Manji traces her path of dissent

“Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the recognition that something else is more important than fear, and for me, voice is more important than fear,” said Irshad Manji, a self-described Muslim dissident who claims for herself the dubious distinction of being hated by most of the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. Author of the controversial international best-seller, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Cry for Reform in Her Faith, Manji spoke last Thursday night at Griffin Hall. Entitled “The Power of Asking Questions – Out Loud,” the talk was sponsored by the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies.

A journalist, social entrepreneur and human rights activist, Manji is the director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, a program that aims to develop leaders who will challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship. She is also a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy and founder of Project Ijtihad, an initiative to foster debate and dissent in the Muslim community. To add to her list of impressive achievements, Manji is the creator and subject of the acclaimed PBS documentary, “Faith Without Fear,” which chronicles her own campaign against human rights abuses in the name of Islam.

Born in 1968, Manji is a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda. In 1972, she and her family fled to Vancouver, where she grew up attending public schools as well as the local Islamic madrassah. It was at the latter that she first began to understand the power of asking simple questions.

“At the madrassah, I regularly imbibed two ideas,” Manji said. “One, that women are inferior and cannot lead prayer. Two, that Jews are greedy businesspeople. And even at the age of eight or nine, I started to ask myself, ‘Really?’” She went on to explain that by asking this simple question at that young age, she started to understand that the education she was receiving was not an education in religion, but in dogma.

“Education, properly delivered, frees our mind to make critical judgment. Dogma is rigid, brittle and often brutal – it deserves to be threatened by questions,” said Manji, urging all of the students present to use their voices to speak out against dogma and injustice as they go forward in the world.

Manji’s own decision to use her voice through her book, The Trouble with Islam Today, was motivated by her personal struggle to reconcile her faith with the human rights abuses committed in its name.

She recalled the beginning of her journey, when her boss sent her a newspaper clipping about a young Nigerian girl who was brutally and unjustly punished under traditional Islamic shariah law and asked her how she could adhere to a religion that lent itself to such cruelty.

“My identity as a Muslim told me to get defensive, but my integrity as a human told me that it was right to ask that question,” Manji said. “From that crisis of conscience, I started to investigate to find out what I didn’t know. And once I knew about all of the crimes committed in the name of Islam, I asked myself, what could I do? And that’s where the decision to use my voice came in.”

Manji has been both widely celebrated and condemned for her controversial ideas on Muslim reform, which include a reinterpretation of the religion’s most sacred text, the Qur’an. For Muslims, the Qur’an is a direct transcription of the word of God, and Manji’s suggestions that it needs to be updated have been met with widespread indignation.

However, instead of expounding and defending her controversial ideas, as many had hoped she would, Manji chose to focus her talk on the role of the dissenter in modern society.

Several students took advantage of the question and answer period immediately following the lecture to grill Manji about her beliefs. Faced with the charge that she was attacking Islam as a whole for human rights abuses that were more specific to local culture than Islamic belief, Manji countered that Islam around the world has been infected by tribal culture, and that is precisely what needs to be reformed.

In response to a student who asked why the vast, existing body of Islamic scholarship needs to be reinterpreted, Manji claimed that Muslims “submit to authority in a way that is like submitting to authoritarianism.”

She concluded the evening by urging the audience members to make their opinions heard. According to Manji, only by encouraging debate and dissent will societies be able to address what she sees as the main question facing us today: “How can democratic societies produce pluralists, without producing relativists?”