Irshad Manji, 2007
|Born||1968 (age 45–46)
|Literary movement||Quranist Islam|
|Notable work(s)||Allah, Liberty and Love, The Trouble with Islam Today, Faith Without Fear|
|Notable award(s)||Honorary Doctorate, University of Puget Sound, 2008, World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader", New York Society for Ethical Culture's Ethical Humanist Award|
|Part of a series on|
|Criticism of religion|
|By religious figure|
Irshad Manji; (born 1968) is a Canadian author, professor and advocate of a "reform and progressive" interpretation of Islam. Manji is the founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, which aims to teach young leaders "to make values-driven decisions for the sake of their integrity -- professional and personal."
In April 2013, the project's YouTube Channel, Moral Courage TV was launched by Manji and professor/activist Cornel West. West spoke of Manji's work as a "powerful force for good."  Manji is also founder and president of Project Ijtihad, a charitable organization that has innovated a 24/7 service to advise people, especially young Muslims, who are struggling with faith. Known as the "Guidance Team", their advice is free of charge and available in multiple languages.
Manji's most recent book, Allah, Liberty and Love was released in June 2011 in the US, Canada and other countries. On Manji's website, the book is described: "Allah, Liberty and Love shows all of us how to reconcile faith and freedom in a world seething with repressive dogmas. Manji’s key teaching is "moral courage," the willingness to speak up when everyone else wants to shut you up. This book is the ultimate guide to becoming a gutsy global citizen."
Manji's previous book, The Trouble with Islam Today (initially published as Trouble with Islam), has been published in more than 30 languages, including Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Malay and Indonesian. She was troubled by how Islam is practised today and by the Arab influence on Islam that took away women's individuality and introduced the concept of group honour. Manji has produced a PBS documentary in the America at a Crossroads series titled "Faith Without Fear", chronicling her attempt to "reconcile her faith in Allah with her love of freedom". The documentary was nominated for a 2008 Emmy Award. As a journalist, her articles have appeared in many publications, and she has addressed audiences ranging from Amnesty International to the United Nations Press Corps to the Democratic Muslims in Denmark to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She has appeared on television networks around the world, including Al Jazeera, the CBC, BBC, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CNN, PBS, the Fox News Channel, CBS, and HBO.
Early life and education
Manji was born near Kampala, Uganda in 1968 and she is of mixed descent. Her family moved to Canada when she was four, as a result of Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians. She and her family settled near Vancouver in Richmond, British Columbia in 1972, and she grew up attending both a secular and an Islamic religious school. Manji excelled in the secular environment but, by her own account, was expelled from her religious school for asking too many questions. For the next twenty years, she studied Islam via public libraries and Arabic tutors. Manji earned an honours degree in the history of ideas from the University of British Columbia. In 1990, she won the Governor General's Medal for top humanities graduate.
Manji worked as a legislative aide in the Canadian parliament, press secretary in the Ontario government, and speechwriter for the leader of the New Democratic Party. At age 24, she became the national affairs editorialist for the Ottawa Citizen and thus the youngest member of an editorial board for any Canadian daily. She was also a columnist for Ottawa's new LGBT newspaper Capital Xtra!. and wrote a regular feature for Canada's The Globe and Mail newspaper.
Manji has since hosted or produced several public affairs programs on television, one of which won the Gemini, Canada's top broadcasting prize. She participated in a regular segment on TVOntario's Studio 2 in the mid-1990s, representing liberal views in debates with conservative journalist Michael Coren. She later produced and hosted QT: QueerTelevision for the Toronto based Citytv in the late 1990s. Among the program's coverage of local and national LGBT issues, she also produced stories on the lives of gay people in the Muslim world. When she left the show, Manji donated the set's giant Q to the Pride Library at the University of Western Ontario.
In 2002, she became writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto's Hart House, from where she began writing The Trouble with Islam Today. In 2005, Manji founded Project Ijtihad, an initiative to renew Islam's own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. From 2005 to 2006, she was a visiting fellow with the International Security Studies program at Yale University. She was also a senior fellow with the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy. In January 2008, Manji joined New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service to spearhead the Moral Courage Project, an initiative to help young people speak truth to power within their own communities.
Manji has received numerous death threats. In a CNN interview, Manji stated that the windows of her apartment are fitted with bullet-proof glass, primarily for the protection of her family. At her December 2011 book launch in Amsterdam "Muslim extremists stormed in" and ordered her execution.
As a writer, Manji's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, and both the English and Arabic websites of Al Arabiya. In June 2013, she debated Islamic reform with British writer Mehdi Hasan on Al-Jazeera International. The video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Moral Courage Project
The Moral Courage Project (MCP) equips students to make values-driven decisions for the sake of their integrity—professional and personal. Among the leadership skills that students can expect to learn: articulating how you want to serve your society, identifying your core values, turning your values into action, knowing when to step up or step back, and staying motivated to deliver on your vision.
Founded and directed by Irshad Manji, the MCP has three key dimensions:
Manji teaches the graduate-level course, "Moral Courage and Your Purpose."
The MCP partners with an online service called the Guidance Team. It advises people around the world about how to advance dignity in their own professional, political, religious, or cultural contexts.
Moral Courage TV, the project's YouTube channel, tells the stories of individuals who are risking backlash in order to achieve social progress. Among the profiles in moral courage:
- Eric Glatt, a young intern on the Hollywood movie Black Swan, is now challenging the culture of unpaid work.
- Victoria Johnson, hearing the pleas of her office colleagues, is taking action against workplace bullying.
- Omnia Hegazy, an Egyptian-American singer/songwriter, is using her voice to promote women's equality within Arab culture.
- TJ Leyden, a former neo-Nazi, is rescuing youth from the white supremacy movement in the United States.
- Kenneth Edwards, a "violence interrupter," is stopping gangs from shooting guns in his neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
- Marsha Coleman-Adabayo, an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency, risked her career to blow the whistle on government corruption.
- Kevin Santiago, a high school boxer, stood up to a bully—nonviolently.
- Jane Akre, a reporter, refused to be bribed into covering up a story about corporate misdeeds.
- Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an ex-Salafist, came out of the closet and established the first gay-friendly mosque in Europe.
Moral Courage TV recently won the Ron Kovic Peace Prize, named for the U.S. Marine veteran who became an anti-war activist and inspired the Oliver Stone film, Born On The Fourth of July.
The Guidance Team
The Guidance Team is a global network of individuals, selected by Manji, to serve as advisors for anybody who is struggling with faith. Among the advisors are progressive theologians, social workers and students. They address questions about how to start honest dialogues with family, friends and co-workers. The team specializes in helping those who seek modern interpretations of scripture, especially, but not exclusively, the Qur'an. People submit their questions through the Guidance Team's website. The service is free of charge.
But she expresses disdain for the politics of identity. In an interview with MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, Manji describes herself as a "misfit in every category". She encourages her audience to "challenge conformity within our own tribes – be they religious, cultural, ideological, or professional – and to do so for a more universal good."
"Muslim refusenik" is a phrase Manji has used to identify herself as someone who refuses to "join an army of robots in the name of God." "Refusenik" is an English-Russian portmanteau word first used for Russian Jews refused permission to emigrate, and then for Israeli conscientious objectors who refuse to do army service on the West Bank.
According to Geneive Abdo, "Muslim Zionist" is a label which Manji "would no doubt accept". Manji claims to be a Muslim pluralist. In her 2011 book, Allah, Liberty and Love, she writes about the "occupations of both Israeli soldiers and Arab oligarchs," asserting that each occupation needs to be fought nonviolently. In a recent column for Globe and Mail, she applauded young Palestinians who issued the Gaza Youth Manifesto for Change, which calls for freedom and warns that "we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel [and] beaten up by Hamas...There is a revolution growing inside of us..."
The Trouble with Islam Today
Manji's book The Trouble with Islam Today was published by St. Martin's Press in 2004. It has since been translated into more than 30 languages. Manji offers several translations of the book (namely, those in the Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Malay and Indonesian languages) available for free-of-charge download on her website. The book has been met with both praise and scorn from both Muslim and non-Muslim sources. Several reviewers have called the book "courageous" or "long overdue" while others have accused it of disproportionately targeting Muslims or lacking thorough scholarship.
In the book, Manji says that Arabs have made a mistake by denying that Jews have a historical bond with Palestine. Manji writes that the Jews' historical roots stretch back to the land of Israel, and that they have a right to a Jewish state. She further argues that the allegation of apartheid in Israel is deeply misleading, noting that there are in Israel several Arab political parties, that Arab-Muslim legislators have veto powers, and that Arab parties have overturned disqualifications. She also writes that Israel has a free Arab press, that road signs bear Arabic translations, and that Arabs live and study alongside Jews.
However, Manji also condemns Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, voicing her opposition to "illegal Jewish settlements, assault helicopters, checkpoints [and] curfews..." "Day in and day out," she writes of Palestinians, "they witness what I've only glimpsed: young Israeli women and men with guns strapped to their chests. Miles of dusty road to tread between checkpoints. Brusque soldiers who won't utter a word of Arabic, even if they know how. ID cards, razor wire, armored tanks, sprawling Jewish settlements that look like suburbs and would take years to dismantle, delaying Justice for Palestinians that much longer."
Tarek Fatah, a fellow Canadian Muslim who originally criticized The Trouble With Islam, reversed his stance saying that Manji was "right about the systematic racism in the Muslim world" and that "there were many redeeming points in her memoir".
Allah, Liberty and Love
Since publishing The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has taken an aspirational approach to issues of reform. In her 2011 book Allah, Liberty and Love, she invites Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop many from living with integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning their own communities. Although Manji asserts that change must start from within, she emphasizes that all human beings have the right to contribute to reform in any community. Drawing extensively on the Qur'an, Manji describes a universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them.
Among the questions Manji asks are: What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from going public with their need for religious interpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam? How did we get into the mess of tolerating customs, such as honor killings, and how do we find our way out? How can people abandon dogma while keeping faith?
Allah, Liberty and Love has been endorsed by Muslims such as Time Magazine's Fareed Zakaria and Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S Congress. However the book has also generated criticism for skimming the surface of reform.
Omar Sultan Haque, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard in Psychology, argues that although Manji's book is important in raising consciousness, it "fails to grapple with some of the more substantial questions that would make [a liberal and open] future [of Islamic Interpretation] a reality." He declares Manji's solutions "much too glossy and slick" as they do not "allow one to see places of ambiguity in factual and ethical claims within the liberal Islamic tradition that need further attention." Haque further asserts that many of Manji's solutions suggest that the Koran is all one needs to practice Islam, and that traditional law and commentary are "optional and accidental." Similarly, Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a Beirut-based writer, argues that Manji promotes ijtihad while overlooking that "ijtihad is a sword that cuts both ways." He also laments Manji's focus "on how liberal Muslims could reinterpret the Koran as opposed to how they might set legal limits on its socio-politico-economic influence."
Controversy surrounded the international launch of "Allah, Liberty and Love". During her world tour, police cut short her talk in Jakarta due to pressure from one of Indonesia's fundamentalist groups, the Islamic Defenders Front. A few days later, hundreds of men from the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council assaulted Manji's team and supporters in Yogyakarta. Dozens were beaten and many had to be treated in hospital.
The Jakarta Post has named Manji one of 3 women making a positive change in Islam today. Manji was awarded Oprah Winfrey's first annual Chutzpah Award for "audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction." Ms. Magazine named her a "Feminist for the 21st Century," and Immigration Equality gave her its Global Vision Prize. In 2006, The World Economic Forum selected her as a Young Global Leader. She has also been named a Muslim Leader of Tomorrow by the American Society for Muslim Advancement. In May 2008, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Puget Sound and in November 2012, received the New York Society for Ethical Culture's highest honor, The Ethical Humanist Award.
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- Manji's PBS documentary, Faith without Fear, follows her journey to reconcile faith and freedom. Released in 2007, the film depicts the personal risks Manji has faced as a Muslim reformer. She explores Islamism in Yemen, Europe and North America, as well as histories of Islamic critical thinking in Spain and elsewhere. In 2007, it was a finalist for the National Film Board of Canada's Gemini Award. In 2008, Faith Without Fear was nominated for an Emmy, the highest distinction in U.S Television. That same year, it won Gold at the New York Television Festival. Faith Without Fear also launched the 2008 Muslim Film Festival organized by the American Islamic Congress.
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- Official website
- Irshad Manji at the Internet Movie Database
- Moral Courage Project at NYU Wagner School of Public Service