When Community Breaks Down

Tariq Nelson has an excellent piece on a social problem that will be familiar to many Australian Muslims: the pressure to conform that comes not from the broader non-Muslim community but from the Muslim community itself.

The regular, everyday Muslim, who is under pressure to toe the line set above by the movement leaders is forced into this double life. At work, he may meet a co-worker he talks to, laughs with and jokes with. He may talk about the Super Bowl or the Basketball game that was on TV last night with them.

However, he feels that he is doing this from a weakness in Iman, and feels bad because he is supposed to be angry at work. But he cannot let his attitude at work carry over to the Masjid because he has to put on his “game face” and pretend that he is the stoic angry individual that he is required to be.

But over time, he is disturbed when he finds that he is actually forming a more natural human bond with his non-Muslim co-workers, than with his Muslim brothers at the masjid where he has this pretentious surface relationship and where he is hiding a significant portion of who he is. The relationship is not real at all. He has nothing in common with the people in the masjid at all because relationships are based upon unrealistic and unnatural ideals. Depression sets in.

If one is to maintain their sanity, then they must realize that they are a human being and repressing natural human emotions will only lead to psycological problems. It is OK to be human.

Afterall … that’s what we are.

And, the problems and isolation are only exacerbated if one happens to be educated or have an interest outside the very narrow menu of ‘permissible interests’ in that particular community. In many groups, there is little or no tolerance for individuality. Instead, the community forces those that enter it to dissimulate or be shunned: dumbing down their interactions, hiding whatever secular achievements they might make in life, and memorising by rote a set of politically-correct positions that they need to be regurgitated in response to issues such as Palestine, women, September 11, or the reasons for Muslim failure.

It is not about adopting the correct set of religious beliefs, but engaging in practices and adopting political opinions that are, ultimately, a matter of personal preference and opinion. I have met an Arab Christian who, having converted to Islam, was forced by the group they entered to make public and repeated denunciations of his Christian parents; and I have met brothers with advanced degrees in the social sciences who, in public, aped the crude generalisations about non-Muslim society that their peers demanded whilst, in private, expressing far more nuanced views about life in the West.

However, there is one area which demands some discussion: the pressure that comes on many new converts and new entrants to the Muslim community to abandon their secular studies. I can cite many examples of young Muslim men that have been advised to leave university because it is deemed haram (forbidden) by some sheikh, their peers, or one of the charismatic leaders that have assumed the position of sheikhs in the community. Whilst it might be justified to make such a statement if the students were studying witchcraft or the manufacture of GBH, the reasons for the apparent prohibition relate primarily to the institution of tertiary education itself. The justification being, quite often, that attending university requires these Muslim men to be in a ‘mixed environment’ or that a Muslim should instead focus their energies and time on learning deen (religion) rather than the ‘ideas of the infidels’ (as though the two are mutually exclusive undertakings). There is no discussion of weighing the maslahah (benefits) against the mafsada (harms) of tertiary study or the merits of particular courses of study relative to the needs of the local community but simply a blanket ruling spread crudely across an entire community like a suffocating cloud of smog.

After some angst, the new Muslim may decide to abandon his studies and seek to conform with what is expected of him by the community that he has just entered. That usually means to get married as soon as possible and often without proper consideration as to the cultural and intellectual compatibility of the prospective wife — after all, what matters except her apparent religiousness? If he doesn’t subscribe to the view, held by some, that most forms of work with non-Muslims or in ‘mixed workplaces’ are haram (forbidden) and that begging from Centrelink is more honourable, he will go and seek a job. He will then often end up taking a job that is beneath his talents and half-completed education, have kids, and find himself on a treadmill that it is very difficult to step away from. If the new Muslim is a woman, then it is all too often the case that no sooner has she uttered her shahadah (testimony of faith) that she will be cajoled into marriage — as though by accepting Islam, she loses all self-restraint and must marry immediately to protect her chastity — even before she has become steadfast in her adopted religion.

After ten or twenty years, some of these people may finally realise that the advice that they were given was wrong: that have sacrificed countless opportunities for the chimera of ‘unity’; and that they mistook conformity with a set of cultural values imposed on them by their peers with conformity to authentic Islamic teachings. There are many brothers who have fallen into this trap and it is heart-breaking to see people who, when you first knew them, were bright students studying medicine, engineering or whatever, but have since been reduced to automata either working any job they can find to support their wife and four, five or six children, or transforming into economic schistosoma and electing a life of dependency on social security.

There is a noxious culture of anti-intellectualism that exists in some of our communities — and, sadly, it seems to affect the more fundamentalist communities most. For this reason, the people who subscribe to these values are often the most visibly religious — in terms of practices and appearance — of the Muslim community. This has had the effect of creating a link in the minds of both non-Muslims and non-practicing Muslims between religious fundamentalism and secular or material underachievement. This should not be the case: Islam should inspire Muslims to be the best that they can in every sphere of their life as it has done in the past. There is no point extolling the virtues and promoting the achievements of the scientific giants of Muslim history whilst promoting a culture that works against such achievements today. We should, after all, remember that one Muslim high achiever that continues to practice his or her religion properly may be one of the most effectives instrument of da’wah (propagating Islam) for Muslims and non-Muslims.