Who Speaks for Islam?: A Debate

Who Speaks for Islam?: A Debate September 30, 2008

Disclaimer: Below is an analysis of a debate between Irshad Manji and Dalia Mogahed. This analysis will be about the way in which the women were represented, how they spoke, how they interacted with one another, as well as with the moderator and audience (and vice versa), and some of the comments they made, etc. However, this analysis will NOT be about their interpretations of Islam or they ways in which they state to view Islam. This will NOT be a theological critique as MMW is not a theological site. Therefore, all comments MUST remain within those parameters as well. Please refrain from personal attacks on Manji or Mogahed and focus on the debate.

Recently, a debate entitled “Who Speaks for Islam?” took place with debaters Irshad Manji (feminist, journalist, author, activist, and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University) and Dalia Mogahed (Senior Analyst with Gallup and Executive Director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies). She is also a co-author, with John Esposito, of the book Who Speaks for Islam? The debate was moderated by Jeffery Goldberg.

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(The video can also be viewed via Suhaib Webb’s blog here.)

Points to note:

From watching the debate, there is no doubt that both Manji and Mogahed are excellent speakers. Both women come across as confident in their words, and speak with much conviction. Although very often saying different things, it was not unusual still for the women to agree on many points, though sometimes in a round-about fashion. Manji inserted some humour into the debate while Mogahed (picture below left) maintained a serious tone. Nonetheless, both women are obviously very intelligent and came across as articulate.

Considering this forum was a debate, the women did disagree with each other often but were nonetheless respectful to each other. Even in their disagreements they maintained respect for each other, though at times the viewer could definitely sense their frustration with each other. At times it was a lively debate indeed, but never disrespectful.

Both women received what seemed to be equal time to speak and equal opportunities. Goldberg provided opportunities for each to answer his questions, as well as respond to each other, at certain times. He did not appear to favour one over the other.

At the end of the debate, the audience was given opportunities to ask questions. In their interaction with the debaters, the audience members showed sincere interest.

Who are the debaters and why are they debating?:

The selection of Mogahed and Manji is worth considering. Mogahed, as mentioned before, is the co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam?, which best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza considers “one of the most important books on the War on Terror.” A book which seems very important to understanding the opinions and attitudes of Muslims around the world. Her work is instrumental in building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, and as far as the opinions of Muslims go, she would be THE one to ask. She is someone who can convey what many Muslims say when they speak, though perhaps she could not say who speaks for Islam, as I don’t think anyone can conclude this. Her inclusion in the debate seemed quite important and extremely relevant.

Manji (pictured right), an outspoken critic of traditional Islam, calls for ijtihad (which can be seen on her website) and a reform of the interpretations of Islam. She provided a very different angle to the debate than did Mogahed. Her questioning of the status quo and traditions gave the debate breadth as far as representing Muslim views. Her stories of encounters with like-minded Muslims presented another spectrum of views among Muslims, though they were personal anecdotes as opposed to research data. Although often seen as antagonistic by many Muslims, sometimes a voice that questions ‘the way things have always been’ forces others to find the reasons for ‘the way things have always been.’ Manji represents a side of Muslims which many non-Muslims embrace, but which many Muslims have not appreciated, sometimes to the point of excluding her and other Muslims whose views match Manji’s. However, as she so very often is viewed as speaking for or about Muslims, whether some Muslims like it or not, her inclusion in the debate also seemed appropriate.

So what about what they said?:

Much of what the women discussed regarded Islamic scholarship and theology. As already stated, I will not critique those comments. However, to sum up the mentionable topics I would have to say it seemed that although Manji made some excellent points and spoke well, overall Mogahed did just a little better. Both women came across as knowledgeable, though at the end I must admit, Mogahed had the upper hand. Her grasp of the statistics and her own research backing up her words, made her come across as a little more knowledgeable than her counterpart. Manji mainly relied on personal experiences, which are valid and credible in and of themselves.

Often when one hears Muslim behaviour explained in logical ways, such as how Mogahed did, it is seen as apologetic. Although almost anything can be said to be apologetic of Muslims by those determined to paint Muslims in one way, I would argue that Mogahed’s words did not accomplish this. She in fact, did point out the problems in the Muslim world, but then also, logically explained them. Not to excuse them, just to contextualize. Contextualizing does not excuse, but it helps understand and thus deal with the problem. Manji was not able to do this, and though seeming at times to make an attempt to contextualize, was not as successful as Mogahed.


Overall, the debate was interesting, and educational, to the Muslim as well as non-Muslim viewer/listener. To the interested listener, the debate would indicate that diversity does exist in the Muslim world. For the listener, the debate should not be about who won or lost. Rather it should provide an overall package of information regarding the experiences of Muslims and how diverse they can be. Therefore, the only logical conclusion I could draw to answer the question “Who speaks for Islam?” appeared to be “We all do.”

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