Muslim reformer named CCLP senior fellow

On the 14th anniversary of 9/11, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy is pleased to announce its new senior fellow for the 2015-16 year, the international bestselling author and Muslim reformer, Irshad Manji.

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The New York Times called Ms. Manji “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” A faithful Muslim who openly advocates equality for women and minorities, she practices “moral courage – doing the right thing in the face of one’s fears.” After publishing two seminal books about why and how to achieve liberal reform within Islam, Ms. Manji founded the Moral Courage Project at New York University. She will now build the West Coast presence of Moral Courage at USC Annenberg.

In particular, Ms. Manji will work with the CCLP team to engage audiences about her next book as well as a groundbreaking TV series that she is currently filming with the Los Angeles producer Entertainment One. “In the show,” she says, “we’re deploying the message of moral courage to de-radicalize sympathizers of ISIS and similar violent ideologies. Since their message is global, ours has to be, too. I can’t imagine a more cutting-edge place than USC Annenberg from which to develop savvy digital strategy for the greater good.”

“We are thrilled that the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy will serve as a home for Irshad Manji’s work,” said CCLP Director and University Professor Geoffrey Cowan. “She continues to produce books and films of international importance, and her Moral Courage Project will be a terrific learning lab for USC Annenberg students.”

Social change media is Ms. Manji’s passion and pedigree. In 1998, as a host at Toronto’s most popular broadcaster, Citytv, she launched QueerTelevision, the world’s first program on commercial airwaves to explore LGBT cultures. PlanetOut.com also streamed it, making QueerTelevision among the first Web shows in history. Ms. Manji’s latest media venture is Moral Courage TV, the YouTube channel that features individuals who are risking personal and professional backlash so they can improve their societies. Last year, Moral Courage TV won the Ron Kovic Peace Prize, in honor of the Vietnam vet who became an anti-war activist and inspired the Oliver Stone movie, Born on the Fourth of July.

In-between these media initiatives, Ms. Manji created the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, Faith Without Fear. It chronicles her journey to convince fellow Muslims that questioning religious authorities is necessary – and possible. She has scaled this effort through her charitable foundation, “Project Ijtihad” (pronounced ij-tee-had), named for Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking, dissent, debate and re-interpretation. Its main initiative, the Guidance Team, is an online network of advisors who mentor young people to speak their truths out loud. Being digital, the Guidance Team has international reach, empowering vulnerable youth in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Irshad Manji came to the digital world through the printed word. Her books are banned in some countries and are bestsellers in more. She has written The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2011). They are translated into a total of 34 languages. Her next book will guide readers of every religion (and none) to become “gutsy global citizens,” equipping them with the moral courage to turn conflict into opportunities for honest conversation and diversity of thought. She believes that “diversity of thought is the key to becoming truly innovative, yet it’s the hardest thing to accomplish in an era of hyper-polarization. That’s because the human ego is afraid to be wrong – or, more accurately, to be judged wrong. Developing moral courage in ourselves is the way forward.”

An educator at heart, Ms. Manji teaches moral courage at New York University, Human Condition Labs and other arenas worldwide. She also brings her message of moral courage to the airwaves, frequently appearing on networks such as Al Jazeera, CNN, MSNBC and HBO. When not formally teaching, mentoring, writing, or filming, she is speaking with audiences as varied as Amnesty International and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

African by birth, Canadian by citizenship and American by immersion, Ms. Manji recently moved from New York to Los Angeles to be with her fiancée. “I’m still figuring out how to have a personal and social life,” she notes of her schedule. “But now I have a powerful incentive: the bliss of living in beautiful Southern California with the love of my life.”

Ms. Manji confesses to being on a mission – one that lives up to the public recognition she has already earned. Oprah Winfrey gave her the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction.” The World Economic Forum has selected her a Young Global Leader. And later this year, she will visit Capitol Hill to accept the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize, named for the late U.S. Congressman who worked tirelessly to raise genocide awareness. As Irshad Manji writes in Allah, Liberty and Love, “When my family stepped onto the precious soil of Canada, we were gifted freedom. I’m obliged to use this gift for the dignity of those who don’t yet enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, or expression.”