By Shabina S. Khatri
Unless you count one-credit mini-courses like “Coral Reefs” or “Dinosaurs and Other Failures,” I haven’t really taken a science class since high school. But I have managed to retain one nugget of information from those oh-so-long ago days: the fascinating principal of inertia. It describes the tendency of bodies to resist change, stating that matter in motion will remain in motion and matter at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.
Thus far, it’s safe to say our community is a great example of inertia in action – or rather, in inaction. Most of us are comfortably at rest, and prefer to stay that way.
Until last month, that is, when we were acted upon by an outside force.
His name was Jeffrey Lang, and his blunt critique of our ethnocentric, authoritarian and misogynistic ways moved us so much that we gave him a standing ovation. But has it moved us into motion? I fear not. Sure, we were inspired that night, but that’s all it was, one night. And as generous as Prof. Lang was with doling out the criticism, solutions to these institutional problems were not nearly as forthcoming.
I suppose that’s because we as a community need to come up with our own answers to the issues we face. So let’s take the biggest problems point-by-point, and flesh out some potential ideas for improving each situation. Keep in mind that these suggestions are far from comprehensive, and each person is entitled to his own opinion. On the flipside, someone has to get the ball rolling…
- Women’s treatment in the masjid. This issue was cited as the number-one reason why the Muslim American community is in crisis. I think we’ve already taken the first step by acknowledging that we do indeed have a problem. Next on our to-do list comes the critical analysis, and following that should be group consensus.So let’s get our scholars together and examine the issue at hand – women’s presence and involvement in the masjid. What is Islam clear about? Which areas are open for interpretation? Then, let the community talk about it. The squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, but it’s fair to say the loudest voices rarely share the perspectives held by the majority.
As for the proper venue – I know broaching such a controversial subject at a town hall meeting may seem foolhardy, but aren’t you curious to know what your neighbor really thinks? Let’s face it, if you believe women don’t belong anywhere but the kitchen, but you won’t say that publicly, maybe that’s because you can’t back up your beliefs with reason or evidence. Similarly, women who believe our situation must be improved (myself included) can’t simply sit by and complain about it. We’re going to have to step up and get involved. That means volunteering our time for big tasks, like organizing dinners, raising funds and filling board positions – as well as the little things like quieting down jum’aa talkers and calming down screaming children.
We’re also going to have to give our thought processes an overhaul. This isn’t about how far women have come in relation to men – it’s about how far we’ve come in relation to the best Muslim women who ever lived, the Prophet (SAW)’s wives (may peace be on them all). Aisha (R) gave us over a third of our hadith. Hafsa (R) was a protector of the Qur’an. And Khadijah (R), she was the first Muslim, recognizing the truth even when her husband (SAW) could not. The standard these incredible women – daughters, mothers, wives, leaders – is what we need to compare ourselves to, in all that we do.
- Ethnocentrism, minority against minority. Alhumdulillah, our community has grown more diverse since the time I was a kid here. But that’s not something we as a group can take credit for. And a random glance around our social hall makes it clear that we have a long way to go. On the sister’s side, the segregation is flagrantly disheartening. At dinners, nearly all of the tables are almost always filled with Indo-Pakistani women. Then there are the one or two tables up front that appear to be reserved for “everyone else” – the handful of African, Arab and Caucasian women who seem to know and accept these special seats.To break out of middle-school cafeteria mode, we’re all going to have to extend ourselves a little bit more. That means inviting new community members to sit with us at masjid gatherings, eat with us in our homes and share with them ideas for a more integrated future. Google and read the Prophet (SAW)’s last khutbah for more inspiration on this matter.
- Authoritarianism, in which the decisions that affect everyone are made by the select few at the top. I saved this issue for last, since it’s the most sensitive. That’s because as a community, we haven’t yet taken the first step by admitting there’s a problem. But talk to any Muslim Americans in their late 20s and early 30s, and they’ll tell you that there is indeed trouble brewing on the horizon.Here’s a perfect example, as recently recounted by Br. Altaf Hussain, a former president of MSA-National. In a conversation with her father, a college-age daughter asks, “Dad, when is it going to be our time?” Meaning, when will the new generation graduate from stapling and paper-folding to actually running the masjid? Her father’s response: “not until the day we all die.” We meaning the elders who established many of our masajids, the ones who refuse to give up power until death snatches it from them.The man was only half-joking.
Since the board decides how, for the most part, things work around the masjid, it’s in a diverse community’s best interests to have, well, diverse representation on the board. That means diversity of ages, races, professions and schools of thought. But we don’t have any of that. How come?
It all goes back to inertia. According to Muslim-American activist Harris Ahmed, there are a lot of reasons why masjid boards continue to be so homogenous and have such low turnover rates. Communities and their leaders fear change, and the thought of giving up power to a younger crowd often evokes scary images of revolution and chaos. So our elders test us with seemingly mundane tasks like cleaning tables and parking cars – and our egos often cause us to fail these tests. As former MSA board members or college activists, the idea of doing such menial jobs offends us, so we quit in a huff, and as we storm off our elders are reassured that we indeed are not mature or experienced enough to handle the responsibility of running the masjid.
But consider the problem this vicious cycle presents. Leaders should certainly learn how to be followers, but followers must also learn to be leaders. Otherwise, who will lead – and how well will these people lead – when the leaders are gone?
The ideal solution, as advocated by Ahmed, is an early transition period. This allows current board members to retire but still advise the new generation of leaders as they cut their teeth on difficult issues like the ones already discussed. This would smooth the abrupt changing of hands many communities face when they lose the majority of their leaders and must scramble to appoint new ones.
Like I said, these are just a few ideas to get the conversation started. Let’s not forget that the key thing to remember with all of these issues is to use wisdom in our practice of faith. Blind practice only fosters intolerance and bigotry, which are certainly not conducive to our survival as a minority group in the U.S. Without understanding of deen, our actions become meaningless, and without meaning and sincere intention our actions are not accepted. I apologize if I offended anyone with my critique and hope only that it inspired some of you to break the principle of inertia by finally getting out of rest and into motion.