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5 Ways The Gas Station Owner Mentality Is Killing Our Masjids

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Why is it that a large number of Muslim communities in North America are all struggling with the same issues? Board politics. Getting rid of good community leaders. Incessant focus on fundraising at all costs.

Clearly, these issues can’t be logistical. They wouldn’t be this prevalent if they were. It’s almost as if there is a shared underlying mentality that is common to many of these frustrating and annoying situations.

This mentality is the “gas station owner” mentality, and it is more prevalent than we think. It’s a metaphor for understanding a lot of the common issues that we face. In this post we will highlight 5 characteristics of this mentality.

1. Ignoring the Spiritual Side of Rizq (Sustenance) and Barakah (Blessing)

In sports, there are some teams who seem to continually be winning. They have a good run of making the playoffs and advancing for a few years. Then they lose their good players, rebuild, but then get right back to winning again.

There are other teams, no matter what they do, they hit a wall and can’t get past it. They may be able to get good players on their team, but it never translates into winning. These are the teams that haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years – they’re consistently losers. And when those good players move on to other teams, they suddenly start winning.

Both scenarios above indicate a deep organizational issue that transcends individual leaders, talents, or personalities.

We have communities like this as well. There’s the place that’s been operating out of a rented retail space for years now, but the community is active and vibrant. People enjoy going there.There are other places that have fancy, empty, structures. They have lots of money, so they keep bringing in qualified and talented individuals – but they keep leaving. No matter what they do, the community won’t get involved.

A million different reasons could possibly explain why these scenarios exist. The one reason we don’t like to talk about, though, is the spiritual one.

What is the impact on a community if a significant amount of their donations originate from haram sources (alcohol, cigarettes, lottery, interest, fraudulent billing)?

Our sins have a real impact on not just us, but those around us as well. It is naive to think these issues do not have an effect and impact on the spiritual development of our communities at large. It’s compounded by the fact that instead of potentially rectifying the situation by at least seeking forgiveness, we seek instead to justify our behavior.

There’s no way of tiptoeing around this issue. When a person chooses to openly sell liquor, and then still wants to serve in an administrative capacity at the masjid, it is a severe case of cognitive dissonance.

At the root of this is a flawed understanding of what it means that Allah is Al-Razzaq (The One Who Provides Sustenance). They assume that they cannot make (as much) money without indulging in a haram business.

That’s between a person and Allah as far as their personal life goes. Bringing that mentality into the masjid is a different story. It changes the dynamics of understanding the spiritual side of money.

This is a mentality of money scarcity. If I make $5, it means you lose $5. If our masjid raised $250k last year, and this year a new masjid opened down the road, it means we’ll only be able to raise $125k. They see wealth with a fixed mentality and operate accordingly.

The more appropriate mindset of tawakkul (or abundance) would be the understanding that if things are done for the right reasons, Allah will provide the financial means. He is fully capable of letting both masjids raise $500k apiece the following year – the same way 2 Starbucks across the street from each other both manage to stay successfully in business.

Consider this hadith about the spiritual side of wealth.

Anas b. Malik raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that there were two brothers. One of them would come to the Prophet (s) and the other would seek his sustenance by working. So the one who used to seek his sustenance complained to the Prophet (S) about his brother. He ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) replied, “It is possible that you are provided your rizq [sustenance] because of him!” [Tirmidhi]

In other words, providing for a student of knowledge is a way of increasing your own sustenance. This hadith should have far-reaching ramifications in our communities when it comes to discussing hiring a full-time Imam and paying a real salary.

Someone who feels that they need to engage in a forbidden business to make money will not have the same understanding and reliance in the provision that Allah provides.

The irony is that these masjids will fundraise excessively for their own (usually construction/expansion) projects. They simultaneously limit the fundraising for other causes, and refuse to invest the money they raise. People employed by the masjid are not just underpaid, but forced to take 1099 contractor status and work without any basic benefits (such as health insurance) while extra funds are invested into construction. Likewise, it is not uncommon for a masjid to have a surplus of zakat funds sitting around that end up getting sent overseas at the end of the year – funds that should have instead been providing ongoing services to the local community.

2. Commoditization of Human Capital

This is basically a fancier way of saying that once a board gives a paycheck to someone, they feel like they own them.

In a gas station, the owner’s relationship with the employees is basically nil. This is not the place where you find inspirational leaders creating a vision and rallying their employees to reach their potential. It’s a place where an abysmally-low-leadership-capacity owner hires employees at minimum wage (or often less, but that’s a different story), and then treats them like garbage.

To better understand this, contrast it with Chick-Fil-A where managers take their leadership duties seriously and you see it manifested in the service delivered from front line employees.

The gas station owner has no care or concern for the employee at the register. That employee is a commodity. If that employee quits, you just replace them with another warm body – it doesn’t matter who. They do this because in their eyes it is low level work. It doesn’t matter if the cashier is a jerk or provides stellar service – your clientele is still going to come and purchase whatever they were planning on purchasing.

When this mentality extends into the masjid, the Imam, teachers, and other servants of the community get treated the same way. They are being managed by individuals who are themselves of low leadership competency, and therefore cannot truly understand the value of spiritual leadership in the community. It’s the polar opposite of the “game recognize game” principle.

When those entrusted with being administrators over our communities lack an understanding of the depth of Islamic knowledge, they will never be able to treat its people with the proper respect. The ultimate irony is these people will complain that their teenage children are leaving Islam on one hand, and with the other they work to get rid of those very same people who were in a position to provide mentorship to those kids.

So when you actually do have amazing people working for the masjid, a board infected with this ‘gas station owner’ mentality will fail to recognize or value their work. Instead, they will treat them like that minimum-wage, easily replaceable, cashier.

That means micromanaging their hours, minimizing the payroll expense, and maximizing the hours worked. They see the person as nothing more than an expense on their balance sheet at the end of the month – “labor costs.” The cognitive dissonance continues because they convince themselves that the best thing they can do for the community is to cut costs. So they do it, without any regard or understanding of the long term impact it will have on the community.

It also means that a high rate of turnover is normal to them. It is doubtful that the same cashier has ever worked for them more than 1-2 years. At the slightest disagreement or issue with a masjid employee, their knee jerk reaction will be to cut this person loose. After all, if they’re a commodity, they’ll just as easily find someone else to replace them.

It’s worth noting that the end game for people who actually want to do community work is not financially driven. There are much easier ways to earn money. Ironically, many will even overlook the difficulties and continue to fight to serve the community. Sadly, even this has its limits as board politics and suffocating environments eventually take their toll on a person both professionally and spiritually to the point that they end up leaving.

3. Operate From a Premise of Greed

WIIFM. What’s in it for me? And therein lies the problem. The mentality here is that if we are going to pay someone, what return are we getting?

This does not mean that you ignore job duties, or KPI (Key Performance Indicators), or general performance benchmarks. It does mean, however, that you cannot measure and quantify everything financially (see also: Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should it Be).

Operating from a premise of greed means that you have a constant need to not only financially quantify every expenditure – but come out ahead. This is also rooted in a lack of being able to quantify the real impact of spiritual leadership on a community.

Think of it this way. Imagine someone came and asked the gas station owner for a job and asked for $12/hour instead of $7. This person asked for that salary because they have an excellent customer service background, and at a previous job they helped the business owner realize a small uptick in revenue due to an increase in customer loyalty and sales – resulting from providing better service on a regular basis.

A business owner with a high leadership capacity would be able to recognize the value of this skillset. The gas station owner will simply say – “only way I’m paying you $12 is if you clean the bathrooms too.”

Every decision is dictated by not just the bottom line, but the immediate bottom line. The irony is that a gas station owner will take out a business loan to buy the gas station and have the patience to wait X number of years to be profitable. Or to build a car wash and be willing to wait X number of years to break even. The only part of the business they do not have this patience for is the actual human resources.

Sounds a bit like masjid construction projects and hiring of an Imam.

We’ve lost the patience to find and develop good talent in our communities. We take up any number of roles – board member, prayer leader, mu’adhin, Sunday school teacher, khateeb, treasurer, social events coordinator, social media marketer, or even random volunteer. How many take the time to understand the skillset needed to serve these positions with ihsan (excellence) and actually make the investment of time and money to develop that skillset? What about investing in others to help them develop? This is why communities feel they can simply get by with a hodgepodge of part-time and volunteer efforts.

4. Insecurity and Paranoia

When you’re worried about getting swindled 24/7, it’s hard to turn that off.

You’re worried about customers getting gas and leaving without paying. So you make them pre-purchase. People might shoplift, so you install security cameras. Employees might cheat, so you put special cameras over the register and watch the livestream on your phone constantly.

There’s nothing wrong with taking precautions. There is, however, a problem when your default mode of behavior operates on the assumption that everyone is out to cheat you.

This type of insecurity is the same kind of insecurity that drives a middle manager in the corporate world to micromanage his or her employees. They lack the requisite competence or leadership demanded of their position, so they micromanage others to assert their authority. It’s a textbook power play made by low-competency individuals.

Sadly, Zakat distribution is the ultimate illustration of this. When someone comes to the masjid seeking help, they are often treated in a disrespectful and undignified manner. They’re made to wait around for a board member in such a way that it becomes obvious to everyone that they need help. Then they have to fill out twenty different forms and justify their need for zakat funds.

The same paranoia of a cashier stealing money from the register is carried into this situation. People asking for zakat funds are implicitly deemed guilty until proven innocent. Contrast this with the Prophetic example to immediately distribute zakat funds (instead of hoarding them), and responding to requests for help.

Yes, some people cheat the system. Yes, there are cases of fraud. Our faith, however, does not teach us to be paranoid and default to the assumption that everyone asking for help is trying to swindle the masjid out of a couple of hundred bucks.

This is a spiritual issue more than anything else. Do the right thing for the right reason, and Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will take care of the outcomes, results, and future financial needs.

The same mentality applies to paying an Imam. The supposedly well-intentioned concern is assuming that once someone goes on payroll, they’ll suddenly start trying to find ways to get paid without working, or that it is some kind of get rich quick scheme. I have personally heard people say things to the effect of – I went to school for 8 years and work 50 hours a week to make X salary, how dare this person just sit in the masjid and get a salary.

We make a default assumption to the worst possible behavior someone could do [perhaps because deep down that’s what we  would do in that situation], and project our personal insecurity onto others.

5. They Live in a Bubble

We have to pick on doctors a little bit.

In a hospital, a physician simply needs to threaten to stop bringing patients to create all the leverage he or she needs to get anything they want.

A gas station owner yields authority over everyone. Do as commanded, or be fired.

In both situations, it creates an environment where a person is catered to individually on a constant basis. No one around you wants to make you mad. You get used to people [subordinate to you] acquiescing to your viewpoint on nearly everything all the time.

This is why, when challenged on something, they’re usually not able to handle it well. Islamic knowledge and community work are not their strengths. It takes a huge slice of humble pie to be able to admit that you’re weak in this area.

That’s hard to do when you’re used to being the expert on everything.

It’s easy for a physician to acknowledge the expertise of a car mechanic. They might try to fix their own car, watch YouTube videos, but realize they don’t even know how to operate a wrench. In this case they can easily go to a mechanic and follow their advice. It’s not a big deal because this is not a skillset that really has any priority or meaning in their life.

Islamic work is a different story. People assume that by being Muslim, or having volunteered to find a catering company for a fundraising dinner, they suddenly know what it takes to spiritually lead and develop a community. Moreover, there is an emotional attachment to the status that comes with holding some type of official title in the community. They often do not realize that their high competency and proficiency in one arena does not translate into another.

This has a negative impact on board dynamics as well. Due to their lack of ability to recognize or admit their own weakness, they have to put themselves at the same level (or higher) than everyone else. So if someone on the board does have actual experience with running a masjid, or organizing Islamic activities, they put themselves on equal standing. “Everyone’s opinion is equal and important.”

No, it’s not.

The car mechanic’s opinion on how to treat cancer is not on par with an oncologist. And a board member’s opinion on how to establish a moon-sighting policy is not on par with an Islamic scholar.

Solution?

After reading this kind of article, everyone always makes the same snarky remark – “Well, what’s the solution then?”

The answer is that there is no real easy solution. There aren’t 3 bite size nuggets or action items that are going to fix this. Ultimately, a more significant portion of the general community is going to have to wake up and take their spirituality more seriously. When that happens, they can hold their boards to account via elections and/or social pressure within the community.

The community is the only check and balance against bad leadership – but enough of the community has to really care about it to make a difference. Part of that effort includes a deep level of self-reflection and addressing our own spiritual issues regardless of our role and position within any community.

Another alternative, and it is my personal theory that this will become more prevalent in the next few years, is to redefine what the masjid means in America. Currently, we expect the masjid to serve almost as a mini nation-state with its own prayer hall, kids area, gym, clinic, community center, school, grocery store, and Muslim only neighborhood within walking distance.

If we can’t reform this model because bad leaders simply won’t let go, or can’t be forced out (probably because they keep redoing the constitution to keep themselves in power), then we have to create a new model. That model might be to change the role of the masjid to being one of a prayer space only (daily prayers and Juma). Schools would become private entities in their own buildings. Smaller, independent, third spaces would then fill the gap of relevant community programming and development. This is not necessarily a solution, but it appears some communities are now trending in that direction as a workaround to the existing system.

Lastly, just do the opposite of the 5 characteristics above.

Additional Reading

  1. Running a Masjid is a Lot Like Bikeshedding
  2. Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be
  3. A Leadership Lesson from the 4 Types of Imam/Board Relationships
  4. The Age of the Full-Time Imam is Over, Here’s What The New Era of Islamic Work Looks Like
  5. How Much Should Islamic Clergy Make?

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jackie

    August 21, 2017 at 1:10 AM

    I think it’s demeaning and degrading for you to make fun of the hard working people who have built and run our masajid. How many masajid have you run? Probably none.

    It’s also demeaning to look down at people who worked hard to earn halal income thro owning a gas station

    Shame!

    • Avatar

      Muttaqi

      August 21, 2017 at 1:32 AM

      I think you missed his point. Read the article again.

    • Avatar

      Yunus

      August 21, 2017 at 10:10 AM

      1- There is nothing demeaning in this article. Truth needs to be said.
      If our masajids are dysfunctional, we need to discuss what’s going wrong and what can be done. Yes that includes people who don’t follow the Sunnah in their management of mosques and their shortcomings.

      2- How many gas stations do you know do halal work? The vast majority of gas stations in the US sell alcohol including many owned by Muslims. Period. If there are some that don’t, those exceptions don’t override the rule.

    • Avatar

      Imran

      August 21, 2017 at 4:11 PM

      I think it’s demeaning and degrading for you to make fun a Muslim Matters writer. How many articles have you written for MuslimMatters? None.

    • Avatar

      Fritz

      August 24, 2017 at 5:32 PM

      Brutally honest and to the point. Really well written. We need to wake up!

  2. Avatar

    Asiah Kelley

    August 21, 2017 at 9:29 AM

    Another great article! Definitely gives me some hope when Muslim drama overtakes me. May Allah reward you for all the great work you are doing!

  3. Avatar

    Noor Saadeh

    August 21, 2017 at 9:58 AM

    Masha Allah this hit every nail on the head. If only those gas station mentality could see it! So insightful. Must share with all those in our community and elsewhere.

  4. Avatar

    Mohammed

    August 21, 2017 at 12:33 PM

    These uncles forget the basic purpose of a Masjid, which is from a place for 5 times daily salat to educating the community with practical knowledge of Islam. It’s a complete conceptual problem that drives these actions.

  5. Avatar

    Abdul Sheikh

    August 21, 2017 at 4:26 PM

    I have notice a common trend among the 30-40s individuals raised in US for criticizing the pioneers who are approaching retirement. These pioneers has built institutions in last 25 years under difficult conditions. The young critics do not want to work hard and contribute. They want every thing free. You have no right to criticize if you do not participate and contribute.

  6. Avatar

    Asma

    August 21, 2017 at 6:12 PM

    SubhanAllah great article. Exact situation of our masjid and I am sure many other masajid.

  7. Avatar

    Munawar

    August 21, 2017 at 11:55 PM

    Very uneducated comments i hope you would have done some research ( what’s halal and haram ) . You are generalizing your bad experience with someone, May Allah guide us all and make us able to look beyond self interest.

  8. Avatar

    Mehmood

    August 22, 2017 at 9:22 PM

    How about an article about a mosque that does it well, and efficiently, a model to follow. This would be a great start for many mosques who want to improve but lack ideas and resources.

  9. Avatar

    Hassan

    August 23, 2017 at 5:56 PM

    As a desi fob (well 18 years here almost) it will be not racist for me to say that what you described are desis in any matter. I have software business, and after many years learned that I need to avoid desis. A non-desi person/company will pay good and be very accommodating or understanding of everything. A desi will give very little money and then will practically expect that they have done huge favor and own you as a slave.

    So once they pay imam 15k/year with additional whopping benefit of 600$ apartment rent, they think he is their slave and are extremely shocked to think otherwise, they just cannot comprehend.

  10. Avatar

    Tami

    August 31, 2017 at 9:22 AM

    That’s the problem with South Asian. Helping someone means that they own you and expect something in return. This happens in family matters and businesses. When it comes to business and career, there’s too much competition. Non-south asians are there to mentors you and honor and appreciate your work.

    I have known 3 imams that grew up in the states and have left the masjid because the community control how they should live, spend money and have no respect for their livelihood. They treat them as a volunteer person. No Muslim will work for free and do fulfilling duties at the masjid. If they are paid then you’ll see the job taken care of.

  11. Avatar

    Miriam

    September 27, 2017 at 9:09 AM

    About the “nation-state” model of a masjid: I’ve been told that a masjid should be a place of meaningful experience for every member of the household. That means classes, activities, and even games, for everyone to get involved in. Wouldn’t segmenting this into chunks like prayer-only, school-only, take away from that? If someone doesn’t pray, they won’t go to the masjid. Whereas before, they may have gone just to play ball. Hope this makes sense. Please shed some light, jazakallahu khair

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Black Youth Matter: Stopping the Cycle of Racial Inequality in Our Ranks

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

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As we joined the rest of America in celebrating Black History Month and commemorating the legacy of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., with tweets, infographics, and sharing famous quotes, racism and colorism continue to plague the Muslim community. 

When we hear of a weekend course about the illustrious muadhin of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Bilal Ibn Raba’ah, may Allah be pleased with him, or a whitewashed cartoon movie based loosely on his life, we flock to the location. When the imam retells his story during a Friday sermon, we listen intently and feel inspired, we smile in awe upon hearing about his fortitude in the face of incessant torture. We cry while reliving the part where he enters the city of Makkah alongside the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) victorious, and calls the adhan atop the Ka’aba. 

Then, we leave. 

We return to our homes and all but forget about it until the next time he is brought up— unless we are Black Muslims. Like King, his impact comes in waves, maybe once a year like MLK Day or like Black History Month, for many of us. Yet, there were more Black companions and renowned Black Muslims in our history, just as there were countless civil rights leaders who fought for racial equality in America. For many of us who are not American of African descent, we live our lives unperturbed by the implications of ignoring the racial disparities that exist within our own places of worship.

However, it is our youth that bear the brunt of this injustice. 

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an incident that made me reflect deeply on the effects of racism and fear on our youth and the Muslim community. After picking up my son from middle school in Baltimore County, I drove to a nearby 7-Eleven for some snacks. While I was standing in line to pay for my groceries, I noticed that the man behind the counter was Muslim. From his outward appearance, accent, and name tag, I guessed he was South Asian. We greeted each other with salaam, a smile, and a head nod of camaraderie.

As he was ringing up my items, a group of chattery students still in school uniforms, approached the entrance of the convenience store. The cashier looked up horrified, and in mid transaction swung his arm back and forth as if swatting a fly. I turned to look at who he was gesturing to and saw the children were swinging the door open to enter. They were about 6 African American children from the same public middle school as my son. In his school, each grade level wears a different color polo with khaki pants as part of their uniform, so I could tell that most of them were in his same grade level.

“No! No! No!” the cashier cried harshly, “Out!”

I turned to him grimacing in disbelief, surprised at his reaction to the kids and then I noticed his expression. He had a look on his face of fear coupled with disgust.

One child cheerfully told him, “I got money, man!” My head turned back and forth from the students to the cashier. He reluctantly said, “Fine,” but as more students followed, he added sternly, “Three at a time!” I wondered if this was a rule when one of the girls in the group said, “Yeah, three at a time y’all,” and the majority stayed back, as if they were familiar with the routine. Some of them rolled their eyes, others laughed, but they remained outside the door. The cashier followed the ones who entered with his eyes intently as he finished bagging my items. He looked genuinely concerned. I tried to make light of the situation and get his attention away from the children, asking, “The kids give you a hard time, huh?” He smiled and nodded nervously, but I was not satisfied with his answer. 

As I swiped my debit card to pay, I felt troubled. My maternal instincts were telling me that I should defend these children. I felt anger and helplessness at the same time. These kids were tweens or barely 13 years old, yet they were being judged because of the color of their skin. There was no other logical explanation. They were not rowdy or reckless, not any more than any other child their age. They did not look menacing; in fact, they were all smiling and joking with one another.

Yet, this cashier, my Muslim brother, was looking at them as if they were a threat. The same way some white American may look at a Muslim sporting a beard and thobe boarding a plane.  

I tried to find excuses for his behavior. Perhaps he had a bad experience, or he was having a bad day. Could some of the kids from the middle school have stolen something before and this prompted his apprehension? There is some crime in this neighborhood located in the southwestern part of Baltimore County, on the outskirts of the City. Could he have suffered from some type of trauma that led to his anxiety? Maybe there was a fight in his store one day? Yet, even if any of these assumptions were true, I still felt like he was overreacting.

After all, these were just kids.

In Dr. Joy Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, she mentions that policing continues to represent one of the most pervasive and obvious examples of racial inequality; one that even the youth are unable to avoid. She cites an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlighting a study by UCLA, the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Boston, Massachusetts, Penn State, and University of Pennsylvania that investigated how black boys were perceived as it related to childhood innocence. They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. 

They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. Click To Tweet

On November 22, 2014, a 12-year-old African American child, like my son and his middle school peers, was fatally shot by police while he played with a toy gun in a playground. The child, Tamir Rice, was just a young boy playing cheerfully outdoors, but police officers regarded him a threat, demonstrating the ghastly reality of the above-mentioned study. After hearing about this atrocity, I remember telling my own children that they can never play outside with nerf guns or water pistols, out of fear of this happening to them. This is the type of world our children are living in. As Muslims, why do we choose to be part of the problem and not its solution?

Black youth

Junior football team huddling together

As I walked through the door and past the group in front of the 7-Eleven, all I could think about is that the kids were no different than my son who was sitting in the car, hungry, waiting for me to bring him some food. The only difference was that I was there to defend him, if need be. The children did not have an adult to stand up for them against the discrimination to which they were being subjected. I felt guilty for not saying more. I also remembered an incident where a group of African American youth were turned away from the tarawih prayers at a local mosque, not too far from the 7-Eleven, during the month of Ramadan, because they were perceived to be “too rowdy.” This prompted me to write about this incident; to speak up for them now, and to remind myself and other Muslims that the Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us compassion. 

He said, “Whoever does not show mercy to our young ones, or acknowledge the rights of our elders, is not one of us.” (Musnad Ahmad)

Even when a bedouin came into the masjid, the House of Allah – a place much more sacred than any convenience store – and urinated, yes urinated there, he still treated him with dignity. (Muslim)

The students standing at the door of the 7-Eleven were just going in for a snack. Even if they had been misbehaving, the gentleman at the counter could have addressed them with kindness. Similarly, the youth at the local mosque just wanted to pray tarawih. Now imagine the impact it had on them to be turned away from praying with their brethren during the month of Ramadan. 

I sat in the car where my son was waiting and found him looking out the window, unaware of what was happening. We were parked far from the entrance.

“Do you know any of those kids?” I asked him. “Yeah, the girl on the right is in my gym class,” he said.

My heart sank more and as we sat in the car, I wondered, what would have been the cashier’s reaction if the kids had been white? More than likely, he would not have treated them the same way. This racial profiling leads to devastating consequences. A recent news report by WUSA9 revealed that the state of Maryland leads the nation in incarcerating young black men, according to experts at the Justice Policy Institute. Their November Policy Briefs for 2019 entitled, Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland, revealed that disparity is most pronounced among emerging adults, or youth ages 18-24, where, “Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.”

“Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.” Click To Tweet

What was most troubling about the incident at the 7-Eleven was that the students had been conditioned; they were already used to being treated that way. It was routine for them and business as usual for the Muslim cashier. While he may believe that he is doing the right thing, by averting a potential “problem,” the harm that he is causing has greater ramifications. He is adding to the trauma these children are already experiencing being black in America. Black students in Baltimore County were not even allowed by law to earn an education past 5th grade in 1935, and 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the county’s schools are still highly segregated. Local and federal leadership in America have continuously failed African Americans, and it is disheartening to think that the immigrant Muslim community is headed in the same direction. 

I was haunted by this incident and returned to the 7-Eleven a week later to ask the cashier or the owner of the store about their (mis)treatment of the middle schoolers. I parked directly in front of the glass doors of the entrance and it was there where I saw a sign typed in regular white computer paper that read, “AT A TIME NO MORE THAN THREE (3) SCHOOL KIDS ARE ALLOWED IN THE STORE & please do not bring bags inside the store. Thanks.” I had not seen the sign before, maybe I overlooked it the day of the occurrence. Nevertheless, I went inside and spoke with the owner of the franchise, a Muslim gentleman who greeted me with salaam. I asked him about the sign outside the door and the reason why the middle schoolers were treated like would-be criminals. He explained that students from local schools have stolen goods from the convenience store on many occasions. To prevent this, they established a rule that only three unaccompanied school children could enter at a time and they were not allowed to bring their backpacks. The owner further added that crime and vandalism were prevalent in the area. Unfortunately, because this side of town is predominately African American, the blame falls disproportionately on this group. 

Nevertheless, patrolling and intimidating the African American youth in the area is not the solution. As Dr. Degruy stated in her book, “The powerful oppress the less powerful, who in turn oppress those even less powerful than they. These cycles of oppression leave scars on the victims and victors alike, scars that embed themselves in our collective psyches and are passed down through generations, robbing us of our humanity.”

A thirty-four-year veteran police officer named Norm Stamper wrote a book about racism in the criminal justice system entitled, Breaking Rank, (2005) and he mentioned that, “It is not hard to understand why people of color, the poor, and younger Americans did not, and do not, look upon the police as ‘theirs’… Do the police protect ‘the weak against oppression or intimidation’ or do they oppress and intimidate the very people they’ve sworn to protect?” Likewise, this young generation will begin to see Muslims of all colors as no different, if we take the role of the oppressor. 

When Abu Dharr insulted Bilal ibn Rabah, may Allah be pleased with them, by calling him, “O son of a black woman!” and the Prophet, peace be upon him heard of this, he rebuked Abu Dharr and said to him, “By the One who revealed the Book to Muhammad, no one is better than another except by righteous deeds. You have nothing but an insignificant amount.” We may have read or heard this and other narrations before, however, we fall short in implementing these teachings.

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

Sometimes it takes one person to stand up and point out the wrong to set the right tone. The sign at the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood has been taken down.

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Civil Rights

Podcast: Lessons from the Life of Malcolm X | Abdul-Malik Ryan

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

One of the things that happens with historical figures who continue to remain well-known and influential years after they can continue to speak for themselves is that others seek to speak for them.  Attempts are made to co-opt their legacy, either in sincere efforts for good or in selfish efforts for ideological or even commercial gain.  This is especially true of Malcolm X, who is not only a historical and political icon but in many ways a “celebrity” remembered by many primarily for his style and attitude.

The only real and meaningful tribute we can pay to Malcolm X is to follow his example. Click To Tweet

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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