On My Mind

Elie Wiesel, Border-Buster

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On July 1, 2016, Elie Wiesel passed away. To the public, he was the Nobel prize-winning author, human rights activist and Holocaust survivor. But to me, Prof. Wiesel was a friend — always ready with a smile despite the melancholy etched into his weathered face, always willing to make New York a little more hospitable to this naive Canadian.

In October 2008, Prof. Wiesel turned 80 years old. To help celebrate, his family asked me to serenade him with words at New York’s main showcase of Jewish thought, the 92nd Street Y. I couldn’t have imagined a greater honor. Because, unbeknownst to them, I’d felt a deep connection to Elie Wiesel since my twenties. Why? I explain in the tribute that I paid to him that evening…

Prof. Wiesel: Some twenty years ago, a Senator from Texas told a younger Senator from Indiana that he’s no Jack Kennedy. Such an electrifying moment may be happening again as we gather.  And yet, we’ve chosen to be here instead. That’s how much we love you.

Ladies and gentlemen: Let me explain why I love Elie Wiesel – why I love him as a faithful Muslim and as an advocate of moral courage.  Jack Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, described moral courage as speaking truth to power, within your own community, for the sake of a greater good.

Calling out injustice within always incites backlash. That’s why Bobby Kennedy deemed moral courage to be “more rare, and therefore more valuable, than bravery in battle or even great intelligence.”

Elie Wiesel exemplifies moral courage by insisting that his tribe be reconciled to our world.

Here’s what I mean.  As a journalist in 1993, I remember feeling pained by global indifference to the suffering of Muslims in Bosnia.  I also remember hearing about Elie Wiesel’s chutzpah in front of President Bill Clinton. You see, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum had just opened, and as the original chair of the project, Prof. Wiesel joined Pres. Clinton on stage.

Prof. Wiesel used this platform to compel the president into action, emphasizing that “something, anything, must be done.” Not surprisingly, he was criticized for using this forum to bring up the slaughter in Bosnia.

But Elie Wiesel had moral courage as his personal compass. He told his critics that the museum itself is not a sacred site, and that “Jews do not have the right to be silent when men are dying, when innocent people are subjected to rape and torture, when cities are being transformed into cemeteries.”  

Jews do not have the right to be silent: instructive words for a young Muslim woman who would, less than ten years later, have a similar message for her tribe.

Prof. Wiesel: Identity protectionists may bristle at the thought that you, a Jew, are teaching us Muslims about moral courage. Let them bristle. You’re in the finest company of border-busters. Gandhi, a Hindu, taught Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian, about the virtues of soul force and non-violent resistance.

Another teacher of Rev. King was Lillian Smith, a white, Southern woman whom fellow liberals smeared as an extremist for her outspoken opposition to segregation. She embraced that smear, arguing that in times of moral crisis, moderation is cop-out. You must be an extremist of love.

Lillian’s lesson came in handy for Martin, especially when eight liberal clergymen accused him of creating “needless tension.” To which Rev. King replied, “I must confess I’m not afraid of the word tension” because constructive, non-violent tension is always “necessary for growth.”

The fact that a white woman helped guide a black man in how to fight for his civil rights reveals our shared humanity.  

And it captures why I, as a Muslim, believe that you, as a Jew, are such a mentor to my fellow Muslims. Your actions help address one of the most vexing questions of the early 21st century: Can open societies produce pluralists – people who appreciate multiple perspectives and truths — without producing relativists — people who will fall for anything because they stand for nothing.

The answer is yes. A joyous, jubilant yes. Just watch Elie Wiesel. May God bless and keep you, sir.

Constructive Conflict

Increasingly, I’m speaking at colleges and universities about the hottest topic going: how to achieve diversity and inclusion. Most educators see diversity as a matrix of skin colors, genders, religious affiliations and sexual orientations. But diversity is also about airing different perspectives. At institutions of higher education, intellectual diversity should be a no-brainer. 

It’s not, and that’s because of the dirty little secret about intellectual diversity: different viewpoints will naturally offend different people. So offense isn’t a price to be avoided at any cost. Offense is the cost of honest diversity. 

For me, this issue isn’t abstract or theoretical. Every day, people post nasty comments about something that my team and I work our tails off to create, namely Moral Courage TV. The insults are tailor-made to offend.

What, then, to do? I’ve been told to ignore the “trolls.” They want nothing more than for you to “take the bait.” Therefore, “don’t feed them.” 

That may be true about some critics, but if treat everyone with a hostile opinion as a troll, how do we grow from critique? How can we hope to change minds? Above all, how can we expect to be heard if we aren’t willing to hear others? 

Someone has to step up first. With that in mind, I’ve started this vlog. Every video is my response to a viewer who’s commented on a Moral Courage video. Most of the comments that I’ve chosen to engage are negative. My aim is to role-model how destructive disagreement can be turned into constructive conflict. 

Notice that I said, “conflict.” I’m not sugar-coating the reality that there’s a clash of perspectives here. Still, that clash can be useful — a source of creative tension. As Martin Luther King, Jr. told his critics, “I’m not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive non-violent tension that is necessary for growth.”

If you want to develop the skill of making conflict constructive rather than destructive, please subscribe to the Moral Courage Channel. I’ll post a new vlog entry every couple of weeks. Already, you can watch several of them, which I’ve recorded from various places around the world.

And a sincere note to my detractors: Feel free to offend me. I’m ready to engage you. 

What "Islamic State" Will Never Tell You About The Qur'an

By Sara, @Muslims4Reform

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I’m 21 years old - the same age as Muslims who are fighting for “Islamic State,” the terror group that’s spreading its brutal tentacles in Iraq and Syria. But count me out as a member of IS. My spiritual journey may have started from a point similar to theirs - a crisis of identity - but I’m taking a far different path.

For a long time in my journey, I thought I needed to have all the answers. I thought I needed to understand the “correct” way to pray, what clothing would or would not be acceptable to wear, whether I would be Muslim or agnostic, and which doctrinal beliefs I would and would not adhere to if I was either.

Initially, I thought that knowing clearly what I believed would give me a sense of control. Instead, my personal desire for an iron-clad identity robbed me of seeing a great deal of beauty, both in my own faith and in that of others.

When I finally veered away from the dogma of current-day Islam and started doing my own research, I came to develop a greater understanding of faith - not the Wahhabi/Salafist shenanigans that are infiltrating much of our world, but a strong pluralistic tradition derived from the Qur'an itself.

Diversity is repeatedly emphasized in the Qur'an as a sign of God’s creative majesty, symbolic of His many attributes. Case in point:

“And we have sent down to thee the Book with the truth, confirming the book that was before it, and assuring it… If God had willed, He would have made you all one nation; but he has done otherwise that He may try you in what has come to you. So be forward in your good works; unto God shall you return, all together…” (Qur'an 5:48)

Furthermore: 

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” (Qur'an 49:13)

The historian of religion, Karen Armstrong, echoes this idea of the Qur'an as a pluralistic document in her own book, The Case for God:

“In [the] early days, Muslims did not see Islam as a new, exclusive religion but as a continuation of the primordial faith of the ‘People of the Book,’ the Jews and Christians… Nobody must be forced to accept Islam because each of these faith traditions had its own din [religion]; the divine light belonged neither to the East or to the West, but enlightened all human beings.”

Learning about Allah’s pluralistic vision for us has given me the strength to dwell in the question, and not rush to find an answer. It has given me the confidence to know that each and every path is a valid path to understanding our Creator - as long as that path is sincere (based on conscience, not ego) and humble (tolerant of other routes to God).

That’s exactly the opposite of the ideology practiced by Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and other criminal thugs who wield their swords in the name of God. They’ll never tell us about the diversity-loving passages of the Qur'an. They, themselves, may not know about such passages. How fitting for Orwellian gangsters who twist ignorance into righteousness (or, more accurately, self-righteousness).

I, for one, will not despair in the face of their dogma. Knowing that God supports diversity of thought allows me to confidently express my opinions, and act on them. The Qur'an’s own wisdom gives me the inner strength to search for wisdom in every spiritual tradition. To quote 109:6, “To you be your way, and to me be mine.”

Muslims typically call Islam the Straight Path. Turns out, it’s the Wide Path, too. 

"Isn't God bigger than any one teaching?"

My name is Sara and Irshad is my mentor. She’s preparing me to speak my mind and heart, fully and authentically. So let me start by admitting something about my spirituality: I’m lost.

Now let me explain. I believe in God. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve intrinsically known that there’s a force much greater than you and me. I’d like to say that I always had a strong faith in that force, but the truth is, there were cracks in the foundation from the start.

Growing up, I didn’t have real faith. Enrolled in an Islamic school every Sunday, I was taught doctrine – the idea that God is an authoritarian and that, in order to achieve salvation, you must blindly believe. I was told to cover my hair, reject nail polish, speak softly, avoid boys at all costs and replace my jeans with dresses. As a result of this “education,” I’d become a robot who dangerously grew accustomed to nullifying the mind and rational thought. Because I’d been told not to ask questions, I didn’t.

Then I read Khaled Abou El Fadl.  In his book, The Search for Beauty in Islam, Dr. El Fadl validated my experience of mainstream Islam. He wrote:

“Muslims roads to knowledge [today] are blocked by dogma, apologetics, laziness and simple idiocy. But most of all, Muslim roads are blocked by a near total disregard for the value of intellect and the role it plays in the pursuit of knowledge… Puritans [have] transformed Islam into a creed for which the purpose is to negate and even spite others, and this risks transforming Islam into a creed that is absorbed in superficialities to the point of becoming frivolous.”

During the month of Ramadan, I reflected on cleansing my soul. I also thought about how much detoxifying is needed in the collective soul of Muslims. My reflections helped me to understand the biggest spiritual question that I’m wrestling with right now: Is Islam, as an organized religion, the only path to the God that the Quran describes as the “most merciful, the most compassionate”?

What I mean is, can I, a Muslim, draw wisdom from other paths - be they religious, philosophical, or even pop cultural - in my journey to encounter the God of love?

Some people will scoff. But I have to ask: Isn’t God bigger than any one religion, any one tradition and any one teaching? Is it not possible that, by seeking knowledge as far as China (a reported saying of the Prophet), I’m paying tribute to the majesty of God’s creation, and therefore of His creative power?

I’m not abandoning Islam, just trying to find God first.

And I know that I’m not alone. So I’d like to invite you into this conversation. What are your biggest questions? Tweet me at @muslims4reform.

Since I’ll be blogging here every week or two, I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

~ Sara

PS: If you want confidential advice, contact the Guidance Team, a network of Muslims and non-Muslims who help all people get through their struggles with faith. Their advice to me is one of the reasons I can now express myself honestly. 

"I am ready to build the new..."

“Hey Irshad! Peace with with you! I am back from India and done with fighting the old. I am ready to build the new…”

That statement came from Sara, a young Muslim woman whom I’ve been mentoring. Months ago, Sara got in touch with me out of the blue. She had a boatload of questions about love, God, Islam and her own faith.  At first, she turned to my Guidance Team with her questions. From them, she got some excellent advice and the confidence to take her questions one step further - by putting them to me. 

But I refused to answer them because I’m not a guru; I’m a teacher in the Socratic style. Instead, I challenged Sara to come up with her own answers and then bring them to me for discussion (read: interrogation). 

She did, and that’s when the fun really began. We’ve been going back and forth on all kinds of issues, including why she thinks she’s a Muslim. Has she considered other faiths? If not, why not? What about ditching God altogether? Would it be legitimate to walk away? Or, without having wrestled with her big questions, would leaving God amount to running away?

After several weeks of reflection in her family’s homeland, India, here’s how Sara explains why she chooses to believe in God:

“Life is difficult. There is great suffering on Earth. Introducing life on a planet without any sort of concrete guidance from the Creator himself would, I think, be cruel. If there is purpose to each of our lives, then there must be a way or path to find that purpose.”

So why choose an Islamic path? Why not a Jewish one? Sara goes on:

“The reason I cannot subscribe to Judaism is the idea that the Children of Israel are the chosen ones. I do not believe in exclusivity. If there is a way that God has prescribed, it should be received equally among God’s children." 

What about Christianity?

"I do not believe anybody should die for my sins. If I am an evil person, I will suffer for my sins, and thus, each individual will ultimately be accountable for him or herself." 

Which brings Sara to Islam.

"In essence, I believe the tenets of the faith are beautiful. A text re-affirming the prophets and scriptures of the past. Urging listeners and followers to regard each other as fellow people of the book. No exclusivity. Accountability for every individual. No concept of original sin, even in regards to women. [The Qur'an claims that God created one spouse and then the other. It doesn’t specify which gender came first.] The importance of deeds, not just words. The oneness of God.”

Then why is she struggling with her faith? Sara responds:

“The current state of Islamic practice. The self-righteous idiots who propagate the fundamentalist strain are truly repulsive. But I realize that the only way substantive change will occur is if we respond with introspection and critical thinking, all with an open mind. Just talking to you about God and what it means to have real faith has helped me to understand that, despite the darkness of today’s world, the light of hope still exists. Irshad, I am ready to begin my quest for the God of love in Islam. I am ready to build my moral courage!”

I asked Sara if she’s ready to help others build their moral courage – by becoming a guest blogger on irshadmanji.com. She’s thrilled and freaked out at the same time. “I am not a scholar,” Sara reminds me, “I am just an avid reader.”

Just? Wasn’t “Read!” the first command of God to the prophet of Islam? If reading works for Allah, it works for me.

Sara begins blogging next week about her quest for the God of love. After each of her posts, we’ll hold a Q & A via Twitter. There, she’ll reply to your questions.

Follow Sara at @Muslims4Reform and me at @IrshadManji. If you have questions now, use #Muslims4Reform.

Let us begin building the new.

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