Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Minority Rules (Joys of Being a Misfit)

I’ve always liked being different; in fact, I almost pride myself in it. As a child, I would usually support the losing, less popular team (surely they needed it more?), it was always the yellow Power Ranger for me and God forbid if anything I owned was pink. As a teenager, I made up fictional worlds and spent hours in my head living alternate realities (often ones not situated on this planet). As an adult, I refuse to publish a piece unless it approaches a topic from an angle I've never seen done before. If everyone else is doing it, it loses all appeal to me. Conforming is often necessary to keep society stable and detract unwanted attention from oneself but, when it comes to preferences, I've always found it exceedingly boring. So when I first learnt of studies into how a minority can have an influence over a majority, it struck a chord with me and my curious brain lapped it up.

At the end of the 60’s, social psychologist Serge Moscovici and his colleagues carried out an experiment to show the power just two men can have. They showed groups of participants 36 blue slides which varied in shade and asked them to state the colour. The task was easy, you might think too easy for a psychological experiment... and you'd be right because there were two confederates thrown into the mix. They would look at the very blue slides and confidently say they were green, despite the obvious fact that they were not and nobody else was doing it. What was strange was, after this, 8% of participants joined in on the insanity and also began to insist they were green and nearly a third said at least one slide was. When the same study was carried out but people wrote down their answers privately, even more participants said the slides were green. It seems their opinion had actually changed, they were just a little shy of being the weirdos in the room.

As Muslims in the West (or practicing Muslims pretty much anywhere), we can often feel powerless. We are too few, too quiet, too uncool to have an influence. But if we take a step back and have a looksie, that isn't necessarily the case. A minority can have an effect a majority sometimes doesn't. When people conform to a majority, it is often done without deep reflection. The motive is assuming that's the right thing to do or simply not to make a fool of oneself. A minority, on the other hand, challenges norms, a minority stands out like a sore thumb and gets attention, a minority offers a different way of thinking and the very existence of a minority within social pressures to conform shows a strength and confidence that is alluring. As a minority, we make people take notice and think. 'Why in the world would she chose to dress so strangely?' 'Why doesn't he come drinking when he's the only one left out?' 'Why is she so certain there's a god when the very consideration of it makes you seem gullible and naïve?'

This finding should come as no surprise to us. The fact that minorities can have an influence is ingrained in our religious history. It all started with one man (SAW) who came saying things that sounded crazy. I think we often take it for granted but imagine it; imagine someone claiming, being convinced that they have answers from the divine, that your basic beliefs about the purpose of your life are wrong, heck that everyone is wrong and only he is right. And yet he made people consider something they hadn't before and when they did, they couldn't help but slowly begin to acknowledge the truth (even if they were only willing to write it down privately so nobody could see...). We still have that power, we've just been fooled into thinking otherwise. We exist, we can practice our 'differentness' and, when people get curious, we have the most convincing message of Purpose known to man. We need to learn to be confident in that because there is little more attractive than someone who isn't afraid to be themselves.

"Whoever sought the pleasure of Allah though it was displeasing to the people then Allah becomes pleased with him, and will make the people pleased with him, and whoever sought the pleasure of the people though it was displeasing to Allah then Allah becomes displeased with him and will make the people displeased with him." [Ibn Ḥibbān, Tirmidhi]

There are various factors than can make a minority increasingly or decreasingly convincing. One of those which seems the most relevant to our situation was discovered in the original Moscovici study. The stooges varied their answers across two experimental conditions. In one, they both say all the slides are green and in the other, they say the slides are green two thirds of the time. When their answers varied, conformity dropped to 1.25%. The inconsistency in their views made them much less convincing. Another study had the stooges say 1) green or blue-green randomly, 2) green to the brighter slides and blue-green to the darker slides or 3) green all the time. The highest conformity was condition 2 where there was consistency but with some flexibility showing open mindedness. A minority has the most influence when it is consistent within itself but not to the point of being dogmatic.

I often feel like this is our downfall when we represent Islam to others. Muslims are willing to go on TV to debate against the right of other Muslims to practice Islam in the way they see appropriate, Muslims loudly condemn other Muslims of different creeds and schools of thought (regardless of who else hears) and Muslims spend more time killing each other than they do anyone else! Each of us think we're standing up for what's right, for what Islam truly is. In reality, we are inviting ourselves to be exploited by our enemies.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe we all have to believe exactly the same things and practice in exactly the same way to have influence. Nor do I feel that we shouldn't propagate the truth and give sincere advice to others in the right time and place. What I do think is that, at the very least, we should be showing a united front. In the sight and earshot of non-Muslims, we should not be airing out our dirty laundry.  

We can't control what the society does as a whole but we can control our own behaviour and speech. By giving 'our' type of Muslim a label and trying to convince a non-Muslim (or newly practicing one) that 'our' version of Islam is the right one, our message will lose all credibility the next time they have a conversation with a different type of Muslim. We're inviting them to start asking about how our beliefs differ and why. By drawing attention to our differences to someone who doesn't understand the core tenants of Islam, we seem scattered and the unifying message of the religion is lost.

We are perceived as being inconsistent, unsure of ourselves and divided in even our basic beliefs. To make it worse, we often come across as so fantastically certain of being correct in our specialised view, we are blind to the possibility of anything else. We are losing all the power Allāh put into the minority by our own bickering and arrogance. But the influence of the minority is still there and, in our daily lives, in our daily interactions, we have the power to use it if we wish to.

When you're in a situation where you're the only one practicing your deen and when speaking of it to others, you are not weak or wrong so don't apologise. Be confident and remember that even they think it's cool to be different. You have the Truth on your side and the fact that you're one of the few saying it makes others much more likely to listen and reflect. The Creator of the heavens and the earth gave us a wonderful reinforcement when our strength is depleted, and that is the convincing influence of being The Strangers. Regardless of our sect, school of thought, culture, race or finger position preferences during the Tashahhud, we are perceived by the outside world as one minority community. To fully harness the power Allah gave us in our situation, we need to begin to act like it.

Recommended Reading:
Omar Suleiman - The End of Racism [Video]
Omar Suleiman - Holding Hot Coals [Video]
Yasmin Mogahed - Drop the Prefix, I'm Just Muslim [Article]


  1. really interesting post, I had never heard of these experiments and probably wouldn't have thought of it in context of religion either!

    anna (intheplayroom)

    1. Jazakillahu khairan for your lovely comment, Anna! Glad I could introduce you to one of the Psychology classics.

  2. A very interesting article al hamdulillah.
    Assalamu alayki, Nice to meet you!

    1. Wa alaikum assalam warahmatullahi wabarakatu. Lovely to meet you too! Jazakillahu khairan for your comment, Sanaa!

  3. asalamualaykum wrwb, I feel like I really needed this. And I appreciate the way you cited a Psychological study as an example, by the way.
    The other day one of my classmates commented on how she noticed I don't like to talk about other people. I had no idea she would notice this. I could tell that she admired it. Wish I had thought of a way, on the spot, to tell her that it was an Islamic value.
    I have so much more I want to say in response to your article, but...I'll stop here for now.
    Jazakallahu khair

    1. Wa alaikum assalam warahmatullahi wabarakatu. Your comment made me grin, thank you! What an amazing quality to be known for, masha Allah! May Allah continue to bless you with it.

  4. As'salam au'aliykum. Masha'Allah, a very insightful and also motivating read for Muslims leaving in the West. Reading this post reminds me of the days when I was like one of the participants in the experiment: calculating my behavior based on the opinion's of others. It wasn't until I internalized the hadith listed in this post -- that I began to take pride in the things that made me stand out as a practicing Muslim. Very encouraging & I recommend others to read this as well...

    1. Wa alaikum assalam warahmatullah. Jazakillahu khairan for your comment. Alhamdulillah, I'm happy to hear you learnt to have pride in your differences. I think they're what make us interesting!