That is the question posed by The Mark contributor Zachary Kuehner:
Professor Manji is the founder of the “Moral Courage Project at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, which aspires to “teach young leaders to break silences for the greater good.” She has gained significant notoriety for speaking out against radical Islam and for encouraging citizens, both within and outside the Muslim community, to confront and oppose extremist elements that conflict with the basic values that western democracies hold dear. It is, I admit, rather easy to agree with her. Many of her arguments – judging cultural traditions by their impact on a community’s most vulnerable members instead of simply taking the word of self-appointed “community leaders”, for instance – are both practical and compelling. But despite her commendable efforts and passionate rhetoric, something didn’t sit quite right.
For one, the definition of “moral courage,” according to the project’s official website, is: “…the willingness to be original, unique, and different from everyone else in your group.” Perhaps I’m dwelling on a distinction without a difference, but I would submit that contrarian or oppositional views are not in themselves necessarily courageous or moral – to say nothing of originality, uniqueness, or different-ness. Of course opposition to one’s “group” can be dangerous (in the social sense and, often, in the physical sense) and thus require a certain amount of “chutzpah.” But neither of these conditions is sufficient to call something morally courageous. David Irving’s historical revision of the Holocaust certainly goes against his “group” and could therefore be considered a courageous position, but who would claim that this makes it morally so?
It’s a worthy and thought-provoking piece that you should go check out (The Mark is actually a great source of opinion-based journalism). I will respond below the fold:
I suppose the first thing I should probably say is that Zachary and I were classmates during undergrad, which is how I know, for example, that his last name rhymes with “cleaner” rather than “crooner”. Insofar as I am inclined to agree with him because we have a personal association, I suppose you could say that I am biased. I think I’m more biased by the fact that he’s a good writer and I agree with his perspective, but whatever – conflict of interest stated.
Zachary’s argument reaches what I think is its thesis when he asks this question:
In her words, reforming Islam involves distinguishing between what is “God-made” and what is “man-made”.
Ironically, it seems like it is professor Manji who is shying away from perhaps the most important questions: Is Islam itself not man-made? Not just the bad parts, not just the things that are extreme, but the whole racket? Does religion of any kind really stand up to those “hard questions”?
And of course the answer is that Islam is just as man-made as the microwave, although with much less science (and far more dangerous). However, I think Zachary stops short of making an important point: defending one’s principles against opposition is morally courageous. Even when you’re wrong. Standing up to defend an unpopular position is a brave thing to do, and is only tangentially related to whether or not your position is true. If we wish to laud courage as good per se, then David Irving is indeed deserving of praise.
I don’t think, though, that courage qualifies as laudable simply on its face. When courage, moral or otherwise, is paired with intellectual honesty, it is a profoundly righteous force. That is what separates a Martin Luther King Jr. from a David Duke – they both stood up for their sincerely-held convictions in the face of overwhelming popular dissent; however, only one dealt honestly with his critics and engaged their arguments factually and philosophically. Provided you are the kind of person who is dispositionally comfortable with public opposition, then courage in the face of criticism is not that impressive a feat. Do we describe Chad Kreuger as being particularly courageous for continuing to write Nickelback albums? Maybe some do, but that is completely unrelated to whether or not his music is any good.
It is this second question that Dr. Manji fails to address – whether or not blind moral courage is a good in and of itself. As always, any position proffered as truth should be viewed through a skeptical lens. Rigorously examining Islam as an anthropological or historical exercise is indeed worthwhile, and having the temerity to engage in that kind of scrutiny in the face of overwhelming opposition from imams and hard-liners is a very courageous step. Insofar as it requires a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads with integrity and academic honesty, it is an exercise deserving of praise.
That being said, “reforming” Islam from a theological perspective is ultimately a waste of time, no matter how ‘courageous’ we may find it. Unless you are willing to abandon the idea that the Qur’an is infallible and that Mohammad was the perfect messenger of Allah (should the evidence point that way), then how can this process be anything other than an arbitrary exercise in cherry-picking? If you are willing to throw aside those tenets, then what sort of Islam are you left with? If you vouchsafe these maxims from scrutiny, how ‘courageous’ can you really claim to be?
Anyway, those were my impressions after reading. Feel free to go to the Mark and add your own!
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