Changing the Rules of Engagement

Nothing sets one off in the way an arrogant, self-aggrandizing personality does. These personality types make it near to impossible to engage in meaningful dialog. A stream of self-informed consciousness pours from their mouths while they remain impervious to any counter thought.In a recent conversation I had with an interfaith colleague, this was the unfortunate observation of previous speakers that had been invited to partake in a knowledge sharing endeavor. Instead of being open to questions and sharing opinions, they dictate their opinions as religious canon, often at the cost of putting down other faiths. Yes, I am specifically talking about Muslims here – Muslims who have no social graces and lack the “bedside manner” of participating in interfaith dialogs. This points to the serious need for Muslim communities to demand standards from our spiritual leaders and public mouthpieces.

The aim of this post is not to blast any of these persons in specific. In the aforementioned case I am not aware of any specific names and where there have been cases that I have witnessed firsthand, the names will remain anonymous, as it is not my objective to perform character assassination on any single person. But it does beg the question of why are we in this situation and what qualifications do these people have in representing us? I have witnessed firsthand the social fumbling of immigrant imams attempting to engage in dialog with non-Muslims and the results have been something of a plane crash. Many do not even possess the requisite oral skills such as being proficient in English as well as having sufficient background in the culture, history and politics of this country. Simply knowing that Islam is al-Haqq is not longer an acceptable qualification. It is a moot point that one believes that Islam [or Christianity or Hinduism] is the correct religion. If you’re a practitioner of that given religion it is safe to say you believe it’s correct. But the function of an interfaith dialog is not a boxing match where ones debates his or her theology. It’s about exchanging ideas and learning how to educate and be educated. We must never forget that we are there to learn as well.

Instead of spokespersons who are adept at public speaking and public engagement we are left with representatives who in reality possess self-esteem issues. And in an attempt to bolster that weak esteem, raise themselves and their faith on lofty, albeit rickety, pedestals, that in no way accomplish the goal of a give-and-take dialog. Unfortunately, this is not solely an immigrant issue. Many indigenous imams, both having been influenced by immigrant rhetoric as well as suffering from their own brand of inferiority, have adopted similar stances as well.

So what is the solution? In another conversation last week with a friend I spoke on how many of us [meaning converts] would not tolerate second-rate quality goods in our pre-Muslim days and yet as Muslims we seem to have lost any notion of standards or accountability. I don’t know any of us that would have accepted a brand-X quality education or unqualified doctor to attend to us or any scenario where quality, responsibility and accountability would have not mattered. And yet it is precisely this that we not only tolerate we seem to discourage any form of scrutiny. How is this possible? If the Muslim community [and here I speak of the indigenous community] is to raise up out of this quagmire, we are going to have to demand standards and qualifications from our leaders. No longer is it enough that the imam know some Arabic or studied with shaykh So-and-So, he is going to need to be formally trained in a number of areas. And this qualification will require us to examine, “what is it we need?”. “What are the duties of an imam? What kind of function will he perform?”. These questions and demands for quality will have to extend to our schools as well. And perhaps the imam isn’t the person best qualified to deal with community affairs. Perhaps a spokesperson [yes, man or woman] would be best to engage in such activities.

Ultimately, for any of these changes to take effect it is going to take a lot of ground work, leg work and quite honestly, the passing of a generation [whether that be people ceding power or whatever form it takes], whose ideals are sorely out of touch with the reality that we live in. It is also going to take an aggressive attitude of a new generation of Muslims, young people, that have vision and the tenacity to carry it out. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. It is of the essence. The choices we make now will greatly dictate the nature of our reality for many years, possibly generations, to come. And God knows best.