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Nov 22, 2022

Cultural Devolution

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Cave of the Hands, Santa Cruz, Argentina; photo: Pablo A. Giménez​

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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Cultural Devolution

How the New Victimhood Culture Rejects Human Dignity and Divinity

Children, especially in their early years, absorb with great alacrity the norms of the culture they’re born and bred in, and a key part of that enculturation involves learning the normative rules of language, play, respect, and dignity, as well as the norms of moral sensibilities. The first rules children learn relate to boundaries set by parents or caregivers. For instance, as children begin to speak, the rules of language—such as subject-verb agreement and the proper use of irregular verb conjugations that often impede children in their language-acquisition journey—are introduced to them through corrections. As children engage in play, at home or with friends at school, the games they play, with intricate rules that they must learn and follow, become important developmental tools for them. In societies with more organized and sophisticated games, umpires and referees ensure players follow the rules and resolve disputes when ambiguities arise or when players break the rules. Children, naturally free from guile and pretense, are innately inclined to take rules seriously and often wax indignant when they witness others flagrantly disregarding rules. Their indignation—that exasperation at witnessing the unfairness of a cheater—sparks their moral growth, and right and wrong become weighty words.

Cultures vary in their approaches to instilling a sense of right and wrong in children, and in determining how to encourage rights and redress wrongs. One key difference in approaches relates to the religiosity, or the lack thereof, of the specific culture. In cultures where a significant number of people remain religious, parents often introduce scripturally derived concepts of reward and punishment, promote emulation of prophetic or sagely character, and warn of God’s wrath or bad karma upon those who break moral codes or disregard divine sanctions found in such presentations as the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. Other cultures, especially in modern secular societies, take a more humanistic approach, arguing that basic moral precepts—such as telling the truth—are simply self-evident and result when good people act appropriately. In other words, good people exhibit upright moral behavior, they tell the truth, they don’t steal, and they abide by the rule of law. Teaching young people these basic principles of behavior takes time and constant vigilance, since many youth display a rebellious spirit expressed in testing limits, getting away with things, and violating the status quo. Young people commonly question the mores of a culture, and shifts in cultural norms usually occur first among them.

The rule of law, normally codified in constitutions, and in statutes that legislators derive from them, also manifests in a society’s culture, which makes the law self-perpetuating, as children grow into adulthood knowing the normative behaviors and understanding their civic responsibility in obeying the law. 

Most morality—the knowledge of right and wrong conduct, and of our consequent duties and obligations—can be reduced to two fundamental concepts evident in their codification in the rule of law: fulfill your promises, which forms the foundation of our civil codes; and don’t harm anyone, which grounds our penal codes. In other words, do what you say you are going to do, and do no harm. 

The differences among cultures also point to the definitions and values regarding the human being, what constitutes human flourishing, and the definition and purpose of law. While moral cultures differ in many ways, some social scientists identify two predominant types: honor cultures and dignity cultures. However, social scientists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning identify the emergence of a third type of culture that threatens to supersede our dignity culture. In their book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, they examine the victimhood culture that now competes with the traditional Western rule-of-law culture.1 While taxonomies that attempt to encompass wide swaths of behavior often underplay or even eliminate nuances and important differences, they, nonetheless, can help clarify important distinctions.

Examining these three distinctive cultures and their relationship to the rule of law can help us determine how well they promote the common good and human flourishing—and, for Muslims, how well they align with Qur’anic teachings.

* * * * *

In honor cultures, one’s self-esteem and sense of worth come from the perception of others. Each person’s status resides within a complex social structure of families and clans. Any social breach reflects on the honor of the family or clan. Approbation and censure from others wield immense influence on one’s self-perception. Honor cultures emerged in primitive societies, before the advent of state authority. Such cultures still persist in places with tribal communities where state authority never took hold. Honor cultures also reemerge in failed states, where institutions no longer provide civil order. In institutionally advanced civilizations, honor cultures often persist in segments of society where some members simply reject the rule of law, perceive it as illegitimate, or rely on clan authority or the “law of the streets.” 

The Arab culture of the pre-Islamic period had all the hallmarks of an honor culture. The Qur’an calls the pre-Islamic age Jahiliya, which means “the age of ignorance” as well as “the age of violent intensity.” The word jāhil means “ignorant person” and also denotes “zealous or violently intense,” characterizing someone who displays a rabid response to any slight, one who “boils over” when triggered. In fact, the verb is used to describe the action of water in a pot that literally boils over. That zeal (ĥamiyyah), the rage that consumes a person who feels insulted or aggrieved by another, reveals the essence of the primitive honor culture. The jāhil easily loses his cool and boils over, lashing out at anyone who he perceives has insulted his or his clan or family’s honor. 

We can see these hallmarks of honor culture in the Jāhilī wars2 known as the Wicked Wars: Ĥarb al-fijār al-awwal wa al-thānī. The first occurred when the Prophet was ten years old. A gruff desert Arab known as Badr b. Ma¢shar al-Ghifārī, a clan member from the raiding tribe Banī Ghifār, made a boast during a festival in the marketplace at ¢Ukāż: he stretched out his legs in front of notables—a breach of comportment—and said, “I am the noblest of the Arabs. And anyone who claims otherwise, let him strike my leg with his sword.” An Arab from another clan unsheathed his sword and struck and wounded the man’s leg, which sparked an outbreak of violence among the two clans. In the second war, a woman from Banī ¢Āmir was sitting in the marketplace at ¢Ukāż, when a Qurayshī youth asked her to remove her face veil. She refused, so he sat behind her and tied her train to a thorn bush; when she arose to leave, the bush snagged her dress, exposing her backside, and the young man’s clansmen began to laugh. Mortified, she cried out, “O Banī ¢Āmir!” Her clansmen came to her aid, and a fight broke out between the two clans. This war continued until the elders negotiated a truce. 

The sense of honor was so strong in the Jāhilī culture that people would preemptively bury female infants alive out of fear that they might grow up and disgrace and dishonor the family. The Qur’an alludes to this inhumane practice: “When the infant female will be asked for what sin was she murdered” (81:8–9). This Jāhilī practice persists to this day in so-called honor killings among a small minority of Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims, who feel compelled to murder their daughter or sister due to a sense of shame she has brought on the family or clan. Vengeance represents another characteristic of Jāhilī honor culture—anyone murdered must be avenged by his or her kin or clan. The Arabs believed a type of vengeful ghost was released during a murder that would haunt the clan until they avenged the person’s death. The Prophet rejected this notion, saying, “There is no such thing as a hāmmah.” 

The absence or ineffectiveness of the rule of law explains why members of an honor culture resort to disintermediation when they feel wronged; in other words, the aggrieved party confronts the perceived wrongdoers directly or through the agency of their tribe or clan without recourse to legal institutions, such as courts in the case of civil disputes and the police in criminal complaints. To seek the succor of others outside of one’s family, tribe, or clan would display weakness and be considered dishonorable.

Strains of honor-culture values can be found in modern societies, as well as in pockets around the world where tribal culture remains dominant. In early America, for instance, the duel bypassed law as a remnant of European honor cultures. In 1804, one of America’s most important founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a duel over a point of honor that involved gossip spread by then Vice President Aaron Burr. This brings up an interesting point about honor cultures: as they become more developed, the rule of law becomes more important. Unlike primitive honor cultures, which redress slights or wrongs through wanton violence, developed honor cultures introduce rules to the society marking a transitional phase into dignity cultures. For instance, rules of dueling (code duello) became quite elaborate, and anyone violating those rules ended up anathematized socially or brought to justice through the burgeoning court system. Hence, seconds, who served as witnesses on behalf of the challenger and his enemy during duels, ensured that the duel was “valid” and that both parties performed in accordance with the duel’s code. The last recorded duel in the United States occurred in 1859 between two friends, both Democrats in California—David Broderick, a US senator, and David Terry, a former chief justice of the state supreme court—over a disagreement about abolition. Dueling, however, continued in Europe into the early twentieth century, especially among the aristocratic gentlemen of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who perceived a facial scar from sword duels as a badge of honor,3 a stark representation of a man’s willingness to risk death to defend his honor. Across the world, men—like those from the tribe of Banī¢ Āmir—would also fight with others to protect the honor of a woman, especially in primitive cultures, which still exist to this day.

In the United States, driven by increases in literacy and technology, honor cultures transitioned into subcultures, and the slights and insults that warranted a response to defend one’s honor were common enough to be reflected in popular music and films. Sociologists have traditionally found aspects of honor culture in the South, a culture typified by the landed gentry and the dominance of evangelical Protestantism after the colonial and antebellum eras. What some call “cracker culture” still exists in poor white families, a vestige of the honor traditions of Ireland and Northern England; it impacted poor Southern blacks who interacted with Southern whites, disparagingly referred to as “white trash.”4 However, in poor communities, honor took on other dimensions in the twentieth century. In Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, reflecting mid-century events, a West Indian gangster named Archie who runs a numbers game and prides himself on his ability to recall the numbers from memory, feels slighted when Malcom claims that Archie forgot Malcolm’s winning gambling number; Archie becomes enraged and attempts to kill Malcolm. Years later, Malcolm finds Archie old, broken down, and suffering from a stroke. Reminded of the event, Archie tells him that he didn’t mean anything by it—but had to protect his reputation. This scene reveals the essence of the honor culture; those born and bred in it have no agency but must act according to the dictates of their inherited cultural sense of honor. 

When Elvis Presley sang, “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes,” most white Northerners likely missed the significance of this statement, but the cracker culture of the South, where songwriter Carl Perkins, who composed the lyric, came from, knew exactly what it meant: to step on a man’s shoes was to risk a knife fight, and many a man (and a few women) lost their lives as a result of stepping on another’s shoes. As noted earlier, this cracker culture deleteriously influenced Southern black culture, which later migrated to the more urbane black enclaves of Northern cities. To this day, stepping on someone’s shoes can provoke a violent response in America’s urban centers. Comedian Chris Rock, in his foray into hip-hop, offered this advice: “Young black men, if you go to a movie theater and someone steps on your foot, let it slide. Why spend the next twenty years in jail ’cause someone smudged your Puma?” 

While elements of honor culture can still be found in pockets within the United States, it dominates behavior and wreaks havoc in more traditional societies abroad—in such places as Somalia, Afghanistan, rural Pakistan, India, and Eastern Europe—where the rule of law’s hold is tenuous at best. Europe and America, on the other hand, successfully made the transition into a dignity culture, in which rule of law determines a person’s approach to breaches of contract, torts, felonious assaults, and especially slights and insults.

* * * * *

Dignity often eludes us. We know it to be a quality that reflects our worthiness, nobility, grace, character, esteem, and so on, but it remains something we sense rather than something we can clearly define and know, let alone point to. In other words, we know dignity when we see it. We also know its opposite and tend to sense when we have been denigrated or when we have debased ourselves. While honor is the self as perceived by others, dignity is conferred upon us by God because of our humanity: “We have indeed dignified the descendants of Adam” (Qur’an, 17:70). Dignity remains ours to protect and maintain, and cannot be taken away by others but can be diminished and even lost through our own actions. The definition of dignity revolves around the idea of noble conduct; a dignified person practices virtue and carries oneself with grace, comportment, and decorum. Its origin, however, from the Latin dignus, means “worthy,” indicating something of value. What we value in ourselves compels us to act in dignified ways worthy of our humanity. That humans have value derives from the idea of human dignity. When used as a verb, to dignify means “to confer honor upon, to exalt, to value another or oneself.” Indignation, a derivation of dignity, refers to “anger at something unworthy, base, or dishonorable.” Indignant persons direct their anger or scorn at what they perceive as an injustice, at something unworthy of approbation, at something deserving of censure. An indignity aims to lower the dignity of another.

The Catholic Church heralded the rise of dignity cultures in the West. Christian teachings, though often neglected by Christians, presented an ideal and contained the seeds of the dignity culture that emerged; the idea of turning the other cheek, which originated from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, stems from a faith that promotes human dignity and forgiveness. The concomitant increase in trade and commerce and the attendant rise of a legal culture that protected that trade and commerce facilitated the propagation of dignity cultures in many societies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

In modern dignity cultures, all people are assumed to possess human dignity and are expected to respect the dignity of others. The rule of law prevails, and children grow up absorbing the social order and its norms of behavior. The courts, the legal apparatus of the society, and the authorities charged with enforcing the law are all available, but citizens resolve their disputes nonviolently and seek recourse in the law only as a last resort.

Cultures that cultivate human dignity nurture the worthiness that naturally inheres in a human being, a notion initially grounded in the Christian concept of the imago dei but increasingly secularized into an ungrounded, and yet unquestionable, social precept. Hence, people generally avoid slights, insults, and altercations, which enables civility to reign in society; should a slight occur, an educated person tends to feign ignorance of the offender’s intent or simply excuses it as an insignificant, and thus inconsequential, breach of decorum. Common sayings such as “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names shall never hurt me” affirm in children the essential civility of a dignity culture. According to Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning,

When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as a negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem. Failing this, or if the offense is sufficiently severe, people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts—it would be wrong for them to take the law into their own hands. For offenses such as theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture use law without shame. But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous.5

Such mediation through the law stands in sharp contrast to the honor-culture view that one directly defends oneself against another who has dishonored him, without cowardly recourse, unless it be to the tribe or clan if an individual effort does not suffice in redressing the wrong. But a key attribute of dignity cultures dictates that the law mediates among disputants should a breach, injury, or calumny reach levels that warrant the law’s intervention. The absence or rarity of recurring violence, donnybrooks, and other forms of civil disturbance indicates a culture that values the rule of law and respects the dignity of all, resulting in one’s forgoing taking any offense—overlooking the insults of others as their problem and not as reflecting badly on the one receiving the slight. Dueling, mentioned earlier, arguably marks a transitional aspect of a clan culture’s move from what the modern philosopher John Rawls called “wild justice,” which encourages vengeance upon aggressors, to the rule-of-law foundation of a dignity culture. 

A commitment to human dignity informs the rule of law in dignity cultures, bringing about social order, downplaying vengeance and vigilantism, and providing a robust system of legislation, courts, and law enforcement authorities as a recourse for individuals who feel they have been aggressed upon, dishonored, or harmed by others. 

* * * * *

We are now witnessing, especially in the United States, the rapid and aberrant rise of the victimhood culture, which has its roots in the honor culture and shows little regard for the dignity culture. Indeed, it arguably threatens the very culture that has produced some of the most civil societies in human history, in which people of many ethnicities and faiths thrive and live side by side with unprecedented levels of respect. In the victimhood culture, worth or dignity inheres in one’s status as a victim. The more one feels one has been wronged, the more worth one possesses. The perceived offender loses moral status while the victim’s moral status gets raised. This culture has been brewing for some time in academia, but most people were unaware of its perspectives and principles until very recently, when a whole new vocabulary emerged in the public sphere to describe a myriad of phenomena. Suddenly, words like intersectionality, standpoint positionality, microaggressions, anti-racism, systemic racism, transphobia, cisgendered, gender-affirming, heteronormativity, pansexual, patriarchal hegemony, nonbinaries, postcolonialism, and trigger warnings, to name a few, have been on the tongues and in the tweets of countless social pundits, protestors, and public intellectuals. Perceived injustices and harms to the victims have led to a proselytizing fervor that amplifies and eclipses the public discourse. One questions these perspectives upon pain of being “canceled,” of being deemed benighted and bigoted for violating unwritten rules of social engineers zealously pursuing a new world free of inequality and oppression; freed from the past, they believe, all can be liberated to choose even our own genders or lack thereof, and none may dissent or raise an eyebrow.

As Campbell and Manning put it, “The ideals of dignity are no longer settled morality. The microaggression program rejects one of dignity culture’s main injunctions—to ignore insults and slights—and instead encourages at least some people to take notice of them and take action against them. The idea is that such offenses do cause harm, just like violence.”6

In encouraging such disintermediation, victimhood culture resembles traditional honor cultures. Where the two cultures diverge involves their conceptions of worth. Honor culture values reputation; victimhood culture values one’s positionality as an oppressed person: the more one is oppressed, the more right one acquires to be heard—and the more important it becomes to mute or “cancel” one’s perceived oppressor. Instead of dueling or defending their honor, victims of microaggressions or more egregious assaults cancel the person or assassinate the character of the one who has aggressed upon them, usually with the help of their clan or identity group, not to mention the multitudes on the internet.

The victimhood culture departs from the dignity culture in at least two ways. The first is in a person’s response to the perceived aggression or oppression. In a dignity culture, one seeks to resolve disputes or address oppression by attempting conciliation with the perceived aggressor and, if that fails, by relying on the courts. But in a victimhood culture, wrongs are redressed through cancellation and public shaming, which reflect a lawlessness or extrajudicial response. Remediation for many of the harms and injustices—microaggressions, transphobic statements, and such—is generally not sought through the court system; instead, influence within the bureaucracies of schools, universities, corporations, as well as media and entertainment industries, gets leveraged more effectively.

The emphasis of the collective over the individual represents a second departure from dignity culture: victimhood culture frames a myriad of identity groups as allied in opposition to a powerful system of oppression controlled by white males. One’s identity is tied to—or rather trapped in—one’s group or subculture, whether that be a racial or ethnic group, a gender or sexual orientation group, and so on. A person’s status as a victim derives from the group identity to which that person belongs. And if one identifies with more than one subgroup, one’s intersectionality elevates one’s status. Similarly, a white heterosexual male is simply a member of a privileged and powerful tribe, devoid of any individuality and thus any protection from cancellation. In this view, reverse racism does not exist because racism, whether individual or systemic, flows only from those in power, and the powerless have every right to express collective disdain of the powerful. 

The oppressors, in this culture, are many, but white cisgender heterosexual males tend to be perceived as the primary oppressor group. Antiracist training seminars, popular in corporate America, now encourage white males to be silent in the presence of nonwhites, because their “positionality” as privileged white males limits their ability to perceive anything other than the oppressor’s perspective but never that of the oppressed. A black man or woman is considered oppressed and hence understands perspectives not accessible to a white male; a black, transgender, gay Muslim, on the other hand, ranks higher on the intersectional oppressed ladder, as this person understands the perspective of four oppressed groups: blacks, transgender persons, homosexuals, and Muslims. In this new “woke” ideology, not only does this person have the perspective of these four groups but he, she, ze, or they—depending on that person’s preferred pronoun—also understands the oppressor’s perspective and, thus, alone can speak with the authority that an oppressor lacks. 

Victimhood culture transforms the clan of the premodern honor culture into the group(s) that one identifies with, and all the groups and subgroups are allied in their victimhood. In other words, deviance from societal norms unites them in their perceived oppression, the source of which is the normative nature of traditional families, the systemic nature of discrimination, and the political nature of whiteness, which explains why identity politics abandons the “live and let live” approach and instead demands complete acceptance or cancellation. The “live and let live” slogan was merely the Trojan horse that enabled tolerant majoritarians to live the way they chose and to let others do so as long as neither infringed on the rights of the other group. But once the program was in place, Christian beliefs were no longer tolerable, but a relic of the medieval past deemed oppressive to those who deviate from the doctrine.

The threat of cancellation can also apply to any member of the given identity group. Within the conglomeration of group identities, an unwritten code indicates that a member of one group may not aggress upon a member of another group; the collective tribe demands total allegiance of all particular clan members, and any departure from such allegiance risks anathematization. For example, the LGTBQ+ tribe canceled as transphobic Kathleen Stock, an accomplished philosopher in the UK, and a lesbian, who was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her service to higher education; she subsequently resigned from her university, even though she supported the rights of transgender women. The expatriation of the lesbian was prompted by her perceived transphobia: she did not support the idea that a self-identified trans woman should receive all the entitlements of that sex.7 Noted feminist Camille Paglia, who now identifies as a transgender woman and is loathed by many in her own community, has become a darling of the right for her refusal to accept new pronouns and for stating that “the cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.”8

A significant societal shift has begun because of this aspect of victimhood culture: traditionally peripheral groups, which now have an amplified presence in the public discourse, marginalize the normative majority centers and thus centralize the statistically deviant margins. Suddenly, cisgender people—those who identify their gender with the sex assigned to them at birth—are made to feel they are defending a defenseless position should they argue for its normativity. One comedian quipped that the word cisgender itself was purposely coined to ensure normal people feel abnormal. However, in the new world of victimhood culture, nothing remains normal because “if nothing is abnormal, then everything is normal,” and those who challenge the narrative of the normality of traditionally understood deviant or abnormal behaviors are labeled bigots, racists, transphobes, homophobes, Islamophobes, or holders of sundry other irrational fears that proliferate with the seemingly innumerable host of new and emergent identities. Regarding the latter, the LGBTQ tribe added a plus sign to include newer and even yet-to-be-named identities because the letters keep proliferating; comedian Dave Chappelle has famously referred to them as “the alphabet people.” 

Upending the normative center of the dignity culture can only succeed if children are enculturated into the new normal. That effort received a potent shot in the arm when The Walt Disney Company began including LGBTQ+ characters in its blockbuster animation films for children, the latest being a key lesbian character in this year’s $200 million production of Lightyear. Disney also strongly opposed a Florida law this year that prohibited teaching children from kindergarten to third grade about sexual orientation and gender identity. The president of Disney’s General Entertainment Content, a mother of two, one transgender and the other pansexual, recently stated at a company-wide meeting that Disney “intends to drastically ramp up queer visibility within the Magic Kingdom, increasing characters in Disney productions that are LGBTQIA or other underrepresented minorities by a whopping 50 percent by the end of 2022.”9 Meanwhile, children between three and eleven years of age are being read stories in public libraries across the country during Drag Queen Story Hour, a program that strives to “instill the imagination and play of gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.”10 The program aims to remove childhood innocence about hegemonic heteronormativity, which acts, according to activists, as an oppressive system against traditionally marginalized groups that must now be seen as normal. In other words, introducing alternative lifestyle choices as early as possible is necessary to eliminate any sense of deviance for the child. 

* * * * *

We can trace the genealogy of victimhood culture back at least half a century, to when the idea began to take hold of subverting the foundations of Western society and its patriarchal, heteronormative, homophobic, transphobic, and capitalistic attributes. We can connect the intellectual trajectory of economically Marxist and philosophically materialist ideas of the Frankfurt School to the victimhood culture of today.

In his essay “Nature and Revolution,” Herbert Marcuse, the German American philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, argues for a “radical redefinition of sensibility”: 

As such force, freedom is rooted in primary drives of men and women, it is the vital need to enhance their life instincts. Prerequisite is the capacity of the senses to experience not only the “given” but also the “hidden” qualities of things which would make for the betterment of life. The radical redefinition of sensibility as “practical” desublimates the idea of freedom without abandoning its transcendent content: the senses are not only the basis of the epistemological constitution of reality, but also for its transformation, its subversion in the interest of liberation.
Human freedom is thus rooted in the human sensibility…. In this transformation, the Women’s Liberation Movement becomes a radical force to the degree to which it transcends the entire sphere of aggressive needs and performances.11

Marcuse argues that the male-dominated society must end and be replaced by a female-dominated society, but not one that relishes motherhood, which he sees as repressive, but one that unleashes the eros of repressed feeling, freeing both the man and the woman and uniting them in something closer to androgyny, although he never uses that word. 

The influence of Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and other luminaries of the Frankfurt School on scholars in the American academy cannot be overstated. It spawned a Marxian worldview based on critical theory that is deeply embedded in the academy and has lately spilled out into the public arena.

Marcuse clearly perceives sexuality as an important element to the overall transformation of society. The repression of sexual behaviors deemed deviant by the majority of society, who are informed by Judeo-Christian values, must be removed so the heteronormative, male-dominated, capitalist society can move toward a socially engineered socialist and liberated one illuminated by unfettered human freedom where desire reigns supreme. This harks back to Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s occultist movement of the early twentieth century, which in turn finds its origins in the sixteenth-century Thelemic creed of Francois Rabelais’s monastery, “Do what thou wilt.”

The contemporary ideologues behind the mainstreaming of many of these ideas were quite open about their plans for social transformation. After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s, by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, lays out a brilliant strategic plan for taking America from the homophobic  ’80s to the homophilic ’90s.

Marcuse’s perspectives on liberating the feelings and desires of men and women through an anything-goes androgynous culture now populate and infuse cultural and sociopolitical movements, including the Black Lives Matter campaign. The original statement of intent on the BLM website reads as follows: “We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.” The goals include creating a space that “is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered” and “freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.” Elsewhere on the website, we read that “as a network, we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people.… We made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center.” The latter statement points to the overarching project of inversion, a necessary step to usher in the imagined utopia.

The agenda of the new victimhood culture reveals itself to be one among many strategies designed to propagandize a materialistic, atheistic worldview that aims to dismantle the current dignity culture and rebuild a new society. This process that the Malay philosopher Syed Naquib al-Attas refers to as secularization—as distinguished from secularism—requires that religion be entirely removed from the public arena. Hence, enculturating a new generation into a sense of victimhood and resentment becomes essential to the realization of the project, and the destruction of a heteronormative society becomes the sine qua non of the coming revolution. Marcuse asserts that this process will end violence but only after his imagined gynarchy becomes a reality. He argues, in classic Marxian fashion,

The historical process is dialectical: the patriarchal society has created a female image, a female counter-force, which may still become one of the gravediggers of patriarchal society. In this sense too, the woman holds the promise of liberation. It is the woman who, in Delacroix’s painting [Liberty Leading the People], holding the flag of revolution, leads the people on the barricades. She wears no uniform; her breasts are bare, and her beautiful face shows no trace of violence. But she has a rifle in her hand—for the end of violence is still to be fought for.12

The victims shall arise and take from their oppressors what they consider rightfully theirs; violence must be employed to end white heteronormative violence. In reality, the end of violence through violence remains the false promise of every revolutionary: the current society must be entirely deconstructed to achieve this promised liberated world that will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the oppressive patriarchal and religious worldview that has burdened the downtrodden for millennia. Destruction of all normativity remains the goal until nothing is seen as abnormal, except perhaps those waxing nostalgic for the dignity culture and the rule of law.

The twentieth century witnessed the failure of Marxism to arouse the masses, or proletariat, as a revolutionary force against the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie. The Marxian strategy involved enlisting the downtrodden masses that had experienced the brunt of imperialism and colonialism as the Western world, including Great Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, and Italy, who collectively wreaked havoc by occupying almost the entirety of the rest of the world. Since that failure of the masses to revolt against their oppressors due to what Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci termed “cultural hegemony,” in which the oppressed internalize the values of their masters, critical theorists devised new strategies to wake the somnambulant population. Race and gender offered an ideal approach. Racial animus and its provocation became the means to entice idealistic young people to protest the power structures that perpetuate racism. Despite the ideologues’ declarations that race is merely a social construct, provoking a potential race war becomes an important stratagem if the white power structure is to be toppled. Whiteness becomes a nebulous term that broadly refers to Europeans and by extension white Americans. Besides collectivizing people for the accidental condition of their melanin, or lack thereof, it fails to take into account the oppression and the brutality of non-white societies on other non-white peoples, or the oppression by some white populations on other white populations.13 In parallel, these critical theorists included gender as another flash point that could ignite the fires of gender wars, which arguably have been smoldering in the West since the late eighteenth century. That these ideas have been so compelling and seductive demonstrates well the real grievances they invoke. 

Victimhood culture, then, sows immense dissatisfaction that engenders anger and outrage between whites and all others, males and females, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and enlists any and all marginalized groups of “victims” and their allies, to play their part in what amounts to an ambitious and inauspicious project of new Marxism: to overthrow the dignity culture, the rule of law that seemingly perpetuates systemic discrimination, and the white male capitalist powers. This would require the destruction of the family as traditionally understood, the removal of hierarchy in society, and the indoctrination of a generation of children that must have their perception of the world completely inverted from the generations that preceded them.

The irony is that the proponents of victimhood culture claim a commitment to diversity and yet are hostile and antagonistic to religious men and women. The reason is plain to see: a belief in a God of revelation remains a formidable bulwark against these revolutionaries as they march toward their chimerical utopia. The idea that a Creator reveals to humanity a divine covenant that men and women are called to enter into and fulfill prevents believers from submitting to the dreams and dictates of the gnostic god-men whose utopian ideals are created entirely from their own philosophies. This diabolical aim is an age-old vision perfectly enunciated by Dostoevsky’s fictional devil in The Brothers Karamazov:

Oh, I love the dreams of my friends—fervent, young, trembling with the thirst for life! “There are new people now… they propose to destroy everything…. Fools, they never asked me! In my opinion, there is no need to destroy anything, one need only destroy the idea of God in mankind, that’s where the business should start! One should begin with that, with that—oh, blind men, of no understanding! Once mankind has renounced God, one and all (and I believe that this period, analogous to the geological periods, will come), then the entire old world view will fall of itself… and, above all, the entire former morality, and everything will be new. People will come together in order to take from life all that it can give, but, of course, for happiness and joy in this world only. Man will be exalted with the spirit of the divine, titanic pride, and the man-god will appear. Man, his will and his science no longer limited, conquering nature every hour, will thereby every hour experience such lofty delight as will replace for him all his former hopes of heavenly delight.”14

We know this same promise as one the devil gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden: “Shall I show you a tree that will grant you immortality and a dominion that never perishes?” (Qur’an, 20:120).

This terrestrialization of man utterly disregards human dignity—our worthiness inherent in being human—and eviscerates our individuality as persons possessing a celestial soul, alien and immaterial, and destined for a glorious eternity through submission to our Creator. The removal of God, then, must needs be a stealth project, carried out slowly, imperceptibly, so that the believers, lulled to sleep by the slow “progress,” remain unaware until they awaken into a world one day as pariahs. But for now, it comes in the guise of a social justice movement, wrapped in a warm desire to remove the inequities of the world. Beguiled believers sign up, some even seeing parallels in their scriptures of such lofty ideals.

But believers best hold tight to their beliefs as the age of the Antichrist ushers in. A strict adherence to Abrahamic morality has been deemed bigoted, hateful, and unacceptable within the current zeitgeist. It seems to have happened quite suddenly, but for those with eyes and ears, it has been brewing in the devil’s cauldron since the very start of human life. We are at war—but not one of flesh and blood. Those inclined to believe that the origins of this insidious turn of events lie in a grand conspiracy of men in smoke-filled rooms plotting to bring down Western civilization or the Muslim world should understand that these efforts work in concord because the demonic sources at work slither into the hearts of every man open to them. The world has been perverted, literally “turned around,” by fiendish forces throughout human history. When the Qur’an details the people who rejected the prophets in the past and those who rejected Prophet Muhammad at the time of its revelation, God asks a rhetorical question, “Have they handed this down through the generations? No, they are perverse people” (51:53).

* * * * *

Muslims accept the Qur’an’s claim to be the last revelation to humanity. This entails a belief in previous dispensations, including faiths unknown to Muslims but mentioned as “remote lights” in the Qur’an. This claim of Islamic supersession can be accepted or rejected: “There can be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256). Elsewhere the Qur’an says, “So let whoever wants to believe, believe; and whoever wants to disbelieve, let him disbelieve. But surely God has prepared a chastisement for those who reject” (18:29). In other words, choices have consequences, so choose well after wise deliberation. According to the Qur’an, the proof of its claim to be the final message from God to humanity lies in its inimitability, which includes the all-encompassing vista of human guidance and deviance.

One of the many purposes of the Qur’anic guidance includes the ability “to discern well the ways of the transgressors” (6:9). We can find Qur’anic responses to the misguidance of any time and place and the guidance necessary to restore order to the disordered state of humanity in general and of communities in particular. Some Muslims not well versed in Qur’anic teachings and lacking Islamic knowledge become susceptible to concepts, philosophies, and worldviews at odds with what God provides for perceiving the world and its aims. Undeniably, Muslims historically were syncretist and benefited from other people’s knowledge, sciences, and achievements, but they were steeped in a Qur’anic worldview that enabled them to separate the wheat from the chaff, even if great debates occurred among them during the process. More importantly, Muslims must believe in a providential protection of their faith through the centuries. “Surely We have revealed this Qur’an and We will protect it” (Qur’an, 15:9).

So what does the Qur’an reveal to us about honor, dignity, and victimhood? In the forthcoming second part of this essay, I plan to cover, God willing, the transition from the honor culture of Jāhilī Arabia at the time of the Prophet to a Qur’anic dignity culture that respected law and order and developed one of the greatest legal traditions in human history, based on the principles of the Qur’an and prophetic practice. I aim to also address victimhood culture and what the Qur’anic narrative reveals about the nature of victimhood, the bifocal perspective the Qur’an encourages in relation to oppression, and the ways in which we should address oppression.


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