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‘Moral Courage: Now More Than Ever’

Irshad Manji, founder and director of the Moral Courage Project, urged students to do the right thing in the face of their fears.

Irshad Manji was 14 years old when she asked her Islamic school teacher why Muslims couldn’t be friends with Jews or Christians.

“I truly came from a place of wanting to wrap my head around this,” Manji told a crowded Lee Chapel on Values Day on Tuesday, Sept. 26. “But my Islamic school teacher took this latest question as nothing more than a challenge to his authority, and so he lost it.

“He said to me, ‘Look, either you believe or you get out! And, if you get out, get out for good!’”

Manji stormed out of the Saturday religious class, but she never left Islam. She later wrote two books, “The Trouble with Islam Today” (2004) and “Allah, Liberty and Love” (2011) that helped to fuel an Islam reform movement.

As she traveled around the world on book tours, she heard from many others who struggled with the dogma of their own faiths, whether Jewish or Christian. Even members of social justice movements and atheists talked about the pressure to conform to group views.

panoramic of crowded Lee Chapel

The Opening Session and Keynote Address filled Lee Chapel during Values Day, an annual tradition that emphasizes Stetson’s core values of personal growth, intellectual development and global citizenship.

“That is why I’m so passionate about practicing moral courage, which means doing the right thing in the face of your fears,” said Manji, Founder and Director of the Moral Courage Project.

“What is it that most of us fear? Regardless of the issue and regardless of the relationship, most of us fear being judged, especially being judged negatively. That’s why so many people go with the flow, just do what their friends are doing …,” she said.

“Moral courage: now more than ever.”

Manji urged students to live by their own moral code, but also to listen with empathy to people on the opposing side of an issue. Removing the walls of suspicion between groups in a deeply divided America would allow both sides to be heard, understood and respected. And that difficult dialogue could lead to lasting change, she said.

“Ultimately if one side in a two-sided discussion doesn’t feel heard, what you can expect is more tribalism, more polarization and eventually backlash. Think about how all of this applies to what is going on in American today,” she said.

Her keynote address came during the Opening Session for Values Day, an annual tradition at Stetson in which classes are canceled for the day, allowing students to take part in workshops, community service and other events that emphasis the university’s core values of personal growth, intellectual development and global citizenship.

Irshad Manji and Eshtemoh Morgan on stage of Lee Chapel

Irshad Manji talks with Music student Eshtemoh Morgan ’20 after his performance of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

Stetson President Wendy B. Libby, Ph.D., said the crowd in Lee Chapel on Tuesday morning was the largest one that she’s seen on Values Day in her nine years as president. Music student Eshtemoh Morgan ’20 sang and played his guitar for a beautiful performance of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a song requested by Manji.

Libby and officials with the Peace Corps also announced a new partnership to bring an undergraduate certificate program to Stetson called Peace Corps Prep, which prepares students for Peace Corps service and careers in international development.

Afterward, Antoinette Moore, a first year student majoring in molecular biology, joined students for a Global Citizenship Fair on the Stetson Green. Students took in the displays about travel abroad and information about interning with local charities and nonprofits. Moore and her friend, Kennedy Ryder, said they loved Manji’s speech.

Two friends standing arm in arm.

Friends and fellow first year students Antoinette Moore, left, and Kennedy Ryder take in the Global Citizenship Fair on the Stetson Green on Tuesday.

“Her speech really opened my mindset to something new and something that I can actually relate to,” Moore said, “because even though I am Christian, I don’t really conform to all the Christianity ideas, so for her message to show how she stepped out of her boundaries and her comfort zone, that inspires me to do the same.”

-Cory Lancaster