Subverting The Three R’s: Reading, Writing & Freedom
(Originally published in Paths of Unlearning, 2005, Shikshantar, Udaipur, India.)
“For the Individual school is always a gamble. The chances may be very slim but everyone shoots for the same jackpot. Of course as any professional gambler knows, it is the rich who win in the end and the poor get hooked.” – Ivan Illich
For me, the words ‘education’ and ‘resistance’ have only come together recently. Whilst my schooling occurred across three continents, it is interesting to note that I experienced a fairly smooth continuum in my education. At each of the schools I went to, a certain set of indistinguishable myths prevailed and formed the substance of education. At school we were taught that the academic processes we are being put through were for our own benefit. They tied into what it means to be successful in contemporary society. If we’re good boys and girls, if we follow rules, then we will succeed in life, we would have ‘options’. The key is education. Failure was something too terrible to contemplate. There really was no imaginable future for the individual who did not succeed in their education. It was not quite psychological death but certainly a dark oblivion of sorts.
Without being conscious of it, without being fully aware of why, I found myself resisting these myths. My resistance to the myths that constituted the system of education was very real. Initially it was unconscious, reactionary, based on unarticulated instincts and feelings. Where did this resistance come from? This unconscious resistance was a function of a number of things primarily of one central thing.
In opposition to the myths of education stands the idea that an individual is free and has an unlimited capacity. For me resistance to education was instinctual because I had been raised by my parents to love freedom. Regardless of the fact that my love was so deep it sometimes brought me into conflict with my parents. (In moments of opposition with our parents I wonder how many of us have felt like telling them that we are only following the lessons they taught us?) My resistance came from the fact that as a child, I was not compromised or broken by fear, rather I was bolstered by what was effectively the unconditional love of parents and family.
What do I mean by freedom?
Freedom has a distinct quality. It has a character, which is perhaps hard to define in words, but to me is nonetheless very recognisable and very familiar. Freedom for me meant being able to stand in the school toilets with twenty of my classmates and be comfortable with the fact that I was the only one not smoking. Freedom meant being able to talk to people as equals, be that the school Principal or my father’s chauffer — who, while teaching me how to drive one afternoon, slapped me around the ear when I looked down at the gearbox while trying to shift gears. He told me that I need to look at the road when I drive. That clip around the ear had a quality of freedom about it. Freedom has meant having the sometimes painful luxury of making many mistakes, of being able to accept those mistakes, of being accepted and allowed to grow despite my mistakes.
As I have matured, freedom for me has meant possessing a quality of openness, of not fearing expression, of not worrying too much about how my honesty will reflect on me; but rather how it will reflect on other people and of trusting people. Professionally it has meant that I have had no need to resort to petty politics in order to make myself feel better, to get things done, nor to ‘defend’ myself from anyone. Freedom has meant that I am not afraid to ask questions in public for fear that someone might think me stupid — and sometimes I might look stupid, but that too is an essential part of freedom.
As I look around me in the ‘freedom loving’ West, I see too many people who display signs of a lack of freedom. I find people who are naturally open withholding their openness from fear, I find people who are naturally sweet withholding their sweetness for fear that they might be hurt, I find the most caring and loving people keeping their heads down, keeping their love for people in tight control because they have been taught that emotion is inappropriate. I find people who are naturally gifted working day in and day out on tedious soul-destroying tasks because they have been trained to accept this ‘reality’ — I see great artists working as accountants, I see great writers working on advertising copy for toothpaste, I see great scientists working in fast food joints, I see great gardeners working in airless, fluorescent-lit, dead offices. I see brilliant possibilities turn into mediocre work to be forgotten almost as soon as it is completed.
All this prompts me to ask myself : who is free in this society of ours? From where does this alienation from true freedom come? From where does this illusion of freedom come? To understand this lack, to understand where this lack stems from and who propagates it has been one of my tasks. The task that is now unfolding before me is that of resisting those systems which destroy freedom.
Due to the fact that I’ve never really looked back at my academic career in this light, this is a lesson for me as I write; sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, but always necessary learning. Here then is the story of my resistance, of the slow awakening of my conscious resistance — aided by many proverbial claps on the back from friends.
A Little Background
When I was seven, born and living in London, my parents decided that it would benefit our education if we moved out of the UK for a few years. Wanting to give us a little taste of our cultural heritage, we moved to Bombay.
It’s often been said that the most effective learning occurs outside of our day-to-day contexts, such as when we are exposed to new ideas, or when we do something we have never done before. The move to India was both instrumental in and pivotal to my learning. Whilst a vast amount of informal learning sprang from this move, from being in an entirely new environment, with new places and people to explore, the first interesting change in my space was the sudden lack of television.
Once the initial excitement of the move had subsided this presented a problem. Fortunately, the solution presented itself at the same time. The house we moved into had a wonderful library with books that had once belonged to kids who had long since grown up and moved away. In addition to the library at home, I discovered Amar Chitra Katha comic books, which provided me with an unparalleled and stress-free alternative introduction to Indian history and mythology. I can still remember reading an account of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in a comic and being amazed at reading the British version of events in my school text books. Although what was perhaps even more interesting than the existence of two versions of the same event were the gaps — whole characters, whole incidents missing from the British version of events, or simply reduced to one-liners in my text books.
While being annoyed at the way Indian freedom fighters were treated (or just left out) by my British textbooks, these observations didn’t prompt any great questions in my very young head. They however alerted me to, and ensured that I was comfortable with, multiple realities, and to the notion that perhaps things were not as they always seemed, that there is usually another story.
I don’t think that I can stress enough the role that reading has played in my learning. I devoured everything; I read everything I could find. This frequently included books that I didn’t understand, couldn’t pretend to understand, as well as less challenging material such as the Readers’ Digest jokes page! But I was motivated to explore, often by sheer boredom.
When I returned to these works in later years, sometimes because again there was nothing else to read at that time and place, the words and the stories were half-familiar, except that they now made a lot of sense. It was almost as if the stories were percolating, bubbling away inside me, waiting for the right time.
When I was younger, my reading served the purpose of entertainment, of replacing television. The habit of reading however most served me when I reached a point in my life where I needed answers to my most pressing questions. My reading took on a more serious quality over time, serving to inform very specific questions I had (see ‘An Inflection Point’ later in this narrative).
Reading John Taylor Gatto’s An Underground History of American Education shook me up because here was a critique of the system, effectively a student’s critique of the system (because he so clearly understood students) but it came from an award winning school-teacher with twenty-seven years of experience. More than this though, as I read Gatto, I noted that his experiential evidence was coupled with extensive quotations from official documents from the very people whose business it was to shape education. I read with mounting horror because it was becoming obvious that all those things that I subconsciously thought of as flaws of the systems; such as a focus on career (as opposed to personal growth), having to learn information by rote (for exams), a lack of space for experimentation (instead we have curriculum — designed by whom for whom?), and fundamental lack of self-learning, all of this had actually been consciously designed to meet the requirements of industrial society and capital as opposed to the requirements of people.
I struggled to think critically about the evidence presented before me. Perhaps I would have retained some shred of doubt as to the destructiveness of the system had I not been able to corroborate the stories and ideas in these books with my own personal experiences. My suspicions have perhaps been given more weight than I would have liked, the problems seem deeper and darker than I had ever imagined.
On one occasion, I recall a Vice-Principal having a massive argument with a student over something, to the point where he ended up kicking the student. I was horrified but put it down to a unique and one-off situation. Similarly, I had witnessed small humiliations inflicted on students many times. I had witnessed the angst of parents who were told by teachers that their children ‘did not have the aptitude’ to do this or that. I witnessed the excruciating pressure put on students to perform. I spoke many times to my teachers about the intolerable conditions that they were forced to work under.
My reading continued, independent and mostly disconnected from any formal academic constraints. I think it would be fair to say that I had a curriculum which I constructed myself through following writers who I liked to other writers that were similar, later through bibliographies and also simply through reading whatever took my fancy. Through my reading, I had stumbled onto a deep, rich vein of learning.
In the meantime, my formal schooling environment didn’t engage me. I went to school of course, like all the other kids my age. I’m not quite sure how mentally present I was at school though. Throughout my entire academic career, I think I was mostly somewhere else.
In Abu Dhabi, I turned more and more to my reading to the point where, in later years, when I was around sixteen, my parents became somewhat alarmed at my solitude and insisted that I spend more time with people. I think it was around this point that I discovered that I could comfortably hang out with people I went to school with and still enjoy myself and it was a nice, unforced discovery.
During our time in Abu Dhabi, we witnessed the Gulf War (1991). The Emirates was a little too far from the centre of action to be dangerous, but it was a major port for the Allies. We saw long convoys passing our house as well as plenty of American troops on shore leave and occasionally even played table tennis with them.
One evening I was trying to explain how the table-tennis score was kept to a soldier I had just beaten. He couldn’t understand the system. As know-it-all teenager I remember thinking they’re sending young kids to fight a war, I remember being struck by the fact that so many of them were black and shaking my head as I tried to reconcile slick CNN graphics and the big words of politicians with these G.I.’s who were probably not much older than me.
Reflections on My School Years
The picture I paint above of my formal schooling is (at least until I went to university) speaking from an emotional perspective largely positive — although of course there were exceptions. The only difficult parts of my childhood, the only times I felt sad and depressed and upset, were all in some way related to my performance in school… From where I sit today it seems like I daydreamed my way through most of my school years.
Grades are the primary means with which formal schooling defines failure, which my parents and I both had to deal with. This was a painful experience, indeed the only painful experience of my youth! When you’re a thirteen year old kid in school, flunking exams, or thinking that you’re flunking exams (to get a C was to have virtually flunked, not because you had but because you’re smart and smart kids are supposed to get A’s. Who hasn’t heard the words ‘can do better’?) is not a good feeling; it is immensely upsetting. It was upsetting not for the reason that I didn’t think that I would get a job, but mainly because it upset those around me, most of all my parents.
What was it then that enabled me to resist the pressures of school? At the risk of being seen as flippant, I honestly think it was my inherent laziness. The trouble with using a word like ‘lazy’ is that people often confuse it with ‘lethargy’ which suggests a lack of energy. Rather, laziness is an intense, pathological hatred of doing anything that can be thought of as pointless or as a waste of energy. Quite often, lazy people will concoct fantastic schemes to enable them to automate or avoid mundane tasks simply because there are so many better ways of spending their time.
There are of course downsides to being lazy, especially if this characteristic gets mixed up with more negative characteristics. For example when mixed with stubbornness or with arrogance it is possible for a lazy person to disregard all advice, perceiving them as orders and instructions; in other words they become uncritical in their thinking.
I was very lucky in that my laziness was coupled with other, more constructive characteristics. Among them was self-confidence, which was a gift from my parents and it gave me the confidence to think for myself and to make mistakes. Whilst mistakes can be painful they are obviously very much part of the learning process; an aversion to mistakes, an aversion to risk is a recipe for conformism.
This confidence coupled with my laziness also freed me, to some extent, from competition at school. In some ways I developed a Pavlovian aversion to exams. Failing them meant feeling bad, which I did not like. The ‘normal’ reaction is to work harder and do better at them. Instead I negated the importance of exams in my head and so also negated the need for competition. I didn’t like exams and so I pretended they did not exist and believed that they didn’t matter — the times they did matter was when my parents or teachers became upset with me. This also meant that I got through school on friendly terms with pretty much everyone because no one felt threatened by me. This made my years at school quite mellow and relaxed.
I wasn’t a ‘classic’ problem student: I didn’t fight, I wasn’t rude, I didn’t have any emotional problems and I had great rapport with many of my teachers (we often talked about books or the emotional immaturity of other students!). However, I was a ‘problem’ student in that I virtually ignored the obligations of my formal studies, which was mostly reflected in my grades. From time to time I would produce an A or a B, but most of the time I simply got by and sometimes not even that — which confused my teachers. There is no place in formal schooling for this type of student.
An Inflection Point
Life was mostly calm and peaceful until my last year in school. Since my sister and I were both about to go to University in London, my parents decided that this would be a good time for the entire family to head back home. When my father communicated his decision to his boss, who happened to be the Crown-Prince of Abu Dhabi and the nephew of the President of the UAE, the Sheikh was not pleased. He felt my father was doing a good job where he was and it would be bad for his businesses if he left, so he told my father to send the family home and remain where he was, flying over perhaps a few times a year.
Within a few days of this initial conversation, my father had lost his passport which was taken by a plainclothes policemen who knocked on the door of our house and demanded it. Suddenly he found that he was a virtual prisoner in Abu Dhabi, without any legal means of leaving. To cut a long story short, the summer ended with my twin and I flying to Karachi whilst my parents and younger siblings were smuggled out of the country by car across the desert through the border into Oman by an Omani friend of my father’s. A few months later, with the family all back in London, I started University.
Experiments with Modernity
These events marked a beginning. Of what, I’m not too sure. Maybe the beginning of adulthood, maybe the beginning of my real education, maybe a beginning of conscious resistance. Probably all these things and more. Whilst it would be easy to say that it was during this period that I found myself, that wouldn’t be true. It’s more accurate to say that this was the period in which I lost myself and realised that the task before me was to find myself again.
So what happened? The events I had just gone through were emotionally draining and extremely stressful and showed me that there was a side of the world that I could not cope with nor understand. This demanded attention. All the ideas that I had met in my own reading, all the experiences I had gone through, all the events I had witnessed, such as the Hindu-Sikh riots in Delhi (1984) , the Gulf War (1991) as well as all the values that I had been raised with, almost everything demanded a fresh place in my consciousness, a total re-contextualisation.
Many of my life experiences I had just ‘witnessed’, almost as a detached ‘scientific’ observer. During the summer of 1992 I had observed my father meeting people in Abu Dhabi and explaining his difficulties. Almost without exception each of these people, who ranged from British Embassy staff to hot-shot lawyers, expressed regret and did nothing. In effect they refused to participate in his problems.
I had to ask myself : why? I thought back to the Hindu-Sikh riots I had witnessed in 1984 and reflected on the fact that my father had risked driving through rioters in order to take food to Sikh family friends — that was participation. The deep emotional engagement with my father’s (and by extension my own) problems in the Emirates meant that all of my most profound life experiences had to be re-contextualised from the perspective of an observer to the perspective of a participant. Had I ever refused participation? Would I in the future? How is it that in a country like the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim country with the world’s highest per capita income, powerful people had refused to participate? The clearest answer was fear. The only reason people refused to help was that they were afraid to help and they believed themselves to be powerless to actually help. There is no recourse to justice. Why was that? How could I reconcile what little I knew about the long Islamic traditions of justice with these experiences? This was a curious paradox and it raised question after question. What are the conditions in which people refused to participate? What are the social conditions and what are the political conditions?
To go through a process of re-contextualisation is not easy. In fact, I rebelled against it. I didn’t want my world to change. I wanted everything to be the same as it has always been and I somehow wished that I could un-experience what I had just gone through. (I think I was suffering from an almost classic case of denial!) It was a period of inward-turning and confusion.
A few days after I got to University I discovered the internet. This was in late 1992, before the web has made its mainstream appearance. The whole thing had an air of forbidden knowledge (and connections) that appealed to me. One day, messing around with a computer, I saw a number of people were using the network and one of them was somehow connected to NASA. This blew me away. What was he doing? What was he looking at? And most critically, could I do the same? Before long I too was poking around NASA’s public internet services, amazed at the wealth of information available there. In terms of time my University years were spent almost exclusively mucking around with computers and the internet.
Perhaps I ought to say a little bit about Physics, which is what I was ‘officially’ studying at University. What I enjoyed about Physics wasn’t taught in the lecture halls and seminar rooms. It was understanding the context, then it was the satisfaction of solving problems. I read a huge amount ‘around’ the subject. I read the biographies of the physicists, the philosophical writings of the physicists; I read about the historical period and milieu that they worked in. I was particularly drawn to those physicists who had worked on the atomic bomb. Reading about how the physicists of the time felt intrigued me, as it seemed that they were going through a period of confusion, were being forced to ‘grow up’ in some ways. With my interest in the bomb, I basically read the history of modern physics and the philosophical, social and political implications of modern physics, which in turn led to some understanding of the reasons behind the Cold War and thus the shape of the world around me. That was, in truth, a starting point for many of my wider, more personal readings of my world. The Second World War was also interesting because it presented me with one of the clearest and most horrific cases of people’s refusal to participate, resulting in the Holocaust. This was contrasted with trying to understand the moral dilemmas presented by the bomb and it gave me the basis for a critical approach to the technology I was messing around with at the time. Of course none of this learning made much of a difference in the classroom, where it was considered a waste of time because these are not exam questions!
Ultimately I came to the realisation that the formal learning systems I had been a part of (and was still a part of) held no emotional engagement for me, hence there were few reasons to keep me there; there was neither anything I deeply wanted to learn there nor anything I liked there. University could offer me no insights in the true nature of the world around me, could offer me no understanding of the feelings I was going through; and least of all they could offer me no solutions. The University that I had found myself at, not really out of choice, was architecturally Brutalist, stark and (in hindsight) prison-like. I didn’t like most of my lecturers, I didn’t understand most of the people who were studying with me and they in turn certainly couldn’t understand my utter indifference to my studies. Most of all I didn’t like my physical environment, which consisted of big grey concrete blocks.
I realised that I didn’t have any energy to put into trying to get a degree nor into passing exams and so I dropped out of University. This decision wasn’t an easy one and was perhaps the culmination of many years of not being present academically.
At this point I was still in denial emotionally, grappling with the overwhelming need I had to understand the incomprehensible world around me and trying desperately to ignore and forget the experiences I had gone through and the conclusions those experiences were forcing.
Our whole life my father had taught us to be honest to the point where we were not allowed to take a pencil from his office. I found it very hard to reconcile his unbending integrity with the way he had been treated in the Emirates. I saw other people who worked around him unashamedly abuse their positions. I met bankers, I met development professionals from the World Bank and I met Ministers who were all rich, successful, comfortable with themselves and comfortable with demanding and accepting money for the most dubious of reasons. It wasn’t that I saw anything illegal, it was just that I saw people who didn’t care and these people were successful by most modern standards. How was it possible that my father, the most honest of men, had been treated so badly when he had behaved so honestly? Knowing my father, knowing that he had gained nothing material for his honesty forced me to examine the basis of the systems we lived in. How is it that honesty is punished? How is it that dishonesty is rewarded? What about justice? Does it exist? Over time these were questions that drove me to first deny and then try and understand the reality of business, of development and of power and this process was not easy.
In the summer of 1999 I had a breakthrough. I decided that I needed to write, to express something of my inner life, for myself, to come to some understanding of my emotional state. However, I tried and couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t sit and focus and write what I was thinking. After struggling with this for a while, I decided that I would have to try another approach. I realised that I had no difficulties writing long emails. So I decided that I would try writing emails to myself.
After emailing myself for a couple of weeks, I started writing a journal, which I called ‘Dispatches to Myself’. At the time, I felt rather sheepish that I couldn’t just write down my thoughts. Now I see it as a process of ‘deprogramming’ myself from certain notions, a process of freeing myself from my training, which had taught me how to write essays, business proposals and letters, but hadn’t taught me to listen to my own thoughts, to articulate how I felt, and had indeed frowned upon such exercises.
A window had opened inside me and for the first time I felt that I had a tool with which to cope with the confusion and complexity of my inner life as well as the experiences of my past. I wrote about 70,000 words to myself in that year.
This I think was one crucial step in ending what turned out to be close to seven years of denial. I sit today, look at what I’ve written now and I think ‘My God! Seven years?!’ I’m amazed that it was at all possible to lose myself in such a way, to hide myself from myself, in the environments of university and work.
The Elements of Resistance & Healing
“We do not lack communication, on the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present.” — Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari
My years of ‘experimenting with modernity’ were not happy years. How do I best understand them? As I sit here today, one way of looking at those years is to say that I was basically trying to live an essentially modernist lifestyle. This involved going to University, getting a job and then later starting and running a business and this was what the politicians and the mainstream consensus would call a ‘success’ story. This time was for me an attempt at adapting myself, to conform and seek answers in the perceived ‘success’ of a modernist lifestyle through applying modernist solutions.
One good example of a ‘modernist’ solution is technology. In our societies today the idea of technology as a universal panacea has an element of solidity and magic about it. Recently I read a collection of articles written by scientists and technologists around the September 11 bombing. I was flabbergasted to read eminent scientists suggesting purely technical responses, such as installing remote control systems on planes, as a solution to terrorism. Similarly, the amount of attention given to the problem of the ‘digital divide’ and ‘social inclusion’ is symptomatic of a craving for relatively easy and ‘rational’ solutions. Throughout the development world, you will find well-meaning (but unimaginative) professionals shouting about how we must provide computers to the poor and needy and so bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But we fail to ask ourselves what it is we’re including the ‘poor’ and the ‘needy’ into. In the case of September the 11th the idea of technology as a solution utterly fails to address the roots and causes of the problem, it merely attempts to erect barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — which is nothing more than a child’s response. I read an element of despair into such solutions, an element of helplessness and flailing around. Jacques Ellul refers to modern scientists as ‘blind sorcerers’ meaning that in their narrowness of vision they are blind to many aspects of the human adventure.
In an incident at work one of my colleagues approached me with a request for some sort of tracking tool. We had long discussions about what the tool would look like, how long it would take to build and so on. In the middle of the process someone asked how many items this new system had to track. No one knew the answer. Upon investigation we found that it was only two items — a task that would have taken someone 30 minutes a month. Yet we were well on our way to designing a complex, expensive system that would take many months to build, in order to ‘solve’ this problem. Needless to say that the system was never built and no one is worse off for that.
Professionally, incidents like this taught me to challenge people when they requested a technical solution. All too often I found that there is an easy, common-sense answer that works much better and doesn’t require the design and build of a technical system. It seems that the modern mind is incapable of thinking beyond the simplistic and reduced abstractions of technology and techniques, the complexity of human relations overwhelms this mind. My relationship with and observations of technology thus added to an element of disenchantment with the promises of modernity.
“The question is not whether we ‘lose ourselves’ — since all do so in one way or another — but where we lose ourselves: in light or in darkness, in good dreams or in nightmares, in truth or in falsehood.” — Islam & the Destiny of Man, Gai Eaton
Technology and modernity provide one form of reality within which we can lose ourselves. I believe that to lose yourself in the paradigm of modernity is to lose yourself in darkness and few people choose knowingly to do so. I know this from hard experience. In my quest for light, for good dreams and for truth I find myself turning increasingly to faith.
It has come as somewhat of a revelation for me to experience the idea that my faith is a living, changing thing. We look at the past as if it’s done and dusted, static and unchanging. Modernity teaches us to value the future over the past, with the inconvenient present being relegated to third-place. Over the last year my sister Shagufta has introduced me to a body of literature that communicates Islamic culture and theology to the Western mind. Starting with Gai Eaton’s Islam & the Destiny of Man and moving on to esoteric work such as Frithjof Schuon’s Understanding Islam, I’m starting to grasp more consciously what it means to see the world through the eyes of a Muslim. In the short time since reading Eaton I’ve been constantly surprised at the number of times Islamic ideas slam up hard against received notions of modernity. Amongst the most surprising of these conflicting ideas is that we can know the truth, that we can know where we’re going and perhaps the most alien idea of all that the best in human society is behind us.
For various reasons, including the Holocaust, the idea that we can recognise the truth and stand fast for it is an idea that is often frightening to the Western mind. The notion that the future is going to be worse than the past is one that suggests living with a lack of hope. The Islamic mind interprets this notion differently, as an injunction to focus on the present, on doing what is right here and now and on the embodiment of one’s values in the present. On doing so with the certainty that one’s actions are for posterity, not for the next ten years or even for the next one hundred years. In some ways the “future” is of no consequence, at least in this life, the present is all that matters.
One interpretation of the way Islam challenges notions of modernity is through the notorious ‘clash of civilisations’ theory which posits that Islam is fundamentally ‘incompatible’ with the ideas of the West and this must precipitate a clash. To me, it seems obvious that Islam and ideals of the West have common aspirations, points of commonality rooted in the truth that we are all human. However, the Islamic path is a path which generates deep critiques of modernity. The Western mind through its particular training is afraid of such critiques and refuses to consider that such critiques have legitimacy and are directly applicable to our lives today. Rather the talk is of conformity, of ‘is Islam incompatible with democracy?’ and to talk in terms of conformity is to betray a certain imperialistic hubris, a certain fear and a failure of imagination. I wonder if we can overcome our fear and have the courage to be hospitable to much-needed critiques?
Karen Armstrong eloquently explains that the task of the Muslim is to build a just and charismatic community and that “The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them [the Muslims] intimations of the divine.” The notion that religion and faith are things deeply tied to the historical task of man as well as a striving to embody a set of values in all realms, ranging from the public to the present, is an idea that the Enlightenment has tainted and de-legitimised.
It isn’t that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were wrong to fight the cruelty of the Church or to question the Church’s monopolistic claim to truth. It’s simply that too many people have blindly inherited a set of values that were particularly apt at a certain time in a certain place but are ill-suited to the diversity and interconnection of life today. People who react against all forms of religion hardly know why they’re reacting the way they are. In too many cases the Western mind insists on notions of secularism with little understanding of the cost of such fragmentation.
As a paradigm, modernity institutionalizes the attitude that your inner life should not intrude on the functioning of a community. As a consequence, we are constantly dehumanised by encounters with modern institutions. Far be it from us to suggest that modernity recognise the necessity of a rich inner life or the contributions that the inner dimension brings to community.
Modern spiritual traditions do nothing more then reduce and repackage older practices up into a more accessible format. In our current climate of market-driven behaviour where ‘self-help’ courses are packaged and sold by the dozen, Islam seems quite open and free to me; in terms of spiritual practice, in terms of social practice and in terms of being a rich source of ideas. One of the few places where I can engage without too much fear of being literally sold a ‘save-your-soul-in-seven-easy-steps’ package. Furthermore Islam has proved an interesting teacher in combating the nihilism of modernity. Whilst it has played a relatively central role in my life in that it has always been present, it has had the characteristic of being an unconscious presence, a little like the water a fish swims in.
Faith serves to shape three key spaces in my life, spaces which were neglected or missing during my years of ‘experimenting with modernity.’ These are family, community and art. These spaces have been radically de-legitimised by modernity and my life involves holding these spaces, consciously co-shaping them and actively resisting forces that continually seek to colonise them. As time passes I gain new insights and access to old wisdom from these spaces which inform the reality of how to live my life…and slowly the boundaries and artificial barriers start to blur and merge into a unity.
Over the last month or so I’ve been travelling and will be away from my family for almost three months. I find that I miss them a lot. It’s a very simple feeling in many ways and one that I cherish and carry with me wherever I go. The other day I called home and my mother got very upset at hearing my voice as there had been a train crash on the line that I was travelling on. Seen through the lens of modernity their worries about where I am, if I’m safe, if I’m eating properly, their insistence that I call them as often as possible is a hassle and a burden. Seen through another lens all these things are the epitome of love, about knowing that you have a home and that you’re loved unconditionally despite all your little insanities.
It’s amazing how much pessimism is attached to the idea of the family in the West. When I was at University, I had relatively little contact with my family. I went home on most weekends and that was judged as a rather odd thing by my fellow students. Family is seen as something decadent, as some sort of animal hangover. After University, I moved back home to live with my parents and my two sisters and my younger brother. This is not “normal”. I am constantly asked when I’m going to move out; I constantly get sympathetic looks and gestures from colleagues who seem to think it is a prison sentence to live at home. These are attitudes which I swallowed and am now struggling to get rid of.
Family brings together the dialectic of spirituality and materialism almost perfectly, providing for inner needs as well as more external needs. I can, without hesitation, say that anything that is good in me has been nurtured and given life by the love of my mother and father and through the unconditional support of my siblings. While it is impossible to discuss the issue in any great depth here, the idea of family is one of the most undervalued gifts for personal health and for personal learning that we have. Family provides us with a spaces for intergenerational dialogue, it provides us with a space for learning about our own identities and personae, it provides us with a space for understanding the very non-Western (but essential) idea of service and this informs our more Western notions of what leadership actually means.
However, I stress that the pressures of modernity and the cult of individualism mean that to put the idea of family into practice isn’t easy. What is needed however, before anything else, is a commitment. We have become far too used to instant solutions and easy answers. We forget that any significant solution requires a lot of time, patience and attention.
Around the same time that I started writing, I received an invitation from Pioneers of Change (PoC) to their annual meeting and something called the State of the World Forum in San Francisco (I had met the founders of Pioneers earlier that summer in London). When I received the invitation I didn’t think I would go; for one thing I didn’t have the time, being busy running my own company, Anthropic. Upon receiving the invitation, I realised that I hadn’t taken a break in two years and decided that it would make an interesting trip.
In Pioneers of Change I found a community of radicals, a group of people within which the natural, unspoken assumption was to have a positive impact on life. More than that, I discovered something that I sorely missed during my years at school and University. I found a diverse group of young, open and passionate people who were not afraid to talk, providing me ‘time and space to reflect, argue, raise questions, opine, share, react emotionally, disagree, and co-observe’. All too often in school and at University, I found that people were afraid to talk about things too deeply, the conversations were largely impersonal and, as a result, were somewhat immature.
It was a revelation to me, sitting in with a group of young minds who were troubled at the state of the world and willing to act in order to change things. It was as if all the books I had read, all of the minds I had previously met only abstractly on paper had finally awoken and become flesh and blood.
Our traditional communities, the communities of my grandparents for example, are long gone — scattered to the four winds through various diasporas such as the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan. Labour mobility meant a further break-up of communities as people scattered all over the world in order to find work. In PoC I found a global network where almost each and every person understood the nature of this break-up and wanted to do something about it. The idea was to create a new community, one that would consciously fight the emerging trends of distance, of flat, electronic communications by bringing together people face-to-face as often as possible.
One of my most important lessons in becoming part of a community was to grasp that there is very little understanding in society today about what it actually means to listen and have dialogue. Coming from a scientific and business background I had my own notions of what it meant to ‘talk’ and how this was different from ‘action’ — hence why on being introduced to Pioneers of Change I was impatient for ‘action.’ However I learned that what I called ‘action’ stemmed from an extremely shallow understanding; for me ‘action’ was planning, it was rushing around being busy, creating deadlines and then meeting them, it was a strict adherence to the ‘time is money’ school of thinking. This occasionally had (in hindsight!) comic consequences, with people publicly telling me to let them finish speaking, to stop interrupting and in my unintentionally offending people with my impatience. All this came as rather a shock to my well-intentioned self!
Through dialogue I learned that true action stems from understanding, and understanding takes a unique quality of listening and of sensitivity. Real dialogue requires a lot of trust. Pioneers of Change as a community serves to create spaces where trust can quickly be built up and then sustained.
Pioneers of Change is a radical experiment in trying to create and sustain community at a time when modern systems are destroying community. Modernity has a deep influence on our thinking about how people organise and we find it hard to imagine people coming together without clear organisational goals, without traditional management, without membership procedures or even governance structures. Pioneers of Change both illustrates and questions traditional notions of community as well as contemporary manifestations of how people organise.
Personally I am learning, unlearning and perhaps even re-learning valuable lessons in the reality of community, of working with people driven by a passion to see more just and equitable forms of community.
‘Launch into the deep, and you shall see.’ — Jacques Ellul
Art is a difficult word because it carries too many connotations and baggage, it tends to be viewed somewhat with suspicion by middle classes everywhere, and in industrial societies it is considered at best a marginal cultural activity for an elite few and at worst a total waste of time, irrelevant to the business of life. What then do I mean by art? Do I mean work that is hung in an art gallery?
My journaling and creative writing marked an extremely critical step for me. The ability to process our experiences in some meaningful, systematic way means that we can examine our own lives for lessons. Journaling for me meant that in the midst of a very busy lifestyle, rushing off to work and meetings, I had a space to express how I felt, to get my thoughts and feelings out. By making them explicit, I could come back to them in moments of calm and my realisations were not totally lost to the vagaries of memory. It meant that I could examine the patterns of my life, to be conscious and so to be psychologically healthy.
For me, my experiences with writing are the beginnings of an artistic practice. This practice is not really about producing public artefacts, or about publishing or about being famous. My friend Jeff Barnum (who is an artist) talks about one purpose of art being to transform ‘wounds into capacities’ and to experience this is a wonderful thing. True artistic processes are also deeply spiritual processes, we are in touch with something sacred when we create and that contact serves to heal.
In modern society art has been stripped of meaning and relegated to just another commodity we consume, art does not play a healing influence in our personal lives at a time when it is perhaps most needed. Joseph Beuys expressed the idea that ‘everyone is an artist’ and that is the sense in which art is needed today. It isn’t that we should all be pouring out lurid works of psychological deprivation and then proclaiming ourselves to be artists. Art doesn’t necessarily have to be a public exhibition. Why not use art as a means of a dialogue with oneself? Beyond that art can be a wonderful expression of communal alignment. Over the years I’ve visited many community projects and some of the most healthy among them use art in building a charismatic community, in reclaiming public space from commercialism and in encouraging the young to talk to themselves about the things that matter.
Over the few years I have slowly written more and more, learning more and more about art, both through direct experiences and through talking to my friends. What does it mean to cultivate an aesthetic view of life? What are the aesthetics of life in Islamic culture? What role does art and aesthetics play in shaping our public spaces? I’m only just scratching the surface with my questions and in trying to understand how art’s impulses can be perverted and how its co-option by commercial forces can be subverted and finally in trying to grasp what the limits of art are.
A Rock & Roll Aside
‘They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.’ - Bob Dylan
Music has played its part in shaping my response to modernity. The desire to live your life like a song is related to the age-old influences that mythic archetypes and stories play on our consciousness. We are most strongly influenced by stories that we empathise with and that seem to shake our souls with a recognition and articulation of our deepest concerns, intimate agonies and most secret hopes.
Rock & roll is an essentially modern response to the problems of modernity. It does not pretend to provide solutions (well sometimes it does) but crucially it provides a response which enables those degraded by modernity (or those with a special empathy to those degraded) to stand up and say something. That something is most often rebellion.
Whilst not really being conscious of the messages I received when I listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen I now realise that I absorbed the notion of rebellion as a legitimate response to the problems of modernity. Rock & roll legitimises and expresses a deep-rooted need to reject the worst brutalities of modernity and the young, including me, have flocked to popular expressions of this need.
In the midst of so many confusing messages, so much noise, so much propaganda and disinformation, it is often the rock stars, the protest singers, who have the courage to stand up and tell the truth. Bob Dylan singing how he feels ‘ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game’ is deeply attractive in an atmosphere where politicians are in the business of auctioning truth to companies with the largest cheque-books and very few seem to have the guts to tell the truth in public.
As a result of its early allegiance to truth rock & roll for me has been a key part of shaping my response to modernity and you could say that I took its message very, very seriously. The consequences of this seriousness are complex. In fact the implications did not hit me until quite recently, when I turned my attention to understanding Islam. Islam means complete submission to the will of Allah. My attention has mostly been focused (when it has been at all!) on understanding the phrase ‘will of Allah,’ which I take to mean the natural, unforced, unfolding of the universe. Everything from the passage of the stars to the flight of a bird reflects this will and to be a Muslim means to be a peaceful part of this natural order. What hit me right between the eyes recently was the word ‘submission,’ which stands in complete contrast to the word ‘rebellion.’ As I stared open-mouthed at the word ‘submission’ I realised how deeply the rebellion of rock & roll had become a part of my attitude (and of course that of Western society at large). The two words in relation to each other generate deep questions for me, about who I am and about who I am becoming.
Whilst the music, voices and language of rock & roll are like old friends, ones that have been on many, many trips with me, I now see them in a different light. The increasing commercialization of the industry has come to mean that music suffers from what Theodore Adorno calls ‘the stigmata of capitalism,’ where truth is sacrificed to the ‘commercial reality’ of the market. The protest singers of old are being swamped by music and ideas that are manufactured for the widest popular appeal, generating apathy and not awareness. A massive degradation has occurred.
All this has led me to question the notion of rebellion as a mature and sensible response and to explore instead what the notion of submission can mean as a less destructive and more creative response to modernity. Submission to the will of Allah is about submission to truth, to nature and ultimately to life. It is concerned intimately with life and stands in contrast to the sterility of commercial rock & roll as a single-minded response to modernity.
In writing this narrative, I am left with an overwhelming feeling of incompleteness, of the fact that this is a woefully unfinished story and that you, as the reader, demand a satisfactory ending. As an aspiring writer this incompleteness causes me no small amount of angst!
The elements in this unfolding story are in flux, as in some ways they should be. I write from a place of uncertainty and am wondering what it means to make my home here. In April 2002 I started working full-time for Pioneers of Change. What will you be doing and where will you go? I was asked by my parents, by my friends and by my colleagues. Whilst I had and have some sense of the answers the truth is that I don’t really know. It is perhaps useful at this point for me to draw some rough lines around what it is that I do know.
In September 2001 I travelled to Brazil as part of a study tour organised by Pioneers of Change and the Common Futures Forum around the issue of critical consciousness and Freirian inspired education. Over ten days a group of thirty or so of us visited a number of projects, including a number of schools. It was during this trip, punctuated so dramatically by images from 9/11, that many of the critiques of modern education, of development and of the West that I had understood intellectually came together emotionally.
Up until this point I had defended the assumption that the larger political, social and economic systems of the West could be repaired or reformed somehow. In Brazil this idea was destroyed and for me it ultimately lost all credibility. I found myself thinking about all the good people and all the energy that has been wasted on propping up current systems in the belief that they can be changed. My difficulty wasn’t with the issue of whether or not they could be changed, but with the continuing damage that they are propagating by the sheer fact of their existence.
Listening to a young girl at a huge run-down, graffiti-scarred, prison-barred school in Sao Paulo tell me that she wanted to be a mathematician but also tell me that everything around her is arrayed to ensure that she can never meet this ambition was heart-wrenching. Listening to a continually smiling sociology teacher outline all the problems that government and World Bank intervention were causing him, not to mention issues of violence and drugs as well as chronic resource shortages — all these bought home the reality of my intellectual critiques. They were real, impacting and affecting real people, impacting and affecting children.
I cannot in all good conscience work and put energy into propping up such a system. Instead radical new thinking, ideas, structures and consciousness are all desperately needed. This is something else I know. Thus I find myself engrossed emotionally, spiritually and intellectually in this search.
Some of my friends who read this piece wondered at my criticisms of the West and of industrial society and asked me if I can point them to an alternative. Others wondered at my seemingly uncritical love affair with Islam, pointing to the mess in the Islamic world and wondered at that. I want to touch very briefly on these two points.
Fully-formed alternatives to anything do not grow on trees, nor do they spring from the foreheads of Gods. Rather they are created and given life slowly, step by step, through the actions of men and women. A demand for a fully-formed alternative before taking action reflects a life ruled by fear, a life of reaction rather than a life of action. To be is to act and to act is to be. There can be no polarisation and no split between being and acting. We cannot pretend that by simply ‘being’ we are not acting, in most cases our ‘being’ serves to prop up the dominant system. No one will come along with a fully formed alternative to industrial society, not in our time anyway. How long will we ignore the fact that there is a chill in the air? How long will we wait to act on our deepest instincts?
At a time when Muslims are increasingly demonised I feel it is important to be seen as a Muslim and to speak out about what it means to be a Muslim. Whilst in some ways my engagement with Islam is just beginning, I find that it sheds great streams of light on the dusty rooms of modernity. I find that it grounds me in who I am, is a source of practice that is rooted in my culture and I find that it is a touchstone to Truth. If the Islamic world is a mess (and not all is as it seems) then that is because it is disconnected from itself and its own ideas. My allegiance to Islam does not automatically mean, as some feel, that I believe that Muslims alone have access to the truth or that my mind is now closed to other perspectives, to other cultures, to asking questions or to dialogue. I would like to offer my unfolding life as a humble testimony. If you see me closed to other perspectives, to other cultures, to questions or to dialogue then I am closed to Truth and I would greatly appreciate a gentle reminder to set me straight!
For over a year now I have been thinking hard about our notions of social justice, along with the underlying idea that we need to reclaim certain ideas from the mainstream. This notion of reclaiming ideas from the mainstream is a critical part of building new systems and new language. I find myself coming across the term social justice in mainstream media again and again and I want to ask people what they mean when they use the term. What are they referring to? While thinking about social justice I have spent time exploring and trying to understand how people make choices in our societies today, which has in turn led me to a deeper questioning and understanding of historical forces, such as the Enlightenment.
I have decided that I’m not that interested in academic redefinitions and language games but rather in the creative redeployment of words, in recognising the plurality of certain ideas and rooting these redeployments in practices and experiences from the real world. How are certain ideas relevant and useful to people? Will a creative re-deployment of social justice help my peers and I in our work? Linked in to my earlier thoughts on reforming the system, the wider question of how much damage are we willing to do in our search for social justice is one that concerns me deeply.
I worry about the strength of the training that we receive, which means that radical notions and critiques often prove too discomforting for many people. I worry that our systems have become so good at co-opting people that we will lose our very best and brightest to the business of propping up a bankrupt system. I fear that our genius will be employed in engineering better and better stories around why things cannot change in any radical sense.
I know that I need to focus all my energies, skills and understanding to the task of communicating critiques of the system all the while pointing out the existence of our most innovative and oppositional spaces. As time passes I gain more and more clarity as to what my task is and slightly more clarity on how I’m going to go about this task. I know that I want to write, that I want to continue to work with Pioneers of Change, that I have a desire to serve, that there are many things I want to learn, that I know how I feel and I know what I would like to be doing.
I’m amused that all these things I know don’t translate well into the modern conception of a ‘plan’ or a ‘career.’ Part of me worries about this. Part of me worries about phone bills and bank statements and a steady pay-check and wonders at the foolishness of living my life with such uncertainty. But that worry and angst is my institutional ‘training’ speaking, the lessons of my formal education that I have yet to unlearn.
Another part of me dismisses such worries, scoffs at them and trusts the universe in whatever it is that will unfold. This part of me tells me to focus my mind on the present, on completing the tasks that are in front of me, to take my eyes off the distant horizon, to recognise that my journey is just beginning and to try and develop sensitivity in seeing the opportunities and richness of my life right now. This part of me also tells me that I need to curb my impatience, to control my anger and indeed occasional rage at what I see happening in the world; to work constructively and with the causes of my dark days and dark moments.
As I slowly (and painfully) learn to control my consciousness these moments are increasingly rare and they pass. As this inner darkness lifts I find that it means that I have much more space in my life, space that was previously taken up by emotions that consumed energy and demanded attention. This space is the fuel that I need in order to be creative and to serve. This space represents a deepening of my notions of freedom and I’m happy to be engaged in the task of holding and enlarging it.
Originally published in Paths of Unlearning, 2005, Shikshantar, Udaipur, India.