News From Masters

Students Engage in Moral Courage Conversations with Renowned Educator
Posted 01/05/2018 10:00AM

Irshad Manji, a Canadian educator, author and reformist Muslim, engaged students in lively and informative discussions about moral courage during a visit to Masters this week. 

Ms. Manji is founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, an educational initiative that helps young people make values-based decisions. She spoke to Middle School students, visited classes and met with faculty during her visit.

During a Middle School assembly in Doc Wilson Hall on Wednesday, Ms. Manji used an anecdote about an unsettling childhood experience to launch a discussion about the meaning of moral courage. When she was in grade 9, she said, she walked into the classroom of her English teacher, a Jewish man, and saw swastikas drawn with chalk covering the blackboard. “I’m sorry to say that I just took my seat,” she said.

Her teacher came into the room, silently erased the swastikas and sat down, his eyes welling with tears. After class, Ms. Manji said, she told him she was sorry about the swastikas, as she “knew they were symbols of hate.”

But noting that she had done nothing when she saw the swastikas, Ms. Manji said, “I did not do the right thing at that moment.” 

What followed was a thought-provoking discussion with the students about what constitutes moral courage, and what they might have done in the situation that Ms. Manji described. 

“Moral courage is about taking risks to do things for the right reasons...that will change things and affect others in a positive way,” said one student.

Another student conceded that in the swastika situation she probably would have been too “petrified” to immediately erase the offensive symbols.

“That’s so true,” Ms. Manji said. “Our fears overtake rationality in the moment.” To counteract that immediate reaction, she advised the students, “Just stop and take a breath” to give yourself time to figure out an appropriate response. 

Referring to a swastika, eighth grader Clyde Lederman said, “This symbol is meant to dehumanize people.” He spoke of the need to find a “restorative justice” solution to such incidents.

Ms. Manji continued the discussion by bringing Clyde to the front of the room and asking him to elaborate on the notion of restorative justice. She also explained that her reason for inaction after encountering the blackboard swastikas was that “I was afraid of being ridiculed, mocked and teased” by her classmates. 

While ridicule is temporary, Clyde observed, the harmful effects of doing nothing when witnessing actions that dehumanize others last a long time. “We need to jump over that barrier,” he added. “We need to remove the stain. Otherwise, it stays there forever.”

In addition to her work with the Moral Courage Project, Ms. Manji has written several books, including the international bestseller The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith and Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom. Her articles have appeared in many publications, and she has addressed audiences ranging from Amnesty International to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The World Economic Forum recognized her as a Young Global Leader, while The New York Society for Ethical Culture gave her its Ethical Humanist Award. She is also a recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award. 

Ms. Manji created the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, Faith without Fear, which follows her “journey around the world to reconcile Islam and freedom.”

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