The paradigm of the 'can' and the 'should', introduced in a previous article to illustrate the Muslim community’s general concern (or rather, lack of concern) towards organic food, provides a convenient framework to showcase another widely neglected issue: the illegal downloading of entertainment or computer software. A deeply insightful brother recently questioned if it’s really worth the time writing about such a menial issue when, indeed, the Muslim community has a plethora of other concerns which need to be addressed. By and large, I fully agree with the brother’s criticism; nevertheless, although illegal downloads may well sit on the bottom rung of the ladder of needs, I would argue that the underlying mentality which steadily encourages the activity ranks it near the top, for it highlights once again how Muslims would rather neglect self-reflection (the should) in favor of scholarly dependence of cans and cannots.
Indeed, the prevalence of illegal downloading among Muslims appears to reflect that of wider society and so - in the same light of the ‘cans’ and the ‘shoulds’ - I would like to discuss the mentality which underlies its popularity. The keyword, mentality - i.e. the attitudes and philosophies which promote illegal downloading – will be the primary focus of this article; thus, rather than discussing the scholarly traditions that allow or prohibit illegal downloads (for which I’m not suited), we’ll examine instead why illegal downloads have become so prevalent. Specifically, we'll examine how the dismissal of the ‘should’ develops blind conformism in thought and action – to no relinquishment of personal responsibility, unfortunately.
The morality of the many
Watching the news one morning, a CBC reporter stationed in front of the Supreme Court in California was discussing the monumental occasion of an impending ruling regarding the legality of gay marriage. Although the issue itself is irrelevant, the reporter’s commentary, on the other hand, is not: “will the supreme court rule in favor of what the majority population holds to be true or not?” In other words, with the increasing prevalence of a popular opinion on a matter, will the law thus follow suit? This is but a drop in the ocean of examples one can cite to highlight the dominant moral framework of today’s society – majority rules. As long as the majority agree that a certain behaviour is correct, it is given the weight of law, and who dares question popular opinion? Naturally, this moral relativism is an acute result of the Renaissance movement in which the vertical hierarchy (God – man relationship) was replaced with a horizontal plane upon which all humans supposedly stand equally (man – man relationship); or, according to the German philosopher Nietzsche, “God is dead” and man has taken his place. What’s fascinating however is that, although for Muslims God is very much ‘alive/never dying’ and the vertical supremacy of divine law remains unquestionable, Muslims are not immune to the subtle encroachment of the dominant paradigm of morality.
Conformism is an interesting phenomenon, if only because its subtlety is trumped only by its prevalence. Even its etymology sheds insight into the phenomenon: ‘to conform’ originates from an old Latin word which means ‘to shape’. Thus, the one who conforms has their shape determined by something other than themselves, or as some philosophers put it, simply doing what others do. A wide range of scholars have examined the issue conformity in detail but we need not look much further than the acclaimed Viktor Frankl - if only to call upon one of my favourites - to appreciate how this topic is so intimately intertwined with the ‘cans’ and the ‘shoulds’. Essentially, Frankl argues that modern man (referring to modern Western society) is in a pickle: our traditions no longer tell us what we should be doing. As such, people rely on others to dictate behaviour and consequently determine what is right from wrong. In line with Frankl’s thoughts, we notice a similar predicament among Muslims today: in the aftershock of globalization, novel issues have arisen that scholars have yet to address individually – ex: significance of organic food, or the widespread proliferation of illegal downloads. Within this vacuum of scholarly feedback, most of us don’t even think twice when downloading things illegally - a behaviour that is considered typical of today’s society. Why don’t we think about it? Because conformity breeds a false sense of security, displacing the responsibility of our personal choices unto others – we don’t feel responsible for our actions if we’re simply emulating everyone else. Yet again, it is precisely this over-reliance on scholarly opinions which has allowed conformity to arise; notice that Frankl observed how traditions (read: scholars) no longer dictate what one should do - in my rhetoric, the cans and cannots. This dependency has created generations of people who are unable to think on their own; unaccustomed to critical thought, they then inadvertently adopt conformity as a way of life.
Thus, we must learn to think about our selves as unique individuals, appreciating the ‘should’ as a function of our specific traits and blessings. Only then will the responsibilities attached to our everyday decisions not be so readily dismissed, and every single decision we make will hopefully inspire the ‘should’ despite the absence of scholarly opinion. The ancient Arabs lived by a proverb: ‘send a wise man and do not advice him’. We will inevitably face novel and unexpected situations in life for which we’ve have received no training however, if we adhere to our principles, we can always strive to figure out the appropriate course of action. Indeed, a person who adheres to their principles (“thou shall not steal”) yet thinks critically in every situation is considered wise and is no need for detailed instructions (“do not download illegally”); instead, with a little bit of honest effort, that person will navigate each situation accordingly.
Illegal downloads: a critical discussion
Since scholars have yet to speak out on the topic; the ‘should’, then, becomes necessary. Again, the ‘should’ implies a critical self-reflection towards excellence beyond our dependency on scholars to tell us what’s right and wrong. Let’s briefly examine the ‘should’ with regards to illegal downloads, not only as an exercise of critical thinking, but also as an example of how to protect our moral standards. This, of course, will not be a lecture that people can cite as proof against the proliferation of illegal downloads in the Muslim community; it merely intends to begin a discussion on the subject. Should we be downloading things illegally? I would argue that we should not, based upon the simple premise that if someone worked on a product with the intention of getting paid for its sale, then breaching infringes upon the rights of said individuals, regardless if the person is rich, dishonest, or oppressive.
The ‘should’ requires us to reflect on the personal reasons regarding our choices - and the resulting existential and social ramifications – without the need for someone to explicitly outline what’s right and wrong. While I cannot speak for everyone, here are several examples either myself or friends have used to justify this behaviour in the past.
“It’s too expensive to purchase otherwise.” While often true for those who can’t afford the product, it presents an interesting dilemma within the process of self-reflection: should I allow myself to take what I’m unable to afford? Let’s not forget, we’re not talking about bread and water here but rather the products we download have little to do with survival, and hardly qualify as basic needs. Thus, although it can be understood how a street child is forced to snatch an apple in a bustling marketplace, the ‘should’ demands that we reflect upon the necessity of an action which breaches a fundament of all religions – thou shall not steal. If exceptions were to arise from this fundamental rule, it would be binding upon the personal ‘should,’ and cannot be generalized towards society at large.
“I don’t want to support that industry.” Of course, notwithstanding the irony that downloading a product supports the industry regardless, either statistically – it’s known that the movie industry keeps tabs on torrents, for example – or in spirit, this statement begs a simple question: why download an item from an industry you don’t support? Your time is more precious than your money, so the irony here is quite piercing.
“It doesn’t really affect anyone, the rich stay rich, I get my download - everyone’s happy!” I especially like this argument, not necessarily because it’s true – it isn’t, of course, as many struggling artists have spoken out against it – but because I like to consider the scenario as if it were true. It’s an interesting exercise, only because the philosophical principle underlying this thought process is perhaps the most common form of moral relativism permeating society today: the cause can only be deemed evil if there are perceivable negative consequences. The keywords here are ‘negative’ and ‘perceivable.’ In a morally deterministic world, as long as the results of an action have perceivable (read: quantifiable, available to statistical scrutiny) harmful repercussions, based on a subjective definition of what harmful is (i.e. rich stay rich, so where’s the harm in stealing from them?), then the action carries no moral value. I won’t spend any more time discussing this one.
And finally, “I believe that downloading is actually legal based on X and Y reasons.” These are the people who have contemplated this subject in-depth. Such people raise interesting concerns regarding copyright law, highlighting supposed fallacies in the notion of intellectual property, among other things; “supposed,” only because I’ve yet to review the authenticity of these arguments from a legal perspective. This line of thinking perhaps holds the most merit, however it also begs a very interesting question as well: if something is legal, i.e. it’s a ‘can’ within secular jurisprudence, does that automatically determine it’s a ‘can’ or a ‘should’ within an Islamic worldview? As an intellectual exercise, one can think about alcohol in such a matter and see what conclusions we arrive at.
Thus, once again, the purpose of this article isn’t to tackle the legality of illegal downloads – it’s to spark an investigation as to why we do it. Although we often paint the world - and Muslims - as black and white, we need to slowly foster a self-critical outlook that looks beyond good and evil, or halal and haram. We will all be judged in front of Allah by merit of our intentions and best efforts; two phenomena that, when you boil them down to their essential elements, are purely results of a sound self-reflection regarding one’s blessings, trials, and potential. If not for self-reflection, one’s behaviours serve only to mimic one’s surroundings, much like sheep in a herd and lead to blind conformity.
This article was edited and enriched by Arssal Shahabuddin. Furthermore, I’ll end this article with two disclaimers. First of all, I reiterate that this is a topic of discussion; in other words, as fallible as I am, it’s necessary to respond and share one’s divergent point-of-view so that we may learn from it as well. You may do so in the comments below. Second of all, in light of the prevalence of the issue at hand, this article has no intention of making anyone feeling guilty. It merely attempts to put back on the table a topic that is so often brushed under the rug.