same time, it was hard for me to watch this video without assuming that Khan and Manji would have to hurdle a question or two about “women in Islam.” I was relieved and a little surprised that no such question was raised.

I watched this video with my father, and he wondered why there were no Muslim men present, or why there wasn’t one female guest and one male guest. I thought it was an interesting observation and it made me wonder about the  significance of the segregation of sexes in Islam. By only making the platform available to women, do we pose the risk of inadvertently sending a message about Islamic culture? It is true that Manji and Khan spoke about  freedom of speech and human rights, but does their identification as Muslim women inadvertently illicit questions or observations from viewers about women’s rights in Islam? Let’s be honest, intentionally or not, CNN was showing a liberal viewpoint of women in Islam. This is obvious from their choice of guests, Manji much more controversial than Khan, but both western-educated and unveiled. Still, this video is successful in showing that Muslim women can partake in mature, thoughtful debate about issues in the news.

I liked how this interview stayed on topic and didn’t vilify either woman. It wasn’t set up to paint Manji as an outsider and Khan as a role model for example. In fact, while disagreeing on specific points, both women presented a united front by agreeing that Wilder’s film does freedom of speech a disservice. The only hint of any rivalry of the “who’s a better Muslimah,” or who’s version of Islam is right”  kind, was brought up by Manji when she said, “And I speak very much within the faith of Islam,” before discussing her viewpoint. An acute observer or anyone who knows anything about Manji, a lesbian and critic of traditional mainstream Islam, would assume that she is shunned by many members of her community. Once again, kudos to CNN for staying away from this angle, as it detracts from the significance of the interview.

When educated and articulate Muslim women are being consulted on matters of faith, it shows Islam does not favor men or stifle women, as is often portrayed in the media. When guests are invited in the media, they should be balanced and bring people who can comment on Islam, and that includes women. Doing so defies the media’s fixation on women in Islam as oppressed, underrepresented beings. It also brings much needed focus back to the root of the problem and suggests that just as in the history of Judeo-Christian societies, when women in Islamic societies are oppressed, it is the outcome of an unequal society, not the majority religion.

  • Farah

    Thanks CNN for trying to present this discussion, but seriously 6 minutes of interview? Its not exactly a long time to have serious talk!

    And I’m sorry but is Manji living under a rock? Silent moderate Muslims?? There is quite a lot of discussion within both the West and elsewhere, its not going to jump out at her and say “Read me! Read me!”

  • Krista

    Interesting review, thanks for writing it. I’m kind of impressed (and surprised!) that the show had two women talk about something that wasn’t specifically gender-related.

    To be honest, I was a bit frustrated with your dad’s question about whether it would have been more balanced if there had been a man in the interview. That question NEVER gets asked (at least, by non-feminists) if there are no women on a panel. The concern that you bring up about the segregation of the sexes is valid (are people going to think Islam can only be discussed in all-female or all-male spaces?), but I would argue that there’s still a lot of value in having an all-female panel (in contrast to the many, many all-male interviews out there), as it challenges the idea that male authority within Islam and Muslim communities is somehow neutral. I think that if there had been a man there too, there could have been a risk that he would have come across as more authoritative simply because he was male.

    I haven’t actually watched the clip yet though… hopefully I don’t sound completely off-track.

  • anon

    Irshad Manji? ‘Educated?’ ‘Representing Muslim women?’ Are you fucking kidding me? Since when? She has no training in Islamic studies or Middle East studies, is total non-intellectual posturing as one. Just because she goes on CNN and inaccurately pronounces the words “JEEEEEEEEHAAAAWWWWWWWD”and “MAAAAAAAAAAADRAASA” doesn’t qualify her to represent herself as knowledgeable on Islamic matters. Although she does not speak Arabic, and is a complete non-academic, she has become a Fox news regular, and the preferred reviewer on Islamic for the NYT, CNN, etc. This is because there is high demand for Muslims to appear on such shows to make Muslim-haters feel secure in their bigotry. This is not groundbreaking, I mean, unless you think the women of the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world are either followers of Irshad Manji or of Daisy Khan. I think you need to get a clue on the real reason such guests were chosen to appear, and it’s certainly not groundbreaking that they happen to have vaginas.

  • Sobia

    @Anon:

    Critiquing Manji’s politics or her opinion or qualifications is fine. BUT criticizing her pronunciation is going to far. And criticizing her for not knowing Arabic also not cool. Be careful, you’re getting into racist territory.

    And remember one thing to everyone who will be criticizing Yusra for her discussion on Manji – we critique the piece that we’re given. And so, what Yusra was critiquing was this particular discussion. I’m sure she could have gone into a long and in-depth discussion of Manji’s politics but that was not the point as far as I can tell.

    Keep comments relevant to the actual piece. Any critiques of Manji should be relevant to the CNN discussion.

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    works, this is why it is a part of an Islamic studies curriculum). As I stated in my post, CNN was representing a liberal view of women in Islam, so I clearly am clued in. You may disagree with Manji but she is educated. I didn’t go so far as to call her a scholar. I think it was fine to have her as a guest precisely because the issue was one of free speech and not Islamic fiqh.

    Her pronunciation was interesting and I picked up on that right away as well. She says Izlam and Muzlims yet can say Quran just fine, it’s kind of annoying.

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    ooh sorry top part of my got deleted. Krista, I agree with you.

    (Sobia, any valid scholar of Islamic law knows how to read and write Arabic, to understand and interpret the early works, this is why it is a part of an Islamic studies curriculum). @ Anon, as Sobia pointed out I limited my post to the video and not Manji’s personal views.

  • anon

    My comments were more directed to CNN for their insensitivity to religious minoritiies by inviting Irshad Manji to represent Muslim women, I mean, that is like inviting Lou Dobbs to represent Mexican immigrants. And my challenge on the importance of Arabic language acquisition when you’re going to represent yourself as qualified to speak as an expert on Islam is entirely justified. Suggesting it is treading racist grounds is laughable.

    you see, there is a new career here in the US, especially among the Zionist and Christian fundamentalist organizations – who are willing to pay a lot of money to sponsor their appearances and publish their books. They highly demand anti-Islam bigots who are from a Muslim background, and it’s even better if they attended a MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADRASSAH in Canada (the heartland of the Taliban, for sure).

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ anon: Manji’s pronunciation of Arabic words does not represent her qualifications (or lack thereof) to discuss Islam. This is not a place for personal attacks.

  • anon

    Yes it absolutely does, because this comes down to an issue I raised before–the issue of qualification when you lack Arabic language skills and lack any knowledge in Islamic matters. She is not educated in Middle Eastern Studies nor Islamic Studies, does not know Arabic, and THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE. The ability to understand, synthesize and contextualize the Qur’an or textual materials coming out of places in the Middle East is a crucial skill for those of us who really do believe in scholarship and academics, rather than the opportunity of turning anti-Muslim bigotry into a career on Fox News presenting yourself as some kind of expert on Islamic matters. Attending a MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADRAAASAAAH in Vancouver does not qualify you. Keep trying.

  • anon

    Irshad Manji functions the same role as a person of color who goes around proclaiming that there’s no such thing as racism or a woman who insists that there is no such thing as male domination or sexism. Patting the back of the oppressors always vindicates their sense of self.

  • critical reader

    amen to Krista. it’s not surprising that a man would suddenly see the need for balanced representation of the genders if a panel is all women. i’ve never heard a man, or most women comment how almost all panels are predominantly men or all men. just goes to show how women are thought to be “biased” or “irrational” while men are considered “objective” and “rational.”

  • phil

    Just an observation. Every time a program or an event that remotely set out to “represented Muslimah’s or/and their views” and it didn’t have at least a couple of non hijabis, the charge of “unrepresentative” was brought up. Same rule but in reverse applies here.

  • http://www.muslimahcomments.wordpress.com Muslimahcomments

    This is admittedly digressive and I apologize in advance : )
    I am highly skeptical of representational politics when it comes to the way in which people are used in the media to talk For/About their particular ethnic, racial, gender or religious group. Just as certain black intellectuals are used to talk for poor black groups (which in many ways rests on the continued silencing of poor black folks) I am beginning to see these same tendencies among Muslims post 9-11.
    While I like the work that people like Daisy Khan do I kind of get sick of the way in which the mainstream media craves a (racially?) coherent, containable MUSLIM response. I know that speaking out is a necessity in this environment and that these soundbite tendencies are not unique to Muslims in particular yet I think there is a huge cost to be paid in our rush for representation.

    I wonder why I am finding that the continued silencing of the large African-American Muslim population is what allows for certain Muslim ethnic groups to speak for Muslims especially in the American context. I would also qualify(although I am painting with a broad brush here) the term African-American to include Caribbean, Sudanese, Somalian, Nigerian, Senegalese & American Muslims. With the political crises that have occured in places like Sudan (which any Muslimah with a feminist consciousness understands articulates too well what happens to women and girl’s bodies at times of violence) why is it that these things are always on the back burner? Yet we will talk about Afghanistan and Iraq (even a male Dutch filmmaker) until we are blue in the face?

    Perhaps there is a sense that a Muslim of Pakistani or a Jordanian descent can bridge the gap between “the Muslim world” and the United States. This simply assumes a) anyone of Pakistani or Jordanian descent has intellectual or cultural knowledge of their country b) that African-American Muslims don’t have anything to tell us about Islam or the politics of the Muslim world c)that the Muslim world is most Muslim when it has oil and is of a lighter complexion.

    It is interesting that I see African-American Muslim women on the news-mainly walking by in the background, usually in a head scarf-yet I have never seen them SPEAKING on or ABOUT the news.

    This is my long way of saying that I am not that enthused by these women on CNN.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Mod note: I’d like to remind everyone that sizing up Manji’s “Muslimness” equates to a personal attack based on her faith and sexual orientation. These are not allowed on MMW, no matter our opinions on her, nor are they open to discussion. Manji’s politics, while fair game, are not relevant to this thread unless you analyze them in the context of the video.

  • Sobia

    @ Yusra:

    I can understand why knowing Arabic can be important but from my understanding Manji does not claim to be an Islamic law scholar. Therefore, she does not need to know Arabic nor does she have to pronounce Arabic words in an Arabic accent. And even people who speak Arabic have different accents no? Her pronunciations are irrelevant. What mainstream media paints her as is a different issue.

    By the way, one does not have to know Arabic to be able to talk about Islam in a knowledgeable way. One can study Islam (in a non-academic manner) without knowing Arabic. There are enough translated versions of the Qur’an and other texts.

    Wow…I really hope I don’t meet some people on this forum for fear of you questioning my knowledge of Islam based on my desi pronunciations of “Islamic” words :P

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Muslimahcomments I agree with you 100%!

  • Sobia

    @ Muslimahcomments:

    I agree with what you are saying too. What are your – and Jamerican’s – thoughts on why this is so?

    Personally I see a few possible causes/reasons. These are just guesses on my part.

    1) Muslims are largely seen as immigrants, as foreign. This is truly an unfortunate assumption. The idea that an African American who is not an immigrant could be Muslim is neglected so as to not accept Islam as an American religion. There is still this attempt to keep Islam foreign.

    2) The racism within our own community keeps people within their own respective communities. African American (as you have defined) Muslims experience racism from other Muslims, in many ways, one of which being not taken seriously. Unfortunately I have heard comments from some South Asian Muslims to the effect of “They don’t know Islam.” Perhaps as a result African American Muslims are not being encouraged to be in the media.

    Thoughts?

  • Joe

    “”The fact that Manji and Khan also spoke about freedom of speech and human rights, issues that affect everyone no matter their religion or gender, is a slap in the face to critics who are so fixated on what they deem to be the oppressive state of women in Islam.””

    Yes and no. There are some hysterical critics (of the Geert Wilders school) who see it this way; but the fact remains that they’re Muslim women in a non-Muslim country, and in many Muslim countries women *are* held in an essentially oppressive state. Most responsible feminist critics of Islam make a distinction between how Islam plays out in America, and how it plays out in areas where it is politically dominant.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Joe, while there often is a difference between the types of oppressions women face in America and those that women face in predominately Muslim countries, your statement implies that predominately Muslim countries are oppressive to women because they are Muslim, while ignoring that Western countries are also oppressive to women, albeit in different ways. This assumes that Western countries are oppressive to women not because they are western (or, if you want to inject religion into it, Judeo-Christian), but because of societal issues, while assuming that predominately Muslim countries are oppressive because they are predominately Muslim, instead of recognizing that these countries also have societal issues that result in oppression of women. The structure responsible for oppression in any culture is patriarchy and patriarchal interpretations of religions, which manifest themselves differently in different cultures.

    You’re putting all the blame on one faith here. While you’ve made it very obvious that you’re not down with any faith of any kind, this isn’t the place for that.

  • Sahar

    Geert Wilders is an idiot. I think we should actually do the opposite and encourage him to talk about Islam and Muslims in the way he does. Also, for him to promote further his hilarious film. It is the most ridiculously flawed and simplistic attack on Islam if ever I seen one. If I was a fellow Islam hater and saw that film i’d have cringed in embarrassment. Wilders did not do a good job at all. When I saw it, I felt like sending him some tips on what he could do to ‘improve’ it. All that hoo-hah over nothing. Men like him discredit themselves.

    As for Manji, oh god. Why oh why is she ever asked to talk about Islam and Muslims? And I find it convenient she is discussing the Wilders issue in particular. I’ve previously enumerated my reasons for disliking Manji which I won’t go into again, but this case is no different. I particularly find her pronunciation of arabic terms alarming though. She always seems to accentuate the Canadian accent in how she pronunces the arabic, especially the way she says ‘salamu’ alaykum’. But then again, she isn’t a scholar, hasn’t studied arabic and therefore shouldn’t be expected to. On that note, of course the pronunication of arabic correctly is a requirement of all scholars of the religion. It has nothing to do with race but everything to do with capturing the proper meaning in that pronunciation.

  • Safia

    I’m also surprised that the mods don’t find Manji’s “Muslimness” significant to the discussion. It’s not a personal attack, but a valid question considering that’s where she situates her politics – from the position of a native informant, using her ‘Muslimness’ to attack the Muslim community to dominant society. It absolutely is relevant to the discussion, and more importantly it is important for us to critique why mainstream networks like CNN happen to call on these fringe (and often hateful) voices at all.

  • anon

    @Sadia, I agree!

  • Pingback: » MMW Weekly Update 3.13.09 Talk Islam

  • Sabr

    I find this discussion fascinating. Irshad Manji usually refers to herself as a “reform-minded Muslim,” yet here she is colluding herself with the rest of the Muslim community by saying “we Muslims.” A bit of inconsistency? I think so.

    What is wrong with critiquing Irshad Manji? This is the price one pays for being in the media, especially on Fox news. I have no problem with sticking to the topic, but I believe the inconsistency of Irshad Manji is glaring, and her condescending attitude towards moderate Muslims, who are actually speaking out through you-tube videos, online chat-rooms and their own blogs, certainly grants us the right to criticize her (of course, not ad-hominems).

    @Anon and Safia, you hit it on the nail there.


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