Pierre Trudeau wouldn’t be happy with how his vision of multiculturalism had been corrupted – at least that’s what Irshad Manji believes. The controversial Muslim writer and speaker, who penned The Trouble with Islam Today, says present-day multiculturalism promotes segregation, hyper-political correctness and the punishment of those who hold unorthodox views. It’s been a decade since Ms. Manji, who now teaches at New York University, released her bestselling book. While she’s moved on to issues broader than the need for radical reform in Islam, she’s still not afraid to offend. In fact, she told the Globe and Mail’s Dakshana Bascaramurty, offending people may be the only way to achieving a pluralistic society.
Do you think the definition or the goal we have for multiculturalism is different now than it was [when you arrived in Canada in 1972]?
[Mr. Trudeau] basically said national unity must be founded in one’s own confidence in one’s individual identity and from that you can begin to engage with others about their assumptions and attitudes and aspirations. We don’t have that kind of multiculturalism today, in my view. What we have is more a fear of engaging based very much on feeling intimidated that I’m going to say something wrong or that somebody is going to be offended. The assumption is made routinely that multiculturalism and diversity are the same thing. And I’d argue that they’re not at all the same thing. Diversity is more than your skin colour or my gender or someone else’s religion. Diversity also means differences of thought, of points of view, of opinions. Different points of view will naturally offend different people. I would argue that offence is the price of honest diversity.
Where is the line between offending someone in a way you think is constructive and then going to the point of discrimination?
We should educate the next generation to liberate their thinking and to express it in a way like this: “I’ve got a question for you. … Now, I’m asking, not assuming” and then launch in to the question. Or, “I realize that what I’m about to ask you could come off as uncomfortable so please know that you’re totally entitled to ask me anything, too.” Here’s the thing: I’m engaging with you because I see you as my equal, I see you as my peer. If I’m avoiding asking you searching questions, then, frankly, implicitly, I’m treating you like a child, because I think you’re somehow going to melt under the spotlight of my scrutiny. To me, that is not respect, that is disrespect.
Since your first book came out, have you seen an evolution in the way people respond to your views?
Absolutely. I have seen that people who would otherwise want to hurl vitriol or abuse, not only has that diminished, but better still, it’s been replaced – not with silence, but with more people now piping up and saying that we ask these questions. People get tired of constantly fighting you. Last year, I did an hour-long debate on Al-Jazeera International about whether there is indeed trouble with Islam today. Naturally the usual hate mail came in – and more love bombs came in. But here’s the real point: not a single death threat.
That’s a measure of success for you?
I know it’ll sound crazy to some people, right? I’m not saying that the world is suddenly becoming enlightened to this ideal of pluralism but I’m saying that over time, people come to realize that it is possible to engage in very uncomfortable conversations and to do so in a way that builds society rather than merely tears it down.
In some Canadian cities, the term “visible minority” means nothing any more. In populations like Brampton, Ont., or Richmond, B.C., where you have one particularly dominant visible minority group, do you think this idea of “integrating” into Canadian society is going to mean something different? That the old definition of “Canadians” will have to integrate into this new group?
I won’t go as far as to say that the old definition of what it means to be Canadian will integrate into this new definition but I will say that what we’ll have, if we stick with a multicultural mindset instead of a diversity way of thinking, I think what we will wind up seeing is more segregation and more cliqueism rather than a pluralistic society that is working ought to have. Too often, “respect me” means, “don’t challenge me.” By giving rights to cultures, not just to individuals, what we wind up doing, in fact, is not giving more power to the entire community, we wind up giving more power to those who are already powerful within certain communities. We give them more power to dictate what customs are to be respected and which customs are untouchable. The next time you’re told you must respect such and such a custom, ask yourself, “What does my respect for this custom do for the most vulnerable in that community?” And the most vulnerable tend to be women and children.