Masjid Governance and Community Engagement - THIS SET OF PAGES IS STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT, DECEMBER 2017

MuslimsInBritain.org's directory of UK masjids confronts the problematic issues of factional sects and cultural and ethnic exclusivity directly, by displaying each masjid's predominant sectarian 'theme', which at its most generous can be taken as that masjid's customery form of Islamic worship, but in most cases is also a debilitatingly exclusive determinant of who is allowed to perform or speak of anything beyond the basic salaah in that masjid. MuslimsInBritain.org also shows the cultural and ethnic reference point of each masjid's management committee. In spite of many masjids being managed by second- and third-generation committees, and with many masjids having been established in Britain for as much as half a century, it is disturbingly normal to find that the cultural ethos of the masjid is for it to be an ethnically exclusive outpost of an alien mother-country's province, and this ethnic exclusivity distinguishes it from neighbouring masjids. In an extreme case, the only difference between two masjids in one neighbourhood of Gloucester is that one is managed by the clan who hail from a particular city in Surat in India, and the other by a clan who several generations previously, farmed the lands around that city; and that is in spite of several generations in between having grown up in Southern and Eastern Africa before settling in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is vital to understand that there is not a single Masjid in the UK that does not welcome anyone, Muslim of whatever belief, or non-Muslim, attending for devotional purposes within reasonable bounds - the contrary would be considered outrageous. Even so, outrage is curtailed when one third of the UK's masjids - all South-Asian-managed - make no provision for women. Otherwise, the only entity one might consider that explicitly excludes Muslims from entering any of its premises is the tiny but vociferous Ahmadiyya religion that claims a questionable association with Islam.

While masjid managements' sectarianism and ethnic exclusivity are the two biggest obstacles that prevent masjids from addressing extremism effectively, there are many other aspects of masjid governance that show widespread and systematic failure to address the Muslim community's need for positive engagement between the masjids and both their local Muslim community and the non-Muslim neighbourhood in which they live.

The MuslimsInBritain.org Governance pages detail all the numerous things that every masjid must undertake before it can claim to be a responsible participant in the wider community. Failure to do so only demonstrates a failure of the UK's numerous masjids to recognise what outsiders regularly observe, that Muslims in Britain may be in the community but they are rarely of the community. These are the primary points of Governance and Engagement that must be addressed:

  1. Accountability of the management and trustees to the congregants and community;
  2. Accessibility of the facilities, to women, to the physically limited and sensorily impaired, to other language users than the dominant group, notably English;
  3. Inclusivity with full, safe and open access to all the masjid's facilities regardless of sect, ethnicity, gender or ability;
  4. Madrassas, teaching and supplementary services, e.g. shari'ah advice, run to competent, professional standards, with protection of the vulnerable entrenched;
  5. Converts and returnees to Islam provided with comprehensive, independent and objective support in a culturally appropriate context;
  6. Countering extremism provided by fully informed, competent, objective and realistic sources fully engaged with the responsible authorities;
  7. Local engagement with the neighbourhood and local agencies on a responsible, sensitive and inclusive level with mutual representation;
  8. Human investment in the masjid's resources, developing imams and staff to provide genuine pastoral services to the whole community.

1. Governance and Engagement: Summary and Rationale

Since near the beginning of the century, the Muslim community has been continually beset by demands that it acts to end extremism and political violence, removes radical preachers and brings its wayward offspring to heel. Closely related to these demands are complaints about the failure of the Muslim community to integrate and live by the norms of mainstream British society. The Muslim community has heard all these demands and complaints and looked around perplexed - with a very few well known and dealt-with exceptions, there are no radical, militant preachers and no mosques recruiting terrorists. Opinion polls show Muslims having stronger allegiance to British values than indigenous non-Muslims. Of course these are simplistic generalities, but mosques, masjids, struggle to think of what else could be done to improve matters. Yet again and again Muslim youths make terrorism-related headlines, entire families disappear to Syria, and Muslim men on the margins of society are imprisoned for revolting sex crimes. There are no 'big' things that the Muslim community can do - no mosque that should be closed, no imam that should be arrested for terrorist recruitment, no network of extremists that can be rolled up. But there are scores of 'small' things that can and should be done,which are neglected through complacency, or ignored because they interfere with supposedly stable mosque managements, or don't seem relevant to people who don't see the masjid the way outsiders do. The masjid is the public face of Islam, and the people who run it have a tremendous responsibility to present it and its services to a standard that meets the expectations of our society. In reality there are scores and scores of things that Muslims and Masjid Managements should do better. These numerous small changes knit together and combined with each other and across many masjids, can transform Muslim society in Britain and leave no space left for extremism and political violence to fester. This part of the MuslimsInBritain.org website, that analyses and guides community engagement and counter-extremism, provides masjids with the opportunity to show their very best efforts to the public, including the hundred and fifty thousand users who come here every month, and including numerous public bodies, politicians and journalists who make this site their first point of reference when Muslim community issues hit the news.

A masjid's community engagement and its ability to help tackle extremism, are opposite sides of the same coin.

  • The masjid that is closely integrated with its neighbourhood provides no space for those who want to hide from attention.
  • The masjid that treats different points of view with equal respect and tries to include all of them, leaves those whose views belong outside of civilisation, as the only ones that are left out, where everyone can see that they don't belong.
  • The masjid that manages its affairs openly, with full and transparent records, gives no one cause to undermine it or take people away from it except to something more dubious and unaccountable.
  • The masjid that shares its facilities and its skills with everyone, regardless of race or sect, is able to provide better quality services than the masjid which is run for the benefit of one sect or race or even gender.
  • The masjid that is able to understand and meet the needs of converts and other newcomers to the faith skilfully and impartially, attracts keen enthusiasts and keeps them from being misled towards sinister interpretations of Islam.
  • The masjid that has a supported strategy for dealing with extremism or exploitation can draw people back before they enter criminal activities - the masjid can protect and help instead of struggle to defend its reputation.
  • Even providing positive support for disability fosters an attitude of inclusivity and respect for others that undermines the exclusiveness and contempt for others that marks out extremists.
  • Madrassahs well run with modern standards of teaching and organisation leave children with a legacy of well-founded religious knowledge and equipped to reject dangerous interpretations.
  • Madrassahs, 'ask imam' services and 'shari'ah courts' that provide proper safeguards for their users protect against abuse, resentment and devious alternatives.
  • Masjids that put resources into developing their staff, equip them to be able to deal confidently and successfully with everyone outside the masjid, from those who are fulfilling their statutory duties through to those intent on subverting the faith.
  • Masjids that involve the neighbourhood in its affairs remove suspicion and hostility, and encourage mutual respect and reciprocal involvement by Muslims in the neighbourhood.
The following pages provide numerous suggestions about things that can be done to achieve all of this, shrinking the space left for trouble-makers and making them conspicuous. Each topic highlights how the masjid currently rates.

Accountability 2. The Need for Accountability

2.1 Accountability and extremism

www.MuslimsInBritain.org believes that lack of accountability and transparency in the control and running of UK mosques/masjids, is a major contributor to the alienation of many young Muslims and converts to Islam from the mainstream of Islam. While this is a general problem that undermines efforts to achieve better integration between Muslims and their institutions and wider society, of far more immediate concern is that lack of accountability in the running of masjids, contributes directly to extremism, as it undermines the authority of any counter-extremism message that most masjids claim to communicate. Alienated young Muslims justifying taking up militant positions use the common complaint, "They (imams, management, community leaders) don't speak for us, they didn't speak out about persecution of Muslims before, so why should we listen when they speak out against extremism now."

Lack of accountability and transparency also contributes to extremism indirectly, by enabling a particular ethnic or sectarian faction to maintain exclusive control over what kind of Islamic belief and practice is propagated in the masjid, even though they usually do so for well-intentioned reasons - they believe that keeping everything within a single sect or single ethnic dvision is the easiest and safest way to stop people deviating into extremism. Actually it has the opposite effect: Anyone and everyone in the local community whose beliefs or practices differ from that one version, is treated as an interfering problem capable of undermining the stability of the masjid, to be ostracised and briefed against. This way of treating any dissenter, common across nearly all masjids, allows militant extremists to camouflage themselves among the large number of respectable and positive dissenters. It thus also legitimises secretive discourse among any of those alienated by the masjid's management, so that no one can tell the difference between worthy and well-intentioned dissent and those intent on something militant.

2.2 Accountability, Masjid Stability and Exclusiveness

Most masjid management committees believe they need to keep their meetings and decisions private because they have to safeguard the integrity of the doctrines the masjid was set up to maintain. This is because masjid committees, almost always 'laity', lack the theological grounding to defend their beliefs intellectually. That is not an unreasonable supposition, as they will be happy to admit to being 'lay' members of the community, not trained 'alims,'ulema, religious scholars. They fear any openness will give way to abusive and confrontational situations that undermine the stability of the masjid. At worst, they fear that opening up access to running of the masjid could itself allow the masjid to be taken over by extremists. (In practice, the handful of instances of militant extremists taking control of a masjid occurred, in the case of Finbury Park because the original management and their congregation had drifted away from the area and the management had disagreed with, and sacked, two mainstream imams in succession - Abu Hamza al Misri's offer to step in, voluntarily, was naively accepted by them. In other cases the masjid itself was tiny and set up by and for a body of extremists without wider Muslim community involvement.)

Many masjids claim to be the Muslim community centre for their neighbourhood. But if they truly are the Muslim community hub that they claim, they have a clear obligation to dispense with factional and ethnic allegiances. Alternatively, many other masjids are set up explicitly to maintain a particular ethos or ethnic tradition. But it is no longer justifiable, if it ever was, for any masjid to continue to claim to preserve the traditions of a particular sect or ethnic community now that we have several generations of Muslims in the neighbourhood, with diverse opinions, beliefs, ethnic origins and languages.

Accordingly, it is imperative that masjids cease to be organised in obscure and exclusive ways, and that full and public accountability is instituted for the running of the masjid.

2.3 Objectives to Achieve Accountability

Most masjids start off as attempts by a small group of friends and neighbours to organise a place where they can perform regular salaah, or where their children can go after school to learn recitation of the Qur'an. Invariably that initial group expected the masjid to continue to represent the interpretations of Islamic practice that they were themselves adhered to. As the masjid becomes better established, inevitably it draws in people with more varied views, and as successive generations become involved, their views often shift away from those of the founders. But it is very rare for a masjid's ethos to evolve smoothly under these conflicting pressures, and many masjids try to hold on to the intentions of their founders through increasingly 'traditional' or obscure and unaccountable means of control.

Instead, masjids must ensure that the controlling entity is publicly constituted, with a clearly defined membership and accountable officers. Its activities and proceedings need to be open and recorded, and communicated to anyone with an interest. The masjid is a central community resource so the community must have a full say in its affairs. The masjid will continue over generations, so there must be an effective way to pass on responsibility to later generations. There must be no room for corruption or exploitation, and there must be a means by which disputes and complaints can be resolved fairly and transparently. Nothing must remain that leaves cause for suspicion that particular sects or individuals are favoured or that anyone is able to exploit the masjid or misappropriate its resources or money. The masjid's impact is very much in the public domain so records of its affairs must be open to all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.


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