Friday, April 12, 2019
Reflection on City Club Forum with Irshad Manji
by Gulnar Feerasta, Program Director, LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland
As someone who has followed Irshad Manji for many years, I was very excited to have the opportunity to listen to her live at the City Club forum. I have to admit that I walked in with a preconceived notion of what I was going to hear. What I walked out with, however, was unexpected food for thought and more clarity around my own definition of what it means to be truly inclusive.
During my undergrad years, as a young muslim woman of color, (I can already hear Irshad chiding me about labels) I found in Irshad someone who was able to give voice to many of the frustrations and fears I was experiencing in post 9/11 America — from racial profiling to profound shame that people who claimed to share the same faith as me would commit such atrocities. I was drawn to what Irshad was saying because where I was at that time in my own understanding of my faith, it made sense that what I viewed as a very patriarchal religion would of course need reform and a healthy infusion of feminism.
As I began to delve into my own exploration of my faith however, I came to recognize that I was directing my frustration at the wrong thing. It is not the faith that needs reformation but rather the people and the systems they create — at least in my opinion. The Islam that is often portrayed by the media and spouted by extremists is not the Islam that I know or have ever experienced. It is, therefore, the way that the faith is being interpreted and the way that it is being used to justify oppression, misogyny, and injustice that needs to be reformed and rectified.
This leads me to the present and hearing Irshad speak. When I walked in to the room, I expected Irshad to be her usual fiery, activist self. I wasn’t sure what the conversation was going to be exactly about, but I think I expected to hear something related to the increase in Islamophobia and hate crimes over the last few years. I will admit at first I felt a little deflated that the conversation was instead more focused around how to create respectful dialoge and conversation, even with people who are openly racist, but as the conversation went on, I found myself really rethinking some of my own instant reactions to things that people say.
I have spent a week now mulling over Irshad’s suggestion that we check our initial reaction to “call someone out” for what we perceive as bigoted, racist, or hateful, etc. — in short, to stop labeling — and instead take a moment to ask why? Asking the other person, what led them to their opinion or beliefs? I’ll be honest, at first I felt that this was another form of “respectability politics.” I found myself saying “but why do we who are often oppressed and discriminated against, having to do all the work? Why is the onus always on us?” Frankly, the answer to that is this — because we are the ones who want to see change. The people who often spout the hate and bigotry also often represent the status quo; they are often not as impacted by the hate, discrimination, and bigotry as we are and, therefore, they are quite happy with the way things are and don’t feel the urgency for change as we do. So if we want change we will have to do it ourselves.
As I thought about all of this, I felt disappointed and a part of me rebelled against this notion. The desire to give in to the prevailing “call out” and “cancel” culture is strong and it does feel good in the moment, but I had to ask myself, “What does this truly achieve?” The truth is, it doesn’t do anything to create the kind of long-term change I want to see take place. Rather what it does is the opposite, because it puts people on the defensive, it makes them tune out and we reach the point where we are right now as a society — deeply divided and unable to engage in civil discourse.
This leads me to social justice. Once I started questioning my gut reaction, I couldn’t help but think about my role as an advocate for social justice and what that means. As I have spent time reflecting on what it means to strive for social justice, I have gained more clarity on what being an advocate means to me. For me, it means recognizing and celebrating diversity, being inclusive, and creating a pluralistic society. These things cannot happen without creating space at the table for a diversity of viewpoints — even ones you don’t agree with. Granted, you may try to have conversations with people to understand where they’re coming from and to explain your point of view and, at the end of the day, you may not have moved the needle at all. In those cases, you just have to walk away because some people just are racist or bigoted. However, the point is to withhold judgement (and labeling) until you have a conversation because more often than not, people are capable of empathy; and when you can connect with people and help them understand the harm they are causing, you can certainly start moving the needle even if it is one person at a time. But if we are all doing it, then the needle will move much faster. The most important thing is creating the space to let it happen.