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Rethinking the Masjid in America
"Muslims are the new Niggers of America. If you will not fight for yourself, no one will."
This is what the Jewish attorney of a Palestinian client recently told this author. And this was before 9/11. Who will take up the challenge of the new civil rights movement in America?
Masjids are the main organizing unit of Muslims on this continent. In the presence of weak national organizations, Masjids by default may end up performing a role which their founders did not perceive, much like the black churches did in the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 60s. But is the Masjid in America ready for it?
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks ushered in a new era for Masjids in North America whereby mosques became centers where Muslims and non-Muslims met face-to-face in the context of tragedy and solidarity.
Although very few mosques had their structures physically damaged after 9/11, the attacks shook up the Masjids' administration, as security became an immediate concern. In some cases, neighbors and interfaith groups took it upon themselves to take the Masjid out of its isolation. As a result, many mosques opened up to their neighbors, believers in God and brothers in humanity who do not believe in Islam. Their questions forced Masjids to look for Islamic literature and copies of the Quran. Many mosques organized open houses for the first time allocating some budget for these activities. As a result of such events, Muslims felt a level of comfort when others stood in the mosque and supported them as neighbors. This was a new experience for most Masjids.
It remains to be seen whether this openness to interfaith camaraderie is translated into a common agenda and more civic responsibility in the neighborhoods where the mosques are located. The incidents of 9/11 clearly indicate that Masjids can no longer be islands of isolation. They must and can reach out to meet tomorrow's challenges.
As an observer of US policy since September 11, this author is under no illusion that the American war on terrorism is bound to make America a continued target for more terrorism. Violence breads violence. If Israel, after decades of occupation, cannot contain essentially armless Palestinian refugees in their few square miles, America cannot feel safer following the same policies. Which policies are going to be more effective in defeating terrorism? What can the Muslim community in America do to prevent such happenings? If terrorist attacks, God forbid, do happen, then how is the Muslim community here is going to handle it? While these questions are subject of many discussions, this article dwells essentially on what the Muslim community can do to improve itself organizationally.
This author feels that Muslims are not ready to handle such a plausible eventuality. Our Masjids and their resources need to be much more organized than what they are now. That preparation essentially involves professionalism, more openness, greater civic involvement, allocating resources to develop coalitions and alliances throughout society, as well as a higher level of expenditure on the legal defense and physical security of the community. Other important steps are the ongoing training of staff and Masjid leaderships, and most of all, helping our neighbors understand what we are and the difference between us and those who give a bad name to our faith will help us in this regard as well. But let's first see what are the strengths and weaknesses of our community.
Strengths of Masjids in North America:
Walk into a Masjid in North America versus one in Cairo or Dhaka and you sense the difference almost immediately.
While the Masjid comes to life for prayers in most Muslim countries, many mosques in North America are full of life and activity beyond prayers. Weekend schools, full-time Islamic schools, adult classes, lectures, visiting non-Muslims, potluck dinners, bookstores, libraries, social gatherings, sisters, volunteers, committees, people accepting Islam, new Muslim classes and handshaking local politicians are among some of the unique features. In fact, in being the center of community life, the Masjid in America is probably closer to the Prophet Mohamed's (peace and blessings be upon him) Masjid in Madinah than most of the mosques in the Muslim world.
After all, the Masjid was never meant to be simply a place of worship with little to no participation by Muslims in it beyond that. The Masjid, in early Islamic times, was the locus of the community. There was a dynamism and activity that today is absent from many of the mosques of the Muslim world. A number of North American Masjids, however, are developing that quality as dictated by necessity.
Another distinctive phenomena in North American Masjids and Islamic centers is the participation of women. While women in North America, like Masjids in Madinah and Makkah come to pray, in many Masjids, they are administrators, teachers, students, chair committee etc.
North American Masjids are also multi-ethnic. According to the Council on American-
Islamic Relations (CAIR)'s 2001 report The Mosque In America: A National Portrait, mosque-goers in North America range from African-Americans (30 percent) to Arabs (25 percent) to South East Asians (two percent) to South Asians, the largest group, (33 percent) to Europeans (two percent). There is clearly multinational diversity which is not found in much of the Muslim world.
The Islamic principle of Shura (mutual consultation), which has long been forgotten in the Muslim world, where authoritarian and despotic regimes run the show, is in full force in North American Masjids. According to the Masjid survey, 59 percent of Masjids make decisions via a consultative council and 28 percent are made by the Imam.
Financially, most Masjids felt satisfied with their budgets as compared to most of the national Muslim organizations. There are probably more than 50 Muslim community centers in America whose annual budgets are higher than almost all the national organizations of Muslims.
Masjids on this continent are a growing phenomena. Even up to the 1960s, we had less than 20 mosques in America. This was followed by a sharp increase in the number of Masjids and Islamic centers established. Today, we have over 1000. This number does not include the thousands of temporary prayer spaces available to Muslims like on university campuses, in hospitals and other workplaces. If these are factored in, there are at least 3,000 places that Muslims use as places of prayer and congregation for Friday.
Challenges our Masjids and Islamic centers face:
The Masjid is part of the Muslim Ummah of North America. One question each Masjid needs to ask itself is what it is contributing in terms of human and financial resources for the growth of Islam and its institutions at the North American level. By asking this question, creative solutions to our challenges and needs can be harnessed.
Here are a few things Masjids can do to meet these in our communities.
Thinking for Your Masjid & Planning:
Although most Masjids have building expansion plans, very rarely do they develop short-term or long-term plans in view of the challenges Islam and Muslims face in North America based on their assessment of the weaknesses of their own congregations. Thinking for the growth of the Muslim community in its location and at the national level is very important for the proper usage of its resources. On a professional level, we use tools like loud thinking to develop strategic plans. This must also be used for Masjids and Islamic centers in fulfilling the community's needs in all areas, not just in providing a place to pray, a weekend school and other staple Masjid activities.
What is the thinking process in your Masjid? Can you organize a survey of Masjid participants to learn from their input? Can a sister's retreat do a loud thinking session to provide input into your Masjid Shura? Can the graduates of your Sunday schools come up with a list of things they would like their Masjid to do? Can a few social scientists in your Masjid be recruited to provide their input based on a review of your past plans?
You know your Masjid better. You can think creatively about its growth in terms of civic responsibility. Masjids cannot remain islands of isolation. They must become skilled in communications, public relations, the organized redirection of their resources and more.
Your Masjid can acquire information about its own demographics and issues from the CAIR survey. This can be used to compare it with other active Masjids and places of worship to find out how they have been helpful to the people who come to the Masjid and those who don't. If a proper plan is developed based on this information, this can help our Masjids, even if it is not implemented. It will at least have kick-started the thinking process many mosques today are lacking.
Unity for Common Agenda
Do you remember the story about the importance of unity where an old man demonstrated this concept by showing how one stick could be easily be broken but if all sticks are put together, it's difficult to break them? Well, this age-old anecdote can apply to Masjids as well.
Mosques and Islamic centers in every city must unite. It is an Islamic requirement and it is the dictate of our times. If you cannot handle the challenges we are facing alone then it is important to join forces for a common agenda which can rely on united resources. Even if there are only two or three Masjids and Muslim organizations in your city, you need to sit down on a monthly basis and develop your Shura. If you are more than three, you can establish a council of Muslim organizations in your community. In many cities Muslims are doing it. Send us an e-mail and we can provide you with sample by-laws for this task.
Although most Masjids and organizations are not theoretically against unity, they have been unable to work together because of the time factor. Unity does require time allocation, understanding and accommodation. The blessings of God will be with you if you come together for a common cause and the betterment of society.
Limits of Volunteerism & the need for full-time staff in Masjids:
America works nine to five, five days a week. And this is precisely the time when most Masjids are closed and no one is available to answer a query. A majority of Masjids in North America are run by doctors, engineers, computer scientists, and businessmen. They are all very successful in their fields and work in a professional manner. But when it comes to Masjids, it is by and large a volunteer job not in the best of the volunteer tradition. It is about time for Masjids' leadership to recognize the limits of volunteerism the way we practice it. Good usage of the precious time of talented volunteers requires professional management. It is about time Masjids hire full-time staff with good communication skills to deal with situations which require outreach with America.
Budget Beyond Bricks:
Most Masjids have no budget for Dawa or public relations. Most do not even have a Dawa committee. This is a serious problem.
Post-9/11, outreach and public relations are very critical for Muslims in America. By setting aside a certain amount of funds beforehand for such activities and planning them accordingly, Masjids and Islamic centers will be better equipped to face the challenges of Dawa and outreach in their neighborhoods and communities. How does your Masjid budget come in to being? Can your general body or Shura adopt a resolution to allocate 30% of the Friday collection for outreach efforts? How are designated funds are handled? Can your Masjid launch a fundraising campaign specifically for outreach purposes? Can the Zakat be reorganized to institutionalize help for the poor and needy? What is the budget for interfaith relations, developing coalitions and building networks with others?
Rethinking community finances is critical since most national organizations can hardly pay the salary of their employees. Issues like the legal and physical defense of Muslim properties, institutions and leadership must be a responsibility of all our organizations, including local ones.
Social services for society:
Although almost all Masjids help the poor and needy, institutions for social services with professional staff and dedicated space do not exist in our communities. While there is distribution of Zakat and Sadaqa, there is no sustained allocation to those who need it beyond a short period.
For example, it is estimated that more than ten percent of the prison population is Muslim. When they are released, they don't have the financial resources they need to get off their feet. They lose the brotherhood that fellow believers in prison provided and survive at the mercy of charities who more often than not want them to attend Bible classes and Church. They are literally left to fend for themselves. One of the first places they turn to for help is the local Masjid or Islamic center, which, beyond being able to provide some money, cannot do more in most cases.
As a result, one survey shows that more than 40 percent of these new Muslims whither away from Islam. If there was a system either within or affiliated to our Masjids and Islamic centers, such as halfway houses, it would be easier for them to make a transition to real life with their faith intact. To this author's knowledge, there are not more than one or two halfway houses which are being run by Muslims (our information may not be accurate, so if you know of any more Muslim-run halfway houses, please inform us). This will require us to rethink how Zakat is spent. How are the Masjids of "haves" and "have nots" working together to use Zakat for the rebuilding of a multi-ethnic Muslim community in North America? These social service institutions should be open to people of all faiths.
Most Masjids do not have an organized outreach program, which would help share Islam with neighbors and society in general. Few of our mosques have a full-time staff. Most of them are closed when America works, that is 9 to 5 on weekdays, because they are run by volunteers who are themselves working at this time. So if an institution, media or an individual in need calls, no one answers them. They'll have to wait till the weekend. When a response from the Masjid does come around though, it's usually too late, as they and the rest of America are involved in their own personal or family pursuits on the weekend. Questions to ask will be: How is Masjids phone response system? How do we welcome visitors? How can our Masjids can be more welcoming? How should we relate to those neighbors who do not care to enter the Masjids themselves?
Although there is a higher level of women's participation in North American Masjids than in Egypt or India, for instance, most attending women are highly educated with professional degrees and their potential is not being fully used for the Masjid and the Islamic agenda on this continent. While teaching in Islamic weekend schools, helping organize the women's section of the mosque during functions and cooking for Masjid-related events are important, Masjids and Islamic centers are not maximizing the potential of these sisters. Women and Jihad continue to be two major points of confusion in America regarding Islam. Let our sisters stand for Islam and deal with both of these issues for men who have so far failed to articulate them. Are women a full part of our community life? Are they part of the Shura process? How many sisters get to present Islam?
Although our weekend Islamic schools have helped a number of Muslim children retain their Islam at a basic level, they have not prepared the next generation of Muslims to take on leadership of the community. We have produced graduates who know how to read the Quran, memorize some parts of it, try to maintain Muslim character and eat Halal food. But most of these young Muslims are not involved in running a Masjid or Islamic center. Are weekend schools doing their job? Can weekend schools be exciting places whose products are the next generation of our leadership?
Fighting with the fear:
It is natural that Muslims are fearful considering that more than 50% have experienced harassment in the aftermath of 9/11 according to a Zogby Survey. Although most Muslims appreciate President Bush's statement in a Washington Islamic Center, the ongoing media treatment of Islam is not helping. Muslims are fearful of the unknown and fear physical and economic harm. Masjids must play a role in helping Muslims cope with these fears by translating them into energy for the community. Action is one sure way of handling fear and anxiety.
Unity and the reorganization of Muslims resources can help deal with the phenomena of fear. The Prophet Mohamed (peace and blessings be upon him) asked that even if you see the end of the world coming and you are planting a tree, you should go ahead and plant it. So the importance of action is critical, even at a time when work seems futile.
Request Imams and teachers to highlight and address the need to rely on the Creator. Allah has said in the Quran, "The mosques of God shall be visited and maintained by such as believe in God and the Last Day, establish regular prayers, and practise regular charity, and fear none (at all) except God. It is they who are expected to be on true guidance" (Surah Tawbah, 9:18). Fearing none but God is what God has asked us to do. Death will not come until its time has come. If its time has come no one on earth can delay it for a second. Allah who feeds birds who don't carry food with them, will feed us as well. Imams and the Masjids' leadership need to comfort and guide Muslims during this difficult time in America. That should be reflected in Khutbahs, Quranic lessons, Sunday schools as well as newsletters.
Relying on Allah should also be reflected by incorporating the following into Muslims' daily remembrance (Zikr): Tawakalto al Allahe la haula wala quwwata illa billahil Alliul Azeem (I put my trust in God. There is no power and strength above that of God, the Great).
Muslims' concerns about physical harm and security need to be dealt with by establishing phone trees for Masjids (link), and developing relationships with the police in the area, human rights groups, civil rights groups, as well as educating people about their rights.
It is also important to remind people that they are not the only one who are fearful. Think of those 30 percent of Americans who say that they have difficulty sleeping in the aftermath of 9/11. Think of Afghans; think of Kashmiris who have one armed Indian soldier for every ten Kashmiris; think of Palestinians whose are facing the might of Israel in the Occupied Land; think of what the people in Argentina are facing.
But one of the sure ways of handling fear is by thinking about how to enhance communication with other minority groups in society. We can learn from the experience of African- and Japanese-Americans in profiling. We can also understand the organizational structures and institutions they have developed for their own concerns. These ultimately led to an improvement in American laws and society in reference to civil and human rights.
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