There are many reasons why in an age where news and information is readily available that we come across a lot of high-handed, inappropriate, emotive or antagonising rhetoric. In response, we have a tendency to react far too ‘in the moment’ and not necessarily with well-thought out reflections. That aside, with Trump, Brexit, and a growing mandate for the far right in places across Europe, politics has taken a definite rightward shift in recent years. In the UK, we’ve also seen a more organised, energised left, shifting further to the left in response. In open societies like ours in Britain, a lot of this plays out in the media, where we see views and interpretations cast against one another. Whatever the wrongs and rights of this, the reality is that we’ve inherited and continue to build society like this to check and balance, and occasionally achieve great things as well as bear the risk of things going wrong too. As active Muslims engaged in this environment, whether it’s related to the public understanding of religion or Muslim identity, or matters of negotiating public self-assertion, there are many added challenges of representation and agency. What isn’t so much in focus, though, which I would argue is vital to bringing about beneficial, mutually-assured outcomes, is the language we use to engage in the different realms of public activism.
It’s well known in behavioural and cognitive sciences that our uses of words to describe phenomena, inferences or feelings carry meanings which in turn affect our attitudes and prior assumptions. This can often lead to a yet more narrowing mind-set where we completely shut down external viewpoints and perspectives, and lay open to blind spots that we can’t, or refuse to see. To the extent that we stop listening to others or shut them out from benefitting us. This kind of malady affects everybody to varying degrees no doubt, whether we’re from the political right or left or in academia or business, in religious settings and so on. It’s a basic feature of human psychology. Thankfully, we can break form this. Inherent social and metaphysical systems often have their own ways of settling things, sometimes serendipitously even. And of course, as human beings we possess a great capacity to think critically and to achieve levels of self-awareness that allow us to at least consider ideas which we may have disagreed with at first, or to change our behaviours and attitudes, whether it’s our own or within societal structures or mores.
To take an example, consider the words ‘stuck between a rock and hard place,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘challenging’ and ‘tricky’. Whilst they’re all interchangeably used, they have very real and different impacts on us. This isn’t about an exercise in linguistic gymnastics, but about the art of negotiating or telling our own internal states to give ourselves energy to be more productive and useful. As a Muslim, it’s also about making it easy for others to understand our viewpoints as a sign of affirming Godliness (ihsani) when interacting with others. That is, words signal our intent and approach to outcomes. What we shouldn’t do, as Professor Jaques recently retorted, is ‘use all types of descriptions without thinking about the implications of their use, or frankly, out of a need to say things quickly because audiences do not have the time to read long explanations.’
However, it’s become far too normal, for instance, to overly-amplify words of damnation or polemics in harsh or inappropriate words in order to hit home their gravity, whether from the mosque pulpit, on YouTube or on social media. So we see child-like use of terms like ‘wobbler’ as cognate of ‘straying’ from a certain sectarian convention, or dubious headlines like ‘Sinners Summit’ and ‘Shirkmas.’ How many times do we hear male preachers over-focus on children, women and wealth in the context of only being ‘fitna’ (test)? Similarly, many activists are quite quick to use the term ‘white power.’ In popular discourses, use of such terms isn’t usually in context, but, rather, in a cursing mode: in angry, predatory, amplified voices, so that others from wider society can hear. Yet, most white people don’t have the foggiest idea of what this label actually means nor are they responsible for what they’re being accused of historically or today. Being white in a generalised way becomes then cognate of injustice – wrongly, just like being black was once cognate of being fit for enslavement in places. Oddly, those who use such shorthand labels are often quick to point out that the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is a contradiction in terms, yet are only too happy to use the same logic when it comes to venting their own frustrations. Oddly, still, much of the structural socio-economic injustices, class- and caste-based inequalities, social mobility issues etc. are found right across the world – to reduce it to primarily a cause of ‘white power’ for us in the UK would be highly naive. If anything it would create an unnecessary wedge with the very people who’s potential to do good and to get on board needs unlocking.
In an age of information we’re constantly bombarded with bad news and problems of our society, and it’s very easy to get frustrated. What we shouldn’t forget though, is that whatever battles we’re fighting we have choices, and choosing what’s right usually starts with using the right words. By doing so we stand a far better chance of healing the troubles of our world.