What if I told you, that the world we live in, in something that is constructed for us, not something that is constructed by us. You and I are recipients of ideas, we are re-producers of ideas, not producers of them. Our ways of seeing the world, of perceiving it, of understanding it, and, as a consequence, of acting within it, are all determined for us, not by us.
Take for instance our idea of success. Success, after all, is the purpose of our lives. Today success is determined purely in economic terms. Whole countries are measured by financial metrics. And the general perception is that the greater our wealth, the happier we will be, and the less conflict there will be on earth. But as numerous studies have shown, this is utterly false. And the funny thing is, we know this. It is crystal clear that money doesn’t bring you happiness, we say it all the time. But today the economy isn’t working for humanity, humanity is working for economic power. But the idea of “wealth equals happiness” is so strong that it still manages to keep us working 60 hour workweeks, sometimes even more, slaving for a paradigm we don’t really believe in.
What if I told you that the biggest questions of our existence have been sabotaged by institutions. And these institutions are creating for us a version of reality that is distinctly biased in favor of those that control them. These institutions can be religious, economic, political, social or industrial. For any big idea that exists out there, there is an institution aiming to control it.
There are institutions today telling us what a government should look like, what the edicts of a given religion should be, what romantic love should look like, what beauty should look like, who a terrorist is and isn’t, what patriotism should and should not mean, which wars are just and which one’s aren’t, which causes are valid, and which ones aren’t. Even the debates we have today are mostly constructions of these self-same institutions, we are simply choosing between alternatives, not constructing our own. Freedom of thought has become an illusion.
In the true spirit of capitalism, we have outsourced even our capacity for critical thinking. Today we are told what to be and what to do in order to be happy. And it is making the world a horrible place to live in. People have become slaves to materialism, blind to murder and mass killings in their name, and are destroying the resources of the planet in the process.
And it’s a pity because a lot us, if not all of us, belong to belief systems and adhere to philosophies that tell us to question, to critique. You could be a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, a Socialist or a Democrat. The original purpose of every single one of your ideas was to strive to break existing molds of seeing, and give you a new set of revolutionary eyes with which to view the world.
Having been born a Muslim, I only read the Qur’an in its English translation for the first time in my life in my early twenties. It was only then that I realized how much the qur’an itself strongly calls for its readers to reflect on their surroundings, to question and to challenge existing paradigms. Vision, I realized, seeing things clearly, is central to the Islamic creed. And there is a lot in Islam today that is extremely muddied. But vision is also central to Buddhism, to Christianity, Hinduism and all other faiths and philosophies that seek to dictate how a human being should ‘be’ in the world.
If human beings cannot see clearly, we cannot function in a manner that properly takes account of the world around us. We cannot make decisions that will collectively lead to a better world. And what’s more, we collectively contribute to a world that is bad, and gets worse. Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it and do nothing.” Ergo, the world is a dangerous place because of you and I.
Out of this realization was born a thesis. If more people could critically connect with their beliefs, more people would see the world for what it really is. And if more people saw the world for what it is, more people would act. And if everyone acted, change will happen. As a Muslim, this becomes by purpose in life. My Jihad. Now jihad itself is a term that has been mangled by the media, and extremists alike today. This negative perception has been further bolstered by the refusal of the silent majority to stand up and contest it. Making it essentially a case study for what I am talking about.
What we see and hear of ‘Jihad’ popular discourse is picture of brutal, mindless violence. ‘Holy war’ is the most popular term used to describe it, but that’s a term that isn’t even in the Islamic vocabulary. Jihad is not ‘holy war’. In its true conception, Jihad is something we can all relate to, Muslim or no. Because Jihad simply means to strive and struggle. An internal struggle. The poet Arthur Rimbaud one said “the battle for the soul is as brutal as the battles of men”. But I would say it’s far more brutal, because the struggle here is subtle.
The Hindu philosopher Swami Chimayananda talks of an “internal guerilla warfare” because “the enemy is never out in the open, it ducks and hides, comes out and attacks and then runs and hides again”. This is what the battlefield of ideas, inside our own selves, looks like. And to paraphrase Tariq Ramadan, “If you have goal in life, then to reach that goal you have a path. And by having a path all you need to know is that you will face struggle”. Overcoming that struggle is Jihad. So Jihad may be understood through the metaphor of war, but that is about as far as it goes. And what’s more, you don’t necessarily need to be a Muslim to have a jihad.
So how do I go about my Jihad? I use whatever skills and tools I have at my disposal at the moment. And social media is one of them. The internet is another place that casts upon us the illusion of freedom, of consequence-free self-expression, and of pure unadulterated, uncensored information. And perhaps it was like that in the beginning. But no longer. Like everything else, the internet is also increasingly controlled by a few leading institutions, who now own the vast majority of the online real estate that you and I occupy. The presence of these institutions shapes what we see online, how we react to what we see, and even what we say and express. The internet influences our opinions. It mines us for commercial gain. We think we use the internet, but in reality it is mostly the converse now, the internet uses us.
But I use one of these very institutions as a platform for spreading my message. I started using Instagram in September 2012. Instagram allows you to share photographs and captions in an easy to access, easy to digest platform. Most of us tend to think that photography, while creative, cannot construct reality in the manner of a painting, which can depict anything the skill and vision of the painter can conceivably think of. But photography isn’t simply reality reproduced. A photographer has just as much leeway to manipulate reality as any artist, and he does this by manipulating what is inside the frame. Instagram adds yet another dimension that provides you with a tool to enhance your story, which is text. I do what I do by using photographic composition, and accompanying text, to ‘redefine’ the space in my own terms, to tell the story I want.
What I try to do then is to use a platform like instagram and to subvert it with my ideas. In a small way I see what I am doing as what Umberto Eco called ‘Semiological Guerilla Warfare’. According to him, reality is constructed via semiotics, signs and symbols. And the only way to challenge these signs and symbols is to attack them with your own. Mandela talked about mirroring the oppressor’s tactics as the only effective way to combat him. To me this clearly underlines what social media based activism tries to do. Instagram is my battlefield and my ‘weapons’ are my photographs and captions. And the landscape I hope to change, to shift and influence, the space I hope to ‘re-imagine’, is the landscape of ideas, of worldviews.
But change doesn’t happen easily, especially when your goal is to influence minds, and especially the minds of other people. This becomes particularly problematic when you are dealing with a platform like social media which is absolutely crowded with noise that will try to drown you out. The attention span of your target audience is less than minuscule, and the lack of sufficient metrics will tell you how many ‘likes’ you get, but won’t tell you if that ‘like’ means that someone stopped and took the time to internalize the message, or simply brushed passed with a courtesy click on the ‘heart’ button.
For internal change to happen, in my opinion and experience, there must first be a dissonance; a dissonance between the reality you see and the reality you can sense, a dissonance between what you look at, and what you see. Most of us feel this dissonance on a daily basis, but only a few of us explore it, widen it. What I seek to do then is to provide stimuli that trigger and widen this dissonance, all I can hope for really is to jolt someone just a little bit off their beaten path in the hope that one day it will help lead them in a new direction. And in the process I test my own beliefs and assumptions. And whenever I am challenged, I am forced to criticize myself. And in the process I learn. And this to me is my service to myself, to the world and to God. To connect with my beliefs and to test them, while at the same time conveying them to others. This is my Jihad.
All of us lead an existence akin to human beings in the movie, The Matrix. Or to provide a more classic example, the shackled people in Plato’s Cave. All of us are blinded by our inability to see the truth. And in that blindness are absolutely convinced that we are clear sighted. But each of us also has insights that the rest of us don’t. Each of us sense a different glitch in the matrix, and so each of us have the potential to work towards unshackling others, together to ultimately work to reveal the matrix for what it really is.
All men’s minds are a dark labyrinth. We never pause to ask if what we believe is true. But occasionally life shows us rabbit holes with fluffy white tails disappearing into enticing unknowns; or it stretches out a hand, offering us a choice between a blue pill and a red one. Take the red pill, dive into the rabbit hole. Search for your Truth. Find your Jihad. Watch out for the omens that will guide you they are literally everywhere. As the Buddha said, there are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth, not going all the way, and not starting.