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.