Irshad Manji continues to question notions of identity and diversity in new book

Irshad Manji is not one to shirk away from controversy. The Canadian journalist and author, who refers to herself as a reformist-Muslim, received both praise and criticism for her first book, “The Trouble with Islam Today,” published in 2004.

That book, in which Manji was critical of certain aspects of contemporary Islam — particularly the place of women within Islam — brought her considerable press and attention, including death threats.

Manji is currently the director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, which her official website says “aims to develop leaders who will challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.”

In addition to her role at New York University, Manji regularly appears as a media commentator both in the United States and abroad.“Allah, Liberty, and Love” is a book for both believers and non-believers says author Irshad Manji.
Photo courtesy of: Irshad Manji

In her latest book, “Allah, Liberty and Love,” Manji encourages both Muslims and non-Muslims to embrace diversity and to challenge inherent fears of offending others in a multicultural world.

Manji recently talked to Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor about her new book.

Answers have been edited for length.

What was the impetus for writing “Allah, Liberty and Love?”

“Allah, Liberty, and Love” is the natural outcome of a 10-year global conversation that I have been having, not just with young Muslims, but also with non-Muslims, around the world. When “The Trouble with Islam Today” came out, I knew that I would be in for a shellacking. But what I didn’t bargain on was that I would be going to all four corners of the globe, multiple times over, in order to engage with people’s need to talk about issues, as well as their fears. And that is when I came to realize that there is a new book in the making here.

One of the ways that “Allah, Liberty, and Love” differs from the previous book is that this one is a how-to, where the previous book was a why-to — why should a new generation of Muslims stick our necks out to ignite a liberal reform within Islam?

In the new book I want to convey the permission that each of us has to create conversations that didn’t exist before. We do live, in my view, in morally confused times where people often silence themselves from asking the questions that they have, particularly questions about Islam, for fear of being called Islamophobes and racists and bigots. But the reality is, as I have learned, if people feel that they don’t have the permission to engage honestly, then their suspicion about the other only rises. Where is our vaunted diversity then?

You mention the notion of fear. Where does this fear come from?

It comes from being steeped in identity rather than integrity. That is a huge distinction that I think all of us can benefit from knowing more about. Identity is a label, or a series of labels, that other people foist upon us, and that we allow to be imposed upon us. But integrity is really the gift that we give to ourselves. Integrity is the fullness that comes from recognizing that you are so much more than the sum of your labels and therefore, that you don’t need to be compartmentalized into any one community. Also understanding that community doesn’t need to be based on birthright, but rather on a set of shared values that all types of people — regardless of their backgrounds, can cultivate.

I think that in a multicultural society it has become very easy, and very lazy, to reduce diversity to things such as skin colour and religion. But diversity, if we are going to be honest, must also include different ideas. Different ideas will naturally offend different people. That is why I make the point in the new book that offence — giving it and taking it — is not a problem to be avoided at any price in the name of diversity. In fact, offence is the price of diversity.

It seems that the problem with labels, or the notion that one can’t have multiple identities, can happen in any community. How do we move beyond putting people in boxes and applying labels, while at the same time reconciling what might be our own innate need to belong to a community?

First of all, I think by treating labels of any sort as a starting point and not a finish line. We all have the need to sometimes stuff each other into boxes, in the sometimes-flawed belief that we better understand each other that way. But you will find that when you do engage people in conversations, there is something about all of us that is surprising and that is contradictory and paradoxical. That is part of what is so delicious about being human.

Irshad Manji says that even though she has received death threats because of her work, it is still worth the effort.
Photo courtesy of: Irshad Manji
I know that this sounds to some ears really airy-fairy and like its hand-holding and asking why don’t why all just get along? It’s not. What I am saying is: why don’t we all just not get along, actually, and allow ourselves to be different? Why don’t we allow ourselves to actually engage with one another about those differences?

“Respect me” has come to be a euphemism for “don’t challenge me.” I would argue that when we avoid asking ourselves pointed and searching questions, we wind up treating each other as children. To my mind, that is not respect. That’s disrespect. That’s dishonesty diversity.

You wrote in the introduction that this is a book for both believers and non-believers. But how do you convince people to pick up a book called “Allah, Liberty, and Love?”

I think it’s a very legitimate question. I grappled with the book’s title, as did my publishers. But I knew that by reconciling these three words that, typically, don’t appear in the same sentence — Allah, Liberty, and Love — that it would be a concrete way of beginning the discussion. The book’s subtitle — the courage to reconcile faith and freedom — that can be anybody’s faith.

My work has always been about engaging all types of people. This book is no different. It takes things up a notch to discuss what it will really require for us to pull out of the compartmentalizing mess that multiculturalism and the way we practice it has brought us to. And it does so in a way that truly puts the divide back in diversity.

You have been very open and candid about some of the negative reaction your work has received, including death threats. Has this all been worth it?

Absolutely. It has absolutely been worth it. And it will continue to be worth it.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca