February 12, 2017
Dear Student, Assalamu Alaykum.
I hope you receive this message with the most warm of health and Iman.
We have been speaking about the internal and external Pharaohs. Let us a take a step further in our approaches to facing the external Pharaohs. We find two common strategies in our activist community: agitation and engagement. Both are correct, and both can be found in the Prophet Muhammad’s revolution, may peace be upon him. But, as we will see, both are also wrong if we part from his method.
The agitation school asserts that Power must be coerced to react and relent, because otherwise Power does not relent, does not negotiate in its race to gain more power. In agitation we take steps to gain the attention of Power, sometimes through symbolic displays of solidarity. Sometimes we compel Power to react in response to our nonviolent actions (like boycotts and/or blocking government or business operations). Though we do not have it here, the agitation formula might also include violent actions to compel Power to react. Their focus is on the grassroots.
The engagement school asserts that humans with human personalities hold Power and can be convinced to soften their edges, edges that have material consequences on the dispossessed and marginalized. The humans who hold power tend to be narcissists who can be convinced through skillful protocol to relent in their subjugations. Their focus is the on the elites.
We see the the Qur’an, starting with the earliest revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, gives attention to the care of orphans. To get a sense of justice and compassion in any society, look at its treatment of its most vulnerable. The most vulnerable of the most vulnerable are its orphans. Further, those who most quickly embraced his call were those least invested in the prevailing system: the women, the enslaved, the members of the weakest tribes, and the young people.
He did, however, call upon the elites, and a few embraced his call, while most did not. He also met with the power brokers of Makkah (Mecca), Ta’if, Yathrib/Madinah (Medina). When he was without power, they gave him ear, but they rejected him. When he had some power, some confirmed treaties with him (and some broke those treaties). When they called upon him, he attended, ready to listen to their concerns, ready to consider their offers (of power, wealth, respect), but he refused their central demand: to stop preaching.
There is also a moment, where the Divine corrects the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, when he was giving attention to one of the elites (who would not reciprocate), while delaying a conversation with blind person who was seeking guidance. The lesson we take from this is that it is not strategically wrong to seek out the elite, except when done at the cost of a single person’s guidance to God, no matter their status in society.
The core mistake in this agitation/engagement dichotomy becomes apparent in that the two groups do not speak to each other. The Prophet’s movement, may peace be upon him, was one consistent movement, in which he called on different followers of different skill sets for different jobs. In our current situation, we have two populations that are quick to point fingers at each other. Those of the agitation school see the engagers as spineless sellouts. Those of the engagement school see the agitators as born-to-lose irrational miscreants. Further, that agitators point out that the engagers admire those of power, even justifying Power’s excesses and atrocities, racing to be on camera or at a microphone. Likewise, the engagers point out that the agitators celebrate suffering as badges of honor, seeing defiance, if not incarceration -- if not death itself -- as a badge of legitimacy. The agitators draw attention to the wealth and prominence that engagers seem to gain because of selling their souls. The engagers draw attention to the wealth that many agitators come from as privileged children from privileged families and societies.
As the saying goes, when you point your finger at someone, three fingers point back at you. The core mistake in both approaches -- of many but definitely not all -- is that their efforts are exercises in narcissism costumed as service. There are tests to see if this applies to you. I’ve been in many circles of both agitators and engagers, and I see these behaviors on both sides.
Deceit and self-deceit. Activists need to be brutally honest. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, tells us to speak the truth even if it is bitter, that one of the greatest Jihads is to speak a word of truth to a tyrant. But, among those of the activist communities, people lie about their work. People lie to themselves about the work. People misrepresent themselves and/or the work. People lie to themselves about their intentions.
Deflecting criticism. All pieces of advice and criticism are constructive. All of them. You may not agree with the criticism, but you should consider it. When allies and opponents provide criticism, they, however, deflect it and keep insisting that they are working to reform or improve things. Often, they will take criticisms as attacks. Or, they might judge intentions behind criticisms as ways of avoiding criticism.
Arrogance and devaluing the community. The opportunity of service to the community is a gift handed to you. When someone comes to you in need, a door has opened for you to approach the Divine. These people, however, speak of the community with contempt and condescension. They might see themselves as more educated, insightful, street-smart, wise, and especially guided to save the community (and this also applies as self-deceit) than the community members themselves.
Two-faced behavior. It is important to be consistent. It is easy to fall into the trap of performance. When they are in the company of believers, they speak with and present themselves with the pieties of believers. When they are with others, they mock and insult the community.
Look at all these behaviors: they are the behaviors of a fledgling tyrant. So, in providing service, one of the most important pitfalls is in misdirecting the service away from those in need, those vulnerable, those marginalized, toward ourselves. The model of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, was love for us greater than our own love for our own selves. If, however, narcissism is our approach, then we will fail in serving the community whether by engagement or agitation, because we have already abandoned it.
And Allah knows best.