It is very difficult to read the headlines and not cringe at the endless parade of Muslim misdemeanors and the constant criticism. Some might say it has unnerved us; it has jarred us; it has shaken us; it has gotten to us. It may have gotten to us a very long time ago, starting with the humiliation the Muslim world suffered under colonial rule, and the present domination of de facto puppet governments and multinational corporations. While it is satisfying, convenient and even correct to blame the media—and I do—it is ultimately not a very productive course of action, seeing as how we have negligible control. Not to mention that the blame-game is unsavory in itself.
And these are just the slings and arrows from the outside. There is also the vast ocean of self-induced pain. One could argue all of the onslaught, from within and without, is due to self-injurious action. Whether it’s racism or petty politics, community-wide rifts, gender wars, disharmony within families, or friction between generations, we are facing discord on multiple fronts.
I bring up these states of humiliation because I see them as one cause for a kind of collective narcissism that assails us today. One could liken it to a brittle shell that surrounds the vibrant, beating heart of Islam, obstructing the true potency of the Muslim spirit. Because, despite the issues presented above, nowhere will you see more ingenuity, more passion, more imagination, more creativity, more wonder, more mystery, or more of the sheer inventiveness of the human being than in Muslim history—and even in the Muslim present. These things do still exist within us, but they can be blocked from view by the undetectable influences of the ego, rendering them invisible and powerless.
It is interesting to ascribe a personality disorder to a culture or a group of people, and this is exactly what Christopher Lasch does in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. A personality disorder is loosely defined as a pattern of abnormal behavior that the person does not change, even though it causes emotional problems and trouble with other people.1 Narcissism, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.
Lasch’s book is specifically about what American culture had become in the 1960s. I believe, at this point, it applies to any cultures that globalization has touched, including Muslim ones. However much we love to regard ourselves as removed from the problems of ‘Western’ societies, we are so thoroughly entwined in the good and the bad fabric of these cultures that we would become unraveled were we to pick these threads apart. Muslims are integral to the Western landscape, and so these issues are fundamentally our own issues. In addition to sharing these problems, we have our own, very distinct ‘Muslim’ problems to deal with as well.
The Culture of Narcissism is a fiercely academic book, and difficult to fully explicate in the present undertaking. However, I would like to use some excerpts to illustrate the narcissistic personality type Lasch is trying to define:
“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety…He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for the rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself…Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the ‘psychological man’ of the twentieth century seeks neither individual self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly militate against it. Therapy has established itself as the successor to both rugged individualism and religion […] Therapy constitutes an anti-religion, not always to be sure because it adheres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society ‘has no future’ and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs. Even when therapists speak of the need for ‘meaning’ and ‘love,’ they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them – nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise – to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. ‘Love’ as self-sacrifice or self-abasement, ‘meaning’ as submission to a higher loyalty – these sublimations strike the therapeutic sensibility as intolerably oppressive, offensive to common sense and injurious to personal health and well-being.”
While Lasch attributes much of this narcissistic state of mind to ‘therapy’ and ‘therapists’, one could argue that in the new millennium, and the years leading up to it, our entire world has been saturated with therapeutic mechanisms, designed to placate our anxieties, to soothe our vague discontents, to whisk away depression and the feelings of inadequacy. This therapeutic world exists via a never ending barrage of images: television, movies, advertising, magazines covers, the internet—even online networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, which practically run on the fuel of asinine pictures and posing.
Lasch further writes in the chapter ‘The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time’:
“The narcissist, who sees the world as a mirror of himself and has no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection of his own image […] We live in a swirl of images and echoes that arrest experience and play it back in slow motion. Cameras and recording machines not only transcribe experience but alter its quality, giving to much of modern life the character of an enormous echo chamber, a hall of mirrors…Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own – were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time.”
I do not wish to dwell upon the way to quell these anxieties and the feelings of emptiness. As Muslims, we at least can nominally understand how Islam is supposed to help us with this. We have heard that all of the world’s beauty and wonder is meant to be a reflection of the qualities of God, not of ourselves, as a way to better understand Him. What I find most interesting is what could possibly lie between theoretical Islam and the failure of so many of our communities to practically apply it.
To reiterate—narcissism is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy. I use ‘narcissism’ adjunctively with ‘ego’, and sometimes interchangeably, because I think the nuances bog down the point. I am afraid that the phenomenon described above has somehow overtaken our community, existing in a kind of hollow shell that is surrounded by a plastic and superficial understanding of Islam. I fear that our Islam, a lot of the time, exists only to satisfy the perception of not only others, but also of our own egos. Far from destroying the ego and our latent narcissism, in many instances we are using Islam as a self-protective blanket to shield both from the urgent realities of our time.
By way of example:
Grandiosity*: Thinking we are better than non-Muslims, than our neighbors, than each other, than the opposite sex, than the lady at the mosque who tells us we aren’t covered enough, being the lady at the mosque who feels the need to tell everyone they aren’t covered enough, believing we are sole possessors of the truth and everyone else is just cattle. The idea that merely being a self-professed adherent of the world’s most theologically sound and perfect religion is enough to individually put us above professionalism, fairness, justice, equality, and ethics.
Need for admiration*: Desiring fame whether in pop music or in matters of religion, wanting to be recognized by other people as different, as special, as one of a kind, craving attention from boys, from girls, from eminent personalities, seeking to distinguish ourselves by any means necessary, chasing validation from mainstream media, from Obama, and occasionally, even FOX news. Latching on to a clique, to a tribe, to a crew, to a movement, to a particularly cool-looking group of people because such membership is an authentication that has become necessary to who we are.
Lack of empathy*: Failing to recognize the real hurt and disillusionment and sadness in so many of our own, and so many that are not of us, whatever that may mean. Depriving others of etiquette, manners, and a sense of ease which we ourselves demand. Elevating rules over the humans they were meant to benefit. Failing to realize that at even our most despairing, someone we know has felt worse. Someone we have ill feelings for right now has probably felt worse. Being too cowardly to experience the depth and breadth of our own misery long enough (before we try to mask it with ego) to be able to feel it as somebody else’s.
*If you think about it, argumentation lies neatly under the umbrella of all three of these things.
Who are we? Are we narcissists?
Among our many problems is how heavily we have let the state of our many humiliations weigh upon us. That in itself is an indicator of the potency and vigor of our egos. Looking for a quick fix, we try in vain to get rid of this sensation without trying to understand why it has come upon us and why it isn’t going away. In this state of almost constant defensiveness, we have become obsessed with the image of principles and values, rather than with the principles and values themselves. We are allowing outsiders to define us, to dictate our actions so that they become reactions. We have become a people defined by our reactions, because we are a people primarily governed by our egos.
The reason I say this is because I believe that a curious phenomenon of knee-jerk ‘cornered-ness’ is at the root of a lot of Muslim dysfunction, whether within our own communities or in the world at large. We have become dependent on the self-protective ‘airbag’ effects of our egos to cushion us from harsh realities and sobering truths. We fail to understand the inner motives behind our reactions, and so we react, react, and react away, without being exactly sure about who or what is behind the controls. Is this a logical, rational response, or is this a knee-jerk reaction that was subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, guided by my ego? This subconscious reaction is so ingrained and habitual at times that we don’t even know how or why we have behaved or spoken in the way that we have. We may faintly recognize that some responses make us feel immediately better than others, and so we persist in those responses, dooming ourselves to forever pet and coddle the monster.
We must try to not react, but to act—to behave in a manner that is not dictated by a reflexive response meant to quickly suppress emotions and anxiety. We need to behave with rationalism and logic, an understanding that seeking the benefit of the whole group is more beneficial for our long-term interests, rather than merely seeking the benefit of the self. We are concerned with those things that ‘make Islam look bad’ and ‘the people that are making Islam look bad’ without really getting the point. Islam is not going to look good and the people are not going to stop making it look bad until the focus is on good for the sake of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), and for Him and Him alone. By first looking elsewhere and criticizing outwardly, we spectacularly fall into the trap of our egos. Thus, any progressive change first necessitates the destruction of the narcissistic self. This point is easier read than it is understood, and easier understood than it is implemented.
One of the most sublime ironies of the egotistical, narcissistic state of mind is how many people seem to share it. It is something of human nature to consider the vast morass of humanity as perhaps a bit ‘not as ____’ as we ourselves are. Not as smart, not as nice, not as well-intentioned, not as good-hearted, not as charitable, not as reasonable, not as wise, not as knowledgeable, not as right—in short, not as special as we are. Interestingly, however, this very idea is what chains us together in the invisible bond of ordinary peasantry. We’re all the same kind of un-special because we all think like this. We are all common in that we share the same delusions. And because we cannot grasp this concept, we will continue to look at the weaknesses of other people and see them as somehow isolated and at odds with ourselves, not as the reflections they are meant to be.
As far as I can see, there is no permanent cure for ego. There is no way to annihilate it, to exterminate it, there is no prophylaxis or prevention or vaccine. But it can be reduced, it can be beaten to the periphery of our minds, it can be belittled, it can be harassed, it can be assaulted. We can divert our human lust for control and power onto this beast: battle it with no mercy. But first and foremost, we must admit its existence, we must recognize it; then, we must engage it ardently.
And, as always, our human inclination for goodwill will insert itself rather conveniently in this matter, as we find ourselves trying to first help others with the noble task of subduing the ego. I believe it is safe to say, however, that when it comes to this particular mission—let’s be selfish. We must put our own oxygen masks on before trying to assist those beside us. Why is it that we are so nice to our egos and so mean to each other? Why does your ego stick out a million miles away, but I couldn’t see mine if it, well, lived within me? When it comes to other people, we must bite our tongues (or our typing fingers) and show others our good intentions through soft words, kind gestures, and trust that God will do the rest. In the case that that advice proves too vague, we must work on creating stronger imaginations: pretend someone else said or did that to you, would it feel good? This exercise is revelatory in an unexpected way: why do we rush to feel so very wronged and hurt in response to criticism, to rejection, even to racism, stereotyping, or prejudice? Ego manifests itself in everyone; in the self-righteousness of the critic and in the self-pity of the criticized, in the cruelty of the oppressor and in the self-victimizing helplessness of the oppressed.
Until we understand this process and correct ourselves, we will continue to be humiliated, set back, immobilized. We will continue to be feasted upon. As saddening a notion as this is, if we critically examine this phenomenon we will see yet a greater design.
It is a great honor to be routed so openly, so directly, so obviously as we are. We are not allowed to slide happily into the great cavern of iniquity, allowed to smoothly and totally self-destruct with nary an obstacle in our path. In fact, we are made to bow down again and again, until we get it right. Everybody in the world houses this beast, yet some are continually reminded of it and others not at all. Perhaps best of all, we feel all of this so we can recognize this painful experience in others. This is the gift of empathy. This is what God is giving us, and in our blindness we have not recognized it at all—the ability to exercise everything human within us, to be the most elevated of creation in the most trying of times. And so while we might have a lot of problems, we also have direct access to meaningful, long-term solutions. We have within our reach a fundamental understanding of the base self, of wanton desires, and the destructive capability of the ego, which is worse than the parasite. The parasite takes but does not give, while the ego actively destroys that which houses and nourishes it.
Who are we? We are walking mud, we are breathing clay. We could not survive a few moments without the self-generated rhythm of our hearts. We could not live except for a short while without water, without bodily sustenance, without time and shade to rest. We can consume the sweetest of fruits, the most glorious of vegetable matter, and the most succulent of meats, and all we have to give back is filth and waste matter. Not one of us can escape the biological machinery that dictates the life inside us and around us. Not one of us can transcend it. Who are we?