By Mirza Yawar Baig
October 6, 2017
There is a beautiful teaching story from Korea of a Zen master and his disciple. The master took him to the bank of a stream that flowed between rocks. There he made a small paper boat and floated it on the water. He told his disciple to follow the boat and report back to him about its journey. The disciple trotted along the bank of the stream and watched the little boat riding the current, dodging between the rocks until it finally vanished around a bend. When he returned, the master asked him, ‘What did you see?’
‘I saw the boat as it raced on the current, riding the waves. It was so exciting.’
‘What else did you see?’
‘Nothing else,’ said the disciple, perplexed about what he may have missed seeing.
‘What did the boat do when it came to a rock in the stream?’
‘It went around the rock,’ said the disciple.
‘What would have happened if it had tried to break the rock?’
‘It would have failed.’
‘And its journey would have ended. But the rock would still have been there. Think, what was the purpose of the boat? To ride the current and see the world or get involved with a rock that is going nowhere?’
Today, we Muslims, worldwide are like the boat, trying to break the rocks which seem to block our passage instead of seeking a way around them. The way around the rock is always there, but sometimes needs a little seeking.
In another article I have described what I believe is happening with Islam and Muslims, globally. I would suggest you take a break here and read that article.
We must remember that the history of nations is like the wave of the ocean. It rises and falls and rises again, only to fall again. Permanence is not a phenomenon of this world, though mankind has eternally wasted its time in trying to find it. Be that freedom from death personally or a legacy that will be everlasting. What we Muslims are going through now is neither new nor the last time we will see this. This happened before and it will happen again. What happened before and what will happen again is also the height of civilization, power, influence and the opportunity to benefit the world. How we use that will dictate how long we will have that opportunity. History taught me two lessons:
Only those who benefit others remain while those who take for themselves from others will be removed.
When we don’t learn from history we are condemned to repeat it.
I am mentioning this more as a caveat about what we must do, going forward, to get our boat out of the trough in the ocean and back on the peak of the wave. In the trough, all that you can see are the massive deep blue seas around you, each enough to swamp and sink you a thousand times. Terrifying, depressing, despair.
On the peak you ride the massive blue and see the horizon, the shoreline and safety, while racing towards it with the wind in your hair and the ocean foam flecking your brow. Exhilarating, exciting, hope. In one situation, the power of the ocean seems to be your enemy, bent on destroying you. In the other it is taking you to your goal, supporting you and using its massive force to drive you forward.
In reality, nothing changed in the ocean. It is the same ocean, the same waves with the same power. What changed is the position of your boat. In one situation, the power of the waves is a lethal danger. In another it is an asset, support and your motive power. We don’t control the ocean. But the boat is ours. The one who tries to control the ocean and despairs at his own insignificance is bound to perish. While the one who focuses on his boat and tries to use the force of the ocean to his advantage always succeeds. That is why they say, ‘There are no favourable winds; only good sailors.’ The choice is ours, for the boat is ours and we are in it. So, let us learn how to sail and enjoy the ride.
This article is in the nature of a heart to heart – Ghar Ki Baat, apno say. We are the boat and are in the boat. It is for us to chart our own course and use the challenges that face us to become stronger, more positive and more beneficial for all those around us.
I base my contention about the possibility of success of what I am going to propose also on some research based data which we know as the ‘Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory’. The Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory is not restricted to weather. It affects us in all aspects of life. It talks about the significance of the smallest action and its ability to have a profound global impact, though this may not be apparent at first. It is the flapping of the wings of the butterfly in New Mexico which creates the tornado in China; both figuratively and actually. You can read more about that here:
Islam is the name of a practice. Not a philosophy or theology. Like Judo only the one who practices it can benefit from it. Islam is not related to any particular race, nationality or country; anyone who practices Islam will benefit from it. I begin with this statement to define what being Muslim means. It means you practice what you profess to believe and face the music that goes with it. Some of that music is very pleasant; especially from those you touch and interact with. Those who know you by name and face. But from the rest who don’t know you and for whom the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ have been demonized, the music you face is not very nice, to put it politely. There is an old adage, ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him.’ It means that the poor dog didn’t do anything to be hanged but was the victim of a media campaign against him. Dogophobia got him and he was hanged. That is what those who spend their time and money behind demonizing Islam seem to want to do. Islamophobia is a multibillion dollar industry which like the pre-World War II, anti-Semitism of Germany and Europe is run by those who are trying to make hay while the sun shines.
The good thing about bad times is that they strengthen you. The blow that doesn’t break your back only makes you stronger. In that context, I thought it would perhaps be useful to share some thoughts. None of this is easy. But nothing worth having is easy. Today we are fast reaching a stage where our choices are sought to be limited more and more. All the more reason to act with wisdom and after serious thought to ensure that we remain safe and effective. Here’s what I believe we Muslims need to do.
Never react. Always respond. Reacting means that you are the puppet and your strings are in someone else’s hand. They have your remote control and press the buttons and you dance to their tune. A puppet can never be his own master unless he cuts the strings. So, never react.
Always respond. But respond after serious thought to the consequences of responding. Ask, ‘Does this need a response? If so, how?’ Remaining silent is also a response and many times, the most powerful one. There are many examples of Gandhiji’s responses in the face of great provocation. Once someone wrote a very long and very abusive letter to him. When the letter was delivered to him, Gandhiji read it and removed the paper clip that held the pages together and threw the pages into the garbage bin. The person who gave him the letter asked, ‘Aren’t you going to reply?’ Gandhiji showed him the paper clip that he was holding and said, ‘I have taken what was valuable in the letter. Thank you.’
Remember that restraint takes more strength of character to exercise than reacting. The strongest person is one who can remain calm in the face of provocation. However, this won’t happen automatically and must be cultivated. Like body building, it is very painful at first, but once you get the hang of it, you realize that there are few pleasures more enjoyable than to see the frustration of your opponent when you refuse to rise to his bait.
Restraint comes from confidence. Confidence in yourself and what you believe in. Confidence that you don’t need anyone’s approval to believe what you do and to live by that belief. Confidence comes from knowledge, so it is essential for Muslims to learn about their religion. As I said, Islam is the name of a practice. Practice without understanding can also give you some benefit, but if you practice with understanding, the benefits are multiplied, one of which is gaining confidence. The other is the ability to respond appropriately when the need arises. Apologetic Muslims are no good to man or beast. They live in fear and contaminate others with it. As Jesus is reported to have said, ‘The truth shall set you free.’ (John 8:32). Learn the truth about Islam so that you can practice it with confidence.
Understand that strangeness enables stereotyping and having a face to a name is the best defence against it. It is not possible to hate or malign someone you know personally and have had good experiences with. I learnt this lesson very early in life and used it with great success in some of the most hostile and adversarial situations in management union agitations in Guyana and India. I was in the middle of several very tense situations, surrounded by armed union members, but was never in the slightest danger personally because for me, every one of them had a name and a history with me. They knew it and I knew it. I was not a stranger.
This is not a tactic. It is something you do out of your own belief and value system. You are good to people because that is who you are and how you have been raised. Not to get something out of them. It is not a manipulative technique. Let me warn you in advance that if you try to manipulate, you will fail. People see through it and the reaction is much worse. Values, not PR strategies, must drive behaviour. Be good to people because that is what Islam teaches us. Help people because that is what Islam teaches us. Stand up for the oppressed because that is what Islam teaches us. Give more than what is due and focus on excellence in everything you do, because that is what Islam teaches us. You do it because Islam teaches you to do it. Others will react to it because you did it. Eliminate strangers by eliminating strangeness; make friends. It takes very little, a smile, remembering a name, listening with empathy, walking a little way with them to help them in their time of need. The results are profound. The best compliment I received from one of my many Hindu friends when talking about the effects of Islamophobia was when she said to me, ‘Yawar Bhai, when anyone says the word ‘Muslim’, I see your face.’
Sad to say that despite all this, Islamophobia has taken its toll and there are some relationships which seem to have gone sour for no reason other than that people chose to believe false propaganda instead of asking themselves a simple question, ‘Which Muslim do I know, who is like this?’ Strangely people who have lived with us, literally in our homes, who have eaten and travelled with us, whose children are like our own, shared good and bad times with us and have never had a single negative experience have still chosen to turn a cold shoulder to decades old friendship. Why they did that is a mystery to me but one that I have chosen to leave in its place. There is too much to do, to spend time and energy wondering why someone chose to walk away, when I know with total certainty that there is nothing that I did to instigate that reaction. Sadly, the political propaganda that seems to have engulfed us globally has taken its toll. To accept loss is a part of growing up.
So, here’s my solution.
If I was asked to define in one word, the problem of Muslims and Islam, I would say it is ‘image’. It is because of this that the ‘Opposition’ has been able to project us into the space of the ‘Other’, to be hated, maligned, demonized and destroyed. Not that they can do it, but they can try and that is painful enough. This is possible because we are relatively unknown, not understood and a mystery to most people. Add to this the selective and often distorted projection of negative things from the culture of some Muslim countries as being aspects of Islam and we end up with the mess that we are in. The reaction of many of us, thanks to our own ignorance about Islam as well as about different cultures and societies, is to feel ‘guilty’ and ‘ashamed’ of our own religion and to try to answer the accusations either by becoming apologetic or by reacting aggressively. Both, especially the latter, are detrimental to our own cause and play into the hands of those whose aim is to bait us into saying or doing things to ‘hang’ ourselves. The fact that we don’t read, have no understanding about critical thinking and analysis, have no tolerance for the opposite view and have no effective media or means of communication, makes the job easy for those who target us.
Therefore, our principle challenge is really quite simple; change the image.
It is a common copout strategy to ‘globalize’ issues which apparently legitimizes our inaction in trying to solve them. ‘How can I solve such a massive problem? After all I am one person.’ But as Mother Teresa said, ‘If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one.’ Localizing the problem suddenly makes it possible for each one of us to contribute and by that contribution; we can have a global impact. Action and only action produces results. So, we need to act.
My philosophy in consulting as well as life is to try to seek solutions that are simple, easy to understand and teach, doable by everyone and needing little or no external resources or training. These are the best solutions for they have the ability to proliferate fastest.
Another thing that encourages me endlessly is the ‘Lily pad problem’; A lily pad grows so that each day it doubles its size (area). On the 20th day of its life, it completely covers the pond. On what day of its life was the pond half covered? I am sure you can guess the answer. There is a complicated way to solve this problem but the simplest is to note the phrase – doubles in size each day. We are talking about small changes that together can change the world. On the 19th day, the pond is only half covered with lily pads and that doesn’t look like much. But on the 20th day you wake up to the fact that the pond is completely covered and all you can see are the lily pads.
To change our image, which is necessary for us to get out of the position of the ‘Global Other’ we must use the old adage: ‘Think global, act local.’
I think I have explained the global issue in enough detail. Let us see what the local action must be.
Muslims are supposed to be 20% of the global population. This means that for every Muslim, there are four people who are not Muslim. This means that the global image problem, at a local level, can be defined as the opinions of four people. That means that all that I need to do is to convince four people, that I am the best thing that happened in their lives. Win the hearts of four people. Not more. Just four. Convince by my behavior, because people listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do. It is our personal experience of each other that we use to form our opinions, including our stereotypes and prejudices. When these stereotypes and prejudices come face to face with personal concrete experience, they melt away in the light of experienced truth.
A lamp doesn’t light up a room by doing anything to the room. It lights it up simply by living its purpose and lighting itself up. If the room needs more light, the lamp just burns brighter until all darkness is driven from the room. Darkness has no existence of its own. It is the name given to the absence of light. Lamenting about darkness won’t drive it away. Lighting a single lamp will.
That is my contention and that is my solution.
As you read this, I am sure there will be many who will say, ‘This is not simple. It is simplistic. It is too simple to work. How can the solution to such a massive problem be so simple? How is it possible that we can solve our problem of being in the position of the ‘Global Other’, without a Muslim UN, owning global media channels, bringing all Muslims of every type together on one platform, creating a powerful global leadership which every Muslim will obey…I can list all the so-called grand strategies that we hear all the time but won’t waste your time here. All I have to say is, ‘How many of those grand strategies worked?’ That needs no answer. That is the problem with grand strategies; in their conception is their demise. They are all still born because they are too complex, need too many resources and are too open to opposition.
A simple strategy like what I have suggested has the following strengths:
1. Needs no resources
2. Can be done by anyone
3. Needs no training or specialized knowledge or special time out of your day
4. Will show immediate results – instant feedback
5. Nobody can object to it because nobody will object to good coming their way
So, what are you waiting for? At worst, even if the strategy fails to bring about global change, you will still have four people who believe that you are the best thing that happened to them in their lives. Now what’s so bad about that?
I want to end with the beautiful word of Barbara Winters who said, ‘When you come to the end of the light of all that you know and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is to know that one of two things will happen; there will be something firm to stand on or you will be taught how to fly.’
Now that you have come to the end of this article, go and be nice to someone. Go on! What are you waiting for? Just do it.
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who try to succeed and those who tell you why they never tried. It is our choice who we want to be.
Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization.