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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Don't Label Me

An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times

Irshad Manji

St. Martin's Press



Lily won George over.

George is my editor. I proposed a book to him about healing the divides that are tearing apart these United States. Lily is my dog. Or was. She died unexpectedly during the writing of this book. I miss her fiercely, but I’ve come to terms with her physical absence because Lil herself recently consoled me with the news that she’s fantastic. Nothing less than incredible. We can take heart that the conversation between me and Lil will also illuminate her lessons for the rebirth of America.

I met Lily at an adoption event near Los Angeles. Having suffered a health crisis, and being slow in the self-care department, I didn’t realize how much healing I needed—or that Ms. Lil could show me the way. To any lover of animals, the soothing effect of our furry children is self-evident. Not to me. I grew up terrified of dogs and continued to picture them as ferocious beasts. My spouse, Laura, a proud parent of four rescue pups, urged me to evolve.

Given that I teach “moral courage”—doing the right thing in the face of our fears—I had to try. Could I credibly ask others to expand their moral imaginations if I wouldn’t go first? Then again, teaching people to be courageous, for as glam as it sounds, had worn me out. On both counts, adopting a dog seemed the right thing to do. Laura and I brought Lily home that day.

But running away from human beings doesn’t guarantee that you’ll flee your frustrations with them. As Lily and I bonded, I’d confide to her my despair about humanity: that so many of us show so little of it.

I reached this conclusion reluctantly, after three decades of writing (and fighting) about identity. One of my books made the case that my faith of Islam has to be reformed. It offended more than a few of my fellow Muslims, who frequently reacted with personal insults and, on occasion, with physical threats. They jolted me to confront the emotions behind who we think we are.

My follow-up book reinterpreted Islam for liberal-minded Muslims. In it, I showed that the Qur’an, Islam’s scripture, encourages questioning. Strident atheists joined the chorus of the offended, some anointing me the latest apologist of a “pedophile” prophet. Evidently, feelings can do the thinking of those who are rational as much as those who are faithful.

The combat zone had long been my comfort zone. No more. Wanting a divorce from my species, I slumped into pessimism and stepped back from the Islam-versus-the-West showdown. Only to behold the next apocalyptic clash: red America versus blue America.

In the lead-up to Donald Trump’s election, Lily had one huffy Mama. I grumbled to her that the home of the brave was anything but. What bravery did it take to let “us” and “them” coagulate into us against them? Even people who called themselves progressive acted as if progress only meant accosting the other side. Good luck changing the world that way. To achieve justice, devotees of justice must change ourselves, I sighed to Lily, and I suggested how that could happen at a time when almost everybody feels besieged.

While I poured out my thoughts, Lily would tilt her head again and again. It was as if she wondered, What are you smoking, Mama? Or, Can you clarify? Or, Have you considered an opposing opinion? Over time, Lil’s questions sent me in search of alternate perspectives—Eastern and Western; scientific and philosophical; radical, liberal, conservative, and populist; each of these a label, and each a reminder that nobody owns the entire truth. More often than not, labels eclipse truth.

This, I learned about Lily’s labels. She was old and she was blind. To love her, rather than love my specious assumptions about her, I had to suspend what I “knew” about Lil merely by how she looked. I had to defang the force of ego, the most pervasive and pernicious power there is. Until I tempered my need to be right all the time, I’d never understand her. I’d continue relying on sterile categories. I’d settle for the fake facts that labels hand to us—not only about Lily but about everybody.

Labels keep us all in our assigned places. At root, that’s why we’re divided. Thus was born the idea to make this book a conversation with Lily.

Enter George, my editor. He’d accepted my plan to write a book on the rupturing of America. I guess I neglected to inform him of the revised plan to feature Lil. Upon receiving my first draft, George flipped. He told me that his “heart sank” and his “head began to ache.” Problem number one: He doesn’t like dogs. Problem number two: He’s sick of books about people and their wise pets. Problem number three: An analysis of the country’s sorry state can’t be serious if it stars a talking mutt.

Still, George had little choice but to read the damned draft. He downed two aspirins and waded in. The following week, I woke up to an exuberant email. Lily had moved George to see how America’s tribal politics can be outwitted by anyone, including the vulnerable.

Lily’s method is a form of mental martial arts. At the heart of it lies the practice of respect. Historically, to “respect” meant to “re-spectate”—to turn back and see again. When we see others with fresh eyes, we subvert static labels. If we do it sincerely, we give others the emotional incentive to do likewise for us. Edwin Markham, a poet laureate of Oregon, captured the border-busting, bridge-building power of respecting one’s detractors. Imagine Lily reciting these words about George:

He drew a circle that shut me out—

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

The title of that poem? “Outwitted.”

Which is what Lily regularly did to me, revealing her power to communicate tough truths with grace. One afternoon, I slathered peanut butter on my lips to lure a kiss from Lil. She closed in on my face, sniffed out the trickery, and waltzed off, preserving her dignity in the teeth of my pathetic scheme.

Without toiling or spinning, Lily exposed the limits of manipulation as a tactic. She gave me a glimpse into what we humans consistently do to each other, planting the seeds of suspicion and eventual backlash.

Lily’s no-nonsense mentoring only started there. Nobody else could have convinced me to stay off social media for two years, during which I discovered the value of time and trust. As she put me through my paces, she got me connecting the dots:

• A rising number of liberal democracies around the world have mega-manipulators at their helm. They wrangle the levers of mass culture, especially social media, to exploit the mistrust that already exists among people.

• Mistrust abounds largely because we the people have been manipulating one another, permitting our leaders to push the bar of integrity even lower.

• Through technology designed to meet our greed for speed, the mistrust is jacked up to emergency levels. Like the teams in a sudden-death playoff, we take refuge in our respective colors.

We resolve to vanquish the other side. We widen the vacuum of public trust, invariably creating the pretext for “strong” dudes to swoop in and restore unity—or uniformity. This is the vintage game of divide-and-conquer, expedited for our time-pressed lives.

The lesson is, people are getting gamed. All of us, regardless of our teams. And our dear leaders won’t stop gaming us until we stop gaming each other.

So effortlessly did Lil teach me this lesson that I found myself drawn into deeper conversation with her. That’s when I discovered the unabashed cleverness of her “moves.” She won over George by intentionally not striving to win. She educated me by letting me educate her. She demonstrated that disagreeing with each other’s ideas never has to mean denying each other’s dignity. My utter pessimism about the human species was outwitted by an old, blind dog.

“Don’t label me,” I can hear Lily exhorting a touch tartly. “I’m more than your labels, Mama, and you’re more than mine. Can we agree on that much?”

In this book, the issues that Lil and I discuss are provocative. A plea to our readers: Before deciding that you’re offended by either of us, kindly pull a Lily. Ask your questions out loud and let us address them in the subsequent pages. For comprehensive footnotes or further context, go to the “Books” tab of my website, There, you’ll find information ranging from scholarly studies and research data to recommended readings, podcasts, and videos.

Of course, how I interpret my sources may not be how you do. Feel free to challenge my perspective. If your views—and the respect with which you communicate them—persuade me to rethink, I’ll update the corresponding footnote and credit you. Send your grace-laced protests to [email protected]

Finally, in the stories I tell, I’ve altered names upon request and published real names otherwise. In one case, I’ve used pseudonyms solely to avoid goading U.S. immigration authorities into complicating my life more than they already have. There are enough wrongful deportations to fight.

Amid the ongoing kookiness of our times, Lily remains my guide. She’ll be yours, too, if you’re willing to see with a new pair of eyes. My respect to all.

Copyright © 2019 by Irshad Manji