A tweet regarding motherhood provoked a firestorm on Muslim social media, becoming the latest event in the sad saga of how America’s culture wars now define the way Muslims talk with each other. It is also another sad demonstration of their poor grasp of language, which in turn yields incessant conflict. The tweet concerned labelled motherhood a ‘social construct’ and the product of ‘ideology’. Coming from an academic background, the tweeter in question used the only conceptual models their field provides to talk about something close to their hearts. This wannabe avant-garde approach to the essential building blocks of civilizations is in vogue in academia today, which means adopting language that is often divisive and malicious by nature (e.g. calling motherhood a social construct and an ideology). The intention is to provoke and “deconstruct”, although many academics (particularly those lower down the ladder) don’t fully understand this in a way their superiors may do.
The tweeter’s intention was most likely attempting to express a reality that many women go through: motherhood in our time can be difficult, if not traumatic, owing to dysfunctional Muslim communities failing to provide social nets and support. It takes a village to raise a child, and we no longer have villages. It is difficult to blame women for being afraid of or not wanting to experience motherhood knowing that their support in this endeavor will be minimal. Additionally, Muslims are minorities in the western hemisphere and our influence on the fundamental political, economic, and social structures of these countries is nonexistent. Subject to the same atomizing forces as the rest of western society, Muslim women are having to choose between the frying pan and the fire.
Language Models and Worldviews
Regardless of the tweeter’s true intentions, the meaning of their words was taken as evidence by those who disagreed with them that they were yet another proponent of a movement to destroy motherhood and femininity. The furious response to this tweet was just as laden with ridiculous buzzwords that did not make any sense, except that they were the sort of things you are expected to accuse your opponents of doing or believing in as part of the American culture wars. One side accuses the other of racism, sexism, and misogyny, and the other retaliates with “postmodernist”, “social deconstructivist”, “degenerate”, and so on. Of course, neither side knows what any of these words mean. Muslims have proven remarkably incapable of mustering the intellectual will and ability to resist subsumption into the culture wars and are more interested in owning each other than getting to the issue at hand.
Both “sides” are equally culpable as they use the language of polarized political and cultural tribes who nevertheless continue to share the same worldview, i.e. the non-Muslim population at large. We pretend each side is evil but really each side is hurting. Our failure to express this hurt in a healthy and constructive manner is what is causing the same gender divisions that have occurred in western society to occur among Muslim communities now. The only real solution here is for everyone to step back and agree on the fundamentals of who we are; Muslims searching for truth and comfort in an uncertain and alien world. From that starting point, we then need to observe the ongoing social and cultural trends in the West today from an eagle eye’s perspective and build a new language that can both analyze this, figure out our own place in all of this, and build a new way of living that renders all these arguments meaningless.
Language is essential not just to how we process the world around us, but also to a large extent how we create it in our minds. Different mental models produce varying images of the complex layers of reality. Think of it as a computer that interprets data in various means: some portray it as spreadsheets, others as graphs, and so on. Worldviews are embedded in the language we use, and this is why the axiomatic belief of liberal society (individual autonomy) has wormed its way into the way we interact with each other and understand our roles in our community. By using their language, we see the world through their eyes, and division begins to fester. I want to propose three categories that can help us to break down the various arguments around the issue of motherhood, and to approach it with our own religious beliefs and communal needs.
Man: the anthropo-individual lens
For our own purposes, let’s call the first category ‘anthropo-individualism’, i.e. the centering of the individual human experience. How would this particular category understand the issue of motherhood? On an individual level, a woman has a “choice.” It is basic biology. A baby will not grow in a womb by itself. Based off this fact alone, if we look at the matter through the lens of anthropo-individualism, as the original tweeter may have been doing because they are restricted by the foreign language of academia, it may seem logical that motherhood should be seen as a choice and that any coercion from another individual, or society at large, as an injustice.
Society: the anthropo-communal lens
The second category can be called ‘anthropo-communalism’, i.e. where the human society is the center. They are often referred to as “collective societies”. On a societal level, a woman has a “choice” but is “encouraged” to have children to sustain civilization. This impacts everyone. On utilitarian grounds, it is misguided to see motherhood as a choice. If any one woman refuses to have children, then in order to perpetuate civilization, another woman has to take on her burden by having double the replacement rate. So instead of two women with two kids each, one woman has four kids. This is unfair and unrealistic, and what begins to happen is a cascade of fertility drops across society.
A woman might respond that she doesn’t care for perpetuating civilization, but such a response is symptomatic of how deeply individual autonomy has embedded itself in one’s worldview. Such a response is also emblematic of the deep nihilism that pervades an Anglosphere in civilizational tailspin: a total lack of desire to keep society going. This is one of the key problems facing the western hemisphere right now: how do we balance our belief in individual autonomy with the societal requirement to have children? They are going to find out soon enough that they can’t square this without one breaking the other.
God: the divine lens
The third category is the divine lens. On a religious level, a woman is “encouraged” to have children. This impacts her and her afterlife in a positive way. I need not go into detail about the evidence for this. But it is this lens that is completely missing from the culture wars we are witnessing and being sucked into today, and try as we may to shoehorn arguments about the religious exhortations to produce children, it simply doesn’t make sense and begins to reek of hypocrisy. Take, for example, the American Republican party’s refusal to provide adequate maternity leave and healthcare as a whole, while also claiming to champion a religiously-charged pro-life movement. People aren’t stupid; if you are supporting something because it is religiously sanctioned, then it better be conducive to a humane existence.
Figuring out our priorities
How do we order these three categories in terms of priorities? The debates on Muslim social media come from different worldviews and language models that depend on either one of these three. The anthropo-individual argument relies on individual autonomy and the associated socio-economic structure, i.e. the professional bachelor and the consumer. Others mix anthropo-communal and divine priorities, eschewing individual autonomy in favor of either sacrifice for the collective or sacrifice for God. An example of the former may be illiberal China who quite openly state that the interests of the collective trump that of the individual.
The problem here is that the Islamic worldview is a balance of all three categories; we have to strive for equilibrium, not either/or. The needs of the individual, the community, and our religious obligations must be delicately balanced if we are to see both stability and prosperity in our communities. Over-emphasis on any one of these needs comes at the expense of the other and results in chaos.
The appropriate response here is not to pillory individuals for being unwilling to carry the burden of community, but to develop the willingness as a community to build a better, healthier society so people feel the love and drive to keep it alive, i.e. through raising children. Piling on young women for expressing their fears is misguided, even if the language they use to express this is wrong. Motherhood is getting increasingly difficult as the social dysfunctions of Muslim communities compound by the generation, and the paramount social safety nets community provides are slowly torn apart by the invasion of western norms and laws around family, marriage, childrearing, etc.
We must integrate all three priorities into one framework and find better words than “choice” and “encouraged” for this debate. We must ask: What are the incentives? What are the priorities? How can we ensure a balance between dunyawi-suffering and akhiri-reward that often feels distant for people who suffer on a daily basis? If we successfully develop a moral-cosmological framework for this (i.e. a philosophy and language), any rebuilding of a genuinely moral political economy in the 21st century requires a framework that combines timeless principles with contextual practicality. What are the first principles of maintaining a health civilization, and how can we work on those first principles in a pragmatic manner to iterate with socio-economic organization and produce a world in which a woman can raise children without fear of loss of livelihood, abandonment by her community, and as a result of both these things, distance from God?
The men whining about feminist infiltration and plots are the same men who ceaselessly gossip about the latest scandals of women on Twitter and who offer little to no support in their communities for women. As men, our role is guardian and protector. Oftentimes, men interpret that as purely a function of getting involved in fights and then calling it a day. But being a guardian goes further than that; it is necessary that we begin to see ourselves as the gardeners and cultivators of civilization, and that means being permanently on duty to create a better world for our women and children. This is a fundamental fact of the reality of civilization in the long view of things. If women are abdicating their duties to raise children, it is because men abdicated their posts to create a better world.
To conclude, these social media debates are futile from every angle. They are occurring against the backdrop of immense social upheaval and dysfunction as Muslims struggle to adapt to new realities in the West (and beyond), and we have been unable to create our own language to express these difficulties and find our way forward. Part of recognizing this reality will start with engaging in a deep cleansing process of the language we use and the mental concepts that define how we understand the world. I have offered some ways to think about this, but ultimately a new language also requires effort in creating a new culture and forms of economic organization that can help us to ease the burden of our women in raising children. Until then, no amount of tweets using the word “postmodernism” (be it for or against it) is going to stem the rising tide of social disintegration in our community.
Stop tweeting. Start building.
Photo Credit: Abel Acre
About the Author: Ahmad Al-Midani is a student of politics, finance, and culture. On the side, he explores Muslim community and culture with a critical eye for reform.