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MW: With trips to Washington, I read a 2008 profile of you in the Guardian that mentioned you spending some weeks here to advise legislators about U.S. relations with Islamic countries. What advice did you give?
MANJI: My big point at that time, because I'd not come out with my new book yet, was to say a couple of things. One is that we have to be careful as progressives or liberals, whatever label you want to attach to yourself, not to fall into the rabbit hole of relativism. Relativists are people who fall for anything because they stand for nothing. And usually they delude themselves about standing for nothing because they don't want to offend.
My alternative to this, which allows for much more honest conversation, is to be a pluralist, somebody who happily coexists with multiple perspectives and truths. But a pluralist also accepts that she or he is an ethical being, whose existence on this Earth is about more than just them. They're part of a wider global community. So we have to make judgments, every day, about what is moral and immoral, what is conscionable and unconscionable, what is right and wrong. The beauty of being a pluralist is you also have the humility to recognize you don't own the full and final truth, and therefore you're open to changing your mind. Your judgments, in other words, are always temporary and always provisional, contingent upon a better argument coming down the road – hence the need for free speech – and also contingent upon more experiences.
There's nothing illiberal about making judgments. And not just about your own culture. Obviously American liberals are very judgmental about their own culture. [Laughs.] But also there's nothing illiberal about making judgments with respect to other people's cultures. The arrogance comes in deciding that that judgment is all there can be to the truth and that's it. That's what fundamentalists do. So you've got your extremes: the fundamentalists on the one hand, the relativists on the other. In between, I believe, is the reasonable compromise of being a pluralist.
MW: That could be asking a lot of people, to both make judgments and to be ready to change one's mind.
MANJI: Probably. And you know what? If I'm guilty of that, then I happily embrace my guilt. I say very openly and firmly in the introduction of Allah, Liberty and Love that right now we live in a time where, as people who affiliate with different identity groups, we often – not always – have low expectations of ourselves and high defenses against the other. My work is about trying to flip that equation, so that we can lower our defenses about the other and raise expectations, first of ourselves, then of the other.
So, yeah, I have very high expectations for myself. And I have no problem applying that same standard to others, knowing full well that I will be disappointed often, but also that I will take great joy in those few gems that step up to the plate.
MW: But to ask people to keep a perpetually open mind….
MANJI: It's exhausting. Sure it is. It's as exhausting for them as much as it is for those who have higher expectations of them than their peers and family often do.
But I must tell you that as a person of deep faith, this is actually key to maintaining my faith. At the end of the day, I believe that my universal creator owns the full and final truth. In fact, it's a spiritual duty for me to have the humility to keep my mind open. That is how I reconcile faith and freedom. As a Muslim, I am to worship one God, not God's self-appointed ambassadors. So I have to embrace the fact that I have very limited knowledge – which is why I can't play god with other people, because that would suggest I do have the full truth, which I don't. That, in turn, obliges me. Owning the limited nature of my knowledge obliges me to contribute to a society in which we can disagree with one another in peace and civility.