Activism as a Spiritual Practice?With all the quandary that surfaced before and after the launching of PMU, especially in the manners the difference were expressed in some of the exchanges, I can’t help but smile a little to the irony that even the ‘progressive’ Muslims are not immune to the very same mess that other ‘not-so-progressive’ Muslims enjoy—namely, power-struggle, name-calling, taking things out of context, or just trying to win the argument even if you don’t make sense anymore (even to yourself).
Being engaged in social activism triggers lots of pleasant and unpleasant feelings and brings up various issues within ourselves. Although social issues are discussed at the intellectual level, I believe that what really moves and drives us to engage in activism is what we feel and hold within--in our hearts and in our body. Whether it is a compassion for the oppressed or the anger towards the oppression or desire for justice or love of service—or just the excitement of being in politics, we all have our tangible inner experiences that motivates us to be engaged in social activism.
For that reason, I think it is just as important to pay attention to how we ‘feel’ about a certain issue as we engage in activism as what we ‘think’ about it. Although we’d like to think that we are rational/logical beings, the truth is that we are also emotional beings. And when we aren’t aware of our emotions or ignore/dismiss them, that part of us has a tendency to take over the control without our awareness or consciousness.
As I learn more about Sufism, my appreciation deepens for what it teaches me in cultivating presence and inner reflection. Ideally, as Muslims, everything we do is supposed to be for the sake of God, or for Allah’s pleasure. But what does it really mean? As I examine my ego closely and honestly, I find that it is very difficult to do things just to please God. My ego tricks me into thinking that I’m doing something for Allah’s sake, but upon further reflection (or years later when I know myself better) I realize that I was only pleasing my nafs.
Activism brings out ‘great’ stuff within me like anger, judgment, self-righteousness, hopelessness etc. just to name a few. After all, I’m the one who has to flip the channel every time George Bush comes on TV--I really can’t stomach the guy. I’m the one who thinks, "GEE, how could ANYBODY be a Republican?" And every time I do this, I’m faced with my ego’s trick for self-aggrandizement, contemptuousness, pride, superiority, judgement and the list goes on.
This is not to say that action should not be taken against the acts of oppression. However, I think activism can provide a fertile ground for spiritual practice, as it sure triggers lots of stuff. If we pay close attention to our feelings, reactions and triggers while we engage in activism and do what it takes to ‘polish our mirror’, it would not only benefit ourselves but also the work we do. At the least, we would be engaging in it more effectively. If we can tackle our tricky nafs and polish that nasty gunk off our mirror, may be we will be able to see things better and more clearly. We may just be able to respond (rather than react) to that maddening email from a totally different space within. And God willing, we may be able to come from a place of understanding, acceptance and respect—and maybe even love (OK, that may be a bit too much to ask for but you know what I mean.) At any rate, I think it might help us clear our intentions for engaging in activism and enable us to ‘surrender’ our nafs so we can do it a little more purely for the sake of God to the best of our understanding and ability.