07/27/2013 06:34 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2013

Ramadan Reflection Day 19: Building Spaces for the Silent Majority

Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

I spoke last night at a fundraising dinner for Syrian Relief at the University of Maryland hosted by the school's student chapter of Muslims Without Border. Before the program began, a young man brought up that his university's Muslim Student Association seems to be at a crossroads as their current president is a young woman and some of the members of the club and local community think women should not be in leadership positions.

Later that night I was checking my facebook messages and received one from a young woman in the UK who used to attend our Islamic Center at NYU as well as various mosques in Harlem. Her message indicated a more than justifiable frustration, in my opinion, where the mosque she tried to pray in during these blessed nights of Ramadan was telling her that the women should pray at home.

It's really disheartening to hear and see that issues like this still exist in many Muslim communities. To me, the root of the problem in both of these circumstances, and many other challenges we face, stems from an overt simplification of how we engage our texts. When that is coupled with an absence of literacy as well as a systemic need to seek validation from existing apparatus rather than mustering up the courage to go build something on our own, the end result is what we see.

If we look at the normative practice during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, women prayed in the mosques and also took on leadership roles. I don't know how the eisegetical analysis of a hadith or verse from the qur'an that somehow justifies a contrary reality to what actually transpired is what we give precedence to. I also don't understand why when we meet roadblocks such as this, we get frustrated and then don't do anything substantive about it.

I had dinner with an NYU alum, Lisa Shah, her husband Peter and two of our other friends, Qudsia and Bilal, one night in Long Island after I spoke at a University there. Over dinner they were voicing frustrations that we hear amongst Muslims everywhere on how there are not so many spaces that seem to get it or understand. Places seem to be more keen on keeping people out or down rather than bringing them up. They said it's too far to come to the Islamic Center at NYU and they wish they had something like that in Long Island. I asked them "Why don't you build it?" And they actually did.

The four of them got together and spearheaded a project that they call "The Lighthouse Initiative." They've done events on a monthly basis for the last few months and it's really been amazing to see. I am really proud of them and their team as they didn't stop at just pointing out a problem, but they came up with a solution and took steps to change their circumstance, building something to fill a gap that has existed for way too long. A lot of people have come out to their programs and reconnected to a community feeling they didn't find in what already existed.

Throughout the country you see groups and spaces like this being established and tons of people coming out to the programs and services being offered. My evening in DC last night ended at a program hosted by "MakeSpace", another movement towards building a space that caters to the diverse experience with the Muslim community. There were at least 400 or 500 people there last night and many more who have attended their programs, all with only good things to say.

My friend Ahmed Eid has started research for a project he is calling "UnMosqued" that highlights some of the existing realities and narratives that need to be addressed within the broader mosque culture in the USA. Would one say that every mosque has these issues? No, that would be as foolish as saying none of them do. His project is a good starting point for discussion.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Our not fitting in doesn't have to always be attributed to a negative frame of understanding. It's just really tough to build something that can be something for all people. For example, if I speak English and the majority of people who attend the local mosque speak Indonesian, then they are entitled to a sermon in a language that they understand as much as I am. Sometimes it does have to be an either/or situation.
  • Our solutions have to be sustainable, not sensational. You can walk into a place, make noise and expect them to change over night, but realistically it probably won't work like that. If you are serious about the change you wish to see, do it in a strategic way that thinks for the long-term. It's easy to write off people as backwards or wanting to make things difficult, but not everyone is like that. Some are though.
  • Sustainability has to be considered from all aspects, especially financial. Ensure that you have a plan and strategy in place to build a financial muscle to establishing and continuing the work. Passion alone won't get things done. At the end of the day, everything costs money, from the food to the plates you eat it on, the electricity and insurance.
  • Having a credible vision and mission statement is key. Make sure you know what it is that you are setting out to do and confine yourself to achieving that thing, while staying away from things that have nothing to do with it. If your vision is to have an Apple product in every home, you're not going to start selling pizza. It just doesn't make sense. Engage people early on and through well-thought our conversation and discussion, figure out what it is that you want to do. Passion and good intentions by themselves will only get you so far.
  • Be process-driven and don't rely on individuals alone. The one-man show syndrome is the downfall of most Muslim institutions. Create mechanisms that allow for people to be interchangeable so the work doesn't stop if someone can't do it any longer for some reason. Build a brand that exists beyond one person.
  • Don't work in spite of any group or organization. Your selling point has to be based off of something good that you can offer. That can't be reduced to your being good because someone else is bad. That approach still doesn't show why you are good.

I am an advocate for creating new spaces in the Muslim community. Spaces that cater to the silent majority and are built off of a model with multiple entry points. Spaces that are not reactive to the existing apparatus, but are well-thought out and proactively built. Spaces that have a strategy for growth, development and stability. Spaces in which individuals from all walks of life can grow emotionally, spiritually and mentally. Spaces which remind us of the existence and presence of the Divine, with an emphasis on His Compassion, Mercy and Justice.

I have a lot more to say on this, especially from the standpoint of institution building, but will save it for another post.