People Don’t Like their Local Masjid Anymore Because of the iPhone, Omar Usman, S N Smith
This article is the first in a series about Masjids leadership in the digital age. This series draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World.
Who is the masjid president? Who is chairman of the board? How many board members? How do we stagger terms? What about a board of trustees, or executive committee? Should we hire an imam? This is what we tend to focus on in our communities.
While these questions may be important, they ignore a much more important one. How does the structure help or hurt the vision and mission of the masjid?
Many communities were established with specific objectives in mind. The physical structure was established as a place to build community through Friday prayer, Sunday school, and other activities. This vision is reflected even in the physical layouts of purpose-built Islamic centers.
The combination of these vital activities and close physical proximity were the ingredients of community building. Through this, people developed an affinity for their “local masjid”. The local masjid was the platform through which all community events happened and bonds were built.
Governance structures to protect this model were introduced. Constitutions were carefully crafted to ensure no outside party could come in and take over or disrupt the local community that had been built.
Instead, the iPhone has now done that job. It was a major domino in a series of events that resulted in the socially networked age we live in – with all of its positive and negative consequences.
Over the past few years, we have seen things change dramatically. More specifically, our expectations of what the masjid provides the community have changed.
With this, our religious experiences are no longer connected to the physical community. We can connect ourselves to seemingly any community in the world. If the local masjid is not catering to our needs, we can find viable alternatives online.
At a deeper level, the technology empowered people to be active participants – to have their voices be heard. Prior to this, if there was friction in the local masjid, you had to tough it out and fight it. This is the attitude we see with elders. They lionize the idea of toughing it out and fighting no matter what. This makes sense, because they had no other option.
Now, however, we have options – and new expectations.
If we’re free to participate in online communities, why does the local community shut us out?
I’m free to pursue education, activism, or other projects with people I’m digitally connected to. Why am I not able to do the same in the local masjid?
I’m connected now to new causes and issues affecting Muslims around the globe. Why is my local Muslim community oblivious to them?
The intersection of these points is where we see a generational divide. The “irrelevant uncles” versus the “inexperienced youth”. The masjid is an ideal and unique forum for multi-generational interaction that essentially gets wasted due to this conflict.
And when conflict happens, people double down and get defensive. For the youth, that means leaving the local community and going to other communities (whether online or offline) where they can freely participate and contribute meaningfully. For the elders, it means doubling down on preserving the institutions they built.
Preservation mode is a death knell. Preservation is not the purpose of a masjid or of building a community. Preservation mode does not allow an organization to adapt and react to the changes happening in society (and it’s changing ever more rapidly than before).
Commitment to the local community has been replaced with a commitment to purpose.
This premise creates a completely different set of questions the masjid must focus on than the ones at the top of this post.
How can the masjid create a community in which diverse points of view are expressed without fear of reprisal? What work is the masjid doing to improve society, the community, and the individual lives of congregation members? How does the masjid foster the building of relationships? How does the masjid balance the needs of the local community while still being connected to national and global causes? How can individual congregation members be empowered to contribute meaningfully?
When the focus is on achieving these goals, then the structure can be corrected. What kind of physical space should be designed to enable these outcomes? What is the best governance structure to enable these outcomes?
These things must be changed. When people come to volunteer, but are stuck in a framework of preservation, they are made to feel as if they have no voice. The elders, although saying they welcome change and involvement, are signaling (whether intentionally or not) that they want to continue things the way they are.
Major changes are needed quickly. Preserving the ‘way things are’ at this stage will render the local masjid completely irrelevant.
The next post in this series will explore strategies communities can use to adapt to this new landscape. If you know someone who might like this article, please forward it to them.