Community at a Crossroads

Feb 27

Recently I had a conversation with two officials from the US government. Among the many subjects of our conversation, one was about the circumstances that lead to my resignation from the helm of a major American Muslim organization. Despite my discomfort in having a conversation about things I had long forgotten about and moved beyond, I found myself agreeing with the substance of their argument. American Muslim organizations have come a long way and yet they need to evolve further by taking the necessary steps towards greater transparency, more accountability and higher professionalism. Failure to act with diligence and urgency could relegate them to footnotes in history at a time when a new administration in Washington is open to engaging diverse voices spanning the full spectrum of American social life.

In some strange and perhaps tangential way, I kept thinking about this conversation as I contemplated on the disturbing news that Muzzammil Hassan, the founder and owner of a television station, Bridges TV, founded to overcome negative stereotypes of Muslims in America, was charged with decapitating his wife Aasiya Hassan. The news was naturally shocking and it evoked many questions. What role, if any, could the American Muslim community have played in preventing this tragedy?

The Aasiya tragedy and my conversation with government officials both pointed to the simple fact that the American Muslim community has come to an important crossroads requiring serious introspection and positive action for change.

Aasiya Hassan’s murder was the result of a private failure of a man who used community organizations to promote his business. Does this make those organizations or individuals that gave Muzzammil a platform to promote Bridges complicit or culpable? Absolutely not. Although Muzzammil had problems in his previous two marriages, his shortcomings were largely hidden from the public eye. Those that met him in the course of doing business, as I did, could not have foreseen the dark side of his personality.

Despite this lack of direct culpability, the American Muslim community must treat this tragedy as a wake-up call. Domestic violence is as much a problem in the Muslim community as it is among other groups across America. Mosque-based organizations and social service institutions must devise mechanisms to not only discuss the un-Islamicity of domestic abuse and violence but also find ways to band with American social service agencies in developing practical strategies to address this scourge. An occasional Friday sermon is a necessary but not a sufficient step towards addressing the problem.

Islamic centers and Muslim organizations have not devoted sufficient resources towards addressing the myriad of social issues dogging the community. The percentage of budget devoted to social services remains quite small. Moreover, the leadership of American Muslim institutions, by and large, remains heavily dominated by men over the age of 40. Many are first-generation immigrants (with the exception of those institutions catering predominantly to the African American community). Few Islamic centers have proportional representation from women or younger second-generation Muslims. This creates an echo chamber among leadership, to the detriment of the aspirations of the community.

When faced with tragedies and opportunities, words like “transparency,” “accountability,” and “professionalism” are not mere fads or slogans. They can become the key to averting a tragedy or harnessing an opportunity. The spirit behind these words finds resonance in many Islamic teachings, particularly in the life of Prophet Muhammad, whose life was an open book. About no historical figure are so many details known. He lived among people and had a ready ear for their problems. He was constructively critical of his community and thoughtful in providing solutions, on many occasions accepting the views of others over his own.

There are many practical ways for American Muslim organizations to translate the ideas of transparency, accountability and professionalism into practical success. In the spirit of brevity I will list only a few.

First, the ideas of professionalism, transparency and accountability are reflected in the Islamic concept of Ihsan (excellence). As God says in the Qur’an, “Worship God and do not associate anything with God. And practice Ihsan (excellence) with your parents and relatives and orphans and paupers and neighbors and the companion by your side, and the traveler on the road, and those in your legitimate custody. For God does not love any who are arrogant and vain.” (4:36)

Prophet Muhammad exemplified that the removal of doubt is an attribute of good leadership. Those familiar with Islamic traditions will recall the incident where Prophet Muhammad went out of his way to let a fellow passerby know that the lady he was taking a stroll with was his wife, even though the passerby had no reason to doubt otherwise. American Muslim organizations can embody this transparency by publishing independently audited financial statements on their websites. In the same vein, organizations can publish bios of their board and staff, including such details as their educational and professional backgrounds. If membership based, organization should provide membership numbers. At a time when the American public remains skeptical of Muslims, such proactive steps will be in the best traditions of Islam and help can calm jittery nerves among prospective partners and donors.

Accountability can be fostered by instituting a regular transition of power, as many responsible mainstream institutions have. And yet some American Muslim organizations have stagnated due to lack of appropriate turnover in leadership. Accountability can also be further fostered by ensuring a diversified funding base rooted in the constituency that the organization is serving. Using new social networking technologies, American Muslim leadership can foster better dialogue with their constituents.

Engendering professionalism in organizational culture is crucial to efficiently serve constituents. Professionalism can be enhanced by a process of continuing education of board members and staff. It can also come from the adoption of best-practices for non-profit governance, a subject about which a great deal has been written.

The American Muslim community is relatively small, perhaps accounting for no more than 2-3 percent of the overall population. To maximize participation, organizations must expand constituency to include those whose association with the organized Muslim community may not be as strong as the regular mosque-going Muslim. To appeal to the hearts and minds of a new generation of Muslims will require an openness to new ideas.

Improvements in the governance of Muslim organizations will bring obvious benefits to the American Muslim community. It will also be good for America. The paucity of credible Muslim voices in American policy making circles is a limitation that hampers the efficacy of many U.S. policies. Part of the problem is the result of policy makers not sufficiently reaching out to the Muslim community allowing their fears to transcend their better angels. But another part of the problem is undoubtedly the fact that the community has not been effective in spotting and promoting new talents within a professional and institutional framework.

The American Muslim community will face many more challenges in the future, over and above the many it is facing now. The community cannot remain in its current reactive fire-fighting mode. It needs to become proactive, preventing fires from erupting in the first place.

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