Originally posted at MuslimSI.com, reposted here with slight edits. 

Bike what?

I had an epiphany after understanding bikeshedding. It's very difficult to not get giddy while writing this, because I think I have finally stumbled upon the ultimate answer – why are masjids always focused on the manifest destiny of construction and expansion at the expense of things that actually matter to the community?

In essence:

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far.

A bike shed, on the other hand, anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

In Denmark we call it “setting your fingerprint.” It is about personal pride and prestige; it is about being able to point somewhere and say, “There! *I* did that.” It is a strong trait in politicians, but also present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement (source).

You might want to read that passage one more time before continuing. Let it sink in.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on Parkinson's Law of Triviality if you need more.

Here's how the story plays out (if you really want to have fun, pretend they're talking about a masjid construction project),

The Scene

The chapter is a transcript of a meeting of a finance committee. The participants are about to discuss the last three items on their agenda: the budget for building an atomic reactor, building a bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff, and finally, the refreshments supplied at meetings of the Joint Welfare Committee.

Let's Build an Atomic Reactor

The treasurer presents the 9th item on their agenda: approve the £10,000,000 budget for building an atomic reactor. He distributes the plans and the related documents, and shares the concerns of the consultant engineers who previously stated that the reactor could not be finished before the deadline the sub-contractor signed for, because there were details that were overlooked during the planning. The chairman thanks the treasurer for the detailed introduction and asks whether anyone has any questions. The committee has eleven members, and out of these eleven members, four – including the chairman – have no idea what a reactor is. Three don't know what its purpose is. There are only two persons from the rest, who vaguely know how much it costs to build a reactor. Fortunately, both of them can speak up. So the first member suggests giving the assignment to another sub-contractor – a more reliable one – and involving other consultants.

The chairman thanks him for speaking up, but he says that it is too late to involve others in this project, and a significant amount of money has already been paid for the plans. If the committee decides to re-do the whole planning phase, it will cost a lot. Several members of the committee nod. Finally, the chairman asks the other person – you remember the one who vaguely knows how much it costs to build a reactor – to speak up.

As it turns out, he is the only one who really knows something about building an atomic reactor, and not just vaguely. He also knows that the actual sub-contractor cannot be trusted and that the £10,000,000 figure is very strange, and has no idea how it was actually calculated. But he knows something else: the other members. He knows that it would take him a lot of time and effort to teach them the basics of nuclear physics so that they have a rudimentary understanding of how atomic reactors work and what it takes to build one. So instead of speaking up and making this effort he simply says that he has nothing to add.

Since nobody disagrees, the chairman signs the document and moves to the next item on the agenda. The discussion of the 9th item took almost 3 minutes which doesn't include the time that was necessary for distributing the documents. They are on schedule.

The Bicycle Shed

The next item is the budget for building a bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. But before the chairman delineates it, some of the members feel bad. They are not sure that they have made a good decision, and they promise themselves that they'll prove later in the meeting that they are valuable members of the committee. The cost of building the bicycle shed is £350.

One of the members thinks that the price is too high, and suggests building the roof of shed from asbestos instead of aluminum. The other “roof experts” jump in, and one of them even suggests cancelling the project, because the staff doesn't deserve a new shed.

The debate continues, because most of the members are able to understand what £350 represents, and almost every one of them has seen a bicycle shed before. The whole debate takes 45 minutes with the prospective result of saving about £50. Now, everybody is happy, because they feel that they did something important, something that also provided results.

It's about spending a disproportionate amount of time on the things that don't matter versus the things that do. It's about shying away from the things you don't understand, and instead focusing on the things where you can take credit.

People who have no expertise in construction will take on masjid construction projects (and proceed to waste hundreds of thousands of fund-raised dollars unnecessarily) while actual experts are excluded or silenced. Why is it that a doctor will never entertain the medical advice of an engineer, but considers himself or herself an overnight authority on masjid construction?

Why is the architect for a masjid construction project put through a more rigorous interview process than a potential imam – someone who is going to be spiritually raising the community's children for years to come?

The reality is, most of the time, board members aren't equipped to understand the community's problems. They are put in a position of trust to make decisions for the benefit of the community. This means finding an imam who can lead them, spiritually nourish them, and help them grow. It means making sure you have a khateeb every single Friday that will deliver a positive and effective message. It means actually involving sisters, youth, and different ethnicities in a meaningful way without feeling threatened. These are the insecurities that caused everyone to debate the bicycle shed.

 

Hiring a youth director means acknowledging that youth have spiritual issues. It means admitting that your own child might be one of them. It means you have to find someone to entrust the community's youth to for guidance, direction, and mentorship. It means that the masjid might need to learn how to start dealing with drugs, alcohol, pornography addiction, teen pregnancies, physical and emotional abuse, and other such issues.

It's why board members will argue over things like how much to pay the cleaning staff, the budget for inviting a guest speaker, and where new classrooms should go. And it's exactly why, while lost in all of that, they'll never pay attention to who is actually giving the Friday khutbah.

The incessant focus on masjid expansion is a crutch for these types of people. It insulates you from actually dealing with real community issues. It gives you a wall to hide behind when trying to tell the community why you can't provide them qualified spiritual leadership. But most importantly, it gives board members something to point at.

They can point at a masjid while driving by and say, “I built that.”

And that is all that it comes down to. All the money, all the elections, all the nasty politics is to be able to say in the end – I DID THAT.

Why don't board members attend halaqas? Because it doesn't let them point at something. Why won't they hire people to help save their kids? Because that's not something you can point to (at least not in the immediate future – i.e. before the next election).

The most telling example though is moon-sighting. Masjid boards want to remove the Ramadan/Eid decision making from the imam, and instead adopt their own “policy” that is in agreement with their peers. Removing the decision making from the imam is the key point here. They simply don't have the knowledge to actually defend their stance, especially not with a scholar (or even a beginner student of knowledge).

Engaging in that conversation at a real level means that you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to either acknowledge that you lack expertise, or you have to put in more work. Either way, it's like the example, in the beginning, of the atomic reactor. Figure out a way to make a quick decision and spend your time on something else. Don't worry about what's Islamically correct, or the fact that you're undermining the Islamic scholarship in your community – focus on which hall you want to make Eid prayer in, and on which day.

Once you understand this, you understand why communities stagnate. It comes down to one word – fear.

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Fear creates busy work. Instead of transformative work, work is created to fill time.

People are afraid of making change. They're afraid of putting themselves out there to actually transform the community, much less change the world. If you can't take the risk, if you can't be comfortable with your own shortcomings, then you'll just spend all your time arguing over the color of the bicycle shed. That's what happens when an imam's vision for a community exceeds that of the board. It gets into uncomfortable territory, and the imam is either let go or forced to move on.

Mediocrity is comfortable. Change causes fear.

Discussing handing over the reins to the next generation takes work and skill that might not be there. Pretending like it's not a problem, to the point that the next generation gets skipped, is easy. You can fill that time by coming up with another expansion project, and the requisite fundraising, for a few more years. And then when it's done, you can point to 3 new classrooms and let everyone know – “I did that.”

Overcome this by rising to the challenge. Assess the actual needs of the community and start figuring out ways of addressing them. Don't let fear get in the way. It's ok if it will be unpopular, and it's ok if you're going to lose your position. It's even ok to let someone else take credit when things go well. Acknowledge that you're in a rut and take the uncomfortable steps to break out of it. Put in the time to learn the ins and outs of the tough decisions and stop filling your time with easy.

Anyone can do easy. You really want the reward of serving the community? Then actually serve the community. Let their needs shape your projects and decisions – not your own insecurities and need to feel involved or in control.

8 Responses

  1. The Salafi Feminist

    Yep, definitely experienced this many times over.

    One particular example that stands out for me is that the women volunteers of our Islamic center wanted to collaborate with the women’s committees of other masaajid/ Islamic centers to set up a very simple, basic ‘welcome wagon’ program for new Muslims, and new immigrant Muslims in our community.
    The idea was simply to assign a 2-4 women to make up welcome packages, and to assign a volunteer per new Muslimah/ family that we discovered.

    Instead, the meeting devolved into the 3 reps of the 3 different organizations ignoring this particular project idea to instead daydream loudly and unrealistically about giving da’wah to politicians and getting government funding for presentations on Islam at public schools.

    The original project was completely ignored, and in the end, the small group of women who wanted to go ahead with it in the first place just made it a personal effort instead of a group one. Sadly, what could have been a wonderful example of the unity of the Muslim community (hah. hah. hah.) evaporated due to preferring dreams of atomic reactors over bike sheds.

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  2. Haytham

    Unlike the example in the article, the masjid is a little different.

    Generally speaking, most of those who end up on the board are either the most active amongst the community or those with deep pockets to support the community. And a few more who just fall though the cracks, but those aren’t the majority.

    As for the activists, those are the ones who dedicated their time and efforts towards this masjid and have the historical knowledge as pertains to this particular community. They also know everybody and everybody knows them. They are needed in such positions because they serve as the connectors between the institution and the community.

    As for those with deep pockets, those are the ones who finance the masjid operation and have the know-how knowledge to financially run an organization. Those social network comprises other wealthy Muslims who can benefit the masjid. They too are needed as they are the backbone of the masjid. Besides, every successful nonprofit has a few wealthy donors on it board to simply keep the money coming.

    The issue isn’t in having a board of activists and financiers, it’s in the fact that boards are acting as the executive authority. Such two branches of any organization must be clearly defined, separated and assigned their tasks.

    Hiring an executive directors to run the day to day operation as well as facilitate the fundraising efforts of the masjid is a step that must be considered if we want to move to the next step with our masajid.

    So instead of spending $75,000 on the minaret of the masjid, consider hiring a part-time executive director for two years.

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  3. hope

    It is not easy working for the community and it definitely is not easy being the unpopular person who takes a stand.
    We question the sincerity of the boards member although most of us have never served on a masjid board.
    And the cultural baggage people bring with them, the idea that it is somehow wrong to question boards decisions.

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  4. Abdullah

    Salaam alaykum,

    This is are really eye-opening concepts and I’m sure we can all relate on certain levels with experiences in our masjid lives. Points are very valid… But this insight must only be used responsibly in the back of our minds, being careful not to quickly pass judgement on the board members of our wide variety of masajid.

    -Abdullah

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  5. Abu Asiyah

    Assalaamu ‘alaykum,

    This may be radical, but I feel like the board is unneeded for the vast majority of the masaajid. Neither is the strict adherence to “democracy” (elections, votes, etc). Under the four khalifas, the khalifa was elected (although the method of the election differed), but past that he had the final say. He appointed his “board” (governors, judges, advisors, etc), he listened to what they had to say, and he made the final decision.

    I’m not saying this would necessary work on a government level in the modern world. But an average masjid gets a couple of dozen of people for each salah and a few hundred for jumu’ah. It’s a simple operation and its governance should be simple.

    My thoughts are: wouldn’t it be better to hire an imam, let him select his “board”, but also let him have the final say in all decisions? He will make the wrong decision sometimes – if he makes them constantly, he can be replaced. Otherwise, let him do his thing and organize the community as he sees fit. For large masajid, this may mean more representation, etc, but for the average local community masjid, a single decision maker is simply more efficient.

    Think of any Islamic organization that is active, non-bureaucratic, and an agent of change in the Muslim community. Vast majority of them don’t have this board system; instead, they usually have a single individual at the top who selects the people to manage the organization and whose input and advice he respects. Less bureaucracy, more action.

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    • ElvenInk

      You mentioned that the average masjid gets only a couple of dozen people for the daily prayers and a few hundred for jumaa and on that basis you suggested it needs a simpler organizational structure, but I would argue that these small numbers are part of the problem. They’re a symptom of the issues described in the article.

      We have huge Muslim communities/populations and instead of being a center for community gatherings and having active halaqas, events, classes, workshops, and social gatherings and trying to increase community involvement and youth involvement in these masajid the boards are often concerned with more building and more expansion and fancy carpets and so on. At least that has been my experience in my local area.

      So I would agree with the premise put forth in the article that what’s needed is a change in the way Masjid boards and active community members approach their positions and the projects they focus on – not getting rid of those boards altogether! A board provides a healthy, regulated group dynamic that can – if focused on the right things – bring creative ideas to improve our communities.

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