Imam Asim Hafiz is the British born and raised muslim chaplain to Her Majesty's Armed Forces. We met in the cafe at the MOD and chatted at length about virtue. Asim is a deeply thoughtful and quietly spoken man whose kindness and charm come out in every word he speaks.
Asim's understanding of virtue is strongly influenced by his faith. Although Islam has a list of virtues (for which see: Virtues (for the virtue project) ), Asim insists that virtous behaviour also involves making active decisions to avoid sin, for example deciding not to get angry when someone cuts you off in the car, or deciding not to be greedy when faced with a tableful of cakes. To that end, behaving in a truly virtuous manner requires us to decide consciously to make a sacrifice of some kind.
Asim thinks about virtue consciously and challenges himself constantly to be a better person. He finds it fulfilling to behave virtuously - it is not just about doing things for other people. Being virtuous and thinking about virtue makes him feel hopeful and connected to a greater whole. He considers virtue consciously partly because he is interested in human psychology and partly because he is a dedicated follower of the Koran which explicitly requests followers to be good in all aspects of their lives and to try to embed goodness widely to ensure that humanity has good manners and good character.
Asim believes that although most people are virtuous, they do not think about virtue consciously and so do not enjoy the benefits of behaving in a virtuous manner. The weakness in society, therefore, is not that there is a lack of virtue - but that people take virtue for granted. If we could bring virtue to consciousness, both the givers and the receivers of acts of virtue would feel more positive and more connected. He was dismayed to realise that he himself is often surprised when he sees virtue and reflected that this sad state of affairs is caused by a culture of fear that makes many people must unwilling to build relationships with others - especially with strangers. This unwillingness is exacerbated by the fact that technology does not require people to develop relationship building skills because it limits face to face human interaction and, thus, limits the opportunities we have to learn about ourselves. Self knowledge is the key to empathy and empathy is the key to virtue.
He suggests we make a little sacrifice once a day or once a week to see how it feels, and/or spend a few minutes each day reflecting on our interactions with others and our behaviour to develop our self awareness. As a simple change that will instantly make us all feel better, he recommends smiling at someone at least once a day (and smiling back at someone who smiles at you)! To help embed virtue, therefore, we need to create opportunities to develop self-knowledge, and to that end, Asim is clear that it is individuals who must be responsible for embedding virtue in our society to help ensure that humanity can develop and maintain the good manners and good character mentioned above.
For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)
Related links: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/priests/armychaplains_3.shtml