Photographer:Fotograaf: Moral Courage Project
Tans Lecture 2015 by well-known critic of traditional mainstream Islam
MAASTRICHT. “Moral courage means doing the right thing in the face of your fears”, says the Canadian professor Irshad Manji (1968), who will give this year’s Tans Lecture. She is an author, documentary maker, Muslim, independent thinker and well-known critic of traditional mainstream Islam. She is also the founder and president of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, a course “that aims to teach young leaders to make values-driven decisions for the sake of their integrity – professional and personal.” Observant interviewed Prof. Manji by email.
The New York Times called you ‘Osama’s bin Laden’s worst nightmare’. Could you explain why?
“Quite simply because I am a faithful Muslim who openly worships an Allah of liberty and love. In that way, Muslim reformists like me are showing that one can stand for a compassionate interpretation of Islam while remaining within the faith.”
You call yourself not a moderate Muslim but a reformist Muslim. This seems to echo Catholics who say ‘I believe in God, not the Pope’. Is there any similarity?
“As you know, there is no Pope in Islam (even if some mullahs behave as if they are!). Nor is my faith meant to have a clerical class. We Muslims are to worship one God, not God’s self-appointed ambassadors. Which means that no Muslim should behave as if he is God by claiming a monopoly on truth. That is why it’s a spiritual duty for Muslims to help build societies in which we can disagree with each other – in peace and with civility. Anything less means that somebody is acting as God. So here is the paradoxical and beautiful conclusion: believing in one God obliges Muslims to defend disagreement, diversity and, ultimately, liberty.”
You’re the founder of the Moral Courage Project. Why is the MCP necessary? Who are the students you’re aiming to reach with this project?
“Moral courage means doing the right thing in the face of your fears. Those fears include possible rejection from family, loss of your job, or disapproval by religious and cultural authorities. But there are at least two rewards for doing the right thing: living with wholeness (otherwise known as integrity) and changing your society for the better. So you can see that moral courage is for anybody who seeks purpose and meaning – whether they are students, professionals, parents, or citizens. Moral courage is not a religion. It is a set of principles and skills for believers of any faith as well as non-believers. It is universally applicable because the imperfection of humanity makes moral courage universally necessary.”
What would a ‘reformist’ like you say to people like Geert Wilders, the extreme right-wing politician in the Netherlands who likes to bash Muslims, calls for the Koran to be forbidden and argues that Islam is an evil religion and an intolerant ideology? Do you have any weapons that can be used to conquer him?
“I would ask Geert Wilders, ‘How does your agenda support reformist Muslims? After all, you define the core of Islam in the same dogmatic terms as destructive Muslim extremists do. So whose ally are you – that of reformists or that of jihadists?’ Never underestimate the power of asking questions!
“I am not interested in ‘conquering’ Wilders. I’m interested in creating conversations where none existed before. I would recommend the same to those who oppose Wilders’ hateful language. Try not to react with your own dogma, since dogma reinforces tribal prejudices rather than inspiring new conversations. Instead, engage Wilders’ supporters with questions that will make them think – and if they do not think immediately, then be assured that they will be thinking about your questions in their private moments, when they are ‘off-script’. Meanwhile, by refusing to mimic their dogma with your own, you have avoided becoming a hypocrite. You have demonstrated integrity. And you have shown the possibility of ‘constructive conflict’. I will, of course, say much more about this in the Tans Lecture.”
At the moment, many Syrians – most of them Muslim – are fleeing to Europe. You yourself were once a refugee. What would you like to say to those people who are afraid of the thousands of refugees coming to the Netherlands?
“In 1972, when my family came to Canada as refugees, we were expected to integrate. And we did. Today, multiculturalism is practiced very differently than it was 40 years ago. Now we allow groups to self-segregate – which is dangerous for social cohesion. So I understand the fears that many people have about the influx of refugees. Sure, some of the fearful are expressing racism, but it is important to recognize that not all of the fearful are racists. There are open-minded, big-hearted people who see the need to evolve from multiculturalism to real diversity. I will speak about this in the Tans Lecture. I will also suggest how moral courage can equip us to transcend fear so that we can address the challenges of mass migration, cultural identity and global citizenship.”
The Tans Lecture is organised every year by Studium Generale in honour of Dr J. Tans (1912–1993), the founding father of Maastricht University. Prof. Irshad Manji’s lecture ‘Beyond Geert Wilders: Turning Polarization into Constructive Conflict’ will be held at 8 pm on Tuesday 10 November in the Aula, Tongersestraat 53. Free entrance. English spoken