When Insisting on “Civility” is Oppressive

Was Ibrahim civil in debating his people?

Civility in dialogue is very important. As many scholars point out, there is often a lack of basic respect and civility in intra-Muslim debates. This is unfortunate. If you disagree with someone on a given point, there is no reason to be rude and there is definitely no place for ad hominem attacks.

But there are some scenarios when insisting on civility is a tool to oppress and silence. Usually this doesn’t come up in disagreements between Muslims because Muslims in general have little power to oppress each other, thank God.

However, when one is arguing against a dominant ideology, one that has the backing of the world’s superpowers and the force of cultural consensus and you are representing the “little guy,” there is no reason to insist on civility. Why?

Because the dominant side doesn’t constrain itself to civility. And if it does, it does so on the basis of its dominance. It has the luxury of talking down to the weaker side in any way it pleases.

Think of our times and the dominance of the liberal secular discourse. Everyday we see attacks on Islam from every corner of popular culture. These attacks are coming from the most powerful outlets, the biggest media conglomerates, the most well-funded think-tanks, the most entrenched academic circles.

And the majority of these attacks have no concern for the feelings of orthodox Muslims. And I say “orthodox” Muslims to distinguish them from Muslims who have joined the liberal secular side and participate in the bashing of traditional Islam. These Muslims are crucial to the program because they make it seem like Muslims themselves are tired of sharia and find it oppressive and want to dismantle it. These Muslims are the mouthpieces calling for reform but they represent the larger liberal secular powers that want to wipe Islam/sharia off the face off the earth. Some of these Muslim activists may even think that they are doing Muslims a great service and are supporting justice, but the reality is far different.

What is amazing is that when the little guy takes a stand and objects to the disastrous discourse being peddled by these forces, he is immediately attacked for being rude, for being close-minded, for being unprofessional, for being un-nuanced, for being an oppressor himself, for being uncivil. This is meant to silence dissent. The irony of these charges goes unnoticed, of course, given that the attacks on Islam are often very vitriolic, impassioned, dismissive, and downright abusive.

So, why oh why should we constrain ourselves to being civil when faced with these odds? Why should we oppress ourselves by containing our emotions when the enemies of Islam have the luxury of showing emotion and passion in their onslaught?

Look at the amazing companion of the Prophet ﷺ Hassan ibn Thabit (r). Hassan was the poet the Prophet ﷺ commissioned to lampoon and satirize the mushriks who were themselves making vile insults against Islam and the Prophet ﷺ specifically. Because of his skill and eloquence, Hassan was charged with responding in kind and raising the morale of the Muslims. The Prophet ﷺ told him: “Lampoon them (through verse in return) and Gabriel is with you.” [Bukhari]. According to the mufassirun, even Allah acknowledged the contribution of poets like Hassan in the ayah: “Except those [poets] who believe and do righteous deeds and remember Allah often and defend [the Muslims] after they were wronged.” [26:227]

Are not the attacks on Islam and the Prophet ﷺ today equally vile and pernicious? We need Hassan’s in this day and age, but this becomes impossible if we police ourselves and insist on a myopic, unconditional “civility” in all circumstances. And frankly, some Muslims are just afraid, and for good reason. There are oftentimes severe consequences for being outspoken.

But, we should remember the hadith: “Let not one of you belittle himself.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah ﷺ, how does one belittle himself?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “He finds a matter regarding Allah about which he should speak up but he does not. Allah the Exalted will say to him on the Day of Resurrection: What prevented you from speaking up about such a matter? He will say: It was out of fear of the people. Allah will say: Rather, it is I who deserved to be feared.”

So yes, civility is important. Two Muslims arguing about where to place their hands in prayer or when to start fasting the month of Ramadan or any other issue that stems from legitimate scholarly differences of opinion do not need to be rude and abusive. This is stupid and embarrassing. But that is just one kind of scenario and there are many others that require a different approach.

Also important to note that being satirical and being incisive is a tricky thing. Prophet Ibrahim and Hassan ibn Thabit could pull it off, but not everyone is able to, so be aware of that and proceed wisely, otherwise it will backfire.

Edit: I should also note that what I am referring to here is not anger, ranting, raging, etc. That kind of language is never effective. In fact, it means the other side has gotten under your skin and their attacks have hit the mark. Rather, cold composure is needed. Deliberateness in speech and a calculated approach. This is what we see in the two examples I keep referring to: Ibrahim and Hassan ibn Thabit. They were “civil” in the sense of being calm and composed, but the actual content of their speech was very angering to the other side because of its irreverence. Why should we revere and be polite about the falsehoods being jammed into our throats and the throats of our children day after day? Requiring this “civility” is consigning oneself to a life of torture.

Another point: Civility is a very culturally specific notion. Americans are hyper-sensitive about being called out for bs. The idea is every viewpoint should be given respect no matter how hairbrained. This is something that affects the classroom as well as the workplace. To simply call out something as flawed, misinformed, or confused is taken as a grave insult and being uncivil in the American context. But other cultures don’t have the same hangups. Working with Germans or the British is often eye-opening for Americans for this very reason.

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