When was the last time you received hate mail or a death threat? Irshad Manji receives them regularly. A Muslim reformist and best-selling author, she seeks to get people to ask big questions, accept diversity and stand up in the face of fear. On Feb. 23, 600 students and community members packed the SUB Ballrooms to hear Manji speak at an event organized by the MSU Leadership Institute.
Manji began her lecture by praising the MSU Leadership Institute and MSU, saying that her first trip to Montana would not be her last. She then told her story, beginning by recounting her experience growing up, grappling with religion and finding her voice. She was born in Uganda, but at the age of four her family moved to British Columbia, Canada. She explained that from a very young age she was always asking questions. She recalled being expelled from a Muslim school at 14 because she asked a question that offended her teacher. She said that her tendency to ask questions and her constant pursuit of knowledge planted the seed for her future endeavors as an activist.
Manji is the director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University and has spoken at campuses across the country. In an interview prior to the event, Manji said she tells her own story in order to give an example of where she has struggled and found courage. She said she wants to put herself on the spot alongside her audience. “Regardless of who the audience is, I love to challenge,” said Manji. “I never give people what they want to hear. I’m there to offer a different perspective, to ask a lot of questions, and to puncture many assumptions.”
Manji explained that although many people have told her she inspired them, being inspired is not enough. “Inspiration doesn’t count for much in my books unless you activate it, and that’s what I want to know from people; not just that you loved what you heard, but how has it changed you and what will you now do differently as a result,” she said.
For college students in particular, Manji wants to challenge assumptions about diversity and thinking in general. “Probably the most important principle to begin to grapple with, is that colleges are not places that are supposed to be safe intellectually. It’s quite the opposite actually,” Manji said. “So, instead of expecting your professors to create a safe space, how about expecting professors to help you feel safe in your discomfort, because that’s the real world, my friends, and if you can handle the discomfort of the real world, with a degree of confidence, of self-assurance, of self-knowledge, then you are walking away from your college years a truly upstanding contributor to society.”
Joey Morrison, a sophomore student associate at the Leadership Institute, explained Manji was chosen to speak at MSU because, “We want to bring in people who serve in such a manner that helps students realize their potential, or feel empowered that if they see an issue, or they see something where they could step up, they feel inspired to do so.”.
Manji also explained that she thinks dissenting opinions are an inherent part of being human and that being offended cannot be avoided, “because different ideas will naturally offend different people, offense is not a problem to be avoided at any cost. Offense is the cost of honest diversity. So when we talk about diversity do we want it to be fake diversity, or do we want it to be honest diversity, and we should be asking that question of ourselves and each other.”
With regard to approaching people who may be hesitant to listen to someone saying that all religions, sexualities and races should be accepted, Manji quickly pointed out that contrary to what may be assumed, she thinks Montanans are actually very open minded. “I was blown away to learn that MSU has had a Queer Straight Alliance for thirty years. Thirty years, let me tell you something, that is twenty years ahead of most Ivy League colleges,” Manji said. “It seems to me that there is something about this state that keeps things real and so first of all, hats off to Montanans for coming to grips with reality. Now, sure there are traditional people or conservative people not just here, everywhere.”
Manji said she wants to see everyone feel the confidence to do the right thing without worrying about judgment. After her lecture, three student panelists were invited on stage to ask Manji questions. Manji signed her books “The Trouble with Islam Today” and “Allah, Liberty and Love” at the end of the event.