*Unfortunately, this article also didn’t make it to the press. See my thoughts on the matter by clicking here.
By Shabina S. Khatri
Government matters. If it didn’t, our practice of faith in the U.S. wouldn’t be so distinct from the way people practice Islam overseas. How government matters can be explained best through a little notion called congruence theory.
At its core, congruence theory states that the success of a government hinges on its ability to replicate throughout society. So for example, in a successful dictatorship, smaller social units – like schools, churches and even the family – are run with comparable totalitarian zeal. In these groups, just like in the government, one or two people make the choices for all members. That means in school, students find their careers already mapped out for them; in the masjid, one madhab or sect rules unconditionally; and at home, parental authority reigns supreme.
On the other hand, in a successful democracy, people will imitate the government by running their schools, churches and families in a more egalitarian way. Group members do this by electing representatives from amongst themselves to run their organizations. These voters then devise systems of accountability to ensure that reps are doing their jobs properly. In a democracy, which rests on the notion of an informed public, that system of accountability is the free press. It makes sure (ideally) voters get the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves and for society.
Our masjid is a perfect example of congruence theory in action. Like in any democracy, voters (IAGD members) elect officials (the board) to lead the community and oversee its affairs. Since it’s not logically possible for thousands of members to have the know-how needed to run a masjid, this system seems both efficient and pragmatic. Kudos for adopting democracy…right? Well, maybe.
In espousing the system our government uses, we’ve also adopted a problem that has been plaguing the U.S. for years – voter apathy. Like many Americans, lots of masjid-goers have absolutely no idea what’s going on behind the scenes – nor do they care. This is troublesome, because uninformed voters are easy to take advantage of (WMDs, anyone?).
It’s hard to get at the root cause of this problem. Do masjid-goers not care because they’re uninformed, or are they uninformed because they don’t care? Either way, the dilemma is so viciously circular that only the most potent of antidotes could break the paradox. And in thinking about masjid politics, I believe there exists one such antidote: a free press.
Such a press would accomplish two main things. One, it would hold our leaders accountable for their actions by keeping us informed about masjid-related activities. This would be an improvement upon our current state of ignorance, since many of us don’t even know the simplest details, like how our money is being spent or what kinds of resources the library holds. Few people may even know when the board meets to make its decisions (first Sunday of every month, 10:30am), or that these meetings are open to everyone!
Informing the public would not only keep our elected officials honest, but would also shut up the conspiracy theorists. I’ve heard more than one person speculate about what goes on at board meetings – about who is who’s puppet, about why outdated protocols are followed only because the masjid plays favorites with its members. These allegations can easily be put to rest if things were made more transparent.
Of course, things could also be made more transparent if more people just made the effort to come to board meetings and/or get involved, but like I mentioned earlier, it’s simply not feasible to expect a thousand people to attend each and every board meeting. Just like it’s not feasible for every American to attend every congressional hearing, or even watch it on TV. That’s why members elect officials in the first place, to make the decisions on their behalf. But what is feasible is assuming that people want to know the outcome of those decisions, and that people want to know what their elected officials are doing in their names.
Which brings me to my second point. Perhaps if people knew what was going on, they might be more motivated to do something and get involved. The sheer number of tasks and decisions our board must handle is staggering. And since our elected officials operate completely on a volunteer basis, it’s understandable that masjid tasks are not always number one on their priority list.
As an informed community, we would know that less than a dozen people keep this enormous masjid alive and functioning – and we’d know that these people need our help. IAGD has so many different committees – newsletter, education, dawah – but so few people to keep them going. In a burgeoning community like ours, we should have people clamoring to volunteer their services. So where is everyone? There is much work to be done, and perhaps hearing more about these opportunities will motivate us to donate our time and energy toward sustaining the masjid.
A free press, then, would ensure accountability and spur change. But like one uncle said, this isn’t the British Parliament. It’s a non-profit organization run on a volunteer basis by a bunch of harried professionals. There’s simply not enough manpower to create a free press system. Ok, I concede to that. But even small gestures count.
That’s why I’m zeroing in on the minutes that the IAGD secretary takes at each board meeting. Why not make the minutes available to the public? By available, I mean in a timely and easily accessible manner. Board meeting minutes that are approved and made public three months after the fact, in the form of a computer printout buried in a pile of papers in the masjid library, are virtually useless to everyone. Why not post these minutes on the IAGD website? If the meetings are open to the public anyway, what have we got to hide? Surely the board keeps track of attendance. Why not post this, as well? That way, members will know which of their elected officials go to bat, and which ones don’t even show up for practice. How about posting the agenda before the meeting, so if members see a topic that interests them, they can plan ahead and work the meeting into their schedules? This form of transparency can go a long way in eliminating mistrust and grooming much-needed volunteers.
Since knowledge is power, this information can also help general body members find the courage to attend the meetings, or sign up to be a volunteer, or agree to lead a task force. Frankly, it’s intimidating to walk into a roomful of (mostly) men who know that they belong there. As a general body member who’s not in the club, the minutes afford me an opportunity to stay abreast of developments and formulate opinions on these developments – making me less likely to feel awkward and out of place at board meetings.
Will more information solve the problem of voter apathy? The problem persists in this country because most Americans are not big consumers of political news. So whether it will continue unabated in our community depends on whether masjid-goers will actually read the extra information provided to them. I’m an optimist, so I’d say the experiment is worth the effort. The most successful governments are flexible enough to accommodate communities as they expand and contract. IAGD’s government should be no different; let us embrace a way to bring more people into our folds – let us embrace accountability.