Interview with Irshad Manji

Beware of dishonest diversity.

Irshad Manji was born in Uganda, but fled with her family in the early 1970s when Idi Amin expelled non-Africans like her parents, who are of Egyptian and Indian heritage. She eventually settled in the U.S. After two bestsellers critiquing Islamic fundamentalism, her latest book is Don’t Label Me

Philanthropy: The big buzz-phrase in philanthropy right now is “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” How would you advise philanthropists in this area? 

Manji: I’m an advocate of diversity. I love diversity. Diversity is a fact of life. There’s biodiversity, there’s diversity of thought. I’m an immigrant, a Muslim, a lesbian, a woman. I submit to you that God is not a manufacturer of widgets. A majestic creator produces majestic beings. This is a deliciously complex world that we’re living in.

In my book, though, I make a clear distinction between “honest diversity” and “dishonest diversity.” Dishonest diversity is about counting the types of individuals in the room. But honest diversity is about making each individual count. And ensuring that, as we practice diversity, we are not excluding the very people whom we have accused of excluding us. Because payback is not progress.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., said that we should rise to our country’s ideals, rather than stoop to the petty prejudices with which we have all grown up, I cannot emphasize enough that he really did mean all of us. His father at one point urged him not to work with white people. If you work with white people, Daddy King said, they will betray you. 

MLK had to look him in the eye and say: You are doing to white people exactly what you don’t want them doing to us. You are assuming that because they are white, they will have evil intent. I am not going to play by those rules. 

Most white folks in this country have bought King’s vision. It took a long time, but they got there. What slays me is that today, many antiracism activists have undermined that vision. In effect, they have sent the message, “You know what King said about judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin? Forget it. We are going to judge you on the basis of your white skin, or your male gender, or your heterosexuality.”

Philanthropy: California became the first state to require that publicly traded companies headquartered there have women on their boards, and there’s pressure to apply this for foundation boards as well. Any thoughts?  

Manji: It’s positive when people see someone who resembles them in a position of authority. But if that is the only reason such people are appointed to positions of authority, it’s going to backfire, bigtime.

I grew up in Canada, and I became the chief speechwriter for that country’s first female leader of a major political party. It was an open secret that this woman was elected leader for one reason alone: because she is a woman. Party members wanted bragging rights; they wanted to be known as the first to have a female leader. So the celebrations went on. The media coverage was fawning. But it ultimately turned out to be counterproductive. This woman was highly insecure. She knew that she was in her position for the wrong reason, and that she did not have the qualities necessary to lead with a big mind and an open heart. And as a result, the party went down in flames at the next election. 

When somebody is appointed to a position of authority simply because their label is the fashionable one, beware. If you haven’t done your homework, and tested that individual out to ensure that they actually deserve that position, it will come back to haunt you. Also realize that many people in historically marginalized groups do not toe the ideological line that liberals and progressives assume. For that reason too, women and minorities should never be instrumentalized—or used—to advance this or that political outcome. We should all be accorded the dignity of our individuality. 

Here is the bottom line: It’s not diversity of demographics that we ought to use as our metric of inclusion, but diversity of viewpoint. Because if you lead with viewpoint diversity, creating a culture in which freedom of speech is valued, where people will not jump down each other’s throats for a clumsy phrase or an awkward moment, then what you’re doing is saying that everybody in this organization has something to offer. 

Moreover, you will automatically get demographic diversity when you value viewpoint diversity. But if you fixate on demographic diversity, then you are signaling that white straight guys need not apply. Rightly or wrongly, that’s how the reactive human brain takes it. In that case, expect pushback—friction that could have been avoided by treating all people as multi-faceted beings rather than as mascots of this or that tribe. Having viewpoint diversity as your north star is the key to being innovative and inclusive without inflaming the culture wars. 

The government has no business telling businesspeople or philanthropists what numbers, what quotas, they need to meet, for any position. When you impose in that way all you’re doing is instilling an incentive for backlash. It will come back to haunt your version of change. Which is precisely what I think is going on today.

Philanthropy: Another strategy being pushed in philanthropy by activists are directives that a certain percentage of grantmaking must go to certain demographic groups. What are your thoughts? 

Manji: With every fiber in my being I reject the idea of having to check off boxes in order to be considered for funding or inclusion. I just don’t see how greenlining substantially differs from segregation-era practices. I really don’t.

All you are doing is retaining the structure of the very house that you claim you want to dismantle. You are only reinforcing that structure, by using the same tactics people you claim to oppose were using in generations past. It’s a dishonest kind of diversity that actually chips away at pluralism, in the name of revenge. 

Philanthropy: How important do you think it is that the funder of a project reflects the same background as the recipients?

Manji: Labels are so unreliable, so undemocratic. Do I feel someone has to come from the same race, gender, or background, to help someone in need? Not at all. That strikes me as the opposite of pluralism. 

But I do believe it’s vital that funders really “get” the message of the individuals in whom they’re investing. In an earlier chapter of my life, as a Muslim reformer, many non-Muslims would approach me with offers to help. Some, however, were anti-Islam ideologues who listened only to my critiques of Islamic practices but ignored my love for the pillars of the faith. I declined their help because their agenda of exclusion didn’t align with my vision of pluralism. Happily, other non-Muslims appreciated that I was striving to reach a new generation of Muslims and our liberal allies. By caring about where I was coming from, they made for respectful and sustained partners in the cause.

Philanthropy: A donor might find your argument compelling, but voicing it out loud could produce social costs. Can you speak to that?

Manji: I am very aware that donors and other leaders are intimidated by labels such as “racist,” “misogynist,” “homophobe,” “transphobe” that are frequently flung about today. People in positions of status fear having their reputations besmirched. They are told, “Either you see it my way or you don’t care about diversity.”

When someone says that to you, ask them, “What kind of diversity do you mean? Do you mean honest diversity, which is all about engaging and understanding? Or dishonest diversity, which is about labeling? Because you’re right, I don’t care about dishonest diversity. But I passionately care about honest diversity. How about you?”

If we are not equipping people to communicate across lines of disagreement, then they are just going to end up blaming and shaming others who disagree with them. That makes the other side feel unheard, and instills resentment, feeding a vicious cycle of recrimination. The tone becomes toxic, every action gets politicized, and enduring solutions are ignored. Dishonest diversity is about counting the types of individuals in the room. Honest diversity is about making each individual count.

Educators these days are increasingly passionate about instilling a desire in the young for social change. But what they have not done is give their students the skills to seek change constructively. The first, iron-clad, non-negotiable rule should be, “If you want to be heard, you must first be willing to hear.” Curiosity toward other people, about why people believe what they believe, and whether you should believe what you have been taught to believe, are essential to a democracy. 

We are on the road to having a brittle democracy, one that easily snaps. Our public life is increasingly bogged down in arrogance, and calcified, because people are indulging in dogma. That is the greatest enemy of democracy.

Philanthropy: Has private philanthropy enabled you to pursue and further ideas that you would not have otherwise? 

Manji: Very much so. Interestingly, my biggest supporters tend to be individuals and not institutions or foundations. The individuals who give to my projects span the political spectrum. They don’t come from any one side of the ideological or political divide. I am happy to say that of all of the work that I’ve done, I have received support both from liberals and from conservatives. And I want to keep it that way. Because I believe that these ideas reflect common sense and common ground.