“Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into someone else’s version of ‘the cause.’ No one can do it all, not even those saying you should do more. So do what you can, and bear in mind that God is Judge, not anyone else. And remember, your most basic responsibility in the face of injustice is to call people to the guidance of Allah. Too many of us forget that.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
It was in my last year of college that I had to humbly accept that I could not do it all. I’d gotten married the summer before and was facing daily sickness, body weakness, and migraines due to pregnancy. Yet I was still working full-time as a student teacher and had projects, term papers, and presentations to prepare. I’d had to resign from my leadership position in the Muslim Student Association and forego the detailed research project required to receive my honors degree; and these two were very difficult for me to walk away from because they’d meant so much to me. But for the sake of my health, I had to.
Years later, when I made the decision to publish novels with spiritual themes, it was for two reasons: to stay focused on what would remind me of the Hereafter, and to inspire others to do the same. In all my years of studying Islam, focusing on the Hereafter was the common theme in every Qur’anic story and prophetic teaching. Whether in the context of ease or hardship, and whether combating injustice or establishing justice, no prophet or messenger deviated from this focus. And I decided to strive my level best to follow their example. But in even this, the lesson I’d learned in college stayed with me: Do your best, but know you cannot do it all.
We’re All a Bit Narcissistic
It’s human nature to see the world from only our vantage point. This is mainly because our own point of view is the only vantage point inherent within all of us. And no matter how much wisdom, life experience, and education we gain along the way, the tendency to see and judge the world according to our own narrow lens never goes away completely. Thus, we can all benefit from learning new perspectives now and then, and we can all benefit from reminders to take a step back and look at things from a different angle. In other words, being humble and amenable never gets old.
When I was in college and came to the realization that I couldn’t do it all (no matter how much I wanted to), I was forced me to see the world from a different point of view. And this new perspective forced me to see not only myself differently, but also others as well.
“Its Your Responsibility”
When I became a well-known author and public figure, I was completely unprepared for being inundated with both private and public messages from Muslims (and occasionally non-Muslims) telling me what I had to write or speak about because “it’s your responsibility.” They’d say what a shame it was that I wasn’t doing such-and-such for a particular group of suffering people or important cause—even as they knew absolutely nothing about me aside from my books, public blogs, and social media posts.
What was most heartbreaking about this experience was that, at times, the harshest criticism and attacks came from fellow writers and da’wah workers, often based solely on what they’d seen of me online. Experiencing this on a personal level inspired this reflection that I posted on my Facebook page:
“Though it may be difficult for the social media generation to understand, some people do have lives outside Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. So before you criticize someone for not addressing or supporting a certain issue or cause, bear in mind that your eyes and knowledge are not those of the Lord of the Worlds. So your time is better spent asking yourself what you can do to help, instead of surveying what others are—or are not—doing during these difficult times.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
Emotional Manipulation Under the Guise of Activism
Some time ago, I attended a #BlackLivesMatter event organized by a local activist. I’d expected the speech and panel discussion to convey inspirational ways to help others understand the sacredness of black lives in light of the deaths of so many innocent black men, women, and youth. But instead, I sat through over an hour of the activist yelling at the audience for not being present at his other events (Never mind that we were present at this event).
This activist made no mention of the various other activities going on (which many of us had indeed attended), as he apparently felt that only events organized by him mattered. He even went as far as to mention something he’d organized for the following day then said to the men in the audience, “If you don’t show up tomorrow, you’re not a real man!”
Being exposed to his harsh words was deeply triggering for me, as I’d previously suffered my own share of emotional and spiritual abuse at the hands of people in leadership positions. Consequently, I began to avoid any events where this particular activist was speaking. However, because there were many programs he was doing that were helpful to minority youth, I continued to support him via social media whenever I could. But I eventually gave up even this distant support and reluctantly un-followed him after months of reading posts like, “Anyone who doesn’t share this post or come to such-and-such event doesn’t care about black lives! You’re no different from the people murdering them!”
Public Harassment or Activism?
In the midst of the tragic events in Baltimore, I happened to read yet more disturbing words by a self-proclaimed Muslim activist. This time, the words were directed at me specifically. On a public post in which I was discussing the tumultuous events in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, this man said that religious people like me hid behind quotes about Allah and the Hereafter to avoid doing any real work for the community.
Ironically and unbeknown to him, at that very moment—while he was merely talking about coming to Baltimore to show his support—I was in Baltimore and was supporting efforts to provide donations to disadvantaged families who’d lost their homes due to fire and rioting. But because he couldn’t see what I was doing, and because I hadn’t taken pictures of myself or publicly posted all my efforts, he “called me out” for allegedly turning a blind eye to the suffering of African-American people.
What on earth is going on? I was left wondering. When did community activism become public interrogation and harassment?
Is This About Pleasing Allah, or You?
Fortunately, there are many community activists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are doing remarkable work to help suffering and disadvantaged people, both nationally and abroad. However, there remains a spiritually destructive culture that has found its way into the Muslim community: inciting public humiliation under the guise of activism and “supporting the cause.”
In this culture, satisfying the desires and demands of prominent activists and their supporters is the measuring stick of “doing your duty.” This mindset allows no room for what cannot be measured by public perception alone. It doesn’t even leave room for the ghayb, that unseen reality known only to Allah.
Anyone viewed as not doing enough for “the cause” is both privately and publicly humiliated and criticized, sometimes in the form of social media hash tag campaigns. Though some of these campaigns start off as well-intentioned and are initially established for the purpose of encouraging a famous or influential person to use their fame or influence for a good cause, unfortunately, too often these campaigns quickly disintegrate into public humiliation and shaming.
Each time I see yet another blog, social media post, or hashtag campaign targeting a public figure for not doing such-and-such for “the cause” (whatever it may be at the moment), I cringe. I completely understand the need to hold people in certain positions accountable for doing their job, but I still grapple with why we believe that innocent actors, authors, athletes, and entertainers have a responsibility to do whatever we (or random activists) demand of them. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeing a prime opportunity for someone to use their fame for good, but what’s so wrong with utilizing kindness, compassion, and gentle words to invite them to our idea?
Islam itself, the religion that God himself requires of everyone on earth, allows believers to utilize only da’wah, an invitation, when calling others to their spiritual responsibility. Under no circumstances are we permitted to utilize humiliation, shaming, or compulsion in reminding our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity about their souls. Why then do we imagine it’s okay to utilize these methods for our own ideas and causes, especially when singling out others by name?
When did it become evidence of injustice for someone to be a prominent actor, author, athlete, or entertainer guilty of no crime except not publicizing every good deed they do? Or not doing every activity that a random activist demands of you?
We are not Allah. We don’t know the unseen. We don’t know the ins and outs of someone’s private (or even public) life. And we certainly don’t know whether or not someone is fulfilling their duties regarding any cause, perhaps far beyond how we are fulfilling our own.
So be careful, O dear “good Muslim,” whose activist label makes you imagine that you’re always on the side of good. And before you start yet another campaign publicly telling someone what they must do (or calling them out for what you think they didn’t do), consider this as if coming from the heart of every fellow human being, no matter who they are to you: #MyLifeMattersToo.
And remember, goodness and standing up against injustice exists outside the realm of your perception and limited mortal judgment. So it behooves us to take a step back and reflect on a possible reality outside our inherently narrow vantage point. We are not the Master of the Day of Judgment, nor has He tasked us with recording humans’ good and bad deeds. Thus, it’s not for us to call any innocent person to account based on even our best intentions at encouraging good.
In other words, our narcissism has no place in activism.
Because, ultimately, doing what’s good and necessary for any praiseworthy cause is about pleasing Allah, not you.