Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Family Meltdown of Secular Society

Issues Explained

On the 5th April 2008, Justice Coleridge, the judge in charge of family courts across South West England delivered a speech to family lawyers from the organisation "Resolution", where he described family life in the UK in "meltdown" marked by an epidemic of family breakdown.

He said, "A large number of families now consist of children being brought up by mothers who have children by a number of different fathers, none of whom take any part in their lives or support or upbringing....These are not isolated, one-off cases. They are part of the stock-in-trade of the family courts." He continued, "Almost all society's ills can be traced directly to the collapse of family life. We all know it. Examine the background of almost every child in the care system or the youth justice system and you will discover a broken family. Ditto the drug addict. Ditto the binge drinker. Ditto those children who are truanting or who cannot behave at school. Scratch the surface of these cases and you invariably find a miserable family, overseen by a dysfunctional and fractured parental relationship - or none at all."

This morbid description of family life in the UK comes in the wake of other news stories in recent times - the fall in marriage rates in England and Wales to the lowest level since records began in 1862 (Office for National Statistics) and a rise in divorce rates to the highest since 1996. Teachers at last month's annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers also described a "toxic circle" of family breakdown affecting children's ability to learn and their mental health and well-being.

In addition to such stories, one is all too familiar with the other issues related to family life in Britain - the neglect of elderly parents or relatives, the shrinkage of the "extended family", the lack of time spent with children due to both parents having demanding work expectations, the sufferings of the "Superwoman" struggling to balance the responsibilities of home life with a high-maintenance career or job, and the devaluing of family life in the workplace. Last week, the Fawcett society launched their manifesto "Sexism in the city", highlighting the fact that 30,000 women a year in Britain lose their jobs simply for being pregnant and that of all social groups, mothers to be and new mothers experience the most discrimination in the labour market. In February 2006, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report detailing a fertility crisis in Britain due to women delaying motherhood or remaining childless due to fears that they would face a reduction in lifetime earnings or lose their place on their career ladder for taking time out to have babies. It described a "baby gap" of 90,000 due to this delay in motherhood. The demographic impact of this "baby gap" that many European countries such as France, Italy and the UK are predicting is of an ageing population, a reduced national workforce due to a generation gap and fewer young people to look after the old.

The Impact of Family Breakdown on Lives

The declining worth of family life in Britain and in many other secular societies is evident to see. This is despite the fact that report after report, study after study has shown that marriage and strong families are the cornerstone to stability in the lives of children and a healthy society. The consequences of broken families and dysfunctional or neglectful parent-child relations are also clear to see. Politicians from all camps have related increasing levels of anti-social behaviour, drug- addiction and binge-drinking amongst the youth and teenage pregnancies to rising quotas of dysfunctional families. Judge Justice Coleridge commented in his speech, "I am not saying every broken family produces dysfunctional children but I am saying that almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family." In addition the emotional impact of divorce and broken families on spouses, children and single parents left to bring up their children by themselves, often having to juggle 2 to 3 jobs in the process has caused as the judge describes, "...a never-ending carnival of human misery. A ceaseless river of human distress." Rising levels of child depression, self-harm, even eating disorders have been afforded to the current state of family life in Britain. One should also not forget the emotional gauntlet experienced by women forced to undergo IVF treatment in order to conceive, due to reduced fertility, miscarriages and increased pregnancy related complications related to delaying motherhood.

The Causes of Family Breakdown in Secular Society

The response of many Western governments to this dire problem of "Family Meltdown" has been in main financially based - tax incentives to encourage marriage and married couples to stay together, affordable childcare to enable single mothers to work, working and child tax credits for poor families, and even paying couples to have a second or third child as in France. Throwing money at issues seems to be a recurring knee-jerk reaction of many capitalist secular societies in solving deep-seated problems within their societies. To believe that simply more money will solve this dire state of family affairs is on par with believing that a bundle of dollar notes could seal the hole of a sinking Titanic. Of course Western governments have introduced other initiatives to try and raise the importance of family responsibilities. These include parenting classes or fines for neglectful parents as well as establishing laws to outlaw pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace but these handful of actions fail to recognise that the fundamental cause of this family meltdown are core secular values and the general lack of weight given to family life within capitalist societies.

The "freedom-loving" culture of liberal society has nurtured a hedonistic and care-free attitude to life based upon the pursuit of carnal and individualistic whims and desires rather than nurturing a mindset of responsibility and respect towards others. This has created an aversion to marriage in many individuals due the level of commitment, fidelity and responsibility required - viewing marriage as a "curbing of their freedom" and preferring rather to be "free and single" and to have sexual relations with "whoever, whenever". It has spurned a culture of promiscuity resulting in spiralling rates of teenage pregnancies, abortions, single mothers and adultery which is the main cause of divorce in Britain. It has created a situation where a man may have relations with many women, father children from different mothers and take no physical or emotional responsibility for either his child or its mother other than a cheque in the post once a month. This situation has created a lack of trust in individuals seeking a partner for marriage, unsure whether a relationship based upon loyalty, fidelity and care and concern for one another will survive such a societal climate based upon a norm of promiscuity and individualism.

This "cancerous" individualistic mindset of "Me, myself, and I", bred within capitalist societies that sanctify securing individual self-interest over all else has eaten away at the foundations of family structure. It has caused individuals to focus on what is best for themselves rather than what is best for their spouse or marriage resulting in increased divorce. It has contributed to people rejecting or delaying having children until later life to maximize their social life, personal finances and personal freedom. It has caused parents to neglect their children while pursuing their own personal interests. It has caused children to neglect their elderly parents, viewing them as burdens on their time and their personal finances, placing them in homes for others to look after. The individualistic concern for one's own family and disregard or neglect of other relatives has caused a lack of a support system for extended family facing physical, financial and emotional problems, causing individuals to suffer in silence alone.

In addition, within capitalist secular societies there has been a devaluing of motherhood and family life against economic life. Firstly, on a historical level, the Western struggle for gender equality and the rise of feminism placed the public life and the man's traditional role of being breadwinner above the private life, motherhood and the woman's traditional role of home-maker. Many feminists argued that female respect and liberty was not compatible with economic dependence upon her husband nor full domestic responsibility and therefore it was not simply a matter of the woman having the right to work but the necessity to work. Christabel Pankhurst, the well known radical feminist and member of the suffragette movement of the early 20th century said of home-life responsibilities that they were an in intolerable burden on married women, a waste of time and economic energies, and was unpaid and unrecognised.

Today, one of the consequences of this view of home-life and concept of "Gender Equality" has been the creation of societies where women do not simply have the right to employment but rather are expected to work even if single mothers with sole responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children. The concept of gender equality that was in theory to produce the "have it all woman" in reality produced the "do it all woman" - who continued to burden the responsibilities of motherhood and household chores but now also struggled with the added burden of financially maintaining the family. With both parents as breadwinners in many families, there is a constant struggle to find time for the children or time to make marriages strong. The basis of gender equality where one looks at what is best for the woman verses what is best for the man rather than what is best for a family or community overall can sometimes overlook what is best for a strong marriage, for the children and for society. Furthermore, the idea of gender equality that erodes the appreciation of sex differences within the workplace and society, hinders rather than facilitates the securing of specific rights based upon sex difference such as pregnancy or maternity rights or flexible working hours for those women with young children and lays open the door to discrimination.

Secondly, the capitalist, materialistic system that has placed the pursuit of the "£" or "$" as its supreme ideological goal, has placed profit over people and finance over families. It has focussed consistently on securing the coffers of government or business over securing the family. This constant drive for short-term profitability has undervalued motherhood and family life and forced even single mothers into work, leaving them little time to bring up their children effectively. Indeed, there are often financial incentives for mothers to return to work; very few incentives for them to stay at home in order to ensure the effective upbringing of their children if they feel this is necessary, which is especially the case with many single parents. This valuing of materialism over motherhood has led to a situation where a pregnant woman or one with young children is often seen as a burden to a company rather than as an asset to society. A 2005 survey of 98 companies by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found that ¾ of companies would rather break the law than employ a pregnant woman or one of child-bearing age - a fact well-known by many women who would rather delay having children or remain childless rather than face this "fertility penalty" on their earnings or career. It seems that being "chained to the kitchen sink" has been replaced with being "chained to the economic market".

Unfortunately, the Muslim Ummah living in the West or in the Muslim world has not been shielded from these secular or materialistic values. The consequence is that the concept of "strong marriages" and "strong family units" that has always been understood by Muslims over the generations to be the heart or building block of a strong community, has today also been eroded. We face similar problems as those discussed due to the adoption of secular and liberal values and mindsets into our lives - increased divorces, increase in adultery, family breakdown, neglect of children, neglect of elders, severed relationships with extended family and so on. In addition, our community has been blighted with non-Islamic Asian/Arab/African traditions and culture that have also affected our marriages, parent-child relationships, in-law relationships and family structure.

The Islamic View towards Family

Within Islam, issues such as "strong marriages", "motherhood", "fatherhood", "rights and responsibilities of parents, "rights and responsibilities of children", "keeping relations with extended family (silat-ur-Rahm)" and "strong family units", have a high status of importance in the religion and should enjoy an elevated status within a community and society. Islam therefore does not believe in personal or sexual freedom - the freedom of an individual to have any relationship they wish, the freedom to commit adultery and betray one's spouse and family, the freedom to father children and bear no physical, emotional or financial responsibility towards them or their mother. Rather, it believes in building a mindset of accountability towards a Creator that nurtures values such as chastity, loyalty in marriage, and a sense of responsibility towards others and for one's actions. In addition, strict social laws - such as the dress codes for men and women, segregation of the sexes, the prohibition of a man and woman being alone together (khulwa), and harsh punishments for fornication and adultery - all aim to ensure that sexual relations are restricted to marriage and that every child is born with wedlock, knowing who is responsible for its financial, physical and emotional welfare. These values and these laws create a sense of trust between men and women in marriage, when seeking a partner for marriage and in society in general.

Islam not only encourages marriage, linking it to completing half of one's religion(deen) but also encourages husband and wife to consistently seek tranquillity within the marriage to keep the union strong. The Prophet(saw) said, "Oh you youngsters. Whoever amongst you who can afford to marry should marry, because it will help him more to lower his gaze and guard his modesty (i.e.chastity). And whoever is not able to marry he should fast, because it will be a protection for him" (Bukhari and Muslim). He(saw) also said, "When a man gets married, he gets one half of the deen. Thus he should fear Allah in the other half" (Al-Baihaqi). Allah(swt) says in Surah Ar-Rum,

"And among His Signs is this, that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find tranquillity in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy." [Ar-Rum: 21]

Although Islam permits divorce, the Muslim should understand that it is one of the most hated actions in the eyes of the Creator such that it is avoided as much as possible and arbitration sought to heal the relationship. Infact in one hadith, it is mentioned that the Throne of Allah(swt) shakes upon hearing of a divorce of a believing man and woman.

With regards to individualism, Islam abhors it. Rather it seeks to build a mentality of responsibility towards others. Therefore, the husband stands accountable to the Creator for fulfilling the rights of his wife. The wife stands accountable to the Creator for fulfilling the rights of her husband. Parents stand accountable to the Creator for fulfilling their responsibility to their children of ensuring their financial and physical well-being as well as their strong Islamic upbringing. The Prophet(saw) said, "Beware! Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible and answerable for his flock. The leader and the ruler is a shepherd over the people and shall be questioned about his subjects (as to how he conducted their affairs); a man is a guardian over his family and shall be questioned about them (as to how he looked after their physical and moral well-being); a woman is the guardian over the household of her husband and his children and shall be questioned about them (as to how she managed the household and brought up the children); a servant is the shepherd of his master's property and shall be questioned about it (as to how he safeguarded his trust). Beware! Everyone of you is a guardian and everyone of you shall be questioned with regards to his trust." (Bukhari and Muslim). In addition, individuals stand accountable to the Creator for fulfilling their responsibility towards their parents of looking after them financially and physically in their old age.

The Prophet (saw) says, "Verily, on the Day of Resurrection, Allah has slaves to whom He will neither speak nor purify nor look at." He was asked, "Who are they, O Allah's Messenger?" He replied, "He who disowns and abandons his parents, he who disowns his children and he who was granted a favour by a people but he denied their favour and disowned them." (Ahmad). Allah (swt) says, "Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour. And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say, ‘My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.'" [17:23-24] The Muslim also stands accountable to the Creator for keeping good relations with his relatives and fulfilling their rights. There is no acceptance of severing relations with relatives. In Islam, a man may need to take charge of the financial maintenance of a female blood relative and therefore must have a regular awareness of their well-being. A woman may be given custody of a child from a blood relative and therefore must have a regular awareness of their well-being. The Prophet(saw) said, "The tie of kinship (rahm) is suspended from the throne of Allah, and says, ‘Whoever supports me, Allah will support him, and whoever cuts me off, Allah will cut him off'" (Bukhari and Muslim). He(saw) also said, "The one who severes ties with the relations will not enter Paradise." Jabir(ra) narrated that the Prophet(saw) said, "If any of you is poor let him start with himself and if any one of you has surplus (wealth) let him spend it on his family, and if any of you has further surplus let him spend it on his relatives."

With regards to materialism, Islam understands that the earning of money is important for the physical needs of individuals and therefore encourages a healthy economic life for society. However, it is also based upon the belief that although money may be the currency for this life, it is fulfilling the good deed prescribed by Allah(swt) that is the currency in the Hereafter. Having many children, looking after their welfare, and giving them a good Islamic upbringing to make them good Muslims and upright citizens who are a source of goodness for the community and society, is just one of those actions given much weight in currency in the Hereafter. The Prophet(saw) used to say, "Get married to the tender and fertile(women), for indeed I will vie with the Prophets in your great numbers on the day of Judgement." Abu Sa'id al-Khudri narrated that the Prophet(saw) said, "If anyone cares for three daughters, disciplines them, has them married, and does good to them, he will go to Paradise." (Abu Dawud). He(saw) said, "A man will be raised some degrees in Paradise and he will say, ‘For what reason I am receiving this?' He will be told, ‘Because of your son (child) asking forgiveness for you.'" (Bukhari). In contrast to the capitalist ideology, the philosophy of the Islamic system is not based upon securing "capital" over all else but rather understands that society must be organised in order to fulfil all aspects of human life effectively. Therefore it does not seek to maximise economic life up and above family life but rather understands that both are required for a healthy society. Nor in Islam are the roles of men and women in society and family life defined according to the concept of "Gender Equality", where the role of breadwinner is valued above the role of mother and home-maker. In family life Islam defines the responsibility of the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker and the nurturer of the children. One role is not above another but both are essential for the effective organization and functioning of family life and the progress of society as a whole.

Allah(swt) says,

"And wish not for the things in which Allah has made some of you to excel others. For men there is allotted from what they have earned (and likewise) from women there is allotted for what they have earned" [An-Nisa:32]

In this regard, the woman as a wife and mother is permitted to work but there should be no societal or financial pressures upon her to do so if she chooses not to for the woman cannot compromise her vital role of being a wife and mother, caring for her children and family and nurturing the thinking and development of the future generations. At all times, the obligation of her financial maintenance falls first upon the male members of her family and second upon the state if they are not able to provide her with adequate support. She does not have to embrace the long suffering identity of a superwoman, struggling to balance a successful career with a successful home life, for her value within the society is based upon her obedience to her Creator and not upon the level of tax she contributes to the economy. Indeed, in contrast to capitalist societies, where motherhood has been devalued, where many stay-at-home mothers feel undervalued in society and many working mothers face discrimination for having children, Islam seeks to build a mindset within public life, the workplace and society as a whole of the great status that motherhood has in life. "Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother" is a well known saying of the Messenger(saw). A man at the time of the Prophet(saw) came to him and said "I have carried my mother single handed around the Kaba 7 times, does this repay the kindness she showed me as a child?" The Prophet replied "It does not even repay one contraction of the womb". It was narrated that on one occasion a woman called Salamah said to the Prophet (saw), "O Messenger of Allah, you brought tidings to men but not to women." He said, "Did your women friends put you up to asking me this question?" She said, "Yes, they did." He (saw) said, "Does it not please any of you that if she is pregnant by her husband and he is satisfied with her that she receives the reward of one who fasts and prays for the sake of Allah? And when the labour pains come none in heaven or earth knows what is concealed in her womb to soothe her. And when she delivers, not a mouthful of milk flows from her and not an instance of child's suck, but that she receives, for every mouthful and every suck, the reward of one good deed. And if she is kept awake by the child at night, she receives the reward of one who frees seventy slaves for the sake of Allah." (Tabarani). A poet once said, "The mother is a school: if you prepare her properly, you will prepare an entire people of good character; The mother is the first teacher, foremost among them, and the best of teachers." This is very much the understanding that Islam has - that the mother lies at the heart of the family and therefore is pivotal for society. One impact of this view is that even in the workplace, the understanding, value and flexibility for family responsibilities should be a common appreciation amongst employers rather than one that has to be forced upon them by the hand of the law.

In today's world, Islam and the Shariah are under constant attack, described as uncivilized, barbaric, backward and dangerous by particular Western governments and the Western media. This is despite the fact that within secular societies, the social and moral fabric of their family and societal lives are crumbling before their very eyes by their own admission due to the danger and chaos created by liberal, capitalist and secular values. These values have been and continue to be exported to the Muslim lands, causing "Meltdown" also in Muslim families and societal life. Islam however, has provided us with a beautiful set of principles and values to make our families and social structure strong which we must embrace and mould our lives upon. However, we are lacking the Islamic Khilafah system to water the soil of our lands with these values, to build and protect this mindset on mass amongst the Muslim Ummah. It is therefore the work to establish this state that we must turn our urgent attention and time. In addition, as Muslims, Allah(swt) has provided us with ample opportunity to carry the dawa to the non-Muslims around us by explaining the beauty of Islam in solving various problems facing humanity including the issue of family breakdown that is unfortunately plaguing so many societies across the world today.

"Whoever follows My Guidance shall neither go astray, nor fall into distress and misery. But whoever turns away from My Reminder (That is, neither believes in the Qur'an nor acts on its orders) verily, for him is a life of hardship, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Resurrection." [Ta-Ha: 123-124]

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