As someone allergic to what government authorities have to say, I felt an unexpected change of heart during my three dedicated years of life in studying Public Policy and Management at university. Much to my surprise, I found widespread apolitical behavior in the presumably political environment of the faculty of Social and Political Sciences at my university. Although I saw tragic events like racially-charged police shootings bring about the rise of political expression on social media, political disengagement among the youth is the norm in our everyday lives. What could be the driving force?
The political interest amongst the internet youth is rarely found to be the product of institutional efforts, but rather, those with a preexisting, rooted interest in politics utilize social media as a medium and as an amplifier of their voices. In line with the COVID-19 lockdown which caused a tremendous global shift in lifestyle where gadgets have become the only safe option for connecting with others, academic discussions on these tragedies have migrated online, flooding our social media timelines with a substantial amount of material information. Infographic posts on instagram, webinars facilitated by non-governmental organizations, and podcasts featuring scholars, all broadcasted by individuals from different backgrounds, are at the tips of our fingers. The growing awareness of humanitarian issues, such as in the global movement of #BLM and #blackouttuesday, has mobilized users to turn towards humanism. However, there are also those choosing to stay silent.
In EU countries, these differing responses are predominantly characterized by socio-demographic influences, and findings point towards division among youth, with some delving deep in the problem, and others remaining neglectful of political ongoings. According to new research in the US, an increased social media engagement on political issues such as racial injustice and the presidential election has been pronounced among younger groups. Consistent with the growing awareness in the US, demonstration participation, voting registration, and donations this year have escalated rapidly since the last report in 2018. Given these diverging responses of increased involvement on the one hand and disinterest on the other, this article briefly assesses the urgency of reclaiming interest in politics, by highlighting two solutions:
Seeds of Hubris
Dating back to the 19th century, classical liberalism has been the fundamental ideology that shapes the social, political, and economic spheres of the West. Today, this foundation of moral and political philosophy has been more relevant than ever in modern society, causing ideological confusion in Western democracy.
As reflected in the United States Constitution, liberalism posits that the government primarily exists to maintain order by protecting individual liberty. The political doctrine of individualism measures successful governance by the degree of liberty individuals have to freely behave and pursue their self-interest (provided they don’t harm other individuals). Democracy in the American political system is characterized by people’s civic involvement and the government’s ability to protect the rights and privileges of the society despite demographic or ideological differences. Thus, upholding the values of democracy itself has incited many conflicts. Scholarly critics of liberal individualism have presented the faults in its core assumption to promote free and autonomous individuals, which creates the illusion of individuals existing outside of society. This in turn provided them the justifications to be absent in political and community participation, which has produced detrimental impacts on Western democracy (e.g. viscous partisan divide and accusations of election hacking/theft; Democrats claiming Russia hacked the 2016 election, and Republicans now claiming voter fraud stole the 2020 election from Trump.)
The thrust of this ideological concept, promoted by America’s global reach, subsequently has universal implications in global society and politics. The overemphasis on the self entails a string of problems, with a prime example being the rising culture of narcissism (e.g. moral narcissism, and exhibitionistic relationship with identity politics and labeling). Two scholars in the 20th century theorized the explicit link between liberalism and narcissism by arguing that increased individualistic behavior and identity-based interest groups manifest politically as liberal while exhibiting narcissistic traits. How is this thesis relevant to our standpoint today? The narcissistic society, as produced by liberal individualism, perfectly fits the design of social media. It is well noted that the superficial nature of social media often entraps users to create a filtered representation of their selves, rather than appearing as they are. Thus, the new wave of political expressions serves as the perfect opportunity for narcissists to better strategize their online performances in the form of political engagement.
In reality, the optimization of individuals for the betterment of society as advocated by this ideology has resulted in disconnected individuals who only care for themselves. The corrupted intention to promote a certain issue is solely motivated by praises for fulfilling the measurement of social media expectations. Viewed from the lens of a Muslim, performative activism doesn’t exist in our moral dictionary, because it is inherently rooted in pride and showing off (riya). In a general Islamic framework, the Holy Quran and hadith repeatedly warn the reader about the dangers of pride. As mentioned in a saying of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, “He who has in his heart the weight of a mustard seed of pride shall not enter Paradise.” What would then be the solutions for the people who gained knowledge from social media, and wish to broadcast it online without falling in the trap of egotism and self-inflation?
As Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is an exemplary leader for his methods in resolving crisis. He ﷺ truly lived the saying of “Do it for a cause, not the applause.” As a man with intense devotion and commitment in bringing real change for the people, this is something that is inherently lacking in the hearts of performative activists. A historical review of the public life of the Prophet ﷺ will ultimately reveal why, and how, his mental and physical struggle to fight against oppressive tyrants brought forth transformative justice. His intellectual influence, combined with profound passion and empathy that went beyond accumulation of wealth and thirst for power are clear evidence for what caused a strong and lasting impact on his society which began as a small room of companions gathered in the home of Arqam, and now boasts over 1.8 billion adherents. Re-evaluating the role of public figures and religious figures, together with other authorities, about whether or not they have appropriately used their institutions to create spaces for conversations of justice to take place, should be a shared responsibility of the community. This engagement will inevitably lead to a stronger community building, solidarity, and commitment towards the same vision to act upon transformative justice.
To many, the word ‘politics’ is odious and elicits an instant rejection due to negative portrayal in the media, dissatisfaction towards government policy, traumatic historical events, or even a personal level of negative experience. Politics nowadays means electioneering, lobbying, and performative activism. Politics through the Islamic lens is seen as a noble duty for taking care of the affairs of the ummah, in light of the Quranic teaching that man was sent down as a leader (khalifa) of Earth to complete the mission of establishing good and preventing evil (al-amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy an al-munkar), in line with the divine order.
God says in the Quran,
And let there be [arising] from you a nation inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be successful. (3:104)
This ayah calls upon the collective obligation of the Muslim community to encourage righteous behavior and discourage immorality. Ibn Khaldun, a notable Muslim scholar and father of sociology, conceptualized good governance as stemming from group solidarity (asabiyyah). Leaders are required to continue the legacy of the Prophets to fulfill the obligations towards Allah the Almighty and to govern society.
Islam is a multidimensional religion: it affirms human affairs from both a bilateral viewpoint between man and God (hablum-minallah) and an individualistic viewpoint of man with himself (habluminan-nafs), as well as a collectivist perspective that governs man with other people (habluminan-nas). It regards individualism and collectivism as interconnected dimensions. Unlike the contradictory notion of Western individualism, where individual liberty is sought as a necessary tool to build a dynamic relationship for the collective good of society, every individual has moral responsibility (amanah) to the collective, and vice versa. Thus, the interdependent nature of man cannot be taken away like it is in the Western liberal concept of individualism. Rather, since human life is viewed with an abundance of dignity, we must care for one another.
Provided with this comprehensive solution towards the moral, social, political, and economic affairs in society, the Islamic ethos seeks to create a transformative justice to remove oppression by maintaining both individual and collective rights. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
If you see injustice, stop it with your hand. If you can’t stop it with your hand, speak against it with your tongue. If your life is at risk for speaking it with your tongue, turn your heart against it. That is the least that could be accepted from a person of belief (40 Hadith Nawawi, No. 34)
As Muslims, it is an integral part of our faith to consistently be involved for the collective good of our local societies and worldwide community.
Who then is qualified to be involved in politics? Does this mean that everyone should shift their professional role as politicians, or jump to register in political parties? The degree of impact when policy makers establish legal documents will certainly differ from the actions coming from low-level organizations. However, that does not limit the fact that every citizen has the rights and duties to give their due attention on the issues that directly impact their everyday welfare.
In essence, partaking in political action is not limited to joining political parties and national politics. Amplifying political voice through voting is one way to express your opinions. But, beyond the stiff and hierarchical legislative bodies that force you to choose between unpromising candidates who have greater interest to favor themselves rather than the people, there are ways to take care of the people’s affairs by collective efforts in civil society and local communities, as inspired by the people’s consciousness to strive for a better condition. Engaging in discussions concerning pressing issues in one’s work, non-governmental organizations, or community to which they belong, is a form of political participation. Funding their project or helping to raise funds are also impactful political actions. In addition, being a critical citizen with nuanced perspectives to mitigate conflict and crafting solutions will make it impossible for narcissists to inject themselves and their substance-less contributions. The benefits of becoming informed voters with a collective consciousness and commitment to our values, working on multiple levels of social organization, will be felt in the long-term when election seasons arrive.
Beyond the ever changing socio-political dynamics that dictate the unstable condition in our society, we must remember the Divine decree that:
Allah will not change the condition of a people unless there is a change of what is in themselves. (13:11)
Discovering what each of us will do to contribute for a change in society will lead us to creative actions in line with our respective roles in work, organizational, or societal settings. Be it as advocates of humanity or environmental protection, unlocking a vast potential in the society for the sake of upholding collective rights will revolutionize our approach to politics, and ultimately provide a more fruitful outcome.
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Photo Credit: Haleon
About the Author: Khansa Khalisha is an intern writer and a fresh graduate with a Bachelors degree in Political Sciences from Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. Her interests center around metaphysics, martial arts, and poetry.
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