By Ismael Mukhtar.
On the 27th of November 1969, the small Muslim community in Manitoba took a bold step of formally incorporating the first Muslim organization in the history of Manitoba. The new organization was named Manitoba Islamic Association (MIA). As early as the mid- sixties, the newly emerging Muslim community had been taking baby steps towards organizing itself and creating a formal structure. A constitution was ratified and the first President for the MIA, Br. Khalil Baksh, was elected in 1967 for a one-year term. The formal incorporation of MIA came as a necessary step towards the establishment of an officially recognized Muslim presence in Manitoba. The Muslim community at that time was made up of a small number of families; it had no mosque, no place of gathering or any institution of any sort. The founders of MIA set in motion an ambitious vision articulated in the MIA constitution preamble. Stated in the preamble is: “WE, THE MUSLIMS OF MANITOBA, HEREBY JOIN TOGETHER TO FORM AN ASSOCIATION HEADQUARTERED IN THE CITY OF WINNIPEG TO BE CALLED THE “MANITOBA ISLAMIC ASSOCIATION” WHOSE PRIMARY OBJECTIVE IS TO CREATE, NOURISH, AND MAINTAIN A TRULY ISLAMIC COMMUNITY IN MANITOBA FOR THE MUSLIMS”.
Guided by this vision, the small Muslim community under its newly established organization, started pulling its meager resources and diligently working towards the fulfillment of its long cherished dream: the establishment of the first ever mosque in Manitoba. Years of hard work and a generous partial contribution from the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia bore fruit and the mosque was completed and officially opened in August 1975 on 247 Hazelwood Avenue. The establishment of the mosque was a historical moment that gave Manitoban Muslims a place they can call their own and a great sense of accomplishment.
When MIA was established it had virtually no tangible assets, today it has grown to be a large organization that directly owns two mosques, provides a multitude of services and generates thousands in revenue. MIA has been at the core of the history of Muslims in Manitoba. No Muslim history in this province can be written without referencing MIA and its long lasting legacy. For decades MIA has served as a platform for Muslims from a cross section coming to work together under one umbrella for the common good and the greater benefit. It provided a training ground for many volunteers and prepared them for taking greater roles locally or nationally. Many other local institutions emerged and flourished from within the MIA’s platform. Further, MIA remained open to all Muslims; not only to be members but to also to be elected to positions of leadership.
Despite many challenges, MIA has come a long way. Even in today’s multi-Muslim organization era, MIA still remains among the few bodies that have a broader mandate, open structure and an elected official leadership. MIA, like any other organization has seen its share of challenges and difficulties. Even though many of these challenges are common across organizations, MIA’s challenges haven’t yet been systematically identified and objectively analyzed. For the purpose of this article, the following four challenges will be discussed and analyzed in the following paragraphs. These four by no means are the only challenges, but they are certainly among the major ones.
1- Managing conflict: Like any organization MIA had its share of internal conflicts and frictions. Many of these conflicts have a common underlying theme; they appear to be cyclical in nature and keep on recurring. One of these recurring sources of conflict in the history of MIA has been the election process. The bi-annual election process has been in many cases antagonistic, adversarial and polarizing in nature. During elections, competing groups emerge and engage in campaigns that lead to unhealthy rifts. This results in disenfranchisement, apathy and constant loss of active members. Further, as noted by the late Br. M. Inayatullah (MIA President 1968- 1969), this adversarial process has discouraged many talented and competent individuals from taking active leadership roles in MIA. Surely, MIA should remain an open organization and its leadership should be elected; however, the current electoral process has to be revamped to ensure minimal group politics, smooth transition of power and the election of people with proven competence and proficiency.
The worst and most dreadful conflict ever to happen in the history of MIA was the conflict that took place in the early 90s between the former official Imam of MIA and the MIA executives. This conflict caused a kind of polarization never seen before; it led to the first major split in the community, created unprecedented havoc and seriously hampered the progress of the community. That conflict, fortunately, is now history; however, the systemic causes that led to that conflict are still existent and a similar conflict could erupt at any time in the future. No serious attempt has been done, so far, to objectively analyze and understand what led to that conflict and take measures to avoid the recurrence of such a conflict. MIA had three full time paid Imams in its history. The first Imam left voluntarily after mounting tension between him and the executives; the second was abruptly dismissed. Imams and executives represent the core of the highest body of decision making in MIA. Accordingly, it is essential that they function as a team in a comfortable, cordial environment where the roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, the reporting structures are clear-cut and their accountability process is less arbitrary.
2- Staying relevant: When MIA was created the community was small, its needs were limited and was relatively homogeneous. Accordingly, a simple structure with a simple governing model was suitable and sufficient at that time. Over the years, however, the community has increased not only in number, but diversity, needs, issues and problems. MIA itself has expanded in terms of the assets it owns and manages. However, the same governing structure and the same working framework created 40 years ago is the order of the day. The MIA constitution, for example, has not been updated to reflect the current complex and diversified structure of the community. The constitution, as it exists today, lacks many organizational safeguards, essential checks and balances and clear definitions. Further, the elected officials of MIA still function within the same old management framework suitable for a small emerging organization. Most MIA executives have been pre-occupied with minute administrative and maintenance issues of the mosque such as: cleaning, record keeping, logistics, organizing recurring events (Eid, Ramadan), making announcements etc. Elected officials of an organization as big as MIA should not be bogged down by these administrative issues. In large organizations, these tasks are handled by paid staff or volunteer subcommittees. Hence, the MIA constitution needs to be reviewed by a competent body of experts and its elected leaders need to have a change of focus. The primary focus of MIA leadership should be on strategic initiatives, futuristic planning, fostering a common renewed vision and a pro-active tackling of the critical social, economic, educational and settlement challenges facing the community at large. It is a travesty that MIA despite its long history has only one part time administrative staff and a primitive management structure.
Another area where a significant change has taken place in the local Mulsim community is the emergence of multi Muslim organizations. The days were MIA was the sole Muslim organization in Manitoba is gone. True, MIA still remains the largest, the broadest in mandate and the most open to all. However, the existence of many other organizations providing vital services to the community is a reality that can’t be overlooked. Accordingly, MIA needs to formulate a new strategy of working within this multi-organizational environment. MIA should embrace the change rather than resist it. MIA should actively work towards fostering a cooperative relations with these organizations; lending hands of support, exchanging expertise, building alliances and readily sharing workload. The emergence of these organizations is a natural phenomenon that occurs in any growing community. Their appearance will not undercut MIA, it would rather strengthen MIA by freeing its resources to take a lead on more critical areas and venture into new realms. This would certainly help MIA in maintaining and strengthening it leadership role in the province. Resisting the inevitable change rather than riding it, thinking small and failing to seize the opportunity is a recipe for stagnation and ultimate demise.
3- Being inclusive: The participation of 1st generation Muslims at the leadership level of MIA is undoubtedly very weak. This was understandable in the 70s and 80s. But now after forty years, MIA should have had a significant portion of its leadership coming from the ranks of the 1st generation who have grown up in Manitoba and developed within the community’s framework. Similarly, women’s participation at the highest level of decision making in MIA seems to be non-existent. Over the last forty years only one woman was elected to a position in the MIA executive. Manitoban Muslim women are well educated, many of them play leading roles within their own professions or other organizations. They have been active as volunteers at the grass root level of every MIA event; however, their presence at a higher level is still weak.
Further, given the reality that we are a predominantly immigrant community, MIA needs to find a happy medium of preserving its collective memory and legacy established over the last 40 years while seamlessly incorporating newcomers into its body. There is a clear disconnect within MIA between those who founded MIA and acted as volunteers during the early years and most of the current leadership. It is essential that this link is re-established. Many of the ex-MIA officials and volunteers are on the margin and rarely part of any process of consultation on MIA affairs. The new ones not having that historical perspective keep on venturing into areas already ventured before and run the risk of re-inventing the wheel and starting from square one. A mechanism of preserving the old history, tapping into past experiences of MIA veterans and bringing newcomers into the system in a seamless progression is very critical for future viability of MIA.
4- Being true to its name: MIA is “Islamic” and “Manitoban”. Being Islamic, MIA needs to fully uphold the authentic teaching of Islam based on Quran, sunnah and authentic scholarly tradition. Further, the core Islamic concepts and values should permeate through the whole body of MIA functions and relationships. Moreover, MIA has a duty to carry the universal message of Islam to the surrounding larger community. The challenge here is to differentiate between culture based understanding and genuine Islamic injunctions. Further challenge is to take a middle course and not fall into narrow conservative interpretations or one school partisan positions or dilutive liberal understanding.
To be Manitoban, MIA needs to act as a genuine Manitoban organization not an alien body residing in Manitoba. MIA needs to be actively engaged with the larger society, showing concern to all local issues and being an integral body of the civic society. Certainly, MIA has made some inroads; however, it is a long way from being a truly Islamic Manitoban organization. Given the high turnover in the Manitoba Muslim community, the risk MIA faces, despite its long history, is its propensity to be colored by the customs of any dominant ethnic group at any particular time. Other Muslim ethnic groups can have their own sub-stream on the margin, but MIA should remain at its core, Manitoban and Canadian in its culture, outlook and norms.
MIA certainly is a proud accomplishment for all of us; old, young; new, veteran; men and women. MIA’s legacy is a great legacy that no particular group or individual can claim; it is a legacy that transcends all. Surely, MIA had its own challenges, difficulties and growing pains. The challenge for us is to build upon past successes, learn from past mistakes and take MIA to the second stage with a greater vision, bold ambitions and a confident outlook. MIA is not a “ritual” defined by its logo, a website, a street address, a ten member elected body and hired staff. MIA is a vision, a legacy, a tradition and a set of core values.
MIA will remain vital, progressive, strong and forward moving as long as it remains focused on its greater objectives and not side-tracked by petty organizational tangles. The day MIA becomes reduced to a narrow tunnel vision, happy with an outdated status quo, paranoid with control and averse to constructive criticism, the predicament of history on all organizations that lose sight of their greater objectives will fall upon it. If that would ever was to happen, it would be a sad end to a great legacy.