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September 28, 2011

Accountability in Muslim organizations

Dr. Mohammed Benayoune

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Accountability is at the heart of Islamic belief. One of the six pillars of faith in Islam is the belief in the Day of Judgment when people are held accountable for all their actions on earth.

In addition to the accountability in front of God on the Day of Judgment, Islam also emphasizes accountability in front of other people for all actions that concern them.

Muslims often relate the story of the lady who challenged the second caliph Umar ibn Khattab when he was giving a speech limiting the dowry given to women. After listening to her argument, he told the congregation that she was right and he was wrong. This shows how early Muslims, men and women, held their leaders accountable.

This same caliph is reported to have said “if a mule tripped in Iraq (he was in Medina at the time) God would ask me why I did not pave the road for her.” This shows how early Muslim leaders took their accountability very seriously in front of all creatures, including animals.

How is accountability practiced by Muslim institutions in Canada today?

Most Muslim institutions, including those which are supposed to have open membership, are usually run by small groups of like minded people. If there is any accountability, it is usually kept within the group. Elections for the board or governing councils are also kept within the group. This may be normal or at least acceptable for institutions that do not have a wide impact on the broader community. However, this is not acceptable for those institutions, like mosques, which take decisions that impact thousands of people in the community, such as when to begin and end Ramadhan, without any consultation with the community in which they operate.

This lack of accountability to the constituency has caused and is still causing many problems. Some cases have ended up in courts. But the biggest loss to these institutions is the disengagement of the community from the affairs of the organization. Without an engaged constituency, these organizations cannot achieve their desired objectives and some may not even be able to survive.

Serving, trusting and then engaging the community is the only viable way to fulfilling the wider Muslim mission of being the best Ummah brought unto mankind.

How do we build the bridges of trust between organizations and community? What is the best way of reengaging our constituencies to meet the complex challenges facing the Muslim community in Canada? Here are few suggestions:

Open up the membership

Most groups running Muslim organizations are reluctant to open up to the broader community. This attitude is based on the fear that “other” groups may infiltrate their membership in order to take over their organization. This has happened in the past. Some groups believe that their way is the closest to the true understanding of Islam and involving others may dilute this or deviate it from the straight path.

To achieve their central mission on earth, Muslims in Canada have no choice but to work together with tolerance and understanding. Different schools of thought will always exist, especially in mosques. However, there is no reason why different schools of thought cannot coexist in the same mosque. Co-existing in the same place brings people’s understanding closer together and minimizes the fear of the “other”.

Have representative boards or councils

To build bridges of trust between the various schools of thought, Muslim organizations that serve the broader community must ensure that all sections of the community interested in the welfare of the organization are represented in the decision making process. This can only be achieved through elected boards or councils. Like other mainstream institutions, the membership who pays its due must be eligible to vote and be elected. In addition to building trust, this will ensure that members are always there to support the institutions with its various needs including financial.

Open up the books to the membership

Most Muslim organizations today strive to be transparent especially when it comes to financing. Some have taken excellent steps in this direction. Others remain less transparent to the broader community. Transparency, especially in financial dealings, goes a long way towards building the trust that will bring in bigger contributions from the community.

Be accountable beyond the Muslim community

Muslim organizations, although established to primarily serve the Muslim community, are in fact there to serve the entire community, Muslim and non-Muslim.  Muslim organizations need to be integrated in the overall fabric of Canadian society.

In the heydays of Muslim civilization, from Baghdad to Cordoba, Muslim organizations, including schools linked to mosques, served people from all denominations. When Muslim schools in Canada, for example, become model schools for a well rounded education, non-Muslim parents may want to send their kids there like Muslim parents send their children to catholic schools today. The message of Islam is sent to the Worlds and Muslim organizations must therefore be accountable to the entire community, Muslim and non-Muslim. Being accountable will help the mosque undertake its central mission of propagating the message of mercy to all mankind.

Diversify activities to suit all members

In the great days of the Muslim Ummah, mosques played a unifying and pivotal role in Muslims’ lives. They were not only places of worship where Muslims would gather five times per day, but they were also places of learning, debate, governance, and social affairs.

Muslims in Canada need to cater for all members of the community including the elderly, the young, women, professional people, business people, students, etc., by allowing people to organize programs that are of interest to them. No segment of the community should be shut off.

As a practical starting point Muslim organization may want to adopt some of the accountability processes which have proved their effectiveness in profit and not-for-profit organizations. These accountability processes include two major pillars:

1. The shareholders (in profit organizations) or the members (in a not for profit) have the final say in the organizations. Through the Annual General Meeting (AGM), they hold the board and the executives accountable for their performance.

2. Outside the AGM, the Board (which is voted by the shareholders or members) holds the executive accountable. The boards usually have committees which scrutinizes the actions of the executive. The majority of the boards have an Audit Committee which works with the external and internal auditors to ensure that all the actions of the executives are in line with the agreements and policies of the organization. A Compensation Committee decides how the executives are remunerated. A Human Resources Committee ensures that the people selected to the senior positions are selected on merit rather than connections. Other committees are created depending on the particular needs of the organization.

The Muslim community in Canada is evolving fast and needs a leadership that can keep up with its challenges. The autocratic style used in many Muslim organizations no longer cuts ice with the majority of Muslims.

It is time that individuals occupying positions of leadership realize that they need to open up and be accountable to the community before the communities start taking matters into their own hands.

The Arab spring may be coming to our organizations in Canada soon.

Dr Mohammed Benayoune is a former advisor to a minister of oil & gas in an Arabian Gulf Country as well as a business leader who occupied several CEO positions in large corporation. Over the past 30 years, he has set up several for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Today he runs a number of businesses in Canada and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. He also sits on the board of several organizations in Canada and the MENA region. He has consulted with many first class organizations on leadership and organizational development. Dr Benayoune has led several Muslim organizations in several countries over the past 30 years.

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