What constitutes moral courage?

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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  1. says

    I’ve read two books by Manji: “The Trouble with Islam Today” and “Allah, Liberty & Love”. For what it’s worth, I thought there was sort of an implied message in her writing that part of moral courage was using it to help others, do the right thing, etc. rather than just be different.

    People who act on their moral courage will always encounter disapproval. To have moral courage is to challenge conformity within our own tribes—be they religious, cultural, ideological or professional—and to do so for a more universal good. (Irshad Manji, Allah, Liberty & Love, p. 18)

    But then again, there are times when she does focus more on speaking out, rather than on details about her beliefs, and I find that frustrating. I think one of the main points of her books is that there are Muslims who have allowed the religious leaders to speak on their behalf, have been so concerned about what other Muslims will think of them etc. that they are hesitant to speak up. So, the message of what exactly she believes and is advocating can sometimes take a back seat to her encouraging Muslims to speak out about problems they see in Islam, despite fear of disapproval. She encourages people who are actually against her and who insult her to speak up, because she wants them to read the Qur’an for themselves and so on. I wouldn’t see it as moral courage for someone to defend bigotry, but I suppose her point is to get them to read the book because she thinks they’ll come away with the view that it actually supports equal rights?

    An encouraging part of the book Allah, Liberty, and Love (in my view) were the emails she’s received from people who were also concerned about Islam and the treatment of women, LGBT people, etc. and she offers encouragement.

    One of my disagreements with Manji is, of course, her continued belief in Islam. When I read her books, the parts where she is still putting forward arguments or statements about reforming Islam sound extremely similar to the arguments put forward by Christians who believe in equal rights, etc. There are a lot of general nice statements, but not much argument to back up why she believes it. (This is true moreso for the second book rather than the first, in which her goal really was to convince Muslims there is a problem. In the first, she does make some arguments about the problems in Islam.)

    She quotes some passages in the Qur’an to support her views, but that’s very seldom. One of the passages she really likes is 13:11, which is one of the things she uses to support her statement that Muslims should criticize their own communities. She does tell this story in The Trouble with Islam Today about her experiences in madressa, and how the teacher never answered her questions properly, so she went looking to learn about Islam on her own. (It’s one of those things where I can’t help cheering for her standing up to the madressa teacher.) My guess is that she does really believe in Islam—a version of Islam that, with the exception some minor differences, sounds almost indistinguishable from the more liberal forms of Judaism and Christianity. To me, it reads like a belief in a higher power who is loving, but called by name of whatever particular religion the person identifies with. While I do think she is courageous for doing what she does, I also think she should give more consideration to the arguments about whether Islam is actually true. The irony is, even though she says she came to her views by examining the Qur’an, I think her view is one that will spread if people, frankly, start caring less about what the Qur’an says, rather than seeking to follow it more closely.

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