يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
“O you who have attained faith! Be patient in adversity, outdo all others in endurance, and be ever ready [to do what is right], and remain conscious of God, so that you may succeed!” – Qur’an 3:200
This open letter was inspired by a noticeable increase in requests for advice and reassurance from frustrated community activists and baffled non-Muslim allies.
At the root of this widespread sense of bewilderment and disappointment is what I call “uncle behavior.” Below, I breakdown the most common types of uncles and then explore some practical advice which may help you deal more effectively with our community.
Dear – sometimes too idealistic – community activist,
We get it.
The election of President Trump was literally your last straw. The administration’s weekly debacles, the scary campaign rhetoric now being echoed in public policy, the spikes in hate crimes, and the Muslim bans have broken the proverbial camel’s back.
Now, you’re more motivated than ever. You’ve finally decided to act on all those late-night, coffee shop conversations. You know the ones, where you and a few of your closest homies solve all the world’s major problems over an overpriced, sugar laden, espresso based concoction.
So now, you just can’t wait to get more involved with the community and make a real difference!
Well, before you jump in with both feet, let me introduce you to a saying that – while not a hadith – is nonetheless full of wisdom. The saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
We’ve all witnessed this, a person starts volunteering or gives a halaqah (short religious talk/reminder) and they weren’t known to be particularly active or religious before. All the sudden their very own friends are questioning their motives. Well, right now that is you and your friends are the uncles.
“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” – Malcolm X
About this field guide:
First, we have to come to a common understanding of the term.
Here’s a helpful definition of uncle, chacha or ammu as used in the context of this article:
cha·cha /cH’aah-cH’aah,/ noun a:
Urdu for uncle, the brother of one’s father.
informal b: an individual, normally male, who often is a community elder and who wields considerable power, influence and/or authority in the Muslim community at some level.
Another way to grasp the meaning is in the following joke, the American Muslim community has far too many chiefs and not enough Pakistanis. In this crude joke, if you substitute “chief” with “chacha” you’ll get a different layer of the meaning we are exploring in this article.
In short, we are not using uncle in a family sense, and not even to denote a male community leader, as we’ve got plenty of women “chachas” too, and please note we also have several examples of “chachas” who are not only, not immigrants, but who are second generation and beyond as well. What I’m talking about is individuals who play a role in a specific way and with certain identifiable behaviors (often controversial) in the internal Muslim community’s politics and activism.
Eventually, it all boils down to one quintessential question about uncle behavior; how can one get things done despite the egos, the old style thinking, the tit-for-tat obstructionism, and of course other abuses of authority?
Now, that we understand our purpose, let’s explore the various types of “chachas” by examining their core and defining characteristics.
WARNING: If you believe that you are being described as one of the following types of chachas, that is your inner voice talking.
- The “BIG” Donor aka Mr. Money Bags – These chachas believe money buys authority. In fact, it is a reality that professional and sustained activism starts and ends with funding. What should also always be remembered is that more often than not what distinguishes Mr. Money Bags from a normal donor or philanthropist, is not their potential for making a large gift, but instead the way they use that potential for status and influence. If you pay attention a telltale sign that you are encountering a Mr. Money Bags is that he or she doesn’t often actually give or give at the level that folks believe they can.
- The Diva aka The Super Star – These uncles need to be the center of attention. It simply does not matter if they did any of the work or just showed up the day of the event, they will be seen and they will often find a way to speak to the media or even invite some sort of attention for themselves (welcomed or not) to your effort. These are the folks that (while not on the program) will just walk up to an empty podium and start talking to the attendance as if they’re a guest speaker. Or, they are the folks that are known for getting in line during your event’s Q&A time, only to give a long-winded dissertation from the audience instead of actually asking a question.
- The Secular Fuqaha aka Mr. Entitled – Normally younger than other uncles, The Secular Faqih is also often lacking in real world experience. A defining characteristic of these chachas is their need to make sure you know about their “credentials” say a JD or other advanced degree from XYZ (read impressive) university. Also of note, is that these uncles are often unconcerned about religious norms and can behave very callously with imams, students of knowledge and scholars. To compensate for this, they frequently become fatwa shoppers (folks who rely on Shaykh Google for religious opinions that confirm what they already decided they wanted to do). The bottom line with Mr. Entitled is that he or she feels themselves to be uniquely qualified for and expects to be given key leadership roles and authority, but doesn’t want to actually earn it by building trust and accomplishing milestones for the community.
- The Puppeteer aka The Manipulator – The Puppeteer is very different person than a ture and inspired leader, i.e. someone who sees the bigger picture and tries to help people find where they can best contribute to the cause. The Puppeteer does not look to how to best allocate talent, nor do they try to utilize shura (consultation) and will often not even attempt to build a consensus around their agendas. Instead, they create factions and/or emphasize distractions among the key leaders. What makes The Puppeteer dangerous and distinct from an effective leader is that they do not uplift others, they instead undercut others and stunt the community’s growth and empowerment.
- Mr. Photo Op aka The Partisan Hack – These ammus have somehow concluded that our entire community’s best interests, and in some extreme examples, Islam itself, is analogous to the platform of whatever political parties they have drank the Kool-Aid from. What distinguishes Mr. Photo Op from effective political activists is that for these uncles, access to elected officials, and not actual policy influence is the goal. Mr. Photo Op is the civic equivalent to the groupie culture we see around our more famous “rockstar” imams and speakers.
- The Status Climber aka The Name Dropper – Status Climbers are defined by their desire for advancement. They may be most active at the local level; however they are often seen traveling from one meeting of national leaders to the next. They do this of their own volition (read they’re not invited as a panelist or intellectual contributor) and are often relegated to a position of observing the meeting, rather planning it or being charged with responsibility for some outcome. These uncles are after what they see as advancement by way of a position with a national and/or more influential organization.
- Lil’Saddam aka The Authoritarian – We Muslims often have a real issue in our community, which is the lack of willingness to challenge our leaders in a constructive way. We are really good at criticizing them, especially behind their backs, but when we perceive a “strongman” type, we far too often retreat from active engagement and shura. This tendency creates a vacuum of talent and an artificial leadership lid limiting our growth and level of accomplishments. The main problem with the Lil’Saddams of our community is that they control disproportionate amounts of influence without benefiting from the genius and talent in our community. Sadly, these little dictators see often talent and effectiveness as personal threats and undermine new approaches, new efforts and upcoming leaders.
- The Tribal Chieftain aka Mr. in MY culture/nation/movement – Tribal Chieftains put their ethnic identity or their affiliation with an ideology on par with or even above their religious identity. They mix cultural organizations with Islamic work. Admittedly, where culture stops and religion begins, can be at times a complex issue and a confusing line to draw. But for the purposes of this post, the Tribal Chieftain is that community leader who simply has to have his ethnic or ideological group at the center of all things Muslim; even when an event is clearly about other groups than his or hers. Pro-Tip: Tribal Chieftains often get into conflicts over what ethnic cuisines are served or not served at community functions.
- Millennial “Wannabe” Malcolm aka Mr. Perpetual Conflict – Let me first state that Malcolm X’s autobiography was my personal introduction to Islam. He was my first inspiration to become a Muslim. He was a great man who dealt with tremendous adversity, and he had the courage to really see the world as it was. He was also pragmatic and bold enough to make dramatic life changes, regardless of the costs. He boldly made those changes throughout his life, whenever he was presented with compelling evidence or arrived at a new perspective. Today’s “Millennial Malcolms” are very different. They are driven by anger and frustration, but they do not look beyond calling out injustices. Millennial Malcolms’ activism and leadership potential end at the conclusion of the latest protest. Millennial Malcolms are often great motivators, who excel at raising awareness of critical issues. They are often very beneficial to the community. The mistake we too often make is looking to a Millennial Malcolm for long term solutions or to develop comprehensive and long-term empowerment strategies.
- Diwan Trump aka Mr. Insecure – Diwan Trump is a combination of Little Saddam and The Puppeteer, however, Diwan Trump’s most defining characteristic is his or her need to be praised. I am not talking about: describing a successful event, or campaign in order to fundraise or promote a new venture and/or way of doing things. Diwan Trumps self-promote to fill a void, to feel important and to become or stay relevant. Diwan Trumps care about Diwan Trump, first and foremost. A good indicator that you’re dealing with a Diwan Trump is their tendency use bully tactics like withdrawing from or even undermining support for positive efforts once they are no longer finding praise and reassurance in the effort.
NOTE: This list has been drawn from over 16 years of experience and travel as activist, advisor, consultant and nonprofit leader. Nearly every type of chacha can be found in your local community regardless of location, the community’s size, maturity or cultural and ethnic makeup.
So you’ve identified a chacha, now what?
First of all, you have to come to grips with the realization that we are all – to varying degrees – chachas. More importantly, even though we’ve been frustrated by uncle behavior in the past, is that we (you, me and our brothers and sisters) are becoming chachas ourselves and at an alarming rate!
Please remember that the categories above are not absolute, nor are they mutually exclusive, and a person can have elements from multiple uncle classifications.
What’s most important for us as Muslims, is that our intentions are not to label the people in our lives as a form of belittlement or chastisement.
Instead, we should use this guide to identify behaviors and formulate strategies so that we can get more good work done. Being able to work with, around, or at least with as minimal conflict as possible with our community’s existing power structures is one of the primary goals of this post.
Also, we must realize that being a chacha can be simply a matter of perspective. You (me), and/or your favorite scholar are very likely seen — right now — by others as a Diva, an Authoritarian, a Manipulator or etc.
In fact, with the possible exception of the Diwan Trumps of the world, the people who fit into one or more of the other categories of chachas, can be and more than likely ARE very valuable and beneficial assets to the community.
Also, let us never forget the amazing levels of sacrifice that the earlier generations of Muslim leaders have made. I’m talking about those who are effectively the first generation of the modern American Muslim Community. These community founders (the early African American Muslim community leaders and the late, baby boomer and Gen X era, immigrant leaders who both were pioneers and funders of so many of today’s masajid and community institutions). These extraordinary people, gave of their time, prayers and money at levels that we RARELY see nowadays. May Allah reward them for all they’ve done, as we continue to benefit from their sacrifices, vision and deeds every day.
Also, it may be a hard to acknowledge reality, but, it just might be the case, that our problem with who we think of as uncles, is in our own hearts, and in how we see others.
So, I’d like to share some advice that I was blessed to get early in my career. In late 2001, a community leader told me to think of the community’s leadership as members of my own extended family. He said, “We all have that uncle that we don’t want to invite to the wedding, but we know we have too.” Then, in 2002, another gem was given to me, and it came from someone with whom I had a very adversarial relationship with, he said: “You are not responsible for the actions of others. However, how you choose to react to others is on you.” I pray that Allah blesses both these brothers for their wisdom immensely.
You see, it is completely natural for other leaders to want to recruit, influence or collaborate with you. It is also natural for people to feel threatened, or worry about competition that could affect them or their work.
Our job is to emulate Prophet Muhammad and find ways to achieve the greater good, regardless of your environment. Rasulullah did not give up after the incident at Ta’if, nor did he seek revenge. Instead, our beloved Prophet saw the potential in those that rejected him, and prayed for them and the future. He did this immediately after examining his own relationship with Allah.
When contemplating if and how to work with the various types of uncles in your life, I recommend the following litmus tests. 1) Look to see if they have effectively become gatekeepers between the Muslim community and our neighbors and allies. 2) Try to figure out if the person can work with others across ideological and political lines, in short is the person a uniter or trying to build personal power? Always remember, we do not need more gatekeepers or more division. But we absolutely need more opportunity.
Finally, my strongest recommendation for anyone seeking to be a more effective leader is to develop a personal cabinet of advisors. I recommend the following categories:
- The Subject Matter Experts – People who are standouts in their field and know their own perspective comes from their specific expertise. As a barebones start, you should include Islamic scholars (draw from multiple sources), lawyers, media professionals, and successful business men and women. Then you should add more niche personalities as your activism and leadership develop.
- The Connectors – These are folks that want to see your circles of influence expand. They are connected movers and shakers and are not threatened by new talent.
- The Builder – Builders are people who see your talent and potential and want to invest in your growth. Be careful though many builder types want to build on you instead build you up.
- The Protector – Protectors are like cheerleaders but are more substantive in that they not only promote your work, or help motivate you when you’re feeling down, but they also give you real criticism. They will tell you when they think you are wrong, or making mistakes. Protectors keep it real, but do so in a respectful way.
- The Pillar – The Pillars are those few, very rare, gems of a human being that are almost universally revered. They enjoy a positive reputation, but more importantly they are deeply respected. There are no shortcuts to Pillar status, so look to elders who have huge and compassionate hearts. The role of a Pillar – if you can find one – is to be a combination of all the above roles, but with an emphasis on being your strategist when it comes to relationships. They keep you healthy by reminding you to maintain balance in your life. They advocate to you, the needs of your family and your own spiritual journey and relationship with Allah.
If you pick them right, these advisors will help you navigate your uncle environment and prevent you from unwittingly becoming one yourself!
Lastly, and to conclude take advantage of Ramadan. Cleanse your heart and see if any of the chachas in your life have the potential to become part of your personal cabinet of advisors. Be bold, take calculated risks and always remember success is due to Allah’s blessing and favor alone. Your effort and gifts are only the tools that allow you to be the best servant of God that you can be.
May Allah bless us all to complete Ramadan washed clean of our sins and with renewed spirits, ready to serve!