I have mentioned the word ideology a couple of times already and for those readers who are unsure of what I mean, let us use it interchangeably with the word ‘idea’. There is not a single conscious individual alive who acts in the world without an idea guiding his or her actions. Although surreal in its dramatisation, the science-fiction film Inception draws attention to the power of suggestion and reflects a reality of human experience, where those who are able to plant ideas in the subconscious of individuals, change the way they think and act on the world. My contention is that, as a Muslim community in general, the main idea influencing the way we behave in the world is certainly not Islam, but its very antithesis.
Many of us struggle to understand how this is the case. This is especially true for those of us who regularly attend congregational prayer, Islamic circles, spend much time reading the Qur’ān, and often give in charity. My assertion that we are often contravening the spirit and values of our faith (albeit unwittingly) would understandably seem offensive to many. So what are some examples of these violations and contraventions, and why are we perpetrating them? While there are a number of examples that could be discussed, for the sake of brevity, let us consider the following two.
The first example is the way that we consume in the fashion industry. Many Western multi-national fashion brands have established factories in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Egypt. Their motivations for setting up camp in developing countries over their own are manifold, but chiefly because of relaxed or non-existent labour laws where they are able to employ local labour very cheaply. These brands often take advantage of their labourers’ poverty and make them work long hours and in conditions we would never countenance for ourselves.
Additionally, these corporations are often found polluting the rivers of their host communities with toxic effluent. Take the well-known example of the Citarum River in Indonesia, which serves over 2.8 million people of the indigenous community who use the water from the river for washing, cleaning, and drinking. The long line of textile manufacturers up and down the river have poured gallons of effluent into the river on a daily basis, resulting in locals suffering chronic medical issues, with many tragically dying as a result of ingesting the polluted water.
While it is conceivable that there are large numbers of Muslims who are unaware of the exploitative nature of the fashion industry, there are many who are aware yet seem unperturbed by the idea that they are causing harm to others through the way they consume. We do not understand that there is a spectrum of oppression. The Muslim community often focuses on the oppression experienced by the Rohingya or Palestinians as though no other oppression exists in the world, but it does. As Muslims, our faith commands us to stand against oppression of any type and indeed, the prophetic traditions even go as far as to require us in the most extreme case, to fight against our own brothers and sisters if they are oppressing others. The abject failure of many scholars – and indeed the ‘practising’ community in general – to highlight issues of oppression in the marketplace is deeply concerning.
The second example helps us understand the way in which the decisions we make in life are subverted by the same ideology that directs us to consume in such a cavalier manner. A generation of wealthy Muslims who experienced the dispiriting nature of the madrasa first hand were adamant that they would not subject their children to the same institutions. Instead, many have either sent their children to Islamic private schools or have arranged for private tuition in person or over the Internet. While the intentions of these parents are praiseworthy in wanting to secure the best for their own children, they never stopped to think for a moment about the other children they were leaving behind. They never stopped to think that the parents of those children, many of whom do not have the financial ability to pay for a private tutor will have no choice but to send their child to a madrasa if they want them to learn the Qur’ān.
While I do not want to suggest that all madrasas are badly run institutions (and a number of them are not), that is besides the point. If our minds were to have been socialised and grounded in Islamic values, we would never have consciously or otherwise, left any of our children behind. We would have worked to fix the current institutions or form alternative ones that work for all, especially because the parents who can afford to take their children out of the madrasa system are the very ones who possess the financial and (more importantly) cultural capital to effect change.
What is evident is that most Muslims would never consciously intend to harm others in any way, yet there are those who readily make excuses to remain mired in structures of oppression. This may be due to convenience or, more worryingly, because their pursuit of pleasure takes precedence over their conscience. We must ask ourselves: how can we possibly expect the help of Allāh to grace us while we continue to violate the rights of others? The tradition of our noble Messenger (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is clear and unambiguous:
“A Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. He does not oppress him…”
Allāh the Most High also discusses oppression more generally in a hadīth qudsī where He says:
“O my servants, I have forbidden injustice for myself and I have forbidden it among you, so do not oppress one another.”
The way in which our minds have become socialised to a particular idea in the world is ultimately what is guiding our decisions and behaviours. This particular idea is Neoliberalism, which is an ideology that views society as functioning ideally through the establishment of deregulated markets fuelled by self-interest with a reduction in the involvement of the state. It defines the basic interaction between human beings as competitors for resources, rather than cooperators. The architects of this ideology were thinkers such as Lippmann, Hayek, and Friedman, who were sincere in their view of creating a society where self-interest would drive individuals to pursue the acquisition of wealth through business. More business would mean more jobs, less unemployment, and less poverty. More business would also mean more competition, which would drive down prices and be beneficial to consumers. While in theory this sounds reasonable – and the founders of this ideology may have been right about self-interest as a motivator – they were tragically naive as Frankenstein was of the terrible monster they would inadvertently unleash onto the world.
Self-interest is the currency of the market, underpinning the structures of oppression we see not only in business, but in our civil institutions as well. When Thatcher and Reagan came into power around the same time in the 1980s, they were both committed to the same ideas that Lippman, Hayek, and Friedman were proposing: the creation of a market in every sphere of society. It was fortunate that the NHS had already been established, otherwise the UK would be suffering from the same privatised healthcare industry that currently leaves millions of Americans suffering from ill health due to poverty.
In the UK, Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, started the process of creating a market in the education sector by bringing in the national curriculum in 1988. A standardised curriculum meant standardised testing. When Thatcher’s successor John Major completed the task by instituting school league tables, the education market was born. Parents were now able to see which schools were high achieving. The wealthier and more advantaged members of society had the ability to purchase property around high-achieving schools for their children. This led to a ghettoisation of communities along economic lines where schools that were already ranking poorly on the league tables became centres of socio-economic deprivation. For the students of these schools – many of whom are on free school meals and face the challenges of poverty – how is it even conceivable to expect them to compete with children who were born into every possible social and economic advantage? The structure or institution is oppressive and by buying into and believing in it, we not only tacitly support that oppression, we also perpetuate the ideology that underpins it.
Paulo Friere in his book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ explains that the greatest triumph of the oppressor is to trap the oppressed in its framework of thought. The oppressed spend their time conceiving solutions which they believe are helping to end their oppression, but they always end up unwittingly perpetuating the very structures which hold them prisoner. When Muslim parents arrange private Qur’ān tuition for their own children and leave children from poorer families behind, they unintentionally feed into and promote the same ideology and structures which lead to oppression. I have spoken to a good many people about these issues and they sadly cannot imagine any other alternative because, as Friere suggests, their minds can only conceive of solutions within the framework that the establishment has constructed for them. If we were only to believe and act on the principles of our faith, we would definitely find solutions that not only benefit the majority of people, but fundamentally project the narrative of Islam.
To underestimate the power of ideology is to invite ruin. One cannot erect a building on a swamp, it will never hold. In order to be able to establish our Islamic values and ideals, one must drain the swamp first and prepare the ground. The ideology of Neoliberalism has supplanted the Islamic narrative and however ‘practising’ we think we are, it fundamentally controls the way we think and behave in the world. There is little value talking about the faith theoretically or confining its practical implementation to ritual worship, we must be determined to make it become part of every aspect of society. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said that the wolf eats the lone sheep. With the establishment determined to keep us mired in individualism, we remain easy prey, but the moment we overcome our self-interest and greed and realise that our greatness is in our togetherness, we will be able to drain the swamp, project the enlightened values of our faith and re-create a society where people the world over, will stand in awe at the greatness, beauty and justice of Islam.
 Abū Dāwud, al-Nasāʾī and Aḥmad