Irshad Manji’s bold, unapologetic lecture criticizing modern Islam came complete with armed Campus Police and a group of protesters from the International Socialist Organization (ISO).
The lecture was part of the Multicultural Lecture Series, which aims, according to chair Lynette Harris, “to bring to our campus community awareness of different cultures and the issues within those cultures.” A committee of faculty and students selects speakers to come to the College.
Manji focused on Islamic culture. A refugee from Uganda, Manji grew up in Vancouver, where she attended a public school and an Islamic religious school. She later became a television journalist and visiting fellow at Yale University.
It was during her time at the Islamic religious school that she asked her teacher, “Why can’t women read prayer?” and “Where is the proof of (a) Jewish plot against Islam?,” among other tough questions.
Throughout her speech, Manji encouraged Muslims and non-Muslims to recreate the spirit of ijtihad, “Islam’s tradition of independent reasoning.”
According to Manji, “one thing we must accept . is that in the Quran there is plenty of room for debate.” She said that according to the Quran, women have the right to choose if they will get married, Jesus is called “the messiah” and the “sovereign role of Jews in the holy land” is validated.
The problem, as Manji sees it, is that even people who describe themselves as moderate Muslims accept the Quran as unchangeable and final. This, Manji says, does not allow room for ijtihad.
“Islam itself once exuded pluralism,” Manji said. “(There is) no reason, save for pure politics, that we cannot have (pluralism) again.”
One of the most controversial claims Manji made about Islam was that it is reconcilable with homosexuality.
“If (God) did not wish to make me a lesbian,” Manji said, “then he would have made someone else in my place.”
This statement sparked controversy during the question-and-answer period following the lecture.
In response to concerns that Manji was belittling homosexuality as something that was a lesser choice or not a choice at all, Manji said, “I accept the possibility that God may reject my same-sex relationship, but I don’t know.” She continued, “We as human beings don’t know the truth. What we can do is argue and not play God.”
She included all religions in her lecture, not just Islam. “Even Buddhism has extremisms,” she said, “but don’t ask me how that works.”
“People in the West are taking multiculturalism literally,” Manji said. She felt that literalism would turn multiculturalism into a doctrine that “compels us to abandon our critical spirit.”
She called on the audience to support what it believed was right despite the consequences.
“Yes, you will be called a racist,” she said. “Get used to it. But that doesn’t mean you have to reconcile with it.”
Manji said she has been called a racist and worse. She said that she routinely gets threats and has bulletproof windows on her house.
Regarding the presence of Campus Police at her lecture, Manji said, “I don’t live in fear but I am responsible for the people around me.”
After the lecture, Manji signed copies of her book “The Trouble With Islam Today.” Even students and faculty members who did not stay to get a book signed remained to debate.
“I respected her humor and as a feminist,” Nicole Grieco, senior English major and ISO member, said. “But I don’t see the climate of too much tolerance (Manji talked about).” Grieco said she didn’t see the benefit of bringing a lecturer who was going to speak out against Islam to a predominantly white and Christian campus.
Many ISO members felt that the College had a “political agenda” in inviting Manji to speak.
Harris said she disagreed that there was any political agenda behind choosing Manji. “(The College) wants to challenge our campus community to think critically about some of the things going on in our world,” she said. “This is just another example of that challenge.”
“I hope that at a college campus, spirited discourse and inquiry would be a goal and not something to be avoided,” Magda Manetas, director of Student Life and a member of the lecture series’s selection committee, said.
Despite protests, many enjoyed the lecture.
Noel Ramirez, junior women’s and gender studies and communication studies major and president of PRISM, a group dedicated to educating the campus on issues of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, said that the lecture opened his mind. He liked Manji’s idea of rediscovering your spine and said that “students at (the College) have always been inclined to say ‘That’s not my battle.'”
“I understood where she was coming from,” Amanda Kita, freshman secondary education/chemistry major, said. She said that the political debate at the lecture was “extremely interesting.”
Manji insisted that she did not want to identify with a political party. “The left can be as vicious and narrow-minded as the right,” she said.
Nina Verrochi, junior international studies major, disagreed with the lecture. “She was too unwilling to listen to other opinions,” she said. “I feel like she’s narrowing the interpretation (of the Quran) for all Muslims.”
Manji welcomed the criticism.
“I loved the tension. I loved the dissent,” she said. “This is what a college campus is supposed to be about.”
She said that she has “rarely encountered the kind of vigorous back-and-forth” she found at the College. “This is the pluralism I’m talking about,” she said.