After twenty years moving in this community, and over a decade — on and off — amongst Muslims online, I have grown far too skeptical to take the latest manufactured controversy at face value. To our activists and leaders of opinion, amongst whom are the sincere and faithful, I am sorry; I am sorry that skepticism is my overriding reaction to the latest populist altercation online.
Adhere to the playbook a little less closely, and perhaps I will grant you the benefit of the doubt. But alas, the template you follow has been tried and tested, by a multitude before you; by the elder statesmen of social media, now household names and respected sages. Alas, the template you have settled on is the certified blueprint for building a vast and reliable following online, which is the mandatory prerequisite for developing a successful career as a writer, public speaker and influential leader of opinion.
Ah, sour grapes, you say. Tis true! A few years ago I fancied myself as a writer too. I published a couple of books, albeit extremely briefly. The first I tired of by the time it rolled off the press, so I cut its circulation short and consigned it to my pile of misadventures. The second arrived in the age of social media, when I momentarily bought into the hype, believing Twitter and Facebook to be my saviour in the mission to move copies from their shelves. I know first hand all the theory in the writer’s marketting toolkit: all that crazy advice about building a following, engaging your audience, keeping them hooked, speaking to them on their level and creating mutual dependencies. But alhamdulilah, I just couldn’t put the theory into practice. Alhamdulilah, I couldn’t do it.
Too much self-doubt made me kill off the Twitter account after a couple of months. It’s all too creepy following and engaging with strangers in a mission to get them to pay you some attention. And you have to be a special kind of extrovert to introduce yourselves and your wares to others, without that all encompassing self-loathing that seethes through you with the conceited praise of the self that the medium demands. The greatest writers, whose classics stand the test of time, loved by all, were introverts and recluses, who would shun the limelight, hiding behind the beneficence of their publishers. Surely the self-promoting author is an aberration in the annals of history.
Were it not for my famous supplication a few years earlier, seeking refuge in God from fame, celebrity and great acclaim, perhaps I might have stuck at it. Perhaps I might have worked harder cultivating a following, with witty remarks and populist sentiments. Perhaps I would have tried to make a name for myself on Facebook, posting triumphant polemics everybody could agree with, earning me a thousand likes, a hundred shares and celebratory mentions by the movers and shakers of Muslamic social media. But alhamdulilah, a couple of stinging reviews that held no punches made the decision to withdraw for me, pummelling me into the ground, forcing my retreat from a writing career for good. Lessons learned. The ugly self-promotion that a successful following on social media demands is far too inconsistent with a tradition that offers treatment for diseases such as pride and conceit.
Ah, but you don’t need lessons from me. Your Facebook following has grown by a thousand in a week. Every post you write is shared hundreds of times, generating passionate debate for weeks on end. The glitterati of Muslamic orthodoxy reference you as an authority. You are surfing the crest of the wave: in short, you have made it. You followed the playbook to the letter, and you have come out on top. Congratulations: welcome to the world of the big hitters, with your new influence to inform change. Very soon you too will be a household name, invited to speak to the masses, championing populist causes, feeding your insatiable desire to be heard.
I do not envy you. Better to be a voice in the wilderness. Better to be the writer that nobody reads. I still recall the influencers who preceded you, now but a shadow of a memory; those who fell by the wayside, knocked from their pedestals by their own complacency, forgetting that ours is a religion that requires constant vigilance against growing diseases within. It is no fun playing for your audience when there is nothing left inside; when all that you once had has withered away, because you replaced the need to speak the truth with the need to manicure your audience. No, I do not envy you at all. I seek refuge in my Lord from having a vast following, that hangs on my every word and praises me before the world.
I admit, I am a skeptical Muslim. You may well be sincere and true. You may speak the truth, and say what is right, at the right time, when it needs to be said. May Allah reward you for the good you put forth.
But my advice to you: do not seek the limelight. Do not seek to be known. Get yourself a day job that pays all your bills — occupy yourself with work that eats up your nine to five and live humbly. Do not make religion your source of income, upon which you must rely for sustenance. Do not become a professional speaker, who takes a wage for public appearances, or who earns royalties for words written and read online. Be content to be unknown, affecting influence in your circles alone.
A few years ago I saw an influential leader of opinion in our midst caught up in tempestuous storm. It might have been an opportunity for him to pause for thought and strive to reform his soul. But instead he penned a populist polemic that was an instant hit online, shared thousands and thousands of times for weeks: all of a sudden he was celebrated far and wide, across continents, as the premier voice of the disenfranchised. Indeed that was a turning point for him in his ascendency. And, lo and behold, that tempestuous storm moved on, quickly erased from the minds of all who followed him. Who recalls that now, except the skeptical Muslims amongst us?
Beware of yes-men and groupies. Surround yourself with souls that will help you take yourself to account. Take as friends gentle advisers who will speak the truth to you, who will remind you that you’re a grain of sand in a mighty dune. Allow yourself to be but a spoke in a wheel, just a leaf on a tree, a blade of grass in the savannah. Do not become too big to fail, or too important to disappoint. Do not let your vast following cause your heart to whither away and die, or allow it to convince you that you are the great man they say you are. Remember that, but for the grace of your Lord, you are nobody.
Rip up the playbook, I say. Think differently. Do it another way. What they don’t tell you when you unroll that grand blueprint for establishing influence is that it always ends in tears. It’s in the small print that nobody reads. Just ask those who passed before you, if you can track them down. Learn the lessons of the people of old.