Donald Trump’s election to president of the US has galvanized social media. Most importantly, it has brought to the forefront a certain mentality that has been insidiously finding a home in the collective Muslim conscience. In an article published in the journal of Comparative Sociology, two researchers, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, wrote about the emergence of what they termed “victimhood culture”. Mirroring this social trend, Muslims are embracing exactly this culture.
Summary of the paper
The paper entitled Microaggression and Moral Cultures begins by talking about microaggressions. These are defined as “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” Although coined in the 1970’s, awareness and use of this term has increased exponentially over the last decade.
Hand in hand with the increased use of the term is the proliferation of “microaggression websites”. These websites ask users to report instances of microaggression so that they can be broadcast to readers who would otherwise not have known of these incidents. One of the aims of such websites is to collate what might seem like minor individual incidents so that a larger picture of systemic inequality can emerge. Interestingly, the microaggression complaints are predominantly reported by relatively affluent and well-educated individuals. There is a negligible number of complaints about microaggression from the most marginalized and destitute populations.
Much of the focus of these websites is aimed at attracting the attention of third parties. To best sway the third party, there is an incentive to magnify the severity of the conflict. This results in exaggeration of an offense, distortion, or even wholesale fabrication. An example identified in the literature is of hate crime hoaxes where people falsely claim that someone of the “enemy group” has victimized them because of their cultural identity.
In addition to attracting the attention of third parties, calling attention to one’s own victimization is a result of a reframing of victimhood as virtuous. There is a positive moral judgement in being a victim. As such, people increase their public broadcasting of grievances to highlight just how victimized they are. This has given rise to “competitive victimhood” where either side argues that they are the bigger victim and thus more virtuous and deserving of help.
To sum up the article:
A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization
Victimhood culture amongst modern Muslims
Many Muslims, especially those who strongly ally themselves with left-wing politics, find themselves embracing this culture of victimhood. Beyond the inherent lack of dignity in this mindset, there are several negative corollaries to this way of thinking.
Claims of microaggression are most effective when the victim is larger than one person. The more people who share the victim’s cultural characteristics, the larger the effect of the microaggression. This incentivizes the victim to share their culture with the greatest number of people. We see this in certain Muslim circles where the definition of “Muslim” extends to anyone with even the most tangential connection to Islam. “Muslim” is seen as a racial identity rather than a group of people who share a concrete set of theological values. Forget the nuanced discussion of Imam Ghazali in Faysal at Tafriqa. Instead, we get “We’re not sectarian. Anyone who says they’re Muslim is Muslim.”
In addition to maximizing the scope of microagression by showing how many Muslims there are, efforts are taken to highlight the presence of Muslims from other backgrounds who can elicit sympathy and are also seen as victims. From people who embrace this way of thinking, we are constantly reminded that there are “Gay Muslims” and “Lesbian Muslims” and “Transgender Muslims”. The inherent contradiction in such terms is explained away by saying that Muslims are not a monolith and we should be accepting of all Muslims. Of course, the presence of “Adulterous Muslims” and “Physically Abusive Muslims”, i.e. groups who do not fit well into the victim narrative, is willfully ignored.
Finally, with the moral virtue tied to being a victim, it comes as no surprise that even within the Muslim community, there have unfortunately been hoaxes perpetrated about being victimized. Out of a perverse sense of misguided activism, people think that perpetrating hoaxes will further their cause and thus lying about such events is justified.
The Islamic Mentality
Realize that Islam has never had a culture of victimhood. The sahabah were not victims. The Prophet ﷺ was not a victim.
The story of Sumayyah (ra) is not the story of an oppressed woman who perished at the hands of a patriarchal culture. Rather, it is the story of a woman defiant to the end, willing to give her life but not willing to compromise with a tyrant.
The story of Bilal (ra) is not the story of a marginalized minority who was at the mercy of structural racism. Rather, it is the story of a man who stood unwavering in his commitment to tawheed.
The story of Salman (ra) is not the story of a foreigner stripped of his rights in an unknown country. Rather, it is the story of a seeker of truth who traversed the earth until he found Islam.
It is important to have the proper frame when dealing with adverse events. When studying Islamic history, we see a common thread amongst Muslim men who dealt with such incidents. Rather than adopting a mentality of victimhood, they framed everything in the context of Islam. Within that context, they derived a sense of worth from their relationship to Allah ﷻ. With that relationship came a peace and contentment which allowed them to overcome any instances of oppression or aggression.
When Bilal (ra) was asked how he was able to withstand the persecution and torture that he did, he responded, “I mixed the sweetness of faith with the bitterness of torture. The sweetness overpowered the bitterness and so I did not feel the pain.” Without that sweetness of faith, all a person is left to taste is the bitterness of injustice.
The primary antidote to victimhood culture is taking pride in Islam. Ironically, a recent seerah book actually warns Muslims from taking pride in Islam, likening it to idolatry. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Qur’an says “And to Allah belongs [all] honor, and to His Messenger, and to the believers, but the hypocrites do not know.” ‘Umar (ra) famously said that the Arabs were nothing until they were honored by Islam and that if they were to ever take pride or seek honor in something other than Islam, Allah ﷻ would humiliate them.
Note that this attitude, a combination of taking pride in Islam and deriving our worth from our relationship with Allah ﷻ, does not result in passively accepting oppression or smiling foolishly while someone takes away our rights. Nor does it entail ignoring all offenses and turning a blind eye to racism and prejudice. A Muslim stands firmly against oppression and tyranny, whether it is being perpetrated against others or against ourselves. But unlike a victim, a Muslim is not concerned with status or feels a need to show himself in a pitiful state.
While in a victimhood culture, people invoke the sympathy of third parties, the example in Islam is to invoke Allah ﷻ. When the Prophet Yaqub ﷺ lost his son, he famously said, “I only complain of my suffering and my grief to Allah”. After facing humiliation and persecution at Taif, the Prophet ﷺ made the famous du’a “To You, my Lord, I complain of my weakness, lack of support and the humiliation I am made to receive…but as long as you are not displeased with me, I do not care what I face.”
In summary, rather than seeing himself as a victim when faced with hatred and bigotry, a Muslim man takes a multifaceted approach. First, he remembers that his worth is derived from his status as a Muslim. As long as Allah ﷻ is pleased with him, nothing else matters. Second, he takes pride in the fact that he has been chosen by Allah ﷻ to be a Muslim. Third, he actively works to combat oppression and hatred while finding himself at peace with any result, knowing that what happens to him has already been decreed by Allah ﷻ. His concern is whether his actions have been accepted by Allah ﷻ, not whether they have had an impact on his problem.
I wanted to conclude with an example of a Muslim who faced unbelievable oppression but still refused to accept the mentality of a victim. His name was Abu Bakr as-Siddiq and he was born in the city of Timbuktu. He records the following:
On that day was I made a slave. They tore off my clothes, bound me with ropes, laid on me a heavy burden, and carried me to the town of Buntukku…They sold me to Christians, and I was brought to a certain captain of a ship in that town. He sent me to a boat and delivered me to the people of the ship. We continued on the board ship, at sea, for three months, and then came on shore in the land of Jamaica. That was the beginning of my slavery until this day. I tasted the bitterness of slavery from them and its oppressiveness but all praise is due to Allah, under whose power are all things. He does whatever He wills. No one can turn aside what He has decreed or ordained. Nor can anyone withhold what He has given. As Allah himself says: “Say, ‘Never will we be struck except by what Allah has decreed for us; He is our protector.’ And upon Allah let the believers rely.”