The Virtue in Islam Today

Tonight I was proud of New York University, my grad school alma mater. Irshad Manji, the gutsy and eloquent author of “The Trouble With Islam Today,” is getting behind something new – The Moral Courage Project at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Her mission? To demonstrate moral courage, and to encourage future leaders to do the same.

Anyone who’s read “The Trouble With Islam Today” – or has even contemplated the title, for heaven’s sake – knows courage is something Ms. Manji’s got. A young, outspoken, brilliant, observant Muslim writer and thinker who makes no secret of her lesbianism–well, need I really say more about this phenomenal creature?

Tonight she hosted the first talk in a series that will comprise the Moral Courage Project, which will also include a graduate-level course and research (Why wasn’t stuff like this going on when I went to grad school at NYU? I remember mostly sitting around discussing the theory that Nathaniel Hawthorne was a repressed homosexual, and trying to avoid getting sprinkled by the dandruff of the girl beside me as she yanked out her hair while we critiqued her story about a fashion model addicted to “cutting” her arms.)

Sorry. Post-traumatic Lit-school disorder. The premise of the Moral Courage Project – one the brilliant, beautiful, intrepid Manji embodies – is that moral courage often requires resisting tides of conformity within one’s own society. Ms. Manji quoted Robert F. Kennedy on the subject. Although I’m not generally a Kennedy fan, he did get it right when he said, “Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows” which is why “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle.”

She hosted Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a professor of law at Emory University and author of “Islam and the Secular State,” a book that argues true observance of Islam requires a separation of mosque and state.

Dr. An-Na’im, who hails from Sudan, made the point that for religious observance of Islam to have meaning, it should never be imposed by force, and the latter inevitably ensues in a Muslim state. “I am accountable to God for my observance of Sharia,” he said. “Not to a human being.” Ms. Manji challenged him, “The idea that you are accountable only to God–couldn’t a violent jihadi use the same argument?” “I am only accountable to God for my observance,” he said. “But we are all accountable to other human beings under the rule of law.” I doubt that would fly with bin Laden, but it sounds kosher to me!

The most inspiring moments included Ms. Manji’s discussion of identity politics. The problem, she argued, is that such rigid categorization of people and classification of problems makes it very easy to simply blame other groups of people for your own tzuris. Again she paraphrased RFK: “A man can fail many times. But he is not a failure until he begins blaming others for his problems.” Who knew RFK was so smart? If Democrats still talked like that, I might still BE one!

Dr. An Na’im delivered a good one near the end of the talk: “Those who are attacking violently are declaring their impotence,” he said. “Because they have no answer, they want to kill the originator of the idea they have no answer to.”

Brett Stephens of The Wall Street Journal editorial board was in the audience and cited his discovery, upon interviewing members of Hamas and The Muslim Brotherhood, that most of the senior level operatives are doctors or engineers. “I almost wonder if this problem doesn’t lie just in Islam but in the rest of the educational system [in Muslim countries]. Is there a dearth of education that’s impoverishing the minds of people interested in Islam?”

This question spurred some interesting discussion by Dr. An-Na’im about the value of a liberal education.”Figures like [Egypt’s] Nasser emphasized science and engineering as skills for development, without thinking you need a liberal education to give human content,” he said. Ultimately, he concluded, it is difficult “to persuade those who do not value liberal education and have a hostility toward anything liberal, to promote liberal education…best we can do is to make as much liberal education as we can, everywhere.”

He seemed to be advocating some sort of grassroots, stealth liberal arts movement in the Muslim world. Cool. Teasdale in Tehran? Rimbaud in Riyadh? Erica Jong in Jakarta? Maybe I can use my graduate school literature education after all!

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1 response to The Virtue in Islam Today
  • 1.

    Marylin Pitz

    March 12, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    This is a very impressive woman. Courage is a rare and commendable virtue; Kennedy had that right. I had not heard of Ms. Manji until now, but will be interested in reading her book. Thanks, Marylin Pitz