Peace, one and all…
I watched last night’s news of the recent profits of Shell and Centrica (the company which owns British Gas) with a growing sense of anger. Anger not so much at the thought of companies making a profit, but rather at the utter piracy of these huge multinationals – these announcements come at the same time that British Gas announce an imminent 35% rise in the price of gas! This smacks of injustice and outright robbery. Whilst more and more people are being driven into poverty, British Gas shareholders have been awarded a $165 million dividend! This adds insult to injury and is widely seen as an outright slap in the face of ordinary people (which, of course, it is).
But, although I am very angry, I do not want this to become a simple rant. The world’s current economic situation is a complex matter and it touches on all sorts of wider issues. I am not an economist, so my understanding is under-developed, but I do have a number of real concerns.
To illustrate my point, let me share a story from my own life with you. This morning, as I walked from the bus station to catch my train, I suddenly felt the urgent need to use the bathroom. Now, as anyone who has visited Merthyr Tydfil will know, the town centre is completely dominated by a huge Tesco Extra store. So, in I went to use the customer toilet. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the toilets were out of order for some reason, so I had to search for an alternative (at no small discomfort to myself, but more on that in a moment). The small out of order sign also carried the following legend: ‘sorry for any inconvenience’, which immediately made me think of the lack of public conveniences in Merthyr (for overseas visitors, this is a polite UK expression for public toilet). What struck me was the stark realisation that the Tesco toilets were performing the function of a public service. Indeed, this is not the only example I can think of: the Tesco car park acts in much the same manner.
As I thought about this, I realised that in many areas of life large multinational corporations are playing an increasingly important role in the provision of public services. The key difference, of course, is that Tesco is not in directly accountable to the public in the same way that the local council is: we could not vote to change Tesco’s corporate strategy unless we were shareholders. I have no problem with companies seeking a profit, through fair and legitimate competition, but the questions I want to ask are these: how much of our public, civic space have we already surrendered to the demands of the ‘free market’? How can these companies be made more directly accountable? Or, more elementally, how are we to regain our hard-won democratic control, whilst still retaining economic growth? Are such things possible, or desirable?
Centrica’s profit announcement is a case in point. How can we really complain that it acts as a profit-making business when it is not tied in any way to state ownership? Most of our former nationalised industries have long been sold off (or ‘privatised’, to use the very revealing euphemism), so now that the ‘family silver’ is gone we should not be surprised at the appearance of mulit-national loan sharks. But, perhaps my understanding of economics is not sufficiently developed to understand all of the implications of re-nationalisation (though I am not sure I am actually advocating such a thing). But, I do think that we are losing many of our public, democratic rights in the face of corporate power – which is finding its way into ever more areas of life.
The UK Higher Education sector is a good example of this trend. Over the last 10 years or so, the UK HE sector has dramatically expanded. The government’s stated target is that 50% of those with A Levels should go on to university. This has forced us to face an important issue: how are we going to pay for this growth? How are we to expand HE whilst simultaneously maintaining educational standards? It has also led to an increasingly corporate identity in UK HE. Fees, student loans and other things have all begun to change the way HE is perceived, especially amongst newer students. I have noticed many students whose attitude seems to be ‘well, I’ve paid to come here, so why aren’t you giving me the grades I want’?
I do not have all (or any) of the answers to these questions. I do know, however, that we must face them. As a society (and a world) we have many pressing questions to answer.
My anger is also fuelled by another, more personal issue. Someone very close to me is in serious financial difficulty. Rising prices have affected us all and have compounded this person’s situation. Although I will say no more, as this is a private matter, I would like to ask those passing by to say a prayer on this person’s behalf. God hears all things and there is no veil between God and the prayer of an oppressed person.
These issues have all made me feel great anger, but what is the spiritual purpose behind such feelings? In other words, what should I do with this anger? How can I use it appropriately and in a spiritually energising manner? This is something I really struggle with. Again, disappointingly perhaps, I have no answers. Here are some of my initial thoughts.
Perhaps the spiritual purpose of anger is to challenge the oppression of others? The following statements of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) are very instructive in this regard.
‘Mus’ab ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas said, “Sa’d thought that he had preference over those below him and the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Are you given victory and provision except on account of the weak among you?’”
(Recorded by Imam al-Bukhari, and Imam al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin no.271)
‘Abu’d-Darda’ ‘Umaymir said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘Help me in seeking out the weak. They are supported. You are provided for on account of the weak among you.”
(Recorded by Imam Abu Dawud, and Imam al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin no.272)
On another occasion, the Messenger of God (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
Abu Huraira reported: I heard Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: One is not strong because of one’s wrestling skillfully. They said: Allah’s Messenger, then who is strong? He said: He who controls his anger when he is in a fit of rage’ (Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Number 6314)
Perhaps, then, anger is useful only when it is controlled and chanelled to some useful purpose. Perhaps this lies behind other statements which refer to becoming angry only for the sake of God.
At any rate, for myself, I experience intense anger physically as a tightness of body. This is why, wandering around Merthyr town centre in search of a lavatory, all of these various layers of anger seemed about to boil over. I felt an intense pain in my lower back, that left me almost bent double at the far end of the platform. My only recourse was to ask God for aid. As I was doing this, a sudden thought came to me all unbidden: ‘I will fight for my humanity. I will not allow my anger to change me into something less than human’. And then the train came and my difficulty was swiftly eased. Allah!
Perhaps, then, the purpose of anger is transformation. Anger can be both fuel and catalyst for great inward change it seems. Or, at least, the real potential for such change exists in each moment of anger (if I can but read the signs aright). With God’s help anger can become a means of challenging injustice with the energy of truth (or jihad in other words). But, to be truly transformative anger must be channelled and guided by mercy, as a famous hadith qudsi puts it:
Allah’s Apostle said, “When Allah completed the creation, He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, “My Mercy overpowers My Anger.” (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 416)
Allah! Help uis in these trying times. Let the anger we feel aid us in our transformation, and lend us Your mighty aid in all things.
Update: searching though the archives, I came across some related posts. So, here they are for your reading enjoyment (well, here they are anyway):
And I end with these sayings of the wise:
And my last prayer is in praise of God, Sustainer of All Being.