Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘engagement

An edited version of this was published in The Message International Magazine.

Mosques and other Islamic organizations and institutions have never been more active and widespread than they are today. Yet the imperative for greater engagement in society, and increased activities to serve the needs of the growing community, have also never been more pronounced.

Numerous Muslim institutions and mosques have been built across the continent over the years. Muslims have launched initiatives like One America and Canadian Muslim Vote to encourage involvement in federal elections. Mosques like the Islamic Society of Central Jersey have opened their doors to those of other faiths in events like “Common Ground Connection”, others like the Ummah Mosque in Halifax and Worcester Islamic Center have held open houses and “Meet a Muslim” days to help clear misconceptions about Islam in the wider community. Individual Muslims in their own capacities have launched initiatives like “Meet a Muslim Family”  or “Talk to a Muslim” to dispel misconceptions about Muslims and Islam in the wake of Islamophobic statements and incidents. Mosques, Islamic centres and organizations have participated in soup kitchens or halal meal programs for the homeless and needy as well as running food banks and free medical clinics for those in need (like those run by the Muslim Welfare Center in Scarborough, Toronto and at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano, Texas and many others). Many mosques and Islamic centers have educational programs including weekly and daily classes on various topics as well as classes catering especially towards the youth in addition to organizing and coordinating programs for Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Conferences like those held by ICNA, ISNA, Reviving the Islamic Spirit and ILEAD promote education and awareness. Various Muslim media initiatives like The Muslim Link, Muslim Link, Message International, Islamic Horizons, Illume, AltMuslim etc provide a voice to communities, aim to correctly represent Muslim communities and provide an alternative to mainstream media.

Yet at the same time, Muslims are facing challenges that need to be addressed more than ever before. While many institutions are active in promoting engagement and serving community needs, others are not doing much.

“Some masjids are doing a lot of activities, some are doing nothing,” says Doud Nassimi, a professor of Islam at NOVA College who also conducts classes at the ADAMS Center in Virginia.

“I think the Muslim community is finally waking up,” says Azra Baig, an elected member of the South Catholic Board of Education in South Brunswick, New Jersey. “9/11 was definitely a wake-up call, but I think people have just gotten more comfortable after that. But I think with what has happened recently at San Bernardino – the terrorist attacks and the Islamophobia and anti-Muslim remarks by candidates for elections, I think people are finally waking up to the need to get more engaged and more involved. I’ve heard it so many times in the polls – when someone knows a Muslim, they are more comfortable regarding Islam and different aspects, but if their only source of information is the media, then I don’t blame them for being scared, how else are they learning about Islam and Muslims?”

So, while many Muslim institutions and Islamic centers are working to serve community needs in various ways by providing educational and counselling services or mobilizing the community for civic engagement, the need for more such activities in the community outweighs the efforts that are being put in. As many community members agree, while some laudable efforts are being made by mosques and organizations, a lot more needs to be done keeping in mind the needs of the growing Muslim community and the present socio-political milieu we find ourselves a part of today.

Below follows a collection of suggestions and ideas that I have compiled after reading various articles and speaking to activists and community members about what our institutions can do to be more involved and civically engaged:

  1. Create awareness among the leadership

For any effective changes to take place in our institutions, it is vital that our leadership be well-informed and aware of the needs and problems of the community they serve. Many mosque boards are made up of first generation immigrants or leadership that has not grown up in Western societies and therefore does not understand the problems faced by the youth in these societies and those who often work in mainstream society.

Many of them also “do not understand the importance of interfaith activities because they may not be as important in their Muslim majority countries,” says Asif Hirani, Program Director at WhyIslam. “We need to create awareness in the leadership of the masjids and the board and shura members. In terms of keeping our masjids open, we also need to change the culture of our masjids.”

For effective civic engagement and educational and counseling activities designed to properly meet the needs of the community, it is essential that board members and leaders are trained or those with an awareness and experience of present day Western societies are appointed to the boards.

 

  1. Conduct a survey about community needs

Many a times, the biggest obstacle in the way of any institution’s ability to properly serve the needs of its community is a lack of knowledge and understanding of what those needs really are. Without proper knowledge, any available funds are just funneled into activities which may not be relevant or that do not adequately serve the needs of the community. Each region and each community has different needs based on the demographics of the population that makes it up.  Upscale neighborhoods may have different needs from those that are populated by more low income families. Those with more third generation immigrants would have different needs than those with more newly arriving immigrants. It is important to know who makes up the community, what issues are important to them, and what issues and topics they would like to get more education on.

Knowing all of this can help an institution or mosque cater to the specific needs of the community in terms of designing classes or lectures, mobilizing support for and advocating needs at city or town committees or education boards, providing counseling services, and organizing events that cater to their needs and interests. Areas addressed in any such survey would include finding out about the demographics, income, household composition etc but also about what social and political issues the community considers important, what they would expect their institutions to advocate for them, and what they would like to be educated and counseled on. Surveys could be conducted via the traditional method of assigning teams to speak to and communicate with community members but also by holding events and meetings where issues are openly discussed, debated and brainstormed.

  1. Designate teams or individuals for specific tasks

Once a community’s needs are identified, tasks must be prioritized and funds and resources channeled accordingly. Depending on the size of the community it caters to and thus the amount of work needed and the resources available, the institution must designate either an individual or a team to specific tasks. For example, an individual or team should be made responsible for social justice issues and thus for representing the mosque or the community at city council meetings or in meetings with regional representatives. Another team could be assigned to deal with media outreach and so forth.

“I go to meetings and sometimes I’m the only Muslim over there,” says Rameez Abid, Communications Director at ICNA Council for Social Justice, talking about the lack of Muslim representation in social justice related issues like homelessness, climate change, anti-drone campaigns etc. Discussing how mosques need social justice representatives, he says, “I think one person dedicated to this cause can do it as a volunteer. If they can’t find someone to do it, I suggest hiring someone part time to do it. It is very important.”

It is important that an institution assigns specific teams or individuals for a particular task so that no one person or team is overwhelmed with too many responsibilities and so that interests, skills and expertise are utilized in the relevant jobs.

“Religious leaders have their own roles to play and they are already overworked,” says Amira Elghawaby, Communications Director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). “The roles within mosques and institutions have to be broadened to bring in more people who are keen in different areas of work and so associations and mosques can foster greater involvement because they often do have some funding available to support this kind of work.”

Elghawaby says this could include the mosque hiring and training their own people to help represent the mosque in city events or city initiatives or designating a team of media specialists to ensure representation and relationships with the media. Training could be provided by the institution itself or in cases where the institution does not have the relevant expertise, training can also be delegated to organizations or individuals who have more experience in the area.

These jobs can be open to interns and volunteers to assist the person(s) assigned to the job. Not only will our institutions be able to benefit from the skills and expertise available in the community this way but it will also be a good way to get students to fulfill their volunteer hours and internship requirements by benefiting the community.

  1. Build better relationships with leaders, representatives and the media

Muslims need to build good relationships with their leaders and representatives at the national and regional level in order to be able to communicate their perspectives and concerns to them. Maintaining a relationship like this would include inviting local leaders to the mosque or other Islamic events, having meetings with them and attending any events organized by them.

Talking about having these relationships with our leaders, Azra Baig says “it’s important because they want to hear from us and they do represent us. If they are going to support us, we need to support them on the various issues. We need to be there when they have their press conferences, their petitions, we have to vote and a vote helps – especially this coming election the Muslim vote is going to matter.”

Baig says building a good relationship with the media is also vital because “the media is also our voice”. This includes sending out press releases and invitations about events or statements from the organization when needed. Having an effective media strategy can also include following mainstream media reporting about Muslims and responding to and sending feedback when necessary. According to researcher and journalist Nazim Baksh an effective strategy for engagement of Muslims with the media would include making spokespersons, analysts, scholars and researchers available to the media who can provide views and analysis when certain events take place and when the media is looking for those who can provide commentary.

 

  1. Represent the community in the mainstream

Our institutions and mosques must step out of the traditional roles they are used to and be ready to rise to the next level which includes not just serving as a place of worship and spiritual guidance for the Muslim community, but also as a platform for activism, mobilization and advocacy. Being part of a society where Muslims are a minority, it is easy for our institutions to get comfortable in their small cocoon of all-Muslim activities having nothing to do with the outside world, but in the present age it becomes increasingly important for our institutions to step out of their own circle and be a part of the mainstream. This would include advocating causes that would benefit everyone beyond boundaries of race, ethnicity or religion as well as representing the community in the sphere of mainstream society whether that includes city government meetings, education board meetings, media, national politics etc.

According to Abid, causes that our institutions take up must aim to benefit the wider community in addition to just Muslims. “We cannot be isolationist,” he says. “In order to secure our rights, we have to secure others rights as well and that is part of our deen.”

 

  1. Work on a stronger social media presence

In this age of the social media and digital world, it is important to utilize the tools of the time to spread our message and benefit our communities more widely. A big amount of any mosque event’s audience or beneficiaries are lost just because of the lack of a good social media or promotional strategy. The same goes for the need to promote any civic engagement campaigns the mosque runs.

“Many a time, many members of the community are not aware of the activities at the masjid,” says Muhammad Ibrahim Ali, an Arabic instructor at Taqwa seminary and Bayyinah. “So for example the event is over and they get to know late – so it’s very important for them to improve their social media presence and not only to improve, they have to compete with the other organizations – even utilizing modern methods of media marketing.”

Our Prophet (saw) also used to utilize the technique of his time to get his message across to a wider audience, for instance when he went to Mount Safa to call out to people to deliver the message of Islam when he wished to invite the Quraish openly to Islam, knowing that the custom of the time was to go to Mount Safa when one had an important message.

 

  1. Come together and unite with other communities

Although each institution works independently on its own, it is vital that links be maintained with other institutions and that the institutions stand united on a variety of causes. This would also include sharing resources, expertise, information, ideas and personnel as well as funds and also helping raise funds for each other.

“Unity is something that strengthens all communities,” says Elghawaby. “I think that we need to come together at the local level for sure to find out what’s going on in our communities and who is doing what… how can we either replicate or compliment or contribute to these efforts on a professional national scale and in a way that the work that is done is not lost in someone’s mind, it becomes part of our institutional memories.”

It is important for organizations to support each other and to share best practices, see what is already being done and help expand on that in addition to working on areas that are neglected.

 

  1. Work with professionalism and put in concerted effort

It is important that the efforts made by our institutions are made in an organized and professional manner so that things do not fizzle out and die down gradually.

“I think the really most important thing is to approach these issues with a very high degree of professionalism,” says Elghawaby. She says one of the challenges is that there will always be well-meaning individuals who will try to do some of this type of work and that’s fantastic. But the drawback to that is “when an individual undertakes this work, not with an institution, then there is going to be the loss of the memory of what they have done, so there is no institutional memory to the type of work or relationships they fostered. Once they lose interest or once they don’t have time to continue their work, it sort of disappears so that is one reason why it is so critical to engage institutions.”

“I think it’s really important that this work is done with professionalism and with real goal setting in mind. It cannot be done in a way that’s sort of ad hoc. It really has to be a concerted effort.”

Elghawaby’s organization has recently launched an initiative called “Stronger Together” which aims to galvanize Canadian Muslims in every major city to be more civically engaged and to advocate both on national and local issues. The organization has put up a pledge on its website inviting people to commit to being more engaged. Once a pledge is received, the organization will map out all those interested in being more engaged and cluster them together in teams according to the areas and provide support and training on how to engage on various issues. Their first campaign will be about an anti-terror legislation Bill C-51 in Canada and will be encouraging participants to approach their local parliament members and talk to them about the legislation. This is a good example of how institutions can work to promote more civic engagement in an organized manner.

It is important for our institutions to learn from each other and pool resources, ideas and expertise to better serve the community. Our organizations must rise to the next level, promote civic engagement and meet the various needs of the community.

 

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