#BringBackOurSanity Guide to Recent Internet Debates


White House Iftar. Tariq Ramadan. Dr. Jackson. Zionist sponsored trips to Israel. RIS. ISNA. Abu Eesa. The list goes on. Everyone has seen the debates, and everyone is posting about them all over social media. In this post I want to unpack what I find to be good about these debates, along with some personal observations about the barrage of arguments.

1. Apathy

People in the smallest of local masjids are frustrated about why their board acts without regards to their interest. For many places, the root cause of this is apathy. People may complain and raise issue, but few care enough to keep up any kind of sustained efforts. In the end, general apathy from the community at large is what kills any hope of change. People may continue to advise those in leadership, but they're still left to their own devices.

Public accountability is the only form of checks and balances that is viable for community work. This is for your local masjid as well as the largest of Islamic organizations. If people don't care enough to exercise their right to accountability, then they can't expect their needs to be served.

This is why all these recent debates actually make me optimistic. It means we finally care. It reminds me of this from Sh. Hamza Yusuf:

To move forward, more people have to care. They have to feel a vested interest in community affairs. That's finally happening - and despite some bumps in the road, I strongly feel like we're on the right track. It wasn't too long ago we were criticizing everyone for being too caught up in entertainment and 'dunya' to care about the religion. Now that people care, let's cultivate it.

2. Sustained Empathy

Caring is good, but we have to keep ourselves from letting it get too erratic. There's a great article in Foreign Policy - Turn on, Retweet, Tune out - explains this concept in light of recent events like #BringBackOurGirls.


Simply put, people don't have the patience to sustain activism over a particular cause. The internet enables a rapid fire approach. Click here, click there, feel accomplished, then move on to the next task. To get more real about the issue, think of it this way. Remember the whole #FireAbuEesa controversy? How many of the people who so vociferously blasted him in public in the name of fair treatment, equality, marginalization of women, and so on, are still fighting for those causes? How many of the people who piped in with their "me too" support against him to show they stood on the side of women are still advocating for that cause?

There are two kinds of opportunism. There is opportunism in using an event to raise awareness and start a discussion. Then there is opportunism to convince people you care by jumping on a bandwagon, and then moving on and waiting for the next issue. The problem with this is that people care less about the cause, and more about making themselves look like people who care about causes.

This is not to say that everyone is insincere or posting just to get likes. What it does mean, as an intelligent consumer of information, you must be able to sift through the flood of status updates and try to figure out the context of why people are posting, or why they are advocating a certain cause. There is a world of difference between someone who unnecessarily manifests outrage at every opportunity, and someone genuinely affected by and posting about something like #FreePalestine.

On a personal level, we have to become okay with not speaking out about every cause. Just because everyone else is speaking about something doesn't necessarily mean I have to as well. Pick the causes that you care about, and be active about them within your sphere of influence. Your sincere care and concern will give you the sustained empathy needed for success.

[blockquote cite="Urban Dictionary" type="left, center, right"]Manufactured Outrage: A falsified righteous outrage at things that are basically unimportant and meaningless, frequently employed by politicians, political activists, or the media. Politicians and talking heads use it to garner support for their causes, to claim the moral high ground and to tar their opponents; the media often just uses it in a cynical bid to increase ratings.[/blockquote]

3. Breadcrumbs, Manners, and Double Standards

Everything you have ever posted is accessible for someone to find. Positions you previously held and statements you made years ago can and will be dug up.

It is easier now, more than ever, for people to hold you accountable for that which you advocate. This is of particular importance given the nature of Islamic debates on the internet. There are always two discussions going on-

  1. The actual debate over the issue
  2. The parallel debate over adab, personalities, and intentions

It's not enough to refute a position, we feel compelled to also refute the manner in which the position was presented. The more we do this, the more we create the expectation that we ourselves will be held to this same standard.

Be conscious of your own etiquette first and foremost. When things calm down, we never regret making a point. We don't usually regret speaking our mind. But we do often regret the manner in which we did. To see an example of raising an issue, and then writing a response with good adab see Tariq Ramadan's post, and Dr. Sherman Jackson's response.

There are obvious forms of bad adab (manners) such as foul language and ad hominem attacks. There is another one that's a little more under the radar that must be highlighted - double standards.

Take a look at this example of someone identifying what they perceive to be a double standard based on previous internet debates:

The problem with calls to adab (and this is something nearly everyone is guilty of) is that we want the scholars we respect, and the positions we take, to be treated with respect. When we hold an opinion, we want others to be tolerant of it. When someone criticizes a scholar we love, we want it to be done in a respectful manner. The problem is, many people apply these standards of respect *only* to their own scholars and positions without extending the same courtesy to people of different backgrounds or ideologies. Don't expect the benefit of the doubt if you can't extend it to others. Don't expect tolerance for your opinion by labeling the opposing positions as automatically intolerant.

Another extension of this issue is the debate over whether or not things should be criticized in public. We cannot assume that someone posts something in public without having privately discussed it first. We feel okay making that assumption about others, but get offended when given the same treatment. This is not fair. We also need to progress past this point of naive notions of naseehah. Yes, personal advice is meant to be given in private. Public issues, issues of concern to the community, are by definition - public. The discourse about them will be public, and it is necessary that they be made public as a means of accountability for leadership.

If my friend leads prayer, and mispronounces surah Fatihah, I will advise him privately. It is a private issue. If I post a note on Facebook about it and tag him, that is inappropriate behavior on my part. If someone posts a picture of themselves at the White House Iftar, then they should expect to be criticized. It is a public action, and it will warrant public discussion.

People will post a photo like that, and then hide behind statements like "I'm not making a political statement LOL, just got invited bro, had some good food" when criticized. This is disingenuous because by claiming to steer clear of the political issues, they actually are making a political statement.  It is a weak display of  trying to straddle the fence while hiding behind your own passive-aggressive behavior to avoid critique. One of the ironic things about passive-aggressive updates is that they often call into question a person's intentions. We know that it's terrible character to call to account someone's intentions, but we do it anyway to try and prove a point. This is ironic because questioning someone's motives actually weakens your own arguments.

Passive aggressive updates (or sub-tweeting) is quite possibly the worst offender in the category of bad adab. I've been told that young teenagers often post song lyric excerpts as a way to comment on a fight, their parents, or something like a recent break up to express their emotion without having to actually discuss the issue. We are becoming the same way. If we aren't ready to speak clearly on something, let's leave it aside.

The issues outlined here are the contextual issues surrounding the actual debate of issues - these are the issues that cause us to lose our sanity. Avoiding this (and avoiding shame grenades) go a long way in making the internet a happier place for all of us.

4. What's In It For Me?

Everything boils back to the basics of our religion. Foremost is intention. What is my intent in choosing to consume the debate in the first place? No one forced you to read everything about RIS. You chose to for a reason. I remember back in the early 2000's, Islamic message boards were en vogue. People spent their time arguing and refuting scholars. I personally know of a brother who within weeks of starting to pray 5 times a day immersed himself in these forums. A few months later, he no longer had any connection to the religion. These debates take a spiritual toll. Make sure you have a productive reason to follow it or partake in it. What value do you receive, and what value do you provide? If someone comes back and sees your feed 8 weeks later, what would their impression be?

Leave alone what doesn't concern you. This is a fundamental principle in the 40 Hadith on Social Media. It is difficult to leave alone issues everyone is talking about. Be as discerning as possible. Some of the issues are big, and they do require attention. Others, not so much. Some issues are worth the investment of time to educate yourself, and they are worth the time to use your personal platform to educate and share with others. Some issues will blow over, and you would have been better off doing something else.

Debate issues. Personalities will always change. Just because someone has a different ideology does not make it acceptable to transgress their rights as a human or your Muslim brother or sister.

Be active. Social media has empowered everyone. The fact that someone like me can reach someone like you is proof enough. Utilize the tool to its best benefit.

Make dua. I'm including this at the risk of sounding cliche. Whenever these issues flare up, sincerely ask Allah (swt) to guide you, guide our community, to help show the truth, and to enable us to be a means of benefit to those around us. Make dua that you and those who you disagree with are guided to the truth, and that despite disagreement He puts love in your hearts for one another.