In a free society you are what you pretend to be. In a slave society you are what you are told to be. But on a desert island you are who you are.
What makes solitude a religious discipline is that only when we are totally isolated can we discover our true identity apart from both social and political considerations. When the only relationship available to us is the one with God, the only emotion—apart from loneliness—becomes love.
Even our relationship with the remorseless natural world inspires no personal contempt. At the very worst, it might solicit our indifference. What this suggests is that the problem of hate and bigotry is not just a psychological phenomenon, but also a social one.
Other than enforcing a radical form of social segregation, as some ascetics have done, how can we stop hate from becoming a political force?
Plainly defined, hate is a response to the fear of losing one’s identity. This may sound like an oversimplification, but only because we have accepted the idea that identity is a choice. And yet this is rarely the case.
Every human being is endowed with two primary identities. The first is the identity that evolves in response to our ego’s needs. And the second identity is the one that is uncontaminated by the world of subjective human perceptions, which I will refer to as our Desert Island identity or DIID—not to be confused with Freud’s Id.
We are all born with an innocent Desert Island Identity and yet, with every minor and major pain we experience from birth onwards, we evolve coping mechanisms or personality traits that contribute to the development of our ego self. The ego self is determined by the attributes we inherit like race and gender, as well as those we acquire through our experiences, education, virtues and vices.
Good or bad, your ego self is a false self that is for the most part, at least in the initial stages of our spiritual maturation, nothing more than a product of our circumstances. For all practical purposes, our ego is our identity and its primary role is its own self-defense. What we defend ourselves against becomes who we are.
We are defined by our struggles.
As a Muslim, I do not think of the ego as an enemy to be conquered. I merely acknowledge its role in my life on earth. And at times I salute my ego-self as the part of me designed to survive unbearable circumstances. I believe this even though I know that our ego is finite and develops in relation to other finite beings, while our Desert Island Identity develops in relation to an infinite force we call God.
In Eastern religious traditions, as well in some metaphysical New Age thought, those who identify exclusively with their DIID are called enlightened masters, mystics or prophets. In Islam we are advised against identifying exclusively with one identity or the other. Mainstream Islamic religious practice is not designed to completely obliterate the ego, but rather to engage with it in a spiritual struggle called Jihad.
The word Jihad has evolved to hold negative connotations, but it is in fact a noble term used to capture the meaning and essence of the cosmic negotiations between our two identities—the ego and the DIID. I did not use the term cosmic battle because we are not attempting to destroy the ego, we are merely struggling to subordinate it in the service of our God. The ego is the metaphorical devil that refuses to bow down to the eternal part of man’s identity.
Those of us who live in free societies have multiple ego identifications. I am a Muslim, but I am also an American, a woman, a mother, a writer, a coffee snob, a vain elitist, an intellectual, a believer, a friend and a peace activist. My ego identifies with all of the above. When any of the above identities feels threatened, I remain cognizant of the fact that they are all false crutches, and that my true identity is the one that exists apart from all these social constructions.
In other words, I will not perish if they do, because I have God. So long as I am free to develop my ego with enough fluidity to escape pain if I so choose, then my ego becomes a means to an end and not the means to my end or the end of others.
There are three things that differentiate my ego from the ego of someone who perpetuates hate and may even engage in acts of violence:
First, hate is the emotional response of an ego whose thoughts and actions are unmitigated by the DIID. In other words, it is an ego that is disconnected from any kind of infinite spiritual orientation and can only achieve a sense of immortality by attaching itself to an ideal greater than itself, such as nationalism or tribalism.
Second, it develops a singular identity to the exclusion of all others, usually in response to a threat or a perceived threat to that identity.
Third, an ego that is driven by hate is by nature finite because it is singular and can therefore only survive if it congregates around other egos who share its singular identity. It makes no difference what singular identity a group gathers around, whether it’s race or religion or even a noble ideology. Every form of collective ego identification leads men to murder and hate.
What we are dealing with, when we speak of hate, is a social psychology that has nothing to do with God and is only connected to religion in so far as its doctrines can be employed to inflate and empower the collective ego. Hate is not the attachment to one’s own ego self to the exclusion of his Desert Island Identity. Hate is the detachment from both forms of identification in exchange for a collective identity. Hate is a social phenomenon that arises only in cultures or sub cultures that do not honor the individual right to volitionally develop and discard its own ego identifications.
The remedy to this is not to turn exclusively to God and away from the world. If we identify exclusively with our DIID, we become ineffective as we run for protection from the assaults that threaten to resurrect our ego.
The solution to the proliferation of hate and bigotry is that we remain steadfast in the advancement of a political philosophy founded on two non-negotiable principles: individual rights and objective law. But hate being a psycho-social phenomenon requires more than just practical solutions. The problem of hate is a problem of the spirit.
I believe that the 21st century religious response of radical love is inadequate because it offers us a false alternative between two identities. I might be peaceful and holy on a desert island, but I would not be useful. Islam is both a worldly and spiritual religion. And I believe that the Islamic prescription is not to renounce the ego, but to cultivate and discipline it in the interest of building a productive and just world.
In a free society we are who we pretend to be—and I choose to pretend to be stronger than I am, smarter than I look and more determined than I feel so that I can wage a victorious jihad against hate. Meanwhile, on a beautiful island far, far away, I am totally perfect and one with God. And I didn’t have to do a single thing to get here.
Author: Inas Younis
Editor: Nicole Cameron