Several weeks ago, I was told the police wanted to see me. No worries, they just wanted to organize a meeting concerning an issue they were having difficulties with. With us were several school principals, several representatives of youth centers, several researchers, the police of course, and me. We were perhaps 20 in total, and none of us were Muslim besides me and a cop. Naturally, this last piece of information would be quite negligible if the subject of our meeting wasn’t concerning the Muslim community. Indeed, we were meeting because there are gangs of youth, primarily of North African descent, causing havoc in a certain area of Montreal.
So I was sitting there in the meeting, constantly shaking my head in disappointment - I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t disappointed that they’re helping these youth; after all, this is a communal problem, and the police deserve a little credit for seeking consultation rather than throwing these kids in juvenile prison where they learn to become better criminals. We discussed the difficulties that Muslims families go through, the hardships of Muslims adolescents, the school system, the consequences of discrimination, etc. It wasn’t comprehensive - the meeting only lasted about two hours - but at the very least we touched upon different strategies to prevent Arab Muslim youth from ending up on the streets, and perhaps different ways we can intervene.
So, why was I shaking my head in disappointment? Was it because these gangs of youth on the streets are giving Islam a bad name? No, they’re just products of circumstance – an unfortunate series of events and mismanagement – and although they’re accountable for their actions, they don’t deserve all the blame. I was shaking my head because I was disappointed in us - the Muslim community. My role in this meeting was to provide support from within the Muslim community; a relatively minor role, not because it’s insignificant, but rather because there’s very little we can do for these Muslim families whose kids are running the streets. Oh, I mean, besides Friday sermons, of course. Because, clearly, Friday sermons is the solution to every social problem we face.
Ironically, we are a community that enjoy a tremendous amount of human to address social concerns, and yet we are completely oblivious to the plethora of issues that plague our community. And by social concerns, I mean real issues that encompass education, poverty, proper parenting, mental well-being of our children and adolescents, etc. At this point in time, the three major cities with which I am well-acquainted - Montreal, Berlin and Copenhagen – unfortunately don’t have any social infrastructures established to help deal with these youth on the streets, or prevent others from arising in the future (although, Montreal is lagging much further behind than the other two, in my opinion). I mean, we barely have an awareness of the Muslim community’s needs; we don’t know how many we are; we don’t know how much the mosques make or where it’s going makes; we don’t have any assets or sustainable modes of revenue (unless it’s for a situation that necessitates immediate humanitarian relief, don’t you dare mention fund-raisers to me); we don’t know who to go to if we’re feeling depressed; we don’t know how to deal with the “Muslim” gangs on the streets (let’s just pretend like they don’t belong to our community); we don’t have any proper institutions/schools for education in an Islamic setting. On that last point, let me drive it home and demonstrate how ludicrous this problem truly is: our teachers - brothers and sisters who graduate from university with degrees in education – prefer teaching in public schools rather than Muslim schools. And I don’t blame them; if I’m paid twice or three times as much at a public school than I am at Muslim school, I’d probably take the public school as well. Imagine: we don’t have sustainable infrastructure established to pay qualified Muslim teachers to teach at a Muslim school.
So why don’t we have an infrastructure, or better said, why are we not developing one?
Regrettably, the only solution we’ve developed so far as a community is injecting Islam - the theological education, not the mentality or the way of life - in every social problem we encounter: build another mosque, expand an existing one, start a new halaqa, establish new dawah programs, etc., etc..
Unfortunately, our usual response to actual community issues is the equivalent of reading Quran when you’re hungry; yes, there’s an incredible amount of benefit in it… but you’re still hungry when you’re done reading.
Please forgive me if I’m a little blunt, but allow me to summarize my thoughts into one concise argument:
The Muslim community doesn’t need any more volunteers, it needs professionals.
We need managers, doctors, professors, social workers, researchers, teachers and so many more. We need brothers and sisters who consciously choose a profession for the sake of the community, and excel in their choice. We need to finally start building infrastructure in our community, where we have the resources and the skill-sets to not only tackle our social issues, but that of wider society as well. We need to start developing ourselves to become the model on which other communities can replicate.
In short, we need to start building a social infrastructure for our Muslim community. This is precisely the challenge of our generation. Conversely, the challenge of the previous generation, like our parents who first arrived, was to meet the immediate needs of the Muslim community – build a mosque, get a few halal stores running, etc.. But those were their needs. We were born here, we live here now, and we will never develop as a community unless we shift from this “immediate needs” attitude; we need to start thinking about schools, social services and investment possibilities that cater precisely to Muslims.
What can I do?
Ask yourself this: what are you doing for the Muslim community, and by extension, society at large? And no, I don’t mean volunteer work -- I mean professionally. I would like to underline something here which is incredible significant: we need to stop this ridiculous disassociation between our academic/professional ‘lives’ and our ‘community activism’ (aka our ‘Muslim’ lives). It’s precisely this disconnect which is counter-intuitive towards the progress of our community, and indeed, towards the progress of your personal development.
Indeed, I used to have a rule when I was the president of the Muslim Student’s Association (MSA) back in 2008-2009: unless you’re getting straight As in university, you should leave the MSA. Why? Because the Muslim community is in much more need of your education and the skills you develop throughout your degree, than whatever task your Muslim organization assigned you to accomplish (I’m not belittling our volunteer efforts here, I’m just trying to put things into perspective). We shouldn’t be promoting Muslim volunteers who have no idea what they’re doing with their lives. Rather, we should be guiding them - helping them introspect and understand themselves better - so they can choose a career for themselves beyond the bare minimum volunteer work we’ve been promoting in the community; in other words, help them find a path where they can learn skills for the development of themselves, the community, and indeed the world.
This brings us back to our generation’s greatest challenge: in order to address the community’s long-term needs, we must finally break loose from the mental divide we have established between our professional lives, and our Muslim lives. We don’t go from university/work to community work; no, we are Muslims, and everything we do is for the sake of Allah. In other words, what we choose to devote our 8-hours-a-day work will also be taken into account. This isn’t to say that you need to choose a profession that immediately addresses our community’s social concerns – clearly, we need hard-working Muslims in every field. Nevertheless, I am saying that each one of us should reflect very deeply regarding our intentions with our university degree.
The most common intention we often hear is money. Although not optimal, I personally believe with the right intentions, utilizing your skills to make money in a halal-manner can be incredibly noble; we have enough ahadith that point to the virtues of the rich companions who gathered wealth and spent it entirely for the sake of Allah. Unfortunately however, another common response is that we practically chose our degree randomly; essentially, we have no clue what we should study, hence we go for what is apparently the most interesting (or, worse yet, whatever we can get into). And this, in my opinion, is one of my greatest concerns I have; people who have no idea what they’re studying, why they’re studying it, and worse of all, where they’re going with their lives post-education. The symptoms of this issue can be seen in: 1) the over-saturation of certain fields – chosen precisely because they’re safe bets in case one has no idea where they’re going – and 2) the abysmal grades I hear from many Muslim students internationally.
This is tragic, to say the least, because the Muslim community has relied on volunteer work long enough, and we’ve reached our peak in efficiency doing so. Now, we need to start integrating our entire lives in our community activism, and we need to start learning how to become the best we can be in all domains of our lives. Allah says in the Quran:
[He, Allah,] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed - and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving - (Mulk:2)
Thus, as it is stated very clearly in this aya, the purpose of life isn’t to do “as many” good deeds as possible; rather, the purpose of life entails doing the “best” possible deeds we can do. The “best” here is a qualitative value, in the sense that you’ll never figure it out unless you sit down and ask yourself “what is the best possible thing I can do with my life?” As such, coupled with the worship of Allah, the best possible thing you can do with your life encompasses the very purpose of your existence.
What is the best possible thing I can do with my life?
Simple. What the Muslim community needs most right now is for everyone to understand who they are and what they’re doing with their lives. You really need to get to know yourself, and then based upon that knowledge, choose a path in which you become the very best. Your fellow Muslims need you to excel in a field of your choosing and in a manner that blends community activism with personal growth. Bear in mind that, after you make your choice, unless you surround your entire life around it, you’ll never truly excel at it. A wise scholar in Berlin gave me this advice when I told him my ambitions in psychology: “surround your entire life with everything, i.e. friends, institutions, activities, that point towards that goal.”
Thus, I say to anybody who’s reading this and has no idea what they’re studying, what to do with their studies, or even what to do with their lives, please, speak with someone about it. I encourage you to sit with someone you know and trust; preferably someone who knows you fairly well and with whom you’re comfortable enough to receive some critical feedback. Guidance counselors are also good ideas and, in most cases, you can always find some Muslim professional in your field who can share their experiences. Furthermore, Muslim organizations should be promoting dialogue and referral services for brothers and sisters who have no idea where they’re heading, what they’re studying (or working for), and how they could be of most benefit to the community.
Thus, on that note, I’ll reiterate what I said earlier: we don’t need any more volunteers or volunteer leaders - we need professionals. If we are the inevitable future of the Muslim community, we can’t depend on volunteers forever.
Note: This article is mainly based on my experiences in Montreal, Berlin and Copenhagen, and thus may not be generalizable to every Muslim community in the West. Please share your experiences of other cities in the comments section. Furthermore, it was originally a speech I gave at an inter-MSA Eid dinner, which consisted of a few hundred Muslim students.