A Crisis of Compassion

I remember helping organize an Islamic class once and being the over-zealous volunteer guy. By that I mean that I was doing my best to convince everyone I saw to attend. When people would offer up frank excuses like ‘we don’t have a free weekend’, or ‘it’s too hard to attend with the kids,’ I would get frustrated. These people don’t understand that you have to sacrifice to learn! How short-sighted can they be?!

And then, as you can guess, I had kids of my own. And I became exactly that person who skipped Islamic classes because it was too hard to free up the time, or it was too difficult to attend with the kids.

This is an empathy gap, albeit a (hopefully) well-intentioned one. You can want what is best for someone (in your eyes), but if you do not truly understand their situation, it’s kind of useless.

Our national discourse around the issues of poverty, race, immigration, refugees, and healthcare also shows a significant empathy gap. In some cases though it is a malicious one (whether knowingly or unknowingly). It has actually gone well beyond a gap and is now in full blown crisis mode. We’ve lost our ability to talk about each other and to each other from a basic level of compassion and shared humanity.

Closing this gap is not as simple as “imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes.” In some cases the entire paradigm by which we view the world needs to be changed. There’s an ayah about the poor in particular that highlights this.

And when they are told, ‘Give to others out of what God has provided for you,’ the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted? You must be deeply misguided’ (36:47). 

This is reflective of the discourse we hear now. Why should I have to subsidize lower income people? Why should they get handouts? Why don’t they work harder? Go get a job. Stop having kids. They should have made better choices in life. Have some self-control. They’re lazy. This is a deeply problematic world view.

The reality is these statements simply mask our own selfishness. In fact, we’ll even go so far as to assert that helping them is actually bad for them because it enables irresponsible behavior.

When we want government assistance though, we lobby for tax cuts. We don’t consider it a handout or think someone else is subsidizing it. The end result (getting government money) is the same. The one that applies to us we frame positively. The one that applies to someone else we frame negatively.

That is the essence of dehumanization. We feel disgust at someone else, and that in turn shuts off our ability to empathize with them.

This shows that perception of “otherness” is like a dial in our minds that can be turned on. That would be troubling enough, if the research also didn’t make two predictions about dehumanization’s power to make the world a more hostile place (Vox, The Dark Psychology of Dehumanization, Explained).

The Vox article actually calls dehumanization a mental loophole that enables us to harm others. Racism is a manifestation of that. Islamophobic rhetoric resulting in hate crimes is another.

And it is precisely because of this that mass killings carried out by white shooters are more compassionately attributed to mental illness, or a poor soul in need of help. Is the criminal “one of us”? Or “one of them” (and therefore fundamentally flawed, and thus disposable)? [see: Brock Turner]

The rhetoric toward the poor in particular has been deeply ingrained in the American way of thinking since its inception.

“I am for doing good to the poor, but…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” -Benjamin Franklin

Marc Lamont Hill points out that there is a societal divide that is “characterized by the demonization and privatization of public services, including schools, the military, prisons, and even policing …. by an almost complete abandonment of the welfare state; by a nearly religious reverence for marketed solutions to public problems; by the growth of a consumer culture that repeatedly emphasizes the satisfaction of the self over the needs of the community …. by the acceptance of massive global inequality; …. by the loss of faith in the very notion of community…” (Nobody).

Thus, the discourse we see. They don’t want to work. People on welfare are just having illegitimate children. They’re thugs. They’re predisposed to violence. Why should *I* help them? 

“Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted?” Why should I pay a higher insurance premium just to subsidize the sick or the people who can’t afford healthcare?

We justify it further by reading our own interpretations into someone’s situation. We want to beat people over the heads for their bad decisions and project evil intent on them. This is what leads people to say ludicrous things like ‘the poor will have to choose between an iPhone and healthcare’.

It’s as if just because someone else is poor, we can dictate how they should spend their money. Or that we are somehow in authority to dictate what they deserve or don’t deserve.

But what really makes us deserving of something and not someone else? Why is it okay to say someone on food stamps shouldn’t be allowed to buy Coke, but somehow I can do whatever I want?

This is not just a lack of compassion, but it is flat out arrogance.

Satan said, ‘I am better than him: You made me from fire, and him from clay’ (38:76).  

This is why we have to always orient our world-view to what our faith says, not the popular discourse of the time. Our faith teaches us that whatever we have is a blessing from Allah (swt), and He could have just as easily decreed a drastically different situation for us.

It’s what the story of Adam and Satan boils down to. Satan simply thought he was better than Adam and refused to obey Allah (swt). And what made him better? Being made from fire instead of clay? Is that something he had any control over?

We can look objectively and say absolutely not. I didn’t do anything to choose the land I was born in, my skin color, or who my parents are. I could just as easily have been born into a family feeling from war as refugees. It’s basic compassion. Applying it is a bit more complicated.

When it comes to poverty, we say that there are things you can control. If you work hard, you can lift yourself up. We look at people less fortunate, and in so many words essentially tell them – “well just do what I did, and you’ll be fortunate like me.”

There’s an element of truth to this. The larger reality is that we tend to idealize our own narrative. We don’t talk about ‘luck’ or qadr because we’re too invested in our own autobiography. We want to show how we made it, how hard we worked, and what we had to overcome. Maybe you went to college, worked 3 jobs to put yourself through school, and somehow came out on top. But what about someone who started out doing the same thing and had to drop out of school to look after a sick family member? Or take in a relative’s child as their own?

That nitty gritty reality is a lot harder to deal with than telling someone a platitude like “just work harder” or “make better decisions.”

We’ve bought into the myth that anyone who works hard can lift themselves out of whatever situation they’re in. This reinforces that myth that the poor are lazy.

Many argue the problem is really income inequality, which leaves minimum wage earners struggling to afford basic needs, and therefore reliant on public assistance. Viewing people as morally responsible for their own situations “obviously ignores the systemic inequalities in the economy and polity that make people poor in the first place,” … “The kind of income inequality that is in the system puts especially women of color at the lowest end of the earning spectrum, which is a sentence of abject poverty.” Even though welfare recipients are in the labor force, Mink explains, they aren’t earning enough money to support a family and provide food security for their children while at the same time pay bills, such as rent and utilities (Mashable).

When someone works 60+ hours a week and still can’t make a living wage, it is not the time to tell them to work harder. It is time to recognize that social mobility does not exist without the infrastructure there to support it. Or rather it exists for some, but not others.

And that’s what people mean when they say systemic poverty. Or systemic racism.

If I wasn’t in the rap game
I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game
Because the streets is a short stop
Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot
Sh**, it’s hard being young from the slums
Eating 5 cent gums, not knowing where your meal’s coming from
-Notorious B.I.G. 

What are you supposed to do if you live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a grocery store or a bank? Or you have a job that doesn’t provide sick leave? Or you’re forced to choose between working and child-care? Or that you work 12 hours a day but still can’t pay for the gas you need to drive to work? Or that no matter how hard you work to save and earn, your margin of life is so thin that one dead car battery can ruin your life? Poverty is often death by a thousand cuts.

This type of stress is something people are forced to live with on a daily basis. We don’t even recognize the cognitive load poverty puts on the brain when we spout of platitudes like “well you should have gone to college.” We don’t realize it, because we don’t know what it is like to live day to day fighting a system designed to make you fail.

Empathy means understanding what someone is going through from their eyes. It means actually internalizing the reality that if you were in the same situation, at best, you’d do the exact same thing as the person you’re criticizing. And it means actually caring because you know that the poor are too busy working to advocate for themselves.

In what is perhaps one of the most famous ayāt (verses) of the Qur’ān about the Prophet Muhammad (saw), he is described directly by Allah (swt) as such:

A Messenger has come to you from among yourselves. Your suffering distresses him: he is deeply concerned for you and full of kindness and mercy towards the believers (9:128). 

When we think of mercy we think of the basics. Being kind to people, respecting our elders, helping our neighbors, and feeding the hungry. The depth of character conveyed in the ayah above goes many levels beyond that. He was able to model the empathy needed to tackle these challenges head on.

Allah will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘Son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me.’
‘My Lord, How could I visit You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’
‘Did you not know that one of My servants was sick and you didn’t visit him? If you had visited him you would have found Me there.’
Then Allah will say, ‘Son of Adam, I needed food but you did not feed Me.’
‘My Lord, How could I feed You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’
‘Did you not know that one of My servants was hungry but you did not feed him? If you had fed him you would have found its reward with Me.’
‘Son of Adam, I was thirsty, but you did not give Me something to drink.’
‘My Lord, How could I give a drink when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’
‘Did you not know that one of My servants was thirsty but you did not give him a drink? If you had given him a drink, you would have found its reward with Me.’ (Bukhari)

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Showing 3 comments
  • Akbar

    Alhamdulillah! May Allah SWT reward you brother, for raising the issues of crisis and agitating the conscience of believers. Jazak Allah Khairan.

  • munir

    I’ve personally thought about that verse from Surah Yasin for so long, but could never come to satisfactory explanation for it. This article was a beautiful “tafseer” of that. This is a timely article for the age we’re living in. Great work.

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