Contemporary and Social Issues

Cancel Culture – Where Do We Draw the Line?

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Nila Ahmad, USA

It was sometime in early June when I woke up one morning to see J.K Rowling’s name in my news feed. I figured she had released a new book or what would be even more exciting, a new Harry Potter series. I quickly clicked on the headline, anticipation building. Unfortunately, the article did not detail an upcoming book, but rather discussed her latest tweets in which she argued that if transgender activists erase the concept of a biological male and female in order to secure their own rights, this leaves women with no basis upon which to discuss women’s rights and issues. Many took her comments to be transphobic and consequently, fans and groups began to disassociate themselves from her as they attempted to cancel her influence, some even threatening her bodily harm. She wrote in a blog post, ‘I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then. I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate.’ [1] I was familiar with the dynamic of cancel culture, but I questioned the merit and direction in this instance. As a practising Muslim, it occurred to me that Islam espouses views which are different from popular public opinion, specifically around homosexuality and gender identity. And although Muslims have often held the ‘other’ point of view in Western society, I wondered whether the new dynamic of cancel culture would pose a further threat to one’s conviction of faith. 

Cancel culture is defined as ‘The removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behaviour or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.’ [2] But, this is not merely limited to figures in the public eye. As a New York Times article discussed, teenagers now face being cancelled by their fellow peers. Social media ensures videos go viral and people are called out or lose their jobs for bad behaviour. It is too easy for people from all over the country or world to comment, bully, or attack people for a post, a comment, or belief. As President Obama stated at the Obama Foundation Summit on youth activism, ‘Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,’ he said, ‘then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.” [3] The unfortunate result is that the fear of being ‘cancelled’, which goes beyond mere criticism or debate, could either stifle voices or cause the more vulnerable in faith to lose conviction in their own beliefs.

Ultimately Ms Rowling survived these cancellations, but others have not been so lucky. Maya Forstater, a tax consultant, who questioned the then UK government’s decision to allow people to self-identify their gender, was told by an employment tribunal that her work contract would not be renewed. Academic researcher and physician, Lisa Littman also lost her consulting role after she wrote a paper on the transgender phenomenon. In these cases, the public or colleagues demanded retribution in the form of the loss of their livelihood. Unfortunately, this almost greedy need for punishment leaves no room or space for discourse.

Some may argue that the time for discussion is up when it comes to sexual harassment and racism and thus, cancel culture gives marginalized groups power over bad acting individuals, that some voices and beliefs deserve to be stifled because they harm and endanger people’s rights. But, as the above examples prove, cancel culture also endangers the peaceful exchange of ideas. J.K Rowling wrote in her blog post, ‘All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.’ [4]

While some criticize cancel culture for limiting the exchange of ideas, others criticize cancel culture for not allowing people to learn from their mistakes. In an interview with CBS, Professor Anne H. Charity Hudley, an expert on African American culture and linguistics at the University of California, stated, ‘If you made a mistake, we need to make a space for that,’ Hudley said. ‘That’s what I say to my friends who’ve been previously incarcerated like you don’t want to be judged on the one bad act. That’s what people are nervous about.’ [5]

Over the past months, I have seen a number of videos of people caught on camera committing ‘bad acts’ or racist behaviour. Lisa Alexander and Amy Cooper are just a few of many examples. As a result of their actions, these women lost their jobs in addition to being shamed before the whole world. As I read through their statements of apology, I wondered how Islam’s instruction on covering other’s faults applied here.

In a Friday sermon, the Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) said, ‘There is not a single human in the world who is bereft of any type of flaws and shortcomings. It is the attribute of Allah of Sattar [the Concealer] that covers our weaknesses. If man’s faults, deficiencies and sins were laid bare, he would find it impossible to save face before anyone at all.’ [6]

There is a stark contrast between society’s current tendency to expose other’s faults and Islam’s instruction to cover weaknesses. And although critics of cancel culture say space should be made for people to make mistakes and redeem themselves, they work off the assumption that there is a shared belief system within society. Leaving sexist and racist behaviour aside, the cases of Rowling, Forstater, and Littman appear to show that cancel culture leaves little room to not only engage in dialogue but also for people to maintain their own personal or religious beliefs. It’s examples like these that led me to wonder how Muslims in the west are discussing issues such as homosexuality and gender identity in regards to their faith amid cancel culture.  

While thinking over this, I remembered an incident which serves as an example for all Ahmadis and people of faith. In 2016, His Holiness, the Caliph (aba) visited Sweden and was set to deliver an address at an evening reception. The governing party’s members notified the President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Sweden that they would no longer attend the reception. Abid Khan, Press Secretary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, wrote in his diary of the trip, ‘The reason for this was that they had read Huzoor’s interview with a Swedish newspaper in which Huzoor had said that homosexuality was contrary to Islamic teaching and also against the teaching of the Bible. The politicians from the ruling party said that they had been ‘disappointed’ with this position and would not attend.’ [7]

His Holiness’ (aba) response to this attempted censure was to continue to speak at the event and spread the peaceful message of Islam. In fact, when Abid Khan asked Hazur if he should include this incident in his diary, Hazur answered, ‘Yes, of course you should mention it. You should openly write about it so that people clearly understand our views and our beliefs.’ [8]

Thus, the only way forward through this dynamic of cancel culture is to hold true to one’s faith. Knowing that it is not guided by societal whims, but by the perfect reasoning of the All-Knowing Creator. The Promised Messiah (as) wrote of Islamic teaching in his great work, Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya, ‘It does not impose any teaching upon us without first providing adequate proof in support thereof and explains each of its principles with proofs and clear arguments and leads its followers to perfect certainty and understanding. It removes through clear and unequivocal arguments, all the corruptions, impurities, defects, and distortions that have found their way into people’s beliefs, actions, sayings and deeds: and teaches all ethical and moral norms, the knowledge of which is essential for becoming truly human.’ [9]

Essentially, when I think of conviction of faith, I believe it stems from one’s relation and commitment to a belief system and its Creator. Therefore, whether it is persecution or cancel culture, a person who is committed to his faith remains unmoved. The only difference here is that compared to the past, social media has brought people’s comments and views to the fore, amplifying the voices of censure and demanding instant punishment, resulting in cancel culture. But, as His Holiness (aba) said in an address to young women, ‘There is no Islamic teaching that should cause any complex or apprehension to emerge in your minds. Never worry for a second that others might taunt you or consider you to be a laughing stock because of your religious beliefs. If they mock, let them!’ [10]

His Holiness’ (aba) heartening words are a reminder to stay the course, no matter what retribution we fear from the greater public. If 1400 years ago, Muslims feared for their lives due to their beliefs, if 130 years ago Muslims dealt with hostility and ridicule, and if today, Muslims face cancel culture, it is only a different way in which conviction of faith is tested. Ultimately, the future will reveal in what way cancel culture shapes society and what effect it has on the peaceful exchange of ideas or people’s conviction in their faith. However, what is clear is that when the pendulum of societal preferences so often swings from one side to the other, the only way forward is to follow the path laid down by God.

About the Author: Nila Ahmad lives in the southern United States with her family. Having graduated with an art degree, she has participated in the illustration of children’s books, as well as serving on the team for US magazine Al-Hilal. Her particular interest is in dispelling misconceptions around women’s status in Islam.


ENDNOTES

[1] J.K. Rowling. ‘J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues’. https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/.

[2] Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching.

[3] Emily S Rueb and Derrick Bryson Taylor. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/us/politics/obama-woke-cancel-culture.html

[4] J.K. Rowling. ‘J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues’. https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/.

[5] Christopher Brito. ‘‘Cancel culture’ seems to have started as an internet joke. Now it’s anything but,’ CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cancel-culture-internet-joke-anything-but/.

[6] Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad. ‘Essence of Istighfar and Sattari,’ Al-Islam. https://www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/2017-03-31.html

[7] Abid Khan. https://www.pressahmadiyya.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Scandinavia-2016-Part-2.pdf. Pg. 62, 63, 65.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya. (UK: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2014), 84.

[10] Hadrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad. ‘Head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community urges Ahmadi Muslim Girls and Women to Stand in Defence of Islam,’ Al-Islam. https://www.reviewofreligions.org/15862/roles-responsibilities-of-waqfat-e-nau/.