Sr. Shahina Siddiqui is Executive Director of The Islamic Social Services Association of the United States and Canada (ISSA). Sr. Amber Rehman of Sound Vision interviewed Sr. Shahina for RadioIslam.com and has transcribed this interview with her about the social issues and problems confronting Muslims in North America, as well as her own reasons for choosing to go into social work in the service of Islam and Muslims.
Amber Rehman: Assalamu alaikum Sr.Shahina
Shahina Siddiqui: Wa Alaikum asalam wa rahmatullah
AR: As someone who has been working in the Muslim community [in social work] for the past 16 years, what made you choose to start, what made you interested?
SS: For me it was a personal commitment that I made, because of a personal experience.
I had a son who had a neurological problem, which was progressive. As his condition progressed and my need increased in the sense of help at home just to be able to find someone to help, the emotional support that I needed, and my family needed, I realized I could not turn to the Muslim community because there wasn't anything there.
There was no social service committee in our mosque. There were no services offered to people in need, except of course for funeral services, which were also very disorganized. And I thought at that time, Insha Allah (God willing), if it is up to me, this will not happen to another Muslim, that they could not turn to their community for support or help.
So it was kind of a personal commitment that I made that if I were able to, I would do whatever I can. And of course, remember, that I'm not a professional in this field. So it is to say that the need was there, and something had to be done. And I tried to do something.
AR: What needs did your community have at the time you started? Were they similar to yours? were there many marriage problems or problems with the youth, did the needs have to do with cultural shock?
SS: I think everything was needed, not so much in the marriage area, because our children were not yet of marriageable age. at least in the immigrant population.
It was more to do with youth, bringing up of children, and parenting concerns. There were needs in social services, for example, for people losing their jobs, where would they go?
There were people on social assistance, people had chronic illnesses, people needed grief counseling, and general counseling for day-to-day problems and day-to-day needs. The community was still very isolated and distant from main centers like Toronto and Vancouver.
The major organizations had not developed a network. We didn't have Internet and e-mail at that time, to be able to communicate as quickly as possible. So those were the major concerns.
As the community has grown and as time has passed, marriage and screening potential spouses for children has become a major issue. Crisis intervention and forms of domestic violence, and trying to resolve marital discord has become a major issue in our community and many other communities as well.
The influx of refugees has brought a whole new dimension to social services, and the related problems that they have, a lot of mental health issues have come up, that were perhaps not as many before, or at least not within the Muslim community.
AR: Do you feel the Muslims acknowledge the need for counseling as much as they should, because the basic understanding from previous years has been that Muslims choose to avoid any public attention drawn onto themselves? How are Muslims dealing with counseling and how should they be dealing with it? How important is it?
SS: It is a very new concept, especially for the immigrant population.
Coming from back home, I never heard the word "counseling". When I was growing up it was either that you went to an elder in the family or in the community, and sat with them and resolved the problem. We didn't call it counseling, we called it Naseeha, advice, consulting with elders. Or in tribal communities they would go to the tribal leaders. But in the common terminology, what these leaders or the elders provided was counseling. But it wasn't identified as such so it wasn't seen as such a threatening issue.
Somehow the immigrant population looks at counseling and they attach to it some sort of a mental problem, that it has to do with the field of psychology or psychiatry. And there is still a lot of taboo attached to that. So if you will say 'I've [gone] for counseling,' people will say 'what's wrong with you?'. But counseling really means that you sit with someone, talk over your problems and voice your concerns and try to find a solution. The counselor is not there to tell you what to do; the counselor is merely an instrument, or facilitator. You are the one who decides what to do, what is the best option. And we need it more and more now, because when a Muslim makes a resolution or is in a conflict situation, and wants to find a resolution, eighty percent of his decision will be based on his faith.
What does the faith require, or what does the faith dictate, or how will it help my faith, and how it conflicts with my faith or Deen? Therefore mainstream counselors are not too much of a help, especially with Muslims coming from so many different cultures. They cannot understand the difference of culture.
I remember the very first case I got, it was almost fifteen years ago. It was a mother calling me to say that her daughter who was fourteen years old, wanted to go on a date, and the mother had said absolutely not, and the daughter had gone to the guidance counselor at school.
The guidance counselor called the mother saying, ‘what's wrong with you? This is very normal, very natural for a fourteen year old to want to go on a date.' And the mother tried to explain that we are Muslim and what not, and [the] guidance counselor just could not understand that. The mother was calling for that.
Now when the girls were hearing that from their guidance counselors, 'hey nothing is wrong with you, this is totally normal', of course they wanted to do that, and that resulted in a conflict [between] them and the parents. Of course we intervened and were able to bring it to a resolution.
So, the community recognizes that there is a need, but still this word, a 'counselor' is a barrier. Many times I would not even use that word, I would say well let's come and talk and see what we can do. I don't call it a counseling session, just so that we can work around it.
But I think the other side of the coin has been that there hasn't been anything offered in the form of counseling services, the formalized counseling service. People feel, if I go to somebody in the community they will talk about it. They do not understand that counselors are bound by confidentiality, and they will not divulge it. So when we identify somebody as a counselor in the community, we have to be very sure that they are professionals.
People go to Imams asking for advice, but the Imams are not trained in counseling. They will try to tell them what to do rather then being able to assess the whole situation, being able to analyze, being able to walk them through the process of finding a resolution. So there has been resistance on both sides of the community. But I see things changing, just from the fact of the workload that I have in counseling, I would say that people are coming forward.
AR: With the rising rate of divorce, do you advise the young people who wish to get married to seek counseling?
SS: I think it's extremely crucial right now to implement premarital preparation courses. It's absolutely essential.
And if we have Islamic schools that go up to junior high or high school then we need to start implementing this program. We need Imams to understand, and take this course and have a couple of community workers working with them. If somebody comes and says I want to get married, or that I'm thinking of marriage, then it be made mandatory that the Imam will only perform the Nikah after you have attended this course.
We need to have seminars in communities, where it's not just about getting ready for marriage but also understanding what marriage is all about. I'm sorry to say, that many young people, our Muslim youth, do not know what marriage is all about. The only example they have of marriage is of their parents. They do not have an extended family here, so all they see is what their parent's marriage is about. Their parents don't talk about their marriage, and if it's a good marriage, well great, but if it's not, it's a very negative example.
They don't enter marriage with a practical perspective, but with a very unpractical perspective. And that is a problem. Marriages are breaking more within the first year then later, and just by that you can see that they are not taking their commitment seriously. So I think that the education on the part of the youth should start.
The education has to come from people who are older and wiser, who Alhamdu lillah (Praise be to God), by example have good marriages, as well as have training in how to talk to young people. Who understand the language, and who understand the culture of these young people. It's also necessary that they understand that there are many factors involved in the development of our young people.
Unfortunately when our young people have problems and concerns somehow they turn to their own age group and their own peers, whose life experience is exactly the same as theirs, and have the same narrow way of looking at things. Many time when
couples come to me, young couples, they've already taken advice from twenty different friends, who according to their experience and mental capacity, have given them twenty different advices, so the couple ends up being totally confused. The parents are not much help, because they are too emotionally close to the situation.
So I think at the MSA level or at the high school level we need extensive training, in terms of an education program. And I don't mean a lecture on marriage to say that the ideal Muslim marriage is like this, because ninety percent of the people will not achieve the ideal in this life. We need to know what the practicalities of day-to-day living are about. How to deal with the problems that arise, what is romantic love in marriage, and how do you express love in marriage. It needs to address what role does your family play in marriage, what are the spiritual aspects of marriage. Those are the kind of things we need to educate our young people about and ourselves as well.
AR: How should we go about training our counselors and at what level? And what is the most important area we should approach it from?
SS: My first advice would be, and this is my dream as well Insha Allah, that at every mosque and at every center Imams take training in [the] premarital preparation course. They should take these with their wives, as this is something couples do with couples.
I [would] also like that we start weeding out. There's a lot of weeding to be done in the Muslim community for people who are doing this work but are actually doing a disservice, because they are not trained or they do not have the Islamic knowledge or background. And if they do, it is very imbalanced so that they talk about the responsibilities of the wife and the rights of the husband, rather then the responsibilities of both. So we need to weed out those people, because many a times I get people for counseling who have been to counseling with these well meaning, good Samaritans, but they are not trained and have made the situation worse.
We need Imams to be more aware of this society, and this environment, and the kinds of messages young people are receiving. We need to address the parents in how they go about getting their children married, how they talk to the children about marriage, and how they can be good in-laws.
Based on that I wouldn't say there is one particular issue, there is a combination, a cocktail of treatments that have to be offered right now because we have passed the stage where we can go step by step. We need to now come from a different angle to address the issues. It's a critical issue and it's reaching a critical point in our Muslim society. We need to do it. We should've done it yesterday, that's how critical it is.
AR: What do you think of the fact that Muslims don't necessarily have a system to deal with the disabled Muslim population? What do you think people can do to help that area of the community, since it covers youth, adults and working people? It seems to be an area, which is greatly neglected.
SS: I think they are, but I think that things are much better then they have been back home, because of the services available to us through the mainstream.
There has to be a way to make life productive of the people with disabilities. For a simple solution, we need to make our mosques accessible. They should have wheelchair access, washrooms should have wheelchair access. We should be able to have conferences and what not, and have interpreters for the hearing impaired at them. We should have Quran in Braille. [Quran in Braille does exists: SV editor]
I remember a few years ago, I had a client who was looking desperately for a Quran in Braille and we couldn't find it. That's inexcusable. In order for them to become productive we have to provide these services.
I've never seen a disabled person on any committee, whether national or on local organizations. I mean, they have much to offer. We have very little patience with people with [a] disability. We turn away because it seems like too much to handle.
I remember taking my son once, to the Masjid, and he was in his wheelchair, and we needed a little more room, and I needed to look after him, and one of the women commented 'keep him home if he's sick'. I couldn't believe that was coming from a Muslim sister.
So we need to become more aware, and we need to become more compassionate. Mercy should be the basic element of a Muslim. And it isn't there.
This time when we had Islamic Social Services Conference (in Toronto in April 2000) we had a session done by Muslims with disabilities. These are sisters who have opened
organizations, whereby they are finding jobs for Muslims with disabilities and they spoke to us. One was visually impaired, and the other was a polio survivor and they were both very articulate and they really touched the audience.
But most of us were social workers; it was not the general public. And they said that this was the first time that they've been given an opportunity at an Islamic conference to speak. That to me is again a tragedy. Amount of stress that families with people of disabilities suffer, especially if it's children is very sad. I don't know if there is a support group for parents who have children with disabilities. And those are the concerns I have.
To think that at ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America) and other conferences, where they have 30,000 people attending, do they think that none of them have a hearing impairment, or other disabilities? So they cannot participate, because facilities and resources are not there.
AR: Why do you think it's important to have social services specifically for the Muslims?
SS: It is extremely necessary. Let's take a simple example.
I was just asked this question on one of the T.V shows, why do you need social services for Muslims alone? It doesn't have to be for Muslims alone, Insha Allah. When we will develop it, we will offer it to everyone. But the principle on which social services is based in Islam is very different from the mainstream.
Every Muslim by definition is a social worker, because Islam does not mean just praying and fasting. We know that in Surah Baqara (the second chapter of the Quran), it says that
the Muslim is the one that takes care of the needy, and spends of his sustenance, and stands up for justice, and becomes a champion for those who cannot speak for themselves.
So by definition, you and I are social workers. By definition, the Prophet [Muhammad] (peace and blessings be upon him) said that a Muslim is one who tries to remove the harm and tries to alleviate the hurt of his brothers or sisters or his fellow human beings. So when a Muslim comes to social services, or comes to social work, they come out of obligation to their Creator, because it is a religious duty and a religious obligation, so it is more than a profession.
Secondly, the principles on which we base our family life or our community life are very different from the secular society that you and I live in. So to bring that religious perspective to counseling, the faith issues to social work, are very important. And only Muslims can do that for Muslims. So that's why I think we need that.
To attract Muslims to ask for help we need that. Majority of the abused Muslim women, if you ask them, why didn't they turn for help, all they needed to do was call 911, they'll say that 'I don't want him to go to jail, I don't want to end up in a shelter where my children and I will be exposed to an unIslamic lifestyle.' So there is a fear, that if they go to mainstream social services, they won't be able to preserve their faith and their children will be lost in mainstream society. So they'll choose the lesser of two evils.
If there were Muslim social services, Muslim shelters where their needs would be taken care of, be it dietary or morally, I think more will ask for help, and more people will be helped Insha Allah.
People will feel secure asking for help. And again this is a way of promoting Deen (religion) and it's amazing how many times people have come to us for counseling, or merely just to talk. Some of them are non-committed Muslims who do not understand Islam, and after in a sense, because of Islamic counseling have become committed Muslims. They needed to understand the Deen and see the compassion and the mercy of our Deen and our belief system. Because all of what they had seen before was horror, and now they have seen the mercy of the faith. So this also becomes a Dawa (inviting others to Islam) instrument. And again, if we don't help our own, who will?
AR: Jazak Allahu Khayr Sr.Shahina Siddiqui. Assalamu Alaikum.
SS: Wa Alaikum Assalam.