By: Sohaib Baig
In a society which trains its citizens in the art and philosophy of achieving instant self-gratification, of becoming thoroughly submerged in one’s own bubble of pleasure, it becomes dangerously difficult for one to develop a world consciousness and concern for others. The intensity of this struggle is signified by the fact that one has to cultivate his concern for society without the help of society, and consequently, many will often be left aside to froth around in the artificial sands of their own world. Yet, for the most part, that world too is not even their own, and is rather the mass amalgamation of what the rest of the world (as they know it) is – from idolizing celebrities that they wished they were, to chasing after the will-o’-the-wisp of appearing important and popular in the eyes of other people (assisted through mediums such as Facebook), to engaging in intense debates on the most frivolous of issues that have no actual connection to their own life (including sports), their mind and efforts become wholly tied in a struggle and existence that is not theirs.
Although there are profound exceptions to the portrait painted in the first paragraph, it can be said that instant self-gratification is certainly one of the loudest messages sent out by American culture. Indeed, the lingua franca of popular American culture is actually the entertainment industry with all its various manifestations. The stars who dominate the scene are envied in almost all aspects of their lives, and Americans will feel proud to buy their expensive memorabilia. This is not to say that all Americans have souls made of plastic, as indeed the world does poke holes in their bubbles of life and pleasure – but still, the ubiquity of the concept of (superficial) fun, as manifested in almost all aspects of society, from social networking to buying cars to even finding love, (as promoted by the equally superficial medium of television and visual imagery, which depends more on arousing our base instincts than appealing to rationality) significantly indicates the level of importance Americans attach to the concept of fun, as well as how vulnerable they themselves are to such stimuli.
Tragically, the Muslim community is not immune to such inhibiting cultural influences. The first wave of immigrants, indeed, mostly came to fulfill this very quest, to find the material success that was glamorized for so long in their own home countries. Yet there were a few who actually were passionate for the Ummah (Muslim community), and from their herculean efforts, Islam managed to strengthen as their children were born. Now, as they themselves begin to recede back into old age and return slowly to their Creator, it is their children who are starting to assume responsibility and control the affairs of their communities. Though the older generation still retains a key grip, it should not be long before that too subsides, and leaves the world to their children. Yet for the Ummah to progress forward, these children will also have to move past the thinking that has plagued most of the elder generation, as well as overcome the new challenges presented by American popular culture.
Muslims, in their zeal to “integrate” often become afflicted with the same disorders that affect other Americans. Our attitudes towards love are a clear example of our succumbing to the power of fun. Why does love have to be fun? Tying love with fun actually severely handicaps the power of love, as exemplified by our difficulty in loving someone for the sake of Allah. This often extends dangerously towards our level of love towards Allah and His messenger SAWS – how many times do we lose concentration because we are “bored” in prayer? This attitude also extends to our love of the Ummah: one can gauge the seriousness of the issue by simply looking at how deeply Islamic charities nowadays depend on holding concerts for raising funds for humanitarian causes, and how they sadly have big name Muslim celebrities entertain the Muslim crowds, in order to squeeze out money from the pockets of Muslims. This phenomenon, which has several variations (including basketball tournaments for charity), is extremely telling of the “Ummah consciousness” of a people, and their sheer addiction to fun and self-gratification, where they have to indulge themselves first before coming to the aid of the needy in their own Ummah. It does not seem to carry the same spirit of generosity and urgency when the Prophet (SAWS) said, “Guard from the Fire, even by giving half of a date fruit in charity.”
Social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter serve as another example of this phenomenon. The ideas of fun, frivolity, redundancy, and sheer narcissism promoted by these sites completely redefine our attitudes towards our lives. Before Facebook, one could feel perfectly content to have a sum total of dozen or more friends–but now, 12 looks likes a terrifyingly tiny number, and can become a cause for losing self-esteem. Yet if a person has a thousand friends, they will feel like an accomplished person of great importance and relevance, even if they are doing nothing on the grander scale of contributing to humanity or serving God. The “like” feature also ties into the same concept, serving as nothing more than fuel for narcissists on their personal pages. What is the purpose and ultimate consequence in liking the fact a friend went shopping that day? Equally disturbing is the practice of frequently updating profile pictures, of showcasing the same person in different poses and settings – a practice completely unnecessary for facilitating communication, yet needed for the purposes of communicating self-obsession and glory. (Ironically, many scoff at dictators for plastering their nations with pictures of themselves, without realizing that they themselves are guilty of the same practice online.) Also, prior to Facebook, individuals with a less than normal social aptitude would be inevitably forced to learn the dynamics of building personalities and interacting with people at some stage in their life. With Facebook, the person will perhaps never learn, having finally found a venue to voice the sounds of their soul without hesitation. Some also have experienced that using Twitter extensively damages one’s ability to expound upon reflections and thoughts – one will simply send out 140 character messages and feel the urge is gone. In essence, Muslims need to be aware of the inherent orientations of the tools they use, and realize that technology, just like “culture,” is not as neutral as it may sometimes seem to be – and to embrace everything in the zeal to “integrate” may not be in the best interests of the Ummah.
Many will be inclined to think the previous narrative as slightly exaggerated, perhaps more applicable to the youth than the adults. But even the most fundamental concept of American culture, the American Dream, – which concerns all Americans – reeks of such individuality. From their early years, Americans are taught that this Dream lies chiefly in attaining affluence and pleasure (with their different manifestations), which in turn mostly hinge on education and assimilation. Thus, the entire effort of their lives, from education to love to business to travel, becomes a part and parcel of living that sacred Dream. Those who do not possess the prerequisites of this Dream are left alone to find refuge in drugs and gangs – but for those who do, the world is clear and straightforward. Sadly, this does not leave much room for building altruistic goals, of nurturing a true “Ummah consciousness” – although one can certainly develop a caring or generous character whilst living the Dream, one cannot experience altruism at its most powerful level, because the Dream inevitably revolves around oneself, and does not make much room for the dreams of others.
It is indeed incredibly unfortunate to see Muslims in America, who arguably possess the highest potential for bringing the most change in the world due to their unique position of both understanding the worldviews of the East and West as well as living in the country with the most power and influence over the world, become muted as their energies drain into the endless spirals of the American Dream. This perhaps can be attributed to both internal and external factors: on the one hand, the ceaseless bombardment from society does its damage, but on the other hand, inside forces including parents and friends also do admirably well in keeping the next generation focused on achieving their American Dream. After having finally broken away from the strong currents of society (and that being an accomplishment on its own), many greatly talented Muslim youth will find their will and zeal to devote their life to the Ummah flatly rebuffed by parents who care more for filling the lives of their children and families with luxury than responding to the dire pleadings of the Ummah worldwide.
If one truly believes in Islam as a whole, one must believe that the needs of the Ummah supersede his or her own needs. Our enormous energies and talents deserve not to be wasted away in corporate offices, but rather in the service of the greater good of humanity. Becoming doctors, engineers, or accountants is certainly not inherently wrong- but we must realize that building the character of a nation, that curing them of spiritual diseases, is much harder and requires ten times more resources than building the infrastructure of a nation. Obviously, as long as the bulk of all individual energies are being used to secure personal careers, American Muslims on a whole will never tap into their potential to bring reform and prosperity. Often, being an Islamic activist is only tolerated as a hobby – but if it is accorded its proper station as one’s true calling in life, it will be feared greatly, almost as if it surely portends poverty and ruin. Islam, though, is not meant to be taken up as a hobby, but as a life calling – and until we forgo our individualistic dreams and build grander dreams for the Ummah, one cannot have high expectations for the future. This is the fundamental mistake made by Muslims today, and in reality, it is this mistake which threatens ruin and destruction on the Muslim community.
If one believes the state of affairs of the Ummah to be pathetic today, we must believe ourselves individually to be pathetic as well. We have become desensitized to the plight of the world – how else can one describe our historically unprecedented ability to hear tragedy after tragedy, yet go back to spend hours watching T.V shows and games? Television claims to serve our powers of seeing and hearing, but in reality, it has taken control of our faculties of thinking, by controlling what we see and how we see. Ironically, we often accuse our brethren living in Muslim majority countries of being too sensitive, of being too combustible and manipulated by those who seek to give Islam a bad name. Yet few realize that we too, awash in our luxuries and numbed into silence and inaction by them, are also being manipulated by those same forces. There is not much to fear from a Muslim who views his own life as more important than the Ummah – but an “Ummah conscious” Muslim will always be a threat to their corrupt interests. We must find a way to collectively fight back against these sterilizing forces, of creating new forces and institutions that are free from these dangers, and learn to orient our lives and ambitions toward the service of Allah and all of His creation – and if we can accomplish that, undoubtedly our future descendants will surely come upon a time, God-Willing, where decent men and women all over the world from Haiti to China will smile freely, and feel relieved at having found out that the forces of good have not been vanquished, that goodness and altruism still shine throughout Allah’s earth, like the morning glow rejuvenates us after the lethargy of the night.