In a word, fear.
We were afraid of so many things: Hell. The Day of Judgment. Temptation. The end of the world. What if our kids refused to pray once they reached the age of 10. The angels cursing us. Losing our faith. Our kids trying drugs. The coming of the Dajjal (AntiChrist). What the community would think if we did X, or said Y. Ideas that threatened our view of the world. (Unwed) teenage pregnancy. The Torture of the Grave. Our kids leaving Islam. Celebrating non-Muslim holidays. God’s anger. The future. Conspiracies by the “enemies of Islam” against Muslims. The persecution of the believers that will come at the end of the world….
We feared such a mixture of things. Some of these things (our kids trying drugs, teenage pregnancy) are issues of concern for many if not most parents, whether Muslim or not. For religious leaders and groups to acknowledge that many people (particularly recent immigrants, or young, inexperienced parents) have fears of this type, and try to support them in dealing with these sorts of issues in constructive ways is one thing—but encouraging and even fostering fear is quite another.
The conservative Muslim communities I was involved with or associated with in the ’80’s and ’90’s often fanned our fears in order to serve their own purposes.
I remember one fund-raising event for a Muslim school that the local branch of a major Muslim org was establishing in the ’80’s. To tug on the heart-strings of those adults present and induce them to donate generously, the organizers gave a group of kids signs to wave, which said things such as “Save us from the public schools!” The entire message that was communicated by the speakers at that event was that sending kids to public school would pretty much guarantee that they would get involved in “immoral” activities, and even lose their faith. Other organizations, mosques and groups did much this sort of thing as well. By appearing to be taking the lead to protect Muslim children from the supposed dangers posed by the wider society—public schools, non-Muslim friends, TV, movies, fashion, dating, and so forth—they could position themselves as a group that had the answers and could provide leadership in the face of a perceived crisis, and in this way gain a devoted following.
Fears for our children dovetailed nicely with more specifically religious fears, which were also actively fostered through sermons, reading materials, teaching circles, and so forth. The torments of Hell were frightening enough, and the tortures of the grave were even worse, but it was the signs of the imminent end of the world that were among the most potent ways of manipulating our fears.
The Cult particularly excelled at this. For them, “modern” was a bad word, and “modernity” was practically synonymous with “ungodliness.” Just about everything in the modern world was classified as a sign of the end of the world. Since technology (cars, computers, DVD players, CDs, etc) was regarded as a necessary evil and therefore utilized and accepted, social change and social movements had to bear the weight of being a symbol of the apocalypse. So, things such as democracy, universal human rights and feminism were supposedly signs that the world would soon come to an end. Muslims who supported such notions had been deceived by Satan and/or their own low desires, and were in effect fighting on the side of the Dajjal, whether they knew it or not.
We actually believed that the world was going to end soon, that the Dajjal would soon appear, and that the persecution of Muslims going on in the ’80’s and ’90’s in some parts of the world was but a harbinger of what would soon come: Disobedience to parents, immodest women, fornication, murder, and natural disasters would increase. The Qur’an would vanish from the earth, and be taken back by God. People would forget one part of Islam after another, until there would be nothing left but the Salat. The Dajjal would come, and most people (especially women) would follow after him. Believers would try to hide, but they would be remorselessly hunted down. The last man on earth who still prayed would be killed as he tried to elude his persecutors. The events in the news only confirmed these dire predictions for us. What was going on in south-eastern Europe in the early ’90’s made it all seem especially believable.
Accordingly, we believed that our kids needed to be educated in a way that would enable them to keep their faith, even with the end of the world so near. The Cult strongly discouraged sending children to public schools, where they would become corrupted, and would not learn how to recite the Qur’an, or Arabic, or fiqh. And we also needed to build a close-knit community of believers, in order to shelter our children as much as possible from the wider society, as well as to nurture our own faith. Only then would we and our children have a chance to be saved.
And most importantly: we needed authoritative guidance, which only a leader with special, God-given insight (firasa) would be able to provide. Otherwise, we’d just be following our nafs, our own personal whims and desires, and that would certainly lead us and our kids straight to Hell.
Of course, any focus on our own lives as women and where we were going was out. We didn’t know if the world would last long enough for us to grow old, but we didn’t think about what old age would be like for us anyway. We had far too much going on in the present, what with our concern about preserving Islam in as “traditional” and intact a form as possible for the next generation. We also picked up on the misogynistic undertones of these descriptions of the end-times, with their emphasis on women’s “immodesty” as a sign that the end of the world was nigh, as well as the claim that most of the Dajjal’s followers would be women. To say that this sort of thing inhibited us from critically examining what we were doing and where our lives were going is an understatement. Unsurprisingly we didn’t want to risk even thinking anything that would put us in the camp of the Dajjal.
Looking back, I’d say that most of what we were afraid of was ourselves. Our own shadows. And that our fears were masterfully exploited, in order to control us.