Identity, Sincerity, and the Age of Social Media

Sincerity-in-the-Age-of-Social-Media - Islamic Relief USA

A few months ago, I sat for dinner with a new friend of mine to break bread and get to know each other. There was, however, no bread involved–only noodles and a conversation that drifted to our common struggles as hijabis. We both shared our challenges to represent our true selves to others without feeling like what we’re doing is for others. Being hijabis, we’ve often felt that both Muslims and non-Muslims are quick to make assumptions about who we are and the kinds of opinions we hold. We’re often thought of as too conservative or not conservative enough. We find ourselves frequently feeling the need to correct these assumptions and be the narrators of our own stories.

Our discussion about identity and personal narrative naturally drifted to social media. I couldn’t think of a faster or more efficient way to actively participate in how others perceive us than by sharing with them–perhaps hundreds at a time–our reflections, opinions, and life stories via the social media platform. My friend mostly expressed agreement, but she had an important question to ask:

How do we protect our sincerity if we broadcast ourselves and our work to others?

There’s a very fine line between doing a good deed or sharing an opinion purely for its intrinsic value and doing the same deed or saying the same opinion to get attention, validation, or social reward from others. We don’t exactly have a way of measuring the sincerity of intention, so sometimes it just feels like the only way to be sure we are genuine is to keep it (whatever that “it” is) to ourselves.

When I was a teenager, and up until my first couple of years in college, I was too shy to share anything about myself on social media. I took great comfort in knowing that my intentions were not threatened by the public display of my deeds. I felt most spiritually connected when I gave charity anonymously, prayed while my family was asleep, or even scribbled lines of poetry in a diary no one would see. I was very content with this approach…until I realized that my peers’ view of me wasn’t reflective of who I was or the struggles I was enduring at the time. With the exception of a few close friends of mine, I felt like most of my peers didn’t know me. My favorite example of this is the time another Muslim student (who was three years my senior) asked me for a fatwa (a religious ruling typically given by scholars). She was completely unaware that I was going through a religious and spiritual crisis at the time, so, really, I should have been the one asking her for guidance.

As young millennials, a lot of my peers had an understanding that we all use social media to show others who we are (or rather, whom we aspire to be). So when I didn’t use social media, those who weren’t already my friends had no context within which to interpret what they saw of me. In other words, it was like I was a dial-up connection in a world of high-speed broadband Internet–and it didn’t take long for me to learn that I needed to find a way to better communicate with the world around me. So, from that time in my life emerged a new philosophy: the importance of balancing sincerity and personal sharing on social media.

الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُم بِاللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ سِرّاً وَعَلاَنِيَةً فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلاَ خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلاَ هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Those who give to charity night and day, secretly and publicly, receive their recompense from their Lord; they will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.

From time to time, I need to take shelter away from social media so I can find myself in the secret spaces where I encounter sincerity the most. Today, I still believe we need to guard our intentions from external sources of recognition. I believe, more than ever, that we need to hide our good deeds for the sake of our personal integrity, but I also believe that we don’t have to hide all our good deeds. There are benefits to participating on social media. You know some, I know some, and some we have yet to discover. To name a few:

  • Sharing a good deed → Inspiring others to do good/leading by example
  • Sharing our stories → Being known for who we are rather than for whom people think we are
  • Sharing our opinions → Playing a more active role in shaping the interpretation of the world around us

If I’ve learned anything about sincerity and identity in the past few years, it’s this: the best way to nourish both you own spirits and that of your community is to strike a balance between joining your hands to hide your flame and opening up your arms to share the light with others.

To all my fellow writers, may your pen fill pages public and private. To my fellow humanitarians, may your good deeds always be sincere and may they inspire others to bring forth more good.  May we all rise together.

Aaliah is a Project Manager at Wakefield Research by day and an improvising artist by night. She performs with the Sanctuaries Improv team, serves on the board of DC MIST, and sometimes writes letters to strangers at TheFaithLetters.tumblr.com.

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