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Controversial Muslim author Irshad Manji in Toronto March 5, 2014. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Controversial Muslim author Irshad Manji in Toronto March 5, 2014. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Controversial Muslim writer says multiculturalism isn’t what it once was Add to ...

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.

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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.

What do you make of the debate that’s been going on in Quebec for months now? The charter of values: what’s your take on it?

Big thumbs down, but for different reasons than most people articulate. French-speaking Quebec society, its leaders anyway, are operating very much from a cultural mindset. They fear that the minority culture of Canada being Francophone is already under threat in Canada and in order to compensate for that, newly-immigrated people must integrate. But once again it comes back to the group-think that culture incubates and I would argue that what we have is conservatism on top of conservatism. First and foremost, you are a human being and you are an individual. You don’t have to stop affiliating with any of these labels. I don’t see you as a label first, I see you as an individual. When we can get to that point, which is a diversity way of thinking rather than a multicultural way of thinking, that’s when we’ll see complexities far beyond hijab, far beyond the cross and the kippah and so forth. This whole charter of secular values comes from a place of fear: fear of religion, fear of being swept away by a series of other cultures. It does not come from a place of aspiration.

Back in January at York University [a male student asked to be exempt from doing group work with female students on religious grounds. His professor denied the request.] How do you feel about how that played out?

I endorse the professor’s decision but I think the way it could’ve played out could have been much more constructive. I would’ve loved the professor to go back to that student and make it a public discussion. “Let me ask you this question, sir, if your scripture was interpreted in a way that said – as it might have been 100 years ago – that you cannot consort with black people, with black men, would you agree to that today?” If the answer is no, take that further. “Then why is it okay to segregate on the basis of gender and not on the basis of race?” By asking questions, we actually put the ball of accountability and of dialogue in play. Making statements on the other hand, suggests there is no discussion to be had.

When was the last time you were offended by something someone said to you?

I try really hard to practise what I preach and I don’t always succeed. Most times when I go out on to a stage, when I know that there’s going to be anger in the crowd, I actually ask God to help me rise above the anger, to not stoop to that level and become defensive about it. I don’t mind acknowledging that of course I’m offended by many of the same arguments that I continue to hear over and over again. And why with some people it feels like it’s willful ignorance people bring to the table just to have a go at me or what I represent.

So when they ask questions you don’t think it’s coming from a place of them seeking knowledge.

There are many many people, Muslim and non-Muslim, who say Muslims will never change because baked into Islam is violence. And they ask me about certain verses of the Koran and I give them my interpretation of those verses and how I think old interpretations can be trumped by new interpretations. And it’s literally like they have not heard what I just said to them. It’s not that I ask them to agree with me, they haven’t even heard what I have to say and they keep saying “But what about! But what about!” It’s one thing if you don’t accept, it’s quite another if what you’re telling me is that the reason nothing is going to change is because you’ve decided nothing can change.

Irshad Manji was in Toronto this week to give a Ramsay Talk.

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