Engage, Don’t Assume

Irshad Manji shares how moral courage bridges divides and builds community

For author and educator Irshad Manji, “moral courage” means choosing to do the right thing in the face of our fears.

This requires the ability to take control of your ego, so that you aren’t more fearful of the person or group on the other side of the issue than you actually need to be. By doing this, it’s possible to share multiple perspectives, especially on polarizing issues that need solutions.

“We fear being judged as stupid, ignorant, evil, inadequate, or just plain wrong. So instead of opening ourselves up to a conversation that allows for different points of view to be heard … we won’t even wait to be offended; we’re now pre-offended,” explains Manji.

Irshad Manji

Manji spoke about moral courage when she visited Edmonton in June to lead a conversation called “From Polarization to Collaboration,” presented by Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series. She was also keynote ECF’s annual luncheon that month.

“The skills of moral courage equip people to turn contentious issues into constructive conversations for the sake of healthy teamwork,” says Manji. In a province like Alberta, this is important because “people who have convictions, cling strongly to those convictions.”

That shows up in politics, whether you’re conservative or progressive, adds Manji, leading to a cycle of destruction that looks like: “Even if I don’t know all that I stand for, I do know that I am not you because I hate what you stand for.”

This is where moral courage skills help people to engage. Manji points to an example in Utah to illustrate how this works.

“Utah, like Alberta, is a very polarized place. (There are) lots of people of faith and lots of secular progressives as well, and each feels under siege from the other,” she says.

Equality Utah is the state’s leading proponent of LGBTQ civil rights and advocacy. Recently, the Utah legislature considered loosening a 2020 ban on conversion therapy for minors, a practice that seeks to talk 2SLGBTQIA+ youth out of their sexual orientations and identities.

The leaders of Equality Utah took a four-month training course from Manji’s Moral Courage Project about how to collaborate with others under dire circumstances, and were able to successfully address the fears of Republican legislators.

“They realized (those legislators) were not hateful of queer people. They just had a number of myths that needed to be clarified,” says Manji. “And because Equality Utah was willing to get to know them as people rather than label them as bigots or dinosaurs … the Republican legislators came to see that the Equality Utah folks were not demons.”

Both sides managed to find common ground, which allowed the parties to ensure conversion therapy remained outlawed in Utah. The goal of Manji’s work – turning contentious issues into constructive conversations and shared action – speaks to the ability to understand where someone is coming from. Even if you don’t agree with their views or experiences, you can still show respect by asking them sincere questions and listening to learn instead of to win.

“While it starts with individual relationships, those relationships can be built into something much bigger than just one-on-ones,” says Manji. That’s where the importance of community comes in, and the ability to understand the power of individuals, as members of a wider community, to face challenges and come up with solutions.

“When we engage one another rather than assume about each other, we’ll replace prejudice — pre-judgement — with curiosity and humanity.”

This story comes from the Summer 2023 edition of Legacy in Action.