Manji coming to Western

Influential speaker optimistic about future

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Irshad Manji

Courtesy of Tara Todras-Whitehill

MANJI TO SPEAK TO WESTERN STUDENTS. Best-selling author Irshad Manji will be giving a lecture next Wednesday at Alumni Hall. Tickets are $15 for students and may be purchased at InfoSource, in the UCC atrium.

Next week, Western will play host to a speaker who has been labeled, among other things, “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” by The New York Times, and one of Macleans’ “Canadians who make a difference.”

Irshad Manji, who is currently director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, will be addressing students at Alumni Hall on April 1. For the talk she has chosen to focus on the role of “Obama Generation” to act as positive conduits for change.

“Let me first explain why I call it the ‘Obama Generation,’” Manji said. “It’s not because the president has achieved so much in his first couple of months ... [Barack Obama’s] big challenge as we all know is that he has to clean house.

“I’m arguing to [Western] students that their challenge is similar to his, but probably even more difficult. They’re going to have to clean up the corruption that has infested the system.”

The argument is an easy one for Manji to speak to. Through her work with the Moral Courage Project, she has seen first-hand the positive changes individuals can enact.

“We live at a time of aggressive identity politics, where it’s easy for disaffected youth to blame the outside world for their community’s problems,” she noted.

“It’s far more risky, emotionally, and for some of us physically, to call out justice from within ... Because you know that the backlash from your own hurts so much more than standing up to the faceless, nameless outside world.”

To her, the current world climate " one of anger and despair " is the result of individuals not engaging in self-reflection or standing up to their own communities.

“This is the mountain, I believe, that today’s generation of students is not just going to have to climb, but is perfectly positioned to climb,” she said. “I think that older generations today are more willing to listen to the ideas that come from [younger generations].”

Over her life, Manji has had to climb her fair share of mountains. One of her most infamous actions was writing the book, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, published in 2004. Since it first came out, the book has been published in 30 countries and languages, and garnered a wealth of controversy.

“Shortly after my book came out, and because of the burst of international publicity that it received ... My e-mail inbox certainly filled up with anger and yes, death threats,” Manji said.

However, Manji explained her inbox also filled with messages from young Muslims around the world asking when she would translate the book into Arabic.

Manji remembered her initial responses to those young Muslims was to bemoan the lack of an Arab publisher who would have the courage to circulate such a book, let alone publish it.

But by putting the Arabic translation online, Manji was able to allow these young Muslims to read the book in privacy, something they would not have been able to do if they had been carrying a physical copy of the book.

Looking back, the decision to post the translation online was a positive one, Manji noted.

“After we reached the 150,000 download mark we realized there is a deeper hunger for these ideas than even I had anticipated,” she said. As a result, the author took the rest of her royalties and invested them in getting translations for Urdu and Farsi, so Pakistani and Iranian citizens could read the books as well.

“In just over two and a half years I’m happy to report that we’ve had, collectively, more than a million downloads.”

Though her talk will focus on the individual’s role in creating change and the importance of moral courage, Manji did touch on Obama himself.

Ever the optimist, Manji has high hopes for the Obama administration to forge links between the West and the global Islamic community. After an especially influential essay was published in Newsweek, Manji was invited to brief members of the President’s foreign policy team on the subject of American-Muslim relationships.

“One of the big points that I made is that we replace this disastrous coalition of the willing with something else, what I would call the alliance of the interdependent,” she explained.

The alliance would incorporate wealthy countries from around the world, including rich Arab countries. The nations would then take a sliver of their defence program and pool them into a program of micro-business loans for the women of the Muslim world.

“Because it’s focused on the biggest unharnessed constituency of people in the Muslim world " namely, women " it ought to be led by a Muslim country,” Manji said.

“So the point here is that we don’t have to operate on assumptions that all this is about is counter-terrorism,” she concluded. Because the previous administration naively operated on those assumptions, they inadvertently reduced all Muslims to the status of perceived terrorists, Manji said.

On the subject of whether Obama would be able to repair any damage done by the Bush administration, Manji felt many perceived facts were in fact false.

“There is empirical research proving that the vast majority of Muslim-Americans actually love living in the United States,” she said, but noted, “That’s not to discount acts of discrimination that do take place.”

Manji explained the importance of understanding it is in the vested interested of many popular Muslim leaders to get onto television and scream “America is Islamophobic.”

“When we understand that is a career-building move for [Muslim leaders], not necessarily a reflection of reality, then we can begin to appreciate why this is such an opportune moment for the Obama administration to be taking more constructive risks in foreign policy " motivated by universal human rights.”

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