Saturday, November 06, 2004


Tuesday's murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who criticised Islamic practices, reminds all of a nagging truth: that more than 15 years after the Iranian Government issued a death warrant against novelist Salman Rushdie, dissenting with Muslims remains a risky business. As a Muslim reformer, I speak from experience. My book, The Trouble with Islam, has put me on the receiving end of anger, hatred and vitriol. That's because I'm asking questions from which we Muslims can no longer hide. Why, for example, are we squandering the talents of half of God's creation, women? What's with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam today? Above all, how can even moderate Muslims view the Koran literally when it, like every holy text, abounds in contradiction and ambiguity? The trouble with Islam today is that literalism is going mainstream.

Muslims who take offence at these points often wind up reinforcing them in their responses to me. I regularly get death threats through my website. Some of my would-be assassins emphasise the virtues of martyrdom, wanting to hurl me into the flames of hell in exchange for 72 virgins. Others simply want to know what plane I'm next boarding, so they can hijack it. Somehow, I don't feel the urge to share my schedule.

A few threats have been up-close and personal. At an airport in North America, a Muslim man approached my travel companion to say, "You're luckier than your friend." When she asked him to explain, he turned his hand into the shape of a gun and pulled the trigger. "She will find out later what that means," he intoned.

But, for all of the threats, there's good news: I'm hearing more support, affection and even love from fellow Muslims than I thought possible. Two groups in particular - young Muslims and Muslim women - have flooded my website with letters of relief and thanks. Relief that somebody is saying out loud what they have only ever whispered. Gratitude that they're being given the permission to think for themselves.....

Muslims in the West are best poised to revive Islam's tradition of independent reasoning. Why in the West? Because it's here that we already enjoy the precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged all without fear of state reprisal....

I know what many young Muslims would like us to be doing: thinking critically about ourselves and not solely about Washington. Indeed, a huge motivation for having written my book came from young Muslims on US and Canadian campuses. Even before September 11, 2001, I spoke at universities about the virtues of diversity, including diversity of opinion.

After many of these speeches, young Muslims emerged from the audiences, gathered at the side of the stage, chatted excitedly among themselves, and then walked over to me. "Irshad," I would hear, "we need voices such as yours to help us open up this religion of ours because if it doesn't open up, we're leaving it." They're on the front lines in the battle for the soul of Islam. Whatever the risks to my safety, I won't turn my back on them - or on the gift of freedom bestowed by my society.

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Ahhh, Indian summer. All this heat has arrived in time to hunt Chinese ringneck pheasants this weekend. It might get warm but the hunting should be fun. Hmm...what I really mean is...Ahh, indigenous persons summer. All this heat has arrived in time to pursue ringneck pheasants of Asian descent this weekend. It might get warm but the harvest should be fun.

More and more, from how we refer to our pursuits and pastimes to how presidential candidates run their campaigns, the nuances of political correctness and politics in general, have crept into the sports of hunting and fishing. So much so that many refuse to call the two "sports" any more, and that the sport is for the candidates to seek out and catch as many votes as possible.

It's all in the lingo. As a child sitting on the dock in Detroit Lakes I pulled colorful bluegills out of the water as effortlessly as picking ripened fruit off a September apple tree. The fish were unhooked and dropped back in with a splash. It was just "letting them go" as I called it back then. Now it is termed "selective harvest." That is, the return of certain fish to the water to be caught again. Don't get me wrong, I am 100% in favor of selective harvest and catch and release morals. I just wonder at what point in my life did it get so technical? Slot limits, length limits, personal limits and the like have changed the shape of fishing in our country. But in reality, it is very much the same as it was on that wooden dock on Big Detroit Lake. Keep the eating fish (usually 2-4 pound northern pike in those days) and let the fun fish go back. Although the size and selection were different then, the principle was still the same: only keep what you want to eat. The words have changed, but the meaning remains the same. But sometimes, I can't help but question certain word usage.

The word "hunter" has always been, in my mind, a gender-neutral term. Men can be hunters, women can be hunters; it is that simple. However, the dominant term for a person who fishes has always been 'fisherman.' Another popular male-skewed term is "outdoorsman." As a writer, I know that the readership of this paper is split between men and women. I think it is a safe assumption that the number of readers who are non-hunters and non-fisher...people, outweigh those who are in the outdoors on a regular basis. Therefore, I feel obligated under the new regime of political correctness to say "fishermen and women" or "outdoors men and women" or at least feel bad when I refer to all people afield as "outdoorsmen."

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