Seeing All That We Do

We hear many dire warnings these days about how Britain is sleepwalking into an intrusive Surveillance Society. They vary in intensity from moderate concern about the gradual erosion of civil liberties to shrill alarm at the ever-tightening control exercised by an Orwellian “Security State” dominated by fear, suspicion, and mistrust and obsessed with control. Warnings are not confined to what one commentator has called the “barely scrutinized extension of police power that is being allowed” (Henry Porter, Observer, 3 Dec 2006) and which threatens to undermine freedom and privacy, even if few would uphold that Britain is anything like a Police State.  These warnings extend well beyond the political arena to a sustained and increasingly vocal critique by social commentators of the widespread authoritarian culture of mistrusting management and control which is disempowering, demoralizing and dispiriting an entire nation.

There is now one CCTV camera for every twelve inhabitants of the UK. Henry Porter’s article criticized the decision of the council in Dawlish, Devon to install a CCTV system to provide 24-hour surveillance of the town despite the fact that a consultation exercise involving 1000 people revealed that less than 5 per cent mentioned any fear of crime. The £70,000 cameras were to be installed in this quiet, cream-tea corner of Devon because they would supposedly “allay fears”, even though no fears had been expressed and could be reasonably assumed not to exist. It is a measure of the sanity of the place that the kind of thing that typically excites the locals is the recent appearance of the long-billed murrelet, a bird hailing from the North Pacific, sighted just off Boat Cove. A retired writer mounted a long and articulate campaign, arguing that the cameras threatened privacy, freedom and the quality of life in the town, but he has been disregarded and the hysterical forces of irrational paranoia have won the day. In such a way, the chimera of imaginary and hyped-up threats designed to evoke fear and justify draconian control continues relentlessly to erode our way of life.

In such an atmosphere, we may not be surprised to read in a recent report that two-thirds of British people do not even trust their neighbours, placing the British yet again at the bottom of the league in a social welfare issue in a comparative study of European nations.

All of this reminds me of That Hideous Strength, the third novel in C.S. Lewis’s classic sci-fi trilogy. In this “fairy tale for grown ups”, the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE), whose deputy director is appropriately called Mr. Wither, is engaged in a fiendish plan to control all human life.  I am reminded too of Neil Postman’s brilliant work of social criticism, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, in which he exposes the self-perpetuating way in which technopoly (as opposed to the rational, proportionate and balanced use of technology for human benefit) gives licence without limits to technology and to the false belief that anything can be measured, monitored and controlled. 

Let us be very clear that diversity, complexity and ambiguity are enemies of the quantification, standardization and uniformity worshipped by technopolists.

And, above all, for people of faith, the divine message can never be encompassed by this reductionism. The Qur’an tells us that the Divine Writ is a guidance for people of taqwa, those who believe in the existence of that which is beyond the reach of human perception. Only God is All-Seeing, Al-Basir, for, as Al-Ghazali explains, “man’s sight falls short of those things that are hidden, including secret thoughts.” The use of the word Basir for the Divine Attribute occurs more than 40 times in the Qur’an, often in the phrase God sees all that you do.

In Islamic tradition, God is also As-Sami’, the All-Hearing, Al-Khabir, the All-Perceiving, and Ar-Raqib, the Ever-Watchful. In the Hadith of Gabriel, enunciating the true meaning of religion, the Prophet answers the question “What is ihsan?” in this way: To worship God as though you see Him. And if you do not see Him, surely He sees you. It is this constant awareness of God’s just, loving and merciful gaze upon us which inclines us to strive to live a beautiful life, for God is Beauty, and He loves what is beautiful. God speaks on the tongue of the Prophet, reiterating that divine rewards lie beyond the reach of human senses: I have prepared for my servants who do right what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and what has never occurred to the human heart.

In the Lord of the Rings cycle, J.R.Tolkien captures well the travesty of divine omniscience represented by the malefic Eye of Sauron:  “He is watching. He hears much and sees much.” But he can never encompass everything. Another divine saying tells us that even My earth and My heavens do not encompass Me, but the heart of My faithful servant does encompass Me.  Sauron’s impudently scanning eye is rendered impotent by the essential innocence and incorruptibility of the hearts of the hobbits who bring about his inevitable nemesis. The heart of the person of faith is God’s sanctuary, and it is forbidden for any but God to enter it.

We can perhaps sense the presence of the Eye of Sauron not only in the omnipresence of CCTV cameras, but also in the intrusive precision of remote sensing satellite surveillance technology and in the use of overweening phrases such as “full-spectrum dominance” to describe the militaristic pretensions of “superpowers”. The mythic dimension of the presumptuous misappropriation of divine ominiscience also strikes home in much contemporary sci-fi literature and film-making. Two films come to my mind: Gattaca, in which Vincent is an outsider, a natural birth or “In-valid” condemned by his imperfect DNA to lowly status in a world where “perfect designer people” forged in test tubes rule society. The second is Minority Report, in which the precognitive powers of mutants who “see” crimes before they are committed enable a “Pre-Crime” policing system to arrest “criminals” just before they commit their “crimes” and convict and neutralise them on the basis of clairvoyant “evidence”. In other words, they are convicted not for what they have done, but for what it is predicted they will do.

Both the “perfect” systems satirised in these films are thankfully shown to have irremediable flaws. The common flaw is the hubris or arrogance of people who believe they can “see” into what is beyond the reach of human perception, to read the human heart as if it were an open book, and to manipulate and control others through the heartless technocratic “systems” they create out of their omniscient fantasies. Mistrust is the inevitable consequence of intrusion into privacy, which is an integral part of human dignity.

The Qur’an condemns spying (tajassus) in absolute and unqualified terms, as well as indulgence in unfounded suspicion and surreptitious activities that are degrading and offensive to personal dignity: Avoid most guesswork about one another…and do not spy upon one another…(49:12). Muhammad Asad notes that “guesswork may lead to unfounded suspicion of another person’s motives”.  The second Caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, advised that governments should act on what is evident, for, as he said, the inner secrets of people are only known to God Most High. The Prophet himself often warned about the deceptiveness of guesswork.

Now, I am not of course saying that cameras should never play a part in making our world a safer place, and neither am I suggesting that any community should not play a full part in acting on evidence to neutralize dangerous people. As Henry Porter says, CCTV can be essential to catching violent offenders. It is mistaken to confuse turning a blind eye to evidence with a wish to abide by the Prophet’s injunction not to try to bare other people’s failings. The merciful concealing of other people’s “nakedness” is one of the major themes of the Sunnah. One of the attributes of God is He who mercifully conceals our faults even to ourselves.  But this spiritual imperative does not render anyone immune from upholding the law. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s, said Jesus.

Henry Porter concludes his critique of the culture of “snooping” in Britain today by saying that “the people owe the state nothing more than taxes and obedience to the law” because “the supreme authority is not the Queen, the Executive or Parliament: it is the people and we should never forget it.” This is uncontroversial, but I would go further. As citizens, yes, we owe the state these things even if we also have the right, which the state is obliged to protect, to speak out peacefully if we believe that the powers of the state are being abused. But as people of faith, we owe more, to ourselves, to our fellow human beings, and above all to our Creator. We exercise a more demanding kind of watchfulness, one which honours the moral and spiritual imperatives laid upon us by our faith, including the highest standard of personal behaviour and conduct – to act with ihsan, to live in a beautiful and excellent way, as if God sees all that we do.

If we can be true to that calling, we may feel some concern about the surveillance society in Britain today; we may even openly voice our concern, for we have a duty to contribute to the betterment of the society in which we live. But our real concern goes beyond the ultimately limited intrusions which can be exercised by probing cameras or other inventions of technopoly. Our concern, above all, is that God sees all that we do, and if we do not see Him, surely He sees us. Honouring the totality of the presence of God, we move into a more expansive spiritual landscape, a greater world in touch with what is beyond the reach of human perception where there is only a single Eye which absolutely nothing escapes.