Manji's Mission

Far beyond the sound-bite ''Muslim-reformist lesbian,'' Irshad Manji is on a mission to keep all minds open, active and questioning

Interview by Will O'Bryan
Photography by Jimmy Jeong
Published on September 8, 2011, 4:46am | Comments

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MW: You've been in New York since 2008? I'm guessing it's a pretty good fit for you.

MANJI: Oh, my God. I say this with no shred of exaggeration: I still wake up every morning thanking God that I wound end up in New York City, whose energy totally agrees with me. And when I go to bed late at night and I hear the sirens of police or firefighters or an ambulance, and people are screaming on my street, and it's just a hullabaloo, this is music to my ears. This is part and parcel of living in a vibrant society. New York invigorates me.

MW: So you had a front-row seat for the Park 51 debate. Did you take part in that?

MANJI: I did. What I said was that the really sad part of the so-called debate – because it was really only a series of monologues – is that I found in real-world experiences, the emails coming to me from self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives, that they were reacting to one another rather than actually examining the issue on its own merits.

I remember a guy named Bob, from Tennessee, who said, ''Irshad, I'm really offended by the anti-mosque crusaders, of which there are plenty in this state, and I think they're un-American. For that reason alone'' – literally, he said ''for that reason alone'' – ''I support mosque building in my state.'' I responded, ''Does that make you a liberal? Is that what you're trying to suggest? Because all you're doing is emotionally reacting to the other, or to who you presume to be the other.'' In other words, you're deciding this is your position on Park 51 simply because you're affronted by somebody who takes the opposite position. You haven't asked questions about Park 51. If you believe in your liberalism, how about asking the imam who's heading up the mosque project in Tennessee which side of the mosque men will be walking through. If he answers that question, you know instantly that segregation will take place at that mosque. How about asking about Park 51 whether the swimming pool will be segregated at any time of the day or night. How about asking if the sanctuary that Muslims use for prayer will also be open to Christians and Jews since, after all, that is the case at the Pentagon. Since this is the most contested site in the United States, why not also offer it up to fellow monotheists, people of the book, who are not Muslim? And, by the way, since the imam who was heading up Park 51 last year has now left on very suspicious terms, since he sort of trumpeted that this would be based on the Jewish community center model, one of my final questions is, where then do I sign up for advance tickets for Salman Rushdie's lecture? I think it's a very reasonable question. And yet, Bob from Tennessee couldn't be bothered to ask those kinds of questions, because he just didn't like how other people were reacting. And we're better than that. We're capable of better.

MW: You probably have some people who say, ''I was a fan, but then you said X, and now I'm not so sure.'' It must be hard to keep an Irshad Manji Fan Club going.

MANJI: That's very true. [Laughs.] There was a time when I would feel pressure to ''represent.'' I don't feel that anymore. If I'm going to have integrity championing individuality, then let me start with myself and take the journey – albeit publicly – that I want to take. And in some respects I'm meant to take. In other words, not feel the need to conform to particular assumptions of about how I'm supposed to sound, who I'm supposed to be.

In terms of, ''How does an Irshad Manji fan club even then define itself?'' if you go to my Facebook community, I much more often than not launch threads that ask ethical and moral questions. It's very intentional on my part to create a forum in which individuals from across the political spectrum can know that the only thing they will ever be chewed out for is incivility, and then expect also to be challenged on their positions. Not just by me, but by fellow Facebookers.

MW: Do you think your work might be easier if you weren't a lesbian? If you came wrapped in more conventional packaging, like a husband on your arm?

MANJI: If you had asked me this question nine years ago, given the welter of homophobic comments that were spat at me both virtually and in person, I could only – out of exhaustion and fatigue – tell you, ''Oh, my God, it makes this work so much harder.''

On reflection, I'm not so sure it does make the work harder. I'll try to explain it in a couple of different ways, because I'm still grappling with this.

One is I do believe – and I conclude this from hard experience – if I wasn't gay, there would be some other rap against me, right? ''She's a woman.'' Okay. We'll, if I was a straight man, ''He's not Arab.'' If I was a straight, Arab man? ''He grew up in the West.'' There's always something. I learned some time ago that there was absolutely no point in bemoaning being an out lesbian and trying to engage Muslims. It is what it is.

I don't see being lesbian as the negative that others have tried to turn it into. It's a unique aspect of what it's going to take to launch a reformation within Islam. And I'm just happy to make what little contribution I can.

MW: Do you see your sexual orientation as a major part of you, personally or politically?

MANJI: I don't see, really, anything with which I've been born as a defining aspect of who I am.

Some months ago I walked into the elevator of the building I live in here in New York. There was a woman in the elevator. She said, ''Oh, aren't you that Muslim lesbian?'' And I said, ''Hmm, I guess. One of these days I'll be multifaceted enough for you to ask me if I'm 'that thinker.''' She didn't know what to make of that, and I didn't want to sound snippy about it. As we were heading up, I said, ''Don't worry. I get this all the time. And it's all good.''

But the point is, I define myself by what I try to accomplish and not the labels into which I was born, whether that's person of color or woman or lesbian or, for that matter, even Muslim. Though, obviously, I know very well that the work I do has a particular application to my fellow Muslims.

I always try to make sure that my message is a much more universal one. Because, you know what? It's far more interesting to me when it's universal. If you put yourself in my shoes for just a second, imagine having to go on the road having to say the same thing over and over and over again about a very specific topic. For the most part, you get the same questions. People expect to hear the same things from you. You're expected to give a stump speech, etc., etc. Now I only do ''onstage conversations,'' because I need to stay interested. If my message is too identity-focused, then, I'm sorry, I bore the hell out of myself. There's an incentive here to continue exploring much more uncomfortable and provocative ground, if only to keep yourself alert to how interesting it is to be human.

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