Reconciling Faith and Freedom

Can diversity of belief and thought coexist with freedom of speech? Or must people choose between them, either limiting open discourse or preparing to be offended by different views?

For international bestselling author and Muslim reformer Irshad Manji, diversity and free speech “go hand in hand – and are at their best when they coexist.” As Middlesex’s first Equity and Inclusion Fellow-in-Residence, Ms. Manji spent two busy days on campus on February 6 and 7, addressing the community at an all-school Assembly, attending classes, meeting with student groups and faculty, and facilitating an evening Spectrum Dialogue.

As Ms. Manji explained, her own life experience has informed the work she does today. Born a Muslim in Uganda, she and her family were expelled as “non-Africans” during the dictatorship of Idi Amin and settled in Canada – the only country to accept them. There, Ms. Manji spent Saturdays attending an Islamic religious school, or madrassa, where she was troubled by the fact that girls could not lead prayers and by the assertion that she could not have friends of other faiths. After asking too many questions – and challenging the repeated assertion that “it’s in the Quran” – she was eventually told “either you believe or you get out,” an ultimatum that led her to the library, where she studied cultures and religions.

“During this time of self-study,” Ms. Manji related, “I discovered something profound: Islam has its own tradition of independent thinking and study.” Moreover, the idea that a secular institution, the public library, was actually saving her faith made a deep impression on her. “I could see how the secular and the religious could be integrated,” she affirmed.  And in that reconciliation, she found integrity.

Ms. Manji has since written two seminal books about why and how to achieve liberal reform within Islam. Finding that intolerance is not limited to Islam or any single religion, she founded the Moral Courage Project at New York University in 2008 to help young people learn to stand up and speak truth to power within their own communities. In 2015, she expanded her work to the University of Southern California, where she leads Moral Courage USC as a senior fellow at Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership & Policy.

“Diversity of identity includes diversity of opinion and thought,” she stated. “In hearing different viewpoints, we are also making room for free speech. Speakers might be offensive, but are we willing to ask questions of them? Can they teach us something? I’m not saying, ‘Make peace with bigotry.’ I’m saying, ‘Let’s hear them out, ask questions, and have a conversation that wasn’t there before. Make them think. That’s how you have integration and integrity.”

Additionally, Ms. Manji urged students to seek information from a variety of sources and then decide where the truth lies. “Challenge yourself,” she recommended. “Step outside your bubble; it has to be an intentional effort. Just because I’m agreed with doesn’t mean I have the truth.”

Later working with students that evening in the more personal setting of a Spectrum Dialogue, Ms. Manji discussed how to go about having difficult conversations with people of opposing views, sharing a video example of just such an exchange from her YouTube channel, Moral Courage TV. The following day, she visited several classes, met with student leaders at lunch, and rounded out her stay with a faculty reception after dinner. In an era of religious and political polarization, Ms. Manji’s dynamic presence and constructive approach certainly offered many at Middlesex hope for a more informed, civil, and bipartisan future.