By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Some people argue that social problems can be solved only through ‘social activism’, particularly through demonstrating against the state, against what they call the ‘ruling class’, against what they term as caste oppression, class oppression, imperialism, patriarchy, the oppression of this or that community or ideological system, and so on.
This kind of activism is nothing but ‘protest activism’. And, experience shows that ‘protest activism’ is completely futile in terms of its results. Islam believes in result-oriented action. If we consider 'protest activism ' in terms of the results it produces, we will find that it always ends in waste of money, time, and energy and loss of life.
Social movements based on this sort of protest-oriented ‘activism’ may be good for their leaders, but not for the society at large. Experience indicates that these so-called social movements produce only negative thinking. As a matter of fact, negative thinking is destructive thinking, and no destructive thinking can lead to any positive end. Reform requires a very sincere kind of positive effort. No amount of negative criticism can bring about reform.
Protest-oriented ‘activists’ focus only on what they see as problems around them. They spend their lives demonstrating against this or that. This problem-oriented thinking is ‘unnatural’ thinking. By this I mean that people who think and act in this way are thinking and acting against the Law of Nature. The fact is that problems are an inevitable part of life in this world. In every system and every society, there have been, and are, problems of different sorts. But, at the same time, it is also a fact that in every situation there are also opportunities. According to the Law of Nature, no problem can entirely eliminate the opportunities that also exist simultaneously, not even in what seems to be the most difficult situations. So, the best practical formula is to ignore the problems and avail the opportunities that are available.
Those who think negatively and engage in protesting and demonstrating against others become negative by nature. Such persons are a liability to their society, not an asset for it, contrary to what they imagine about themselves. Those who constantly point out others’ faults and blame others for various problems and social ills are, in fact, not doing anything useful. Their activities are simply destructive.
According to the Law of Nature, problems are not problems as such, but, rather, challenges. Problems are only an unpleasant name for challenges. Problems create competition, and competition increases people’s creativity. This process consequently leads to progress and achievement. According to the Law of Nature, life is based on challenges. Without challenges, there is no development. I totally agree with Arnold Toynbee on this point. He formulated the principle of the challenge-response mechanism. According to this formulation, all problems are challenges, and all challenges are stepping-stones towards progress.
Given this, I can say that people who go around protesting against this and that all the time in the name of ‘social activism ‘and ‘reforming society’ are simply going against the Law of Nature. And, those who go against Nature create a two-fold evil: for themselves, this course is akin to committing psychological suicide; and for others, it leads to even more problems.
Such persons are themselves problem-members of society. The best way to examine their efforts is to judge their actions in terms of the results of their protest-oriented ‘activism’. If you apply this formula, you will find that these people are problem-creators, rather than problem-solvers. Their theory is based on the concept of “we” and they”. This kind of theory only inculcates negative thinking among people and exacerbates existing conflicts.
Social problems are, in fact, individual problems. Educate individuals, and social problems will by themselves be solved. By ‘education’, I mean both formal and informal education. My concept of education also includes training the individual, that is, making people positive-minded and realistic. Real reform begins with educating individuals, and not by criticizing the authorities. This is the Islamic approach to solving social problems. According to my knowledge, there is no social activism in Islam. Islam believes only in individual activism, and not in social or political activism.
According to the Law of Nature, if individuals are reformed, society will also be reformed. The right focus is to reform one’s own self, and other individuals, too. But people who focus on ‘social’ change while neglecting individual reform (which means beginning with their own reform) turn the whole thing upside down. For example, the philosophy of Marxism or Socialism was focused on society, and in it the individual and individual reform lost all value. That is one reason why Marxism miserably failed.
Is it possible, or even desirable, someone may ask, for one to develop a proper balance between social reform and individual reform? I don’t believe in the formula of striking a balance between the two. The root cause of all kinds of both good and evil is the individual. So, if you want to make an evil-free society, you have to focus on individual reform. The concept of ‘social activism’ or ‘social reform’ is based on a wrong diagnosis. The root cause of all kind of problems lies in individuals. And so, all talk of ‘social reform’ instead of individual reform is useless. And it is a fact that when the diagnosis is wrong, the prescription will go in vain.
Can individual reform lead to social reform, you might ask? Is individual reform sufficient to solve immense social problems? To answer these questions, you need to be clear as to what ‘society’ really is.
Society is nothing but a collection of individuals. So, when individuals are reformed, the whole society will, as a consequence, be reformed. But if you focus on trying to reform society instead of yourself, all your efforts will be wasted. If one truly wants to bring about reform in society, one must devote oneself to educating individuals. When you focus on reforming individuals, you are focusing on real entities. If, instead, you focus on trying to change society as a whole, your focus will be blurred, because society is nothing but an abstract concept that denotes a collection of individuals. Because society itself has no existence apart from the individuals who constitute it, efforts to reform the whole of society without reforming individuals, starting with oneself, are all in vain.
Maulana Wahiduddin heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality.