Can We Afford to Wait For the Next Crisis?

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By Ibrahim Sherman, President and partner of Balanced Leadership Institute; a consulting firm specializing in supporting Muslim nonprofits in matters of organizational development, leadership, and financial management.

Our community responds to crisis.  After 9/11 we all began to communicate to the media, but since there was no communication plans and programs they soon diminished as the crisis passed.  After the documentary “Unmosqued” came out there was much discussion about including our youth and some token positions were created. Since there was no real strategy to embrace the youth into our organizations – and while we still hear lots of discussion – meaningful, genuine changes have not taken place.

The recent attacks in California combined with the election season has flamed an increase in Islamophobia.  In response we are currently discussing outreach programs.  But these are also likely to be temporary band aids that allow us to go back to our old ways once the urgency has passed. There is crisis coming that will affect all of us and have a much greater impact on our community than any of these that cannot be dealt with using token, time limited, or superficial actions.  I am speaking about the massive wave of change in the culture of the Muslims in America.

Our Muslim children are culturally American.  Some are the African American Muslim who have, and enjoy living within, a fully developed culture. However, the Muslim Children of recent immigrant heritage are in a different position. They are discovering, and defining what it is to be an American Muslim. Their faith is Islam but their culture is American, and that combination is being defined by them and can’t be defined by their immigrant parents. For example, Muslim children of Egyptian heritage raised in the US have more in common with the Muslim children of Pakistani heritage raised in the US, than they do with Egyptians back home; and both will have more in common with non-Muslim children in the US than with Muslims in other countries.

Continuing to be focused on preventing our children from making this shift rather than preparing them for it is positioning our children to choose between their culture and their faith.  There are some positive things happening.  The rise in outreach programs spearheaded by our youth is one. Another is the growing number of Imams who were raised in the US who can help us understand how Islam fits in the American culture and not how to avoid it.  The real point here is that the change is inevitable and it will be massive over the next decade.  Sadly, many of our Islamic organizations have not felt the need to realistically prepare.

Our leadership in many cases is in denial. Organizational change to prepare our institutions to manage this shift requires a much higher level of professionalism and strategic thinking.  Most organizations are failing to see the need for a fundamental change, and are likely to be oblivious to the tsunami that is quickly approaching our communities.

There are many things that we must do, but it begins with professionalizing our organizations.  We must develop welcoming organizations where everyone’s views can be genuinely expressed.  We must be forward thinking and operate in ways in sync with how organizations operate in America.

Further, it is important to begin real changes now.  We can’t expect to make a few reactionary changes as problems arise and everything will be OK.  Substantial and deliberate change must be an immediate goal. Our institutions must be rebuilt to accommodate our children’s needs by developing a welcoming culture and professional programs, not to pacify the home sickness of immigrants by building ornate but hollow structures. The goal needs to be to change the culture of your organization and once you begin to make changes it will take three to five years before it becomes absorbed into how we do things, and is integral in the culture of our organizations. Once we have done this our community will have a vehicle for embracing Islam and being part of the larger community in which we live.

We must start the change now!

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