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Imagine a world in which every Christian is taught to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, delivered directly to His prophet. Religious education largely consists of memorizing the Holy Book uncritically. People are taught that their faith, being perfect, is superior to all others, and those who question it are accused of apostasy.

In this world, supposedly devout Christians engage in terrorism in the name of God. Some of them believe that they can achieve sainthood by blowing themselves up in restaurants and killing enemy children. These people attract worldwide sympathy from other Christians. Scholars are divided on whether such acts are justified by the Bible, but the Archbishop of Canterbury endorses it.

In this Christian society, homosexuals are reviled and women are unequal. Women must generally obtain the consent of men to marry or go to university, and can be punished or killed (sometimes legally, sometimes not) for crimes against the family honour. Hundreds of millions of Christians around the world are obsessed with a tiny sect of people who occupy a sliver of land the size of New Jersey. They blame these people for many of their problems.

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When outsiders are critical, Christians accuse them of prejudice. They argue that violence committed in the name of God is not, at any rate, the true Christianity. Their faith has been hijacked by a small group of fanatics. Theirs is a religion of tolerance and peace; the Bible proves it. When Christians themselves are critical, they are likely to be ignored or vilified, or even threatened with death.

And that's why Irshad Manji is a brave woman.

Ms. Manji is a blazingly articulate young Canadian Muslim. Her subject, of course, is not Christianity but Islam, and her new book, The Trouble with Islam, is a loud, clear call for honesty and reform. It is wry, blunt and irreverent, but never bitter. As a thought experiment, I summarized her main criticisms of Islam and then substituted Christianity, a faith with which I'm more familiar. It was unnerving. If Ms. Manji is right in her critique (and I believe she is), then Islam badly needs a reformation.

"Mohammed said that how we behave is Islam," she says. "It doesn't matter what the Koran says. It's about what's happening on the ground. And we have to ask ourselves: Why have so many Muslims chosen hate?"

Ms. Manji's book is as much about her own personal journey as it is a call for honesty and change. Her family emigrated from Uganda to Vancouver, where she grew up. A strong-minded girl, she had a habit of questioning authority of all kinds. At 14, she was kicked out of the madrassa for giving the teacher a hard time. After that she set out to learn about her religion for herself, a journey that consumed her off and on for years. She questioned, probed, explored, and eventually concluded that although much needs to change, Islam is not inherently incompatible with pluralistic western values. Ironically, she points out, such inquiry is only possible in the West. Today, at 35, she describes herself as a practising Muslim, a lesbian and a feminist.

Not surprisingly, the Muslim establishment regards Ms. Manji as nothing but trouble. "Born-agains and self-haters: Muslims have them too" begins a recent press release issued by the Canadian Islamic Congress, a mainstream group. "Most self-hating Muslims claim to practise their faith. They call themselves liberal, moderate, and contemporary . . . [But]self-hating Muslims secretly (or not so secretly) despise their religion and curse the day their parents gave them Muslim names. When self-hating Muslims write books or op-ed articles, they have little or nothing good to say about Islam and its nearly two billion global adherents. They attribute every failure of Muslims in both the past and present to the beliefs of Islam, the teachings of the Koran, or the sayings of the Prophet."

Ms. Manji admits that if the faith cannot reform itself, she may have to leave. But first, she wants to see if it is capable of letting in some oxygen. She points to a tradition of self-criticism and introspection in Islam that she hopes can be revived. And she hopes that her book (which also is being published in the U.S., England, Germany and France) will help to rally the silent moderates who have not had a voice, or the courage, or the words to speak out.

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She is immensely buoyed by the response so far. True, she has been getting the usual e-mail from Muslims who accuse her of being in the pocket of the Zionists. True, the Toronto Star has been full of letters denouncing her for Islamophobia. But many people, calling into phone-in shows, or responding to her website ( http://www.muslim-refusenik.com), have expressed their heartfelt thanks.

"What has happened to us?" a woman named Saira wrote her this week. "Why have so many turned inward, isolating themselves from the so-called 'evil West'? . . . Yeah, injustices have been done, country against country, no doubt about that. But are we just going to hold onto that resentment and hate for the rest of our lives?"

The price to pay for dissent is often personal. Ms. Manji and her father are no longer on speaking terms. ("Maybe we will be again some day," she says hopefully.) Nor is the Muslim establishment the only group that has repudiated her. "I've been told many times I'm not a member of the left any more," she says. (She calls herself neither left-wing nor right-wing but "post-wing.") There is a verse from the Koran she likes. It goes: "Believer, conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness before God, even though it be against yourselves, your parents or your kinsfolk." Ms. Manji is appalled by the selective blindness of the left, which generally blames the West for the problems of the Middle East. "I'm stunned by the way the political tradition from which I come has abdicated responsibility for universal human rights," she says. "They wax eloquent that Islamic societies have their own form of democracy. But please ask them how these places treat women, how they treat Jews? They love to dissect Israel -- but to the exclusion of Saudi Arabia? How can they morally live with themselves?"

Ms. Manji wants to have it all -- just the way most Christians do, I guess. She aspires to be both a faithful Muslim and a faithful Westerner, living in a world that cherishes pluralism, dissent, critical thinking, equality and, yes, tolerance, and where these values do not clash with her religion. She also argues that Muslims must shed their anti-Semitism, which is astonishingly widespread.

If she is to achieve her goal, it is Islam and not the West that will have to change. "The West has saved my faith in my faith," she says. "Now it's up to Islam to redeem itself."

mwente@globeandmail.ca

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