Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. She is the author of several books including, Allah, Liberty and Love.

Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. She is the author of several books including, Allah, Liberty and Love.


What is the background of the Green Revolution in Iran?

I have a number of informants on the ground, in Tehran especially. What I found so interesting about the Green Revolution, such as it was, is that like most revolutions it has been percolating for a very long time. In fact, my first introduction to MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” came from a young Iranian, who advised me to read it five years ago so that I could effectively push back on those politically correct folks in the West who said, “People in this part of the world have no right to comment on what is happening in parts of the world such as Iran.” His encouragement to read an American document that really stands for universal human aspiration to freedom; I found pretty emblematic of the mindset of the young Iranians today. I take a great deal of hope from that.

Do Iranian hardliners need a perpetual enemy to unify the country?

In any authoritarian regime — I don’t care if it is in a Muslim country, a non-Muslim country, or even for that matter a constitutionally secular country — every authoritarian regime needs a so-called “foreign element;” a so-called “outsider” to push back on in order to frame its legitimacy to its population. The interesting thing today is that precisely because the World-Wide Web allows people to peer into the lives of so-called “others,” many people under the sledgehammer of an authoritarian regime now see that it doesn’t have to be this way. So dictators are having to learn to be much more subtle and sophisticated in framing the enemy.

Why are Americans skeptical of Iranian claims that they only want nuclear technology for peaceful purposes?

We have reason to be skeptical of claims that particularly nuclear technology will only be used for peaceful purposes. After all, authoritarian regimes — whether in Iran or elsewhere — are not known to be promoters of peace. Now MLK, two generations ago, pointed out that there is such a thing as negative peace, which is merely the absence of tension. And there is such a thing as positive peace, which is the presence of justice. That is the kind of peace, the presence of justice, Islamist authoritarians tend to gravitate to, because the word “justice” is a very important concept within the faith of Islam. A lot of people of the younger generations are now asking question about; “What do you mean by justice? Do you mean hating on the enemy? Or do you mean actually providing our population with opportunities; opportunities for freedom, dignity, and for prosperity.” And the fact that they’re asking questions about an otherwise comforting word such as “justice” is something that western leaders ought to be paying attention to.

Who makes up the political opposition in Iran? How much power do they have?

The opposition is a movement, it is not a particular party. Depending on when you’re asking the question, the movement will consist of primarily younger people, academics, merchants, and folks who aspire to the middle class or who have already been middle class and as a result of inflation and so forth, now find themselves lacking the prosperity and opportunity they once did. How much power do they have? Hard to say. It is shifting all the time. I think I can say this with certitude: The opposition movement will have less power than it should, unless leaders and opinion influencers in this part of the world are willing to recognize the opposition movement as legitimate. They actually do need us, who make up the court of public opinion, to be expressing our verdicts in favor of positive of justice at every turn. Because that, in essence, is the only leverage that the opposition movement in Iran actually has; is public opinion worldwide.

How do Iranian people see the sanctions? How have they affected the economy?

The sanctions are viewed not monolithically, but with mixed feelings. On the one hand, those Iranian who aspire to freedom — which is most of the population — need these sorts of measures to sort of bear upon a government that otherwise is intractable. At the same time, these sanctions are definitely affecting quality of life and cost of living for many Iranians, especially for those Iranian who want to use freedom for entrepreneurial purposes. So it is a puzzle and nobody has the right answer; the only thing that I consistently hear from my informants on the ground in Iran is that military intervention would be the worst of all possible moves precisely because it would give the regime in Iran what many consider a legitimate reason to rally people against the West. And that is not something the new generation would want to be a part of, but of course would feel the need to be a part of in order to assert national pride.

What outcome does the Iranian Leadership Council hope for?

It’s a bit of a myth. In fact it’s a very big myth; that the leadership in Iran is somehow united or uniform. They’re absolutely not. Debates, dissent, and a great deal of rancor run through the various structures of leadership in Iran. So what kinds of outcome are the seeking? Frankly, it depends on who you ask. There are hardcore religious extremists who would love to hasten the advent of the 12th Imam the Mahdi in order to have that showdown with America, Israel, and what is broadly termed the “West.” Make no mistake, there are much more rational leadership-types in that country who don’t buy into the mythology of the 12th Imam and simply want to advance Iran as the most important Shia power in the world, but more than that want to be recognized as the most important Muslim power in the world. Once again, that is for reasons of asserting, not just national pride, but also the dignity of this minority sect within Islam — the Shia — who have been politically and in so many other ways beaten down for centuries by the dominant sect in Islam, the Sunnis. So a lot is wrapped up in even the rational decisions being made by different people in the leadership structure of Iran.

Which direction should U.S. policy makers follow for Egypt in the coming year?

I would advice U.S. policy leaders to be far more emphatic in tying foreign aid to human rights. I remember being in Cairo a few years ago observing what were then the biggest demonstrations against the corruption of the Mubarak regime. And sitting down with a number of young democracy activists, independently from each other, one of their biggest grievances against the U.S. is that the aid coming from this country was not going where the U.S. government says it’s going. Rather, it’s being funneled into hush money for retired generals. So now, in the wake of many of these Arab uprisings, if we do accept that these uprising have been about curbing, if not eliminating or exposing, corruption; than it would be entirely in the spirit of this anti-corruption sentiment, that the U.S. would insist on seeing measurable outcomes on human rights being achieved as it makes its foreign aid decisions.

Can you tell us more about the struggle for power between the youth, military, and Muslim Brotherhood?

In the early days of the Tahrir Square movement, the military was seen to be a friend of the secular democrats who really instigated these uprisings over  many years. There remains a great deal of suspicion, more of an inner debate than one that is publicly talked about, that the military itself is an element of corruption. And indeed, we found out since the uprising forced Mubarak out of power, that the military is first and foremost interested in power for the sake of power. What I hear from a lot of democracy activists is that they fear the country has become more of a Pakistan, which is a military with a state, rather than a state with a military.

Under the Muslim Brotherhood, there isn’t much hope that is going to change because the Muslim Brotherhood needs the military to be a legitimizing force. So these next many years will help clarify what the military’s role is going to be; martial rule or, what most people are hoping will be, civilian rule. But, if it is civilian rule, that means the military will need to take a serious step back and, given how much of the economy it owns and how badly the economy is off now in Egypt, there isn’t much hope being held out that the role of the military will shrink.

At what point did fall of Mubarak seem imminent?

I think the fall of the Mubarak Government didn’t really feel imminent or inevitable until it actually happened. And that’s one of the reasons, despite a very justified suspicion of the military, that when the Mubarak regime did collapse even those who had a hand in ousting it couldn’t believe it. Never in their wildest rational dreams was this something that they actually thought could happen. One of the big mistakes that the secular democrats made, by their own admission, is that they failed to take the time to win over the poor. And when you are as poor as they are in parts of Egypt, what you ultimately need for the sake of survival is stability and order; you hang onto what little you have. And that is a key reason that the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in the wake of the Mubarak regime; they offered structure, whereas the more liberal and secular forces couldn’t because they didn’t have the track record that the Muslim Brotherhood did in providing social services and micro-job opportunities. That’s why it is going to take a while, why we need to have patience to see the full fruits of the Arab Spring realized.

Who is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood is not monolithic, but the leadership is primarily made up of engineers, doctors and paradoxically enough, individuals who have studied in places like the U.S. and have taken lessons from the U.S. in framing political arguments and asserting rule of law. And therefore, those who run the Muslim Brotherhood are eminently choose-y about which of the principles of U.S. democracy they will combine with Islam and which ones they will leave behind.

I remember speaking with a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood about five years ago and asking him what he thought about American democracy, having studied in this country, and he said, “It’s brilliant.” He was stopped by a cop for speeding, and the police officer let him off with a warning having engaged with this man in a dignified conversation about the need to pay attention to the speed limit. This gentleman said it was that dignity which he had never felt in his own country of Egypt. When I asked him, “If the Muslim Brotherhood ever came to power, would it want to confer that kind of dignity on the people?” He said, “Of course.” And I said, “Can that happen under Shari’a law?” He simply grinned and moved onto the next question.

Is the Libyan intervention a new model for United States intervention?

I don’t think that there is an ideal model for U.S. intervention. What the U.S. had when it intervened in Libya, that it hasn’t had in a while, is international support. And part of the reason it had that support was that it waited and waited, until it was screamingly obvious that one could not wait any longer. And so, NATO forces legitimized this kind of intervention, and the fact that allied forces won legitimized the intervention. Now that may sound obvious, but if allied forced had not won, or if we were still struggling with Gaddafi, would there be an appetite among the American people for this kind of intervention? I would suggest not. I think we were very lucky.

What we don’t yet know; is really who is the opposition to Gaddafi in Libya? Who are they? Surely there are rebels. But are they the kind of rebels who, once in power, would undermine democracy through Islamism? I remember feeling quite forlorn in the days following the death of Gaddafi, when I learned that dark skinned migrants who were working in Libya for a number of years were now being targeted by the transitional institutions, being targeted on the basis of their skin color. And so if what we get is either Islamist or secular forces who embrace this notion of Arab supremacy, I’m not certain that democracy will see the light of day. And so we have to be vigilant, whatever the election outcomes are, we have to be vigilant of the more subtle forces that allow authoritarianism to prevail.

Do you see a parallel between the changes we are seeing in Myanmar to what is happening in the Arab Spring?

I think that there is a broader pattern whether we are talking Myanmar, the revolution for democracy in Serbia, what is happening in Egypt, or those upset with the increasingly authoritarian governments in Malaysia and Indonesia. What we are finding is that a new generation is looking for the kinds of freedoms that would allow them to make choices for themselves as individuals, rather than as nations or as groups. But here is something that we are finding; that once those revolutions take place, there is no coherent vision for what happens the day after. And, in many ways, that is a failure of education. I say this as a professor of leadership myself, this is a failure of education. This generation worldwide is embracing, in very manifest terms and very tangible terms, is critical thinking. But what we have not yet fostered is what can be called generative thinking, which is the kind of thinking that allows people to dismantle what doesn’t work and then reassemble those pieces into a vision that can work. That is the challenge of the 21st century.