“Verily, by Allah, we do not appoint anyone to this position who asks for it or is anxious for it.”
– The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Source: Sahih Muslim 1733
Recently a Syrian imam from Orlando, Florida was interviewed about his thoughts about Black History Month. The video was labeled “The Islamic Perspective on Black History Month.” The interviewer was a non-Muslim who asked the imam what his thoughts were on Black History Month. The imam replied that Black History Month isn’t an international holiday and that it shouldn’t need to be a specific holiday to highlight African American history and heritage. The follow up question by the interviewer was about racism. The imam replied that we need to get over racism and stop talking about race. The imam further went on to mention that most African Americans now had not experience slavery thus there was no reason for race or racism to be discussed in America today.
The video was taken down after countless comments on Facebook condemned the imam’s comments and explained to him how disconnected, hurtful and ignorant his comments were. We could unpackage the comments, but I think the comments he made pretty much illustrate the disconnect of the imam and race in America and even within the Muslim community.
What was alarming was not just the imam’s disconnect from reality, but the framing of the entire conversation as “Islamic Perspective on Black History Month.” The video’s title was problematic and missed the mark completely historically speaking and also from socio-historical perspective. Granted the imam was Syrian and an immigrant and may not know about race in America, but to claim that his statements represented “Islam’s Perspective” was concerning. We can treat this moment as a teachable moment, but it reflects an extremely widespread issue of the failure and crisis of the Muslim American leadership in America.
The questions we need to ask ourselves are:
- Who are our leaders?
- Who do they represent?
- Do they reflect our beliefs, values, morals and community with wisdom and professionalism?
- Do they have the expertise, knowledge and wisdom to speak on behalf of our community and faith?
Leadership in our faith tradition is no joke. To be an imam or a community leader comes with a lot of responsibility and authority. A leader’s words or actions can have either a detrimental or positive impact on hundreds or even thousands of people. They can bring people closer to Islam or repel them from Islam and theirs actions or words can either bring people closer to Allah or repel them from Allah. Thus, a true community leader is not simply one who has a social media following or is a “celebrity Muslim” with thousands of followers on social media or media limelight. To truly be a community leader means to actually lead (i.e. provide guidance/direction), grow and positively impact an actual community with individual members.
It’s unfortunate that in our community that many Muslims have claimed the title “leader” so easily. Some have become addicted to the fame or the limelight, thus refuse to relinquish or elevate other voices or actual community leadership or experts. Many have gotten the limelight and celebrity via social media, media interviews, and simply have positioned themselves as spokespeople for Islam and Muslims. Others have even positioned themselves as experts in certain fields including religion by self-titling themselves as “scholars” or “imams.” In a previous blog post I discussed in detail what it truly means to be a leader.The danger of self-proclaimed leaders in our community is two-fold:
- It may divide and destroy communities
- It may misrepresent our community and our faith as whole due to a lack of knowledge, expertise, credibility, and authenticity
Those who do get opportunities to speak on national and local media outlets do so often in the capacity of representing their organization or cause not necessarily the Muslim American community nor a specific constituency. This is not to say Muslim Americans need a Vatican setup to ordain imams or have a central authority structure setup to control who speaks for Islam and who doesn’t. This goes beyond self-proclaimed imams and scholars as well as real imams/scholars. This includes community activists, national organizational leadership and celebrity Muslims on social media and in the media. What we need is to ensure that we are cognizant and weary of who we allow to speak on our behalf. We also must hold our leadership accountable with what they say and do on behalf of our community. This is not the time to fake humility and think we cannot hold our actual leaders and “leaders” accountable for what they do and say on behalf of Islam and Muslims.
A distinction needs to be made however. This is not to say that actual experts in their fields should not be celebrated or their voices elevated. While we should celebrate the successes of Muslims in their respective fields of expertise we should be careful no matter how well-intentioned individuals in our community may be to speak on behalf of our community. They can speak on their own behalf or their organization or cause, but to claim to speak on behalf of the community or a community is simply not true. The “leaders” who speak on behalf of the Muslim American community often lack legitimacy or authority and don’t represent a constituency or a specific community. It’s important for individuals who are put in the limelight or gain popularity where their boundaries are. They should and can speak about Islam and Muslims in a general sense, but should never claim to speak on behalf of a community or Muslim Americans period. Humility is needed here to defer to actual experts and actual community leaders. Elevate the voices of actual experts and authentic community leaders.
So what’s the solution to this? Is it to silence everyone who’s in the media limelight? Is it to start hashtags and boycotts against individuals we feel don’t represent our community? The answer is none of the above.
We simply need individuals who claim the title of “leader” to learn to stay in their lanes (of expertise/knowledge), hold “leaders” and legitimate community leaders accountable for their words and actions on behalf of the Muslim American community, elevate the voices of actual experts who can speak on behalf of our religion, community and community with wisdom and knowledge, and lastly we must ask ourselves if the individuals speaking on our behalf truly have the knowledge, expertise and authority to speak on behalf of the Muslim American community or our faith.
We need true community leadership. We must demand it. We must keep it accountable. We must empower authentic leadership it when we see it.
Our community’s growth and success depends on it.