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The Rise of the Scholarly Gig Economy and Fall of Community Development

The lack of appropriate compensation has led to the rise of qualified scholars and imams seeking other means of financial compensation beyond the local community as paid employees – how should we actually value them as community leaders, and how should we break down their financial costs?

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The past few decades have seen many bright and talented young men leave their professional careers in pursuit of religious knowledge. They studied in Pakistan, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and many other Muslim countries, sacrificing their careers, wealth, and many years of their life with the hopes and dreams of learning Islam and teaching it when they returned. These aspiring students of religious knowledge were usually advised against studying Islam overseas by their parents, friends, respected elders, and many community members. They were warned that the path was physically and financially risky and challenging. Nonetheless, packed with their resolve and hope in Allah, they were patient with the obstacles they faced in pursuit of knowledge. As their imaan and knowledge continued to grow and their passion for conveying the beauty of Islam increased, they joyfully returned to the U.S. with dreams of providing their communities with religious guidance. Unfortunately, within a short period of time, their enthusiasm has diminished and their frustration has increased. So, what happened?

Despite serving their communities day and night by leading prayers, giving khutbas, teaching weekly classes, giving dawah to non-Muslims, mentoring the youth, and counseling people in need, community members have continuously complained. Board members, often times ignorant about the day to day work of an imam, attempt to control their schedules, activities and speak down to them. Community members complain that the scholar follows a different madhab than their own, his beard was too short, his pants were too long, or that his voice wasn’t melodious enough. Nonetheless, they were able to deal with these issues. They knew that the prophets had faced tremendous obstacles and that they too had to exercise beautiful patience with their communities. However, there was another issue that although it existed from day one, it was becoming more of a concern as these scholars got married and had children; they were not being paid a respectable wage[1] [2]. The one-bedroom apartment was not big enough, their children could not participate in high-quality community programs, and saving for retirement was impossible.

What are the natural consequences of the financial situation that these young men were put in? By looking at many of our communities, the answer is rather obvious. These young scholars often left their positions in the masjid, painstakingly leaving their passion to serve their communities behind in pursuit of a decent wage. Some had degrees to fall back on and went back to careers in engineering or business. Others decided to learn new marketable skills such as data science and accounting. Others went back to graduate school in search of new careers. Another group decided to become independent contractors, offering their services to any community willing to compensate them for their services of teaching or even fundraising. They would travel long distances to speak, hoping to help others and make an income.

In this new Islamic gig economy, the youth and their families are the casualties, who have been left without guidance and mentorship. After their local scholar left the masjid seeking greener pastures, their masjid may have completely stopped having regular programs, resorted to finding underqualified community members to speak, or hired other popular scholars to guest lecture once in while and run back home. All of these stopgap measures have left the community without religious leadership[3].

Another group of scholars decided to start their own traveling institutes, join existing ones, or become Islamic tour guides. They had to build their brands, market their institutes online and on social media, and typically had to cater to the wealthy and educated segments of the Muslim community. They would travel the country and provide their knowledge to those with the wealth to afford these private events. Sadly, this has inadvertently led to a dawah focused on the elite, where only the haves are targeted for spiritual growth, and the have nots are of less concern since they provide little financial value. Additionally, the need to build up a scholar’s brand has the potential to compromise one’s dignity and values if one has to keep finding ways to stay popular and promote himself. Rather than blame the scholars who have taken these roads, it is more important to think about the conditions in our community that have led to the rise of this culture. In fact, due to a lack of qualified scholars nationally, traveling scholars and institutes have provided significant value. However, we also need to think deeply about the social implications and consequences of these recent trends. In this exchange between local residents and traveling scholars, communities have nothing to build on after the program. They do not have access to study circles, weekly classes, or spiritual mentoring. Furthermore, the youth are largely neglected, as traveling educational programs do not typically cater to their needs. Is this the future of community building? Is this our legacy and history?

The issue at the heart of this piece (and many other great articles[4] [5]) is the value of a scholar to a community. It is well known that Muslim scholars are paid significantly less than Rabbis and other qualified faith leaders. Basic economics will tell us the result of this, regardless of good intentions. Why would intelligent young minds ever fathom careers in religious work if they know that they will not be paid a decent wage? Are we surprised when scholars with other career options quickly abandon their positions? Only those with significant financial assistance from their family or access to private donors are typically able to stay in such positions, although they may harbor much resentment within them. Even more problematic is the frustration that their wives and children feel when they see their husbands and fathers giving so much to the community, yet they have little to show for it in terms of financial stability or quality time together. What makes the scholar’s predicament more complicated is that due to the atypical work hours of the position, which may include early mornings, evenings, and weekends, the wife of the scholar is required to stay home full time with the children and unable to work. This makes the scholar’s family dependent on his salary alone. Which brings us to the core of the matter; what should scholars be paid?

The knee-jerk response that we often hear from board and community members in affluent communities when discussing salaries is “brother, we would love to pay our scholar more, but we don’t have the funding.” This would be a reasonable response until you look at the multi-million-dollar renovations to make the masjid aesthetically pleasing and the tens of thousands of dollars spent on catering lavish iftars and interfaith dinners. Ultimately, the use of masjid funds is a value judgment. It is a value judgment that board members have to make on how to use funds that the community has provided, and a value judgment for community members on how much to invest in their masjid. For board members primarily concerned with building megacenters, what value is a beautiful building if it is devoid of congregants and someone to provide guidance to the community?[6] For community members, what is a reasonable amount to regularly contribute and invest? Is the masjid worth as much as your monthly gym pass? Is the masjid worth as much as your children’s Kumon or martial arts expenses? I am not suggesting families abandon any of their existing financial investments in themselves or their children. What I am suggesting is that we completely rethink the value of a religious scholar in our community as an investment, not a charity cause. In the business world, wealthy investors invest in people, not a business. They invest in people who they believe can create value for society. Does the Muslim community think about hiring a scholar as a fixed business asset (e.g., a shiny piece of furniture) or as an investment in a person who produces value by helping a community grow? If the scholar in your community saves and supports your child’s Islamic identity and imaan, how much is that worth to you? If the scholar delivers inspiring lectures that help you spiritually grow as a person, how much is that worth to you? These are some of the questions we need to reflect upon as we try to determine how much to invest in scholar.

Financial Reality Check:

Let’s discuss specifics. How much should a scholar be compensated? The answer is that it depends. It depends on such factors as the city that the community is in, the qualifications and experience of the scholar, and the job expectations. For example, hiring a scholar in Los Angeles (median home price of $690,000) will cost significantly more than hiring a scholar in Albuquerque (median home price of $200,700). It is unreasonable to expect a scholar to squeeze his family into a studio or one bedroom apartment. It is also unreasonable to expect the scholar to live far away from the masjid and commute long distances multiple times a day if the masjid is in a more affluent neighborhood (if this happens, don’t be surprised if the scholar doesn’t show up as often). The salary should take into consideration the income required to rent in the city[7] and what is considered a livable wage[8]. For example, in Los Angeles, a family requires an income over $118,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment, assuming a 28% rent-to-income ratio. To demonstrate the variance in the cost of living, San Francisco and New York residents require over $165,000 in annual income to afford renting a two-bedroom apartment, whereas Denver requires an income around $78,000.

A religious scholar should be treated as a professional who brings substantial skills into the position. A religious scholar is expected to be a competent public speaker, community educator, counsel community members, provide Islamic legal and spiritual guidance, research contemporary topics, and many other tasks. A religious scholar typically has secular and religious bachelor’s degrees, although many hold master’s and doctorates. Compensation should take into account the level of education and experience of the scholar.

A community needs to factor in whether they need a full-time or part-time scholar. The IRS defines a full-time employee as someone who works 30 or more hours in a week. Therefore, any scholar working 30 hours or more should be treated as full-time, and less than 30 hours as part-time. In some cases, part-time positions are desired by both the masjid and scholar, especially if the community has financial constraints or if the scholar prefers the flexibility to pursue other interests simultaneously. In addition to base salaries, comprehensive medical insurance (health, dental, and vision) and retirement plans should be standard for the full-time scholar and his family. Retirement plans are important for both the scholar and the community. In the absence of a retirement plan, the scholar is unable to leave his position financially and is forced to cling to his role. For the community, allowing a scholar to retire and be financially stable is important in and of itself, but also ensuring younger scholars can transition into the role and continue building the community. There should also be a built-in structure for annual raises, due to factors such as increased experience and inflation-induced increases in the cost of living. While an entry level salary may not afford a young scholar the income to rent or purchase a home, annual raises and merit-based promotions should create a salary trajectory that allows the scholar to raise his growing family in the community he works in. Professional development opportunities, continuing education funds, and sabbaticals should also be considered part of the compensation package to ensure the scholar grows in his skillset and ability to guide the community. Sabbaticals allow scholars to write and produce beneficial material or travel and spend time learning from senior scholars.

A separate consideration from salaried scholars is how to compensate contracted/freelance work, which is defined here as an agreement for a scholar to provide a specific guest lecture, program, or service to a community[9]. Compensation needs to take into consideration distance of travel, local traffic, and other factors that affect the time investment of the scholar. Contracted work is not as consistent as full-time salaried work and should be treated as a form of consulting, where higher rates per program are expected. One suggestion[10] is to pay the local contracted scholar 0.5% of the average local scholar’s salary in your region for a program. For example, if the average salary is $100,000, a local guest scholar should be offered approximately $100,000 x .5% = $500 for a lecture. Additionally, if the speaker is coming from out of town and travels from far away, travel time should be considered in the honorarium. Some obvious guidelines include paying for food, travel, and accomodations[11]. Of course, level of expertise and experience must be factored in, as this is only meant to be a starting point.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, a local contracted scholar would be fortunate to receive $100-200 for a lecture, which may take many hours to prepare. Just to demonstrate how low this rate is, let’s do a little exercise. Imagine a scholar made an agreement to do 30 lectures in a month (which is unheard of), spread out at different local Islamic centers. Assuming a rate of $150 per lecture, the scholar would earn 30 x $150 = $4,500 for a month x 12 = $54,000 for a year. This does not include health benefits, retirement, sick time, taxes, or anything else. Is this a fair and equitable way to treat a scholar? To add insult to injury, scholars are often expected to work for free, spiritually bullied by boards and community members that religious work should be done fi sabillah (or free sabillah?). Scholars despise negotiating and arguing over money, which leads to them typically accepting whatever low offer they have been given, while deep down they feel abused and taken advantage of. Somehow, this problem needs to be remedied. Scholars could hire agents to negotiate a reasonable package on their behalf. This might help individual scholars, but not the profession at large. A better solution might be the formation of a scholars union that sets standards and guidelines for compensation (to be discussed in a future article, inshaAllah).

The American Muslim community is in a spiritual and intellectual crisis. With the prevalence of secular, liberal, progressive, and other unIslamic worldviews creeping into our communities and children’s lives, the need for capable religious scholars to guide our communities is critically important. However, acquiring talented scholars to address the needs of our communities requires giving proper respect, which in its most basic form is providing reasonable wages. If we decide otherwise, we should not be surprised when communities fail, youth and families become lost, and capable scholars end up far away from their communities.

May Allah protect us all.

[1] Abuelezz, M. (2011). A Survey of American Imams: Duties, Qualifications and Challenges: a Quantitative and Religious Analysis (Thesis, University of Georgia).

[2] Comparely: Salaries for Imams

[3] NPR: As Islam Grows, US Imams in Short Supply

[4] MuslimSI: So How Much Should Islamic Clergy Make?

[5] MuslimSI: How a Community Masjid can Provide a Competitive Salary for an Imam

[6] In a study (Higher Education in the 21st Century ) conducted by Harvard about college experiences that included 2,000 interviews across 10 college campuses, one of the biggest takeaways was that colleges need to invest in people, not buildings. Students wanted access to more people to help guide them with their personal struggles rather than investments in technology and infrastructure.

[7] https://smartasset.com/mortgage/income-needed-to-pay-rent-in-us-cities-2018

[8] http://livingwage.mit.edu/

[9] IbnAbeeOmar: The Age of the Full-time Imam is Over – Here’s What the New Era Looks Like

[10] http://www.artrainer.com/how-much-should-you-pay-a-guest-preacher/

[11] While this may seem obvious, there are many cases where traveling guest speakers spend their own money for travel, food, and lodging and are not compensated at all for speaking.

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Osman Umarji was born and raised in Southern California. He obtained a B.S in Electrical Engineering from UC Irvine and worked in mobile phone development. He then studied Islam in Cairo and in Al-Azhar University, focusing on Islamic legal theory. He was previously the religious director at the Islamic Society of Corona-Norco.He is currently completing his doctorate in Educational Psychology at UC Irvine, focusing on child and adolescent motivation and identity development. He is also an adjunct professor at UC Irvine and Cal State University, Long Beach.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Avatar

    DI

    April 25, 2019 at 12:32 PM

    Masha Allah excellent article! I remember having the scholar’s union idea a long time ago – I am glad it is happening. From what I see Muslims in America are following the trajectory of the Christians – mega-mosques, prosperity gospel and privatized programs for the rich. It is easy to forget money is a fitna and I recall the history of the “Hour of Power” church and don’t want that to happen to Muslims. The Jewish community gives their rabbis a trial period with goals and yearly reviews and after a certain number of years, they make that rabbi permanent and they can not fire him. Its like getting tenure as a professor. I think a similar idea should be used. Allah blesses and debases a community based on how they treat their ulema.

    And I may add, you can find out finances of many masajid / organizations online…or at least get an idea. In the USA, you want to find their Form 990 or 501(c)(3)

    For example – AlMaghrib Institute has 1.5 million in assets http://990finder.foundationcenter.org/990results.aspx?990_type=&fn=almaghrib&st=&zp=&ei=&fy=&action=Search

    And Bayyinah has 3.7M http://990finder.foundationcenter.org/990results.aspx?990_type=&fn=bayyinah&st=&zp=&ei=&fy=&action=Search

    Here is the annual revenue reported for Texas mosques: https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=islamic+center&state%5Bid%5D=TX&ntee%5Bid%5D=&c_code%5Bid%5D=

    It is your democratic right to see this information. You can find similar accounting for charities in the United Kingdom online too.

    It behoves Muslims to utilize the tools available to us in the West. And I think it makes sense to stop using cash in masajid to discourage people lining their pockets or stealing and to switch to only credit card/debit card sadaqa using initiatives like GivePoint atm machines in mosques. https://givepoint.com/home

    di.

  2. Avatar

    Abu Muslim

    April 25, 2019 at 2:02 PM

    Agree with the broad points, however, its depressing to see how uneducated our scholars are on what it means to be liberal or progressive and how in their minds, everything bad goes in that bucket. This is what leads to Muslims for Trump which has done more harm and insult to our prophet and God than any liberal or progressive president would have ever been able to do. Perhaps our scholars should also be more educated.

  3. Avatar

    Tricia

    April 25, 2019 at 2:37 PM

    And now imagine being a Muslim woman scholar. Even more futile !

  4. Avatar

    Umm Ismaeel

    April 25, 2019 at 5:22 PM

    I am the wife of a scholar and I can tell you that all he said is true.

    My husband is working day and night and he is never home and the people expect him to work for free or for a little compensation. We have no insurance, no plan for retirement. We do not own a house, even if he spent almost all his life working here in America and he is 65 years old. If he dies suddenly, me and my children will be on the street because he spend all his salary every month.

    The people in the community think he is rich but we are the poorest of them, just my husband is too shy to ask at least an increase of the salary due to inflation. Since 25 years his main employer gives him the same salary and never increased it, so he had to take other sideline jobs.

    This is the sad reality. I have to say that I am in the same situation, it is even worse because I am translating religious texts. If I were a normal translator, I would receive 10 cents per words, but because I am translating religious texts, I am offered 2.5 to 3 cents with absolutely no benefit, because it is freelance. I am happy that some people agree to give me a little bit more than the market, but I am criticized for asking for more than other people.

    I am grateful that the brother is talking about this, but I do not expect any change soon. My son who would like to become a sheikh like his father says that he needs to study medicine or engineering in order to make a living aside from his job as a Muslim scholar. He is only 10 years old!

    • Avatar

      Masud

      April 26, 2019 at 12:10 AM

      According to Quran & hadith, it is illegal to take money for performing the function of salat. Imam is also liable to come prayer during its specified time. Islam is only for the satisfaction of Allah. So, avoid preaching earning money through Islam. Come to point what Quran & hadith says. Pls don’t invent anything new?

      • Avatar

        Ahmed

        April 26, 2019 at 10:35 AM

        Please indicate where in the Quran and hadith it is prohibited to earn money by doing Islamic work. The Prophet SAWS paid companions for doing Islamic work: https://sunnah.com/urn/2302970

    • Avatar

      Siraaj Muhammad

      April 27, 2019 at 10:04 AM

      Salaam alaykum Umm Ismaeel,

      Jzk for your comment, it was shared on MM’s twitter acct and received quite a strong response:

      https://twitter.com/MuslimMatters/status/1121593339864727553?s=09

  5. Avatar

    Shaka m

    April 25, 2019 at 7:37 PM

    Welcome to life in a capitalistic society. We all know that there are the 1% of Ulama who mashallah make more than their fair share. Of course there are also many others who obviously do not make enough. But this can also be said of any other profession. How many PhD’s are supplementing their income by driving uber? Furthermore there are numerous imams that just go through the motions and mail it in… also no different than in any other profession.

    • Avatar

      ahmed

      June 6, 2019 at 8:23 AM

      Salamualaikum! Our community today is no different from rest of the country today. You only click on one of the top 3 results on Amazon.com. Similarly, some celebrity scholars keep getting most of the $ and keep asking for more $. The sheep (community) are happy.

      Ideally we need endownments and funds to take care of scholars. But thats too far. So it is better for scholars to take up mainstream careers and focus on their scholarly pursuits part time

  6. Avatar

    Umar

    April 26, 2019 at 1:02 AM

    I agree with the issue completely. An alternative solution would be for the scholar to get a normal job and do scholar stuff “on top”.

    The issue with a scholar getting paid by a masjid means he is under their (very often islamically uneducated and sometimes egotistical) control, therefore he has to do their bidding.

    If he/she were independent it would work better.

    This would be reducing the role, and outsourcing parts to other paid people. A scholar should just be doing spiritual guidance and islamic technical questions as that’s their training, not marriage counselling, career advice, media etc. etc.

    • Avatar

      vahid

      April 27, 2019 at 12:39 AM

      So you expect an islamic scholar to work two full time jobs? Not a very realistic approach. Everything works perfectly in the mind, but in reality not so much.

      • Avatar

        Umar

        September 19, 2019 at 2:57 AM

        No not two full time jobs. Two part time jobs.

  7. Avatar

    Paula

    April 26, 2019 at 9:53 AM

    The trend for Muslims follows that for other members of clergy in the US and is not Muslim specific. That should have been included in the article to help gauge the situation.

  8. Avatar

    FP

    April 26, 2019 at 11:44 AM

    Masajid, especially in larger, metropolitan cities, have become mafia masajid. They are usually run by secularly educated, doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen, for whom the masjid is just another business. They must compete with the other masajid. While this can be a good, halal competition, their drive and greed soon take over and they value quantity over quality. They value aesthetics and external beautification over the values and knowledge imparted to their communities. All of this is done, mostly to show off – to say so and so masjid has such and such famous Shaykh and/or qari to lead taraweeh. Then in order to maintain the superficial high standard, they must cater to the upper class of their communities, thus falling into a vicious cycle. May Allah protect us and grant us sincerity.

    • Avatar

      FP

      April 26, 2019 at 11:50 AM

      Moreover, some masajid will blacklist a recently laid off Imam/Qari (even if let go under understandable circumstances). Or they will not allow, directly or indirectly, a recently let go Imam to work in the vicinity for fear that they will lose their congregants, their Sunday school and/or Quran Memorization students. But they see no problems with the capitalistic notion that 2 similar businesses can be next to each other. If they are businessmen already, they’ll try to open their own halal business near their masajid for their individual benefits.

  9. Avatar

    Noura

    April 27, 2019 at 8:14 AM

    As the wife of a Shaykh who goes through this, I agree completely with every sentence in this article. Allah Musta’an. And to Umm Ismaeel in the comment above, I feel you sister, I feel you completely!

  10. Avatar

    DI

    April 27, 2019 at 8:48 AM

    I think my comment got caught in the spam check…

  11. Avatar

    Mezba Mahtab

    April 27, 2019 at 2:42 PM

    I don’t know why mosques spend a lot of money on aesthetics. A little is OK, but I would think people would be more attracted to mosques with a better caliber of scholar(s) than how beautiful the mimbar is.

    Also, the waqf system needs to be established here.

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#Society

The Culture Debt of Islamic Institutions

The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.

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Our community institutions are in debt – cultural debt. And the bill is due.

There are major consequences when the bill comes due on a debt you owe. Personal debt can lead to bankruptcy or foreclosure and the loss of your home.

If paid off before the bill comes due, debt can be a tool. Many communities in North America have utilized the qardh hasanah (goodly loan) as a way to expedite construction projects and then pay people back over time. When businesses fail to pay debt back, they are forced to liquidate and go out of business to satisfy their creditors. In extreme cases, like the economic crisis of a few years ago, major institutions repeatedly utilizing debt as a tool became over-leveraged, creating a rippling collapse.

Financial debt is not the only type of debt an organization carries. Every decision made by an organization adds to a balance sheet of sorts. Other types of debt can be technical, or even cultural.

Consider a new company that keeps making the decision to cut corners with their technology infrastructure – creating ‘technical’ debt. At a certain point, the infrastructure will need to be replaced. If not properly planned for, the cost to fix it could cripple the company.

Put another way, impatience and short-term decision making create (non-financial) debts that can destroy an organization.

The cultural debt for an organization, especially Islamic organizations, can be the most devastating.

These decisions may appear rational or well-intentioned compromises, but they come at a cost.

For example, if a community prioritizes money into a construction project instead of an imam or youth director, what is the cost of the compromise? A 5-year construction project means an entire segment of youth who will be aged anywhere between 13 and 18 risk being disconnected from the masjid.

What about the cost of marginalizing the one sister on the board multiple times such that other sisters become disenchanted and unengaged. Or what if the marginalized board member is a youth, or a convert, or a person of color? How is the collateral damage to those segments of the community assessed?

What about when the same 2 or 3 people (even without an official title) remain in charge of a masjid and aggressively push out people not in line with their agendas? Dedicated and hard-working volunteers will end up leaving and going to other communities.

What about when a few people are responsible for creating an environment so toxic and exhausting that volunteers don’t want to come to the masjid anymore? And they get so burned out that they refuse to get involved in a masjid again? Who is going to pay the bill for all the talent that’s been driven away?

What is the spiritual debt on a community that refuses to invest in an Imam or scholar for over 10 years? An entire generation will grow up in that masjid without a local resource to take guidance from. What is the impact on those kids when they grow up to get married and have their own children?

What is the cost of having overly-aggressive daily congregants who yell at people, make people feel uncomfortable, and ultimately make them want to stay away from the masjid?

Will the construction committee that decided to build a customized dome instead of a more adequate women’s prayer space ever make it up to them?

What is the cost on a community of building a massive albatross of a school that can’t cover its own overhead – and yet services less than 5% of a community’s children?

What is the cost on a congregation when the Friday khutbah becomes associated entirely with fundraising instead of spiritual development?

Did anyone plan to repay this cultural debt when they were making decisions on behalf of the community? Who is paying attention to it?

Some communities are able to shift, and make strides. Some communities are able to recognize a larger vision for growing and developing a community spiritually.

For other communities, they are now over-leveraged. The culture debt is due. To continue the financial analogy, they’re at the point of declaring bankruptcy.

These are the masjids that are empty. These are the ones where, pardon the crassness, after a few people die off, the masjid will most likely die out as well because there is no community left to take over.

These are the communities that people avoid, where they refuse to volunteer, and eventually where people stop donating.

The culture debt of the community is that people no longer feel a part of the community, and therefore the infrastructure they worked so hard to build will crumble.

Cultural bankruptcy is the loss of people.

Can the culture debt be repaid? Is there a way out? How do you undo the loss of people?

I was really hoping to have a nice and tidy 5-step action plan to fix this. The reality is, it’s not going to be easy. People don’t realize the collateral damage they’ve caused over the course of 10-20 years despite the good intentions they had.

How do you get them to accept responsibility, much less change?

It’s not going to happen. The change will be outside the masjid. This means there will be a continued rise in third spaces. Parents are using online tutors instead of Sunday schools, making their children even less attached to the masjid. There will be an increase in small groups of families getting together in their homes instead of the masjid to try and build a sense of community. There will be an entire generation of new adults who will not even desire an attachment to the masjid beyond the Friday and funeral prayers.

People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them)

People will replace the local community with online communities (and sometimes the dubious online personalities leading them).Click To Tweet

We all see the masjids in our community that have been hit hardest by this culture debt. They’re the ones that used to be full and are now empty – while the same 2 or 3 people remain in charge for literally decades. They’re the ones that we fear will eventually close down or be sold off due to a lack of any real community – because the community was never invested in to begin with.

Those in positions of influence should seriously take account of the consequences of their actions on the community. Recognize the wrongs that were done and do your best to rectify them. At the least, seek forgiveness for the ramifications of your actions.

We can no longer make the excuse of having to do what we had to do in order to get institutions up and running from scratch. As the saying goes – what got you here won’t get you there. The reality across America is that too many people have used the masjid to serve their own egos, fulfill their desires for power, and give themselves a big building as something to point at and say, “I built that.” Too few have created a vision for the spiritual upliftment of a community and then worked to serve it.

And now we see the consequences of those decisions. The culture debt is due, and we might not be able to pay it back.

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#Life

I Encountered A Predator On Instagram

A predator on Instagram posing as a hijab modeling consultant, going by the name of @samahnation, tried to prey on me- an underage, 16-year-old. We don’t know if the photos on Instagram page have been stolen from a victim. These predators operate under various names.

instagram predator
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It was a Wednesday night in April and as I was getting ready to go to bed, a direct message popped up in my Instagram inbox. A little background; my personal  account on Instagram is private and it is rare that I let anyone, whom I do not know, follow me. But seeing that this was a grown “woman” with a baby and I had at least seven mutual friends, I let her follow me. 

I will say, I was definitely in the wrong to respond to someone I didn’t personally know. Somehow I thought her 105K followers gave her credibility. 

I was gravely mistaken. 

I opened the direct message. 

She had sent me a message complimenting me. This wasn’t new to me because I often get messages with compliments about my appearance from friends — we are teenagers. However, the stark difference was that I didn’t know this person at all. (I came to learn that these types of messages can go under the category of grooming). After complimenting me, she asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company. 

Many young women are targeted by predators on Instagram. Here is my story. 'After complimenting me, 'she' asked whether I had ever considered modeling for a hijab and abaya company.'Click To Tweet

I replied, saying that if I had more details I’d consult with my parents and give her an answer the next morning; to which she responded demanding she must have an answer the same night as she had other offers to make. 

I then went to ask my mother. Mama was sick with the flu, quite woozy, but despite her state she said,

“this sounds like a scam to me…”.



I decided to play along with it and test her. 

I told @samahnation to tell me more and how I could verify her and her company. She then sent me numerous copied and pasted answers —hecka long— about how I could trust her; how the company would pay me and how they will still make money in the meantime. 

hijab modeling scam

Thankfully, I was apprehensive during the entire ordeal, but as you can see, this type of manipulation is so real and possible for young women and girls to fall prey. This experience was honestly quite scary and jarring for me. I was so easily distracted by what she was portraying herself as on her profile. She had a GoFundMe for a masjid in her bio and posts of photos depicting her love for her baby.
predator

I began to do some research. I stumbled upon an article about a ‘Hijab House’ model scam. Using the title of ‘consultant director’ for a well-known hijab company, Hijab House, predators were allegedly preying on young girls in Australia. Hijab House has denied any link to this scam. 

Hijab House model scam

 

The predator went as far as to blackmail and pressure their victims into sending nude photos, or doing crazy things like smelling shoes! Eerily enough, @samahnation’s Instagram bio stated that she was based in Melbourne, Australia.


The more I engaged with this predator, the more ludicrous their responses and questions got. And this happened within the span of 24 hours. 

She went as far as to ask me if I would answer questions for a survey, saying all that mattered was honesty and that the purpose of the survey was to make me uncomfortable to see if I “won’t fall under pressure.”

Clearly, this last statement about being a speech analysis specialist was a complete fabrication. Again, may I reiterate that even older people can fall prey. You don’t have to be young and impressionable, these manipulative perpetrators will do anything to get what they want.



As shown below, the situation reached an obscene level of ridiculousness. You can see clear attempts to gaslight me and pressure me into answering or changing my stance on my replies.


This was the last thing I said to the predator before I blocked and reported them in an attempt to get them caught. Observe how as soon as I called this person out they immediately became defensive and tried to manipulate me into thinking that what they were doing and asking me was completely normal- that I was the crazy one for asking for proof. 

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. They had asked me questions I found too lewd to even answer or take screenshots of.

This bizarre encounter was honestly astonishing. I do not even know if I was talking to a man or a woman.

Alhamdullilah, I am so glad because even if I was a little bit gullible, I was aware enough about predatory behavior that I didn’t fall victim to this perpetrator. I am especially grateful for my mother, who has educated me about predators like this from a very young age; whom even in her drowsy state was able to tell me it was a preposterous scam.

I could have been blackmailed.

Talk to your parents or a trusted adult

I am grateful for having an open channel of communication, that my relationship with my mother is based on trust and I could go to her when this occurred. This is a reminder and a learning opportunity for all of us how these scary things can happen to anyone. We must learn how to take caution and protect ourselves and our (underage) loved ones against such situations.

Sis, please talk to your parents. They love you and will be your first line of defense.

Grooming

Grooming is a very common tactic online predators use to gain the trust of their victim. According to InternetSafety101, young people put themselves at great risk by communicating online with individuals they do not know on a personal level. “Internet predators intentionally access sites that children commonly visit and can even search for potential victims by location or interest.

If a predator is already communicating with a child, he or she can piece together clues from what the child mentions while online, including parents’ names, where the child goes to school, and how far away the child lives from a certain landmark, store, or other location.
Online grooming is a process which can take place in a short time or over an extended period of time. Initial conversations online can appear innocent, but often involve some level of deception. As the predator (usually an adult) attempts to establish a relationship to gain a child’s trust, he may initially lie about his age or may never reveal his real age to the child, even after forming an established online relationship. Often, the groomer will know popular music artists, clothing trends, sports team information, or another activity or hobby the child may be interested in, and will try to relate it to the child.”

These tactics lead children and teens to believe that no one else can understand them or their situation like the groomer. After the child’s trust develops, the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child’s natural curiosity about sex. Predators often use pornography and child pornography to lower a child’s inhibitions and use their adult status to influence and control a child’s behavior.

They also flatter and compliment the child excessively and manipulate a child’s trust by relating to emotions and insecurities and affirming the child’s feelings and choices.

Predators will:

* Prey on teen’s desire for romance, adventure, and sexual information.
* Develop trust and secrecy: manipulate child by listening to and sympathizing with child’s problems and insecurities.
* Affirm feelings and choices of child.
* Exploit natural sexual curiosities of child.
* Ease inhibitions by gradually introducing sex into conversations or exposing them to pornography.
* Flatter and compliment the child excessively, send gifts, and invest time, money, and energy to groom the child.
* Develop an online relationship that is romantic, controlling, and upon which the child becomes dependent.
* Drive a wedge between the child and his/her parents and friends.
* Make promises of an exciting, stress-free life, tailored to the youth’s desire.
* Make threats, and often will use child pornography featuring their victims to blackmail them into silence.”

Gaslighting 

Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting? 

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. “Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed. For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind,” writes Dr Stephanie Sarkis. 

Another interesting observation I made is the clear gaslighting this pedophile was trying to perpetuate throughout my conversation with them. You may ask what is gas lighting? Click To Tweet

Recognizing signs that you may be a victim of gaslighting:

Second guessing. Are you constantly second guessing yourself when talking to this person or questioning your own morals that you wouldn’t have thought twice about otherwise? For example, when this person popped up in my inbox I wouldn’t have thought twice about blocking or just deleting the message if it was a man but, since it seemed to be a woman I was duped into thinking that it was more acceptable or I could trust them more.

Feeling as if you are being too sensitive. Again I cannot emphasize this enough that you must trust your instincts, if you are feeling uncomfortable and your internal alarm bells are ringing- listen to them! Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting or manipulation. 

Feeling constantly confused. Another sign that you may be falling victim to gas lighting is when you are constantly confused and second guessing your thoughts and opinions.

Three takeaways:

1. Trust your instincts (I’m going to reiterate this, always trust your gut feeling, if you feel like you are uncomfortable whether it’s a situation you are in or if you don’t have a good feeling while talking to a certain person I advise you exit the chat or don’t answer in the first place.)
2. Never answer to someone whom you don’t know. I will say this was my first and biggest mistake that I have made: allowing this person’s messages into my inbox, and replying to their ridiculous claims and questions. Now that I think about it I don’t even know if this was a woman or not.
3. Set your boundaries! This is probably the most important tip to take away from this article. Setting up your boundaries from the beginning is so important. Whether it is a friend, partner or colleague, if you do not set your boundaries from the beginning of your interaction or relationship with that person; people will not respect your limits and choices later on. Especially if your boundaries have to do with religion, moral compasses, or even specific pet peeves you have. I cannot emphasize how much boundaries matter when it comes to any daily interaction you may have in your daily life.

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#Society

Are You Accidentally Supporting Corrupt Nonprofit Organizations and Charities?

Muslim Nonprofit fiefdoms
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Former Pennsylvania State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell has a compelling story.  Even the State Attorney General, who recently charged her with several crimes, alluded to the pain she experienced in her life.  It was a remarkable story of perseverance after being affected by gun violence, triumph and helping others. Yet, there she is, facing time in prison for using a charity called “MECA” for assorted alleged acts of theft, fraud, and other crimes of dishonesty.

According to the Attorney General, Johnson-Harrell has accepted responsibility for her crimes and is pleading guilty.  She has also resigned from her public office.  Johnson-Harrell has stated she may dispute some charges. She like any other defendant is innocent until the state proves her guilty.

What is also undeniable is that many of the kinds of things the Attorney General accused Johnson-Harrell of are common with nonprofits, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  Indeed, the President of the United States has also done egregious things with his “charity” in New York, undetected by law enforcement despite his public profile, until news media started asking questions. The President faces no criminal charges. 

My purpose here goes beyond Johnson-Harrell’s legal troubles. Instead, it is to help nonprofits and their leaders stay out of trouble and to give donors an essential tool in being a thoughtful donor. We often donate because of “social proof.” Someone invites you to donate online; a friend invites us to a fundraiser, we hear a good speech or testimonial, and we give.

 We often don’t particularly care about accountability. We should. Let’s dig deeper to understand how charities work so that we can be better donors with the limited funds we have to give with excellence. 

The Role of Government Oversight in Charities 

What state a nonprofit is in makes a difference.  The state attorney general typically has regulatory authority over the nonprofit sector.  Charities have tax benefits because of the social good they theoretically provide. But what happens if the charity is not keeping faith with its beneficial role?  If a CEO of an environmental charity pilfers funds for personal use, you cannot reasonably expect a family of ducks to sue. The Attorney General is there for the ducks, the trees, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the beaches, the works of art, the future poor patients who are not yet poor or sick, and everything else charity should benefit.  At least that’s the idea 

Abuse by nonprofits is a violation of the public trust.  It is public corruption against society and not merely cheating a donor. 

Because of this role, from time to time, you see lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions by state attorneys general for corruption by nonprofit leaders. A high-profile state representative like Johnson-Harrell is an obvious target since prosecuting her lets the rest of us citizens know law enforcement is paying attention. But these lawsuits and occasional criminal prosecutions are rare compared to how rampant nonprofit corruption is. Attorneys General typically don’t put adequate resources into regulating the more than trillion-dollar nonprofit sector. 

Religious Charities Can Usually Get Away With More

In some states, for example, California, religious corporations are exempt by statute from oversight for things like breaches of fiduciary duty. The lack of accountability is remarkable since religious charities can be extremely corrupt, something known to Americans for much of its history.  Exposing religious charity corruption has long been fodder for documentaries and movies. Certain Christian preachers on TV are known to abuse nonprofit status to flaunt extreme wealth with no negative consequences.

People who run religious nonprofits, including Executive Directors and board members, can still be criminally prosecuted, but you usually would not expect it. Various taxing authorities also have authority over charities. The IRS is the primary regulator for charities nationally. For the most part, though, the IRS has been leaving nonprofits, even obviously bad ones, alone. Religious nonprofits, like those classified as “churches,” don’t need to file Form 990s, annual disclosures required for other nonprofits. Therefore much of what these groups activities are opaque to both the government and the public. 

With some notable exceptions, governments and law enforcement at all levels mostly ignore nonprofit corruption. The times they do is typically the exception that proves the rule. 

For the most part, then, sorting out the good nonprofits from the bad ones is left to donors. We all contend with hard-sell data-driven marketing tactics from social psychology.  We don’t usually don’t know how to distinguish between good organizations and bad. 

Look Beyond The Pitch

Stories of nonprofits and their leaders can be compelling. But narratives can also be used to manipulate, distract, and hide. The raw charisma of a speaker quoting Quran and Hadith can be waived up to donors to make them think they are doing good work in the path of Allah when they may sometimes be enabling criminality. Charisma and the power of stories can get us to contribute to causes better than just about anything. 

There are various red flags to look out for, but I will focus on perhaps the most obvious one, an executive of a charity acting as a member of the board. 

No Real Board Accountability

Johnson-Harrell was on her own nonprofit board while also serving as an executive.  This practice was also present at scandal-plagued Ta’leef Collective. State law does not typically forbid a CEO or other employee (like an imam) from being a board member, despite it being a glaring conflict of interest. It has never been nonprofit best practices to have employees oversee themselves since it is a horrible idea on its face.  The only possible real justification for this is when a nonprofit is new, small, all volunteer-run, and there are not enough volunteers or funds available to make accountability a priority.  While there is potential for abuse here, we tend to ignore it out of practicality. 

Now larger nonprofits can have employees, as well as others, with personal, family or business interests with the charity (like a vendor) on the board might point to a “conflict of interest policy.”  Of course every nonprofit should have one in case unexpected conflicts come up.  They are not, however, solutions to self-created problems the organization never needed to have.

Accountability is Hard 

It still begs the question:  Why engage in the reckless practice of having an executive overseeing himself or herself?  Are there no sufficiently qualified people in the Muslim community capable of helping with the board of an organization?  Unlikely. 

What we do know is the main reason Muslim leaders (non-Muslims as well) chose to police themselves is that real accountability is hard, maybe even a little messy. 

You may have heard this story before: An Imam and a Masjid Board have a conflict, resulting in the Imam leaving.  The Imam does not go quietly, though, since he is angry with the board. He tells his supporters (of which he has many in the local community) that boards are incompetent, imbecilic, don’t understand the “youth” or whatnot.  The best way to run a Masjid, you see, is for the Imam to call all the shots. He will usually adorably say all this with the earnestness of someone who feels he is the first person who ever had this insight. Plenty of Muslims believe him and are hurt by whatever petty drama took place at the Masjid last week. They will join his new storefront Masjid, sometimes across the street from the Imam’s former Masjid. 

These are often pop-up institutions born out of vainglorious temper tantrums, built on the foundation of one man and some upset donors who soon move on to chase the next shiny thing, or simply rejoin their old Masjid. Such places typically do not last over the long haul. If you have been around a Muslim community for a few decades, you have seen several come and go.

Badly Governed Respected Institutions 

More of a long-term threat for the Muslim community is when real institutions with staying power with endowments, employees, and buildings go the route of slipshod accountability-free governance where an executive gets to oversee himself.  Eventually, when you set up institutions with plain-as-day opportunities for corruption and abuse, everything can collapse. It happened in a spectacular style for Christian institutions with no real accountability for the people running it (many are still like that).  Many Muslim institutions we all respect that do good work have nonprofit governance so poor they almost seem custom-built for corruption. 

The beautiful Crystal Cathedral outside Los Angeles once boasted a massive endowment, a global TV viewership for its “hour of power” and donor memorials that would last forever.   It fell into bankruptcy because of the same kind of nonprofit governance increasingly common in the Muslim community. Inadequate or non-existent board oversight is a form of structural corruption, even if no abusive practices are currently taking place.  It should be enough of a red flag that someone can abuse authority with no real accountability. Unless we start demanding accountability from Muslim leaders, those we trust our donations to, we should reasonably expect more criminal charges as we saw with MECA, scandals like Ta’leef, and spectacular failures like the Crystal Cathedral. 

Other Board Members May Not Be Much Help

One response by self-interested board members may be to point to the existence of “independent” board members to keep insiders (like the CEO or equivalent) in check.  You should never assume this creates accountability. We cannot stereotype nonprofit boards, of course, and many operate in different ways. I have seen Muslim institutions were board members: 

  •  Have no visibility into the organization’s operations, budget, or much of anything else important. Though they do have meetings and manage to argue about things. 
  •  Never attended board meetings despite being members for many years and did not know if the charity has been having meetings all these years.
  •  Were never informed they were members of the board, despite their names being on public information filings with the state.
  • Helped start the organization as Ph.D. students and got a lifetime membership on the board, but that was decades ago when they lived in the United States.

Those who dislike accountability prefer “straw” board members who are either not present or can be “handled” by management.   A well-known example of this is Theranos, a Silicon Valley “unicorn” startup with a fake blood-testing product. Many supposedly sophisticated investors were reassured when the company stacked its board with famous octogenarians and nonagenarians. None of them knew and did not bother to ask if the entire operation they were overseeing was a fraud

These kinds of board shenanigans generally take place where there is a CEO who is also a board member and would prefer to run things without dealing with pesky difficult questions.  Board members are there for the appearance of accountability but are often little more than seat-warmers. 

It’s Not About a Leader’s “Integrity”

Some Muslim leaders will take a call for accountability as a personal insult to their integrity.  This sentiment is misguided. Instead, it is about building systems that make our institutions sustainable. I don’t know Johnson-Harrell.  However, no Muslim can honestly claim to be better than her, either in intent or commitment to the community.  Yet, without a system of accountability, the fallibility of decent men and women magnifies.

 You need to have a Shura (mutual consultation) in leadership, that is how the Quran advises us to handle our affairs.  A nonexistent or fundamentally insincere “Shura” designed to not hold anyone accountable is asking for trouble.

Muslim nonprofit leaders can find their freedom to spend charitable dollars without meaningful accountability intoxicating. Leaders who you would never think can make severe errors in judgment start to make them.  It only gets worse from there. 

Work in an Islamic charitable institution is bigger than one man or woman.  If you create a charity with no meaningful checks and balances, your work won’t be sustainable. 

Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), the first Khalifah, could not determine his salary as the leader of Muslims.  He was always accountable, and as I pointed out in a previous article, he preferred it that way. Muslim leaders should welcome accountability and not think of it as a personal slight when asked about the issue from within the community.

What Board Members Should Do 

If someone entrusted you with oversight of a charity, there are helpful educational resources that can help you be excellent. Use them.  Remove board members with conflicts of interest, especially employees and vendors. 

You need to prepare for and be present at meetings.  Hold the organization and each other as board members accountable.  Don’t be on the board to win anyone’s favor, least of all the CEO or Imam. You have an Amanah (a trust), to make sure the charity is operating with excellence in everything it is doing.   Ask difficult questions that donors will rarely know to ask. Read all financial statements and reports, that is where the mischief happens.  Make sure no executive can “handle” you into submission.  If you cannot do these things, don’t be on the board. 

The common denominator in virtually all nonprofit corruption cases is executive domination. Don’t be used.

What Donors Should Do

Encourage charities you like that have weak governance to change their practices. Uncritical support can enable structural problems, which can be destructive to the organization over the long term. Sometimes, the best contribution you can make to an organization is to encourage them to reform their governance. You can do this as a small donor. Don’t expect major donors to request such changes. 

You may not know much about the organization’s finances or how good or bad the organization’s operations are. However, you do know an employee or vendor is on the board of a charity is a signal the organization is uninterested in holding its leaders accountable. There are plenty of good charities worth supporting. If the charity remains stubborn about not allowing accountability, move on to the next one. 

 

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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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