Blogging my way through Badawi’s “Status of Woman in Islam” is bringing all sorts of things to the surface, I am finding. And thinking this stuff through is quite exhausting.
One issue that keeps coming to mind as I blog is the question of accountability in various conservative Muslim communities that I have known.
As I experienced and observed accountability, in theory, everyone is accountable—to God on the Day of Judgment, and to their fellow believers if they were acting wrongfully. But the reality? In practice, the more powerful someone was and the higher status they had in the community, the less they would ever be held to account.
Back in the ’80’s where I was living at that time, there was little if any accountability of imams, community leaders, organizations, or even of fund-raising efforts. Public financial statements or yearly forensic audits? Nah. Accountability to the community or transparency in decision-making for mosque boards? Unnecessary. Fair elections, even when a Muslim student organization’s official constitution mandated them? Lol.
If a mosque or organization was managing to gather a significant number of men for Friday Prayers, to put on events that were reasonably well attended, and had acquired (or was in the process of acquiring) their own real estate, then… why would anyone want to disrupt things by fussing about accountability? What, don’t you trust those brothers?? Why are you spreading rumors about them by implying that they need oversight?
There were community whisperings about the doings of anyone in the public eye, of course—as well as about ordinary average members of the community. The gossip mills never stopped—no, not even during Ramadan. It was not so much that nobody would ever notice that something questionable was going on, or that nobody would ever say anything. The whispers would go on. But in all likelihood, nothing would get done.
So, there was little or no accountability for imams, or for conservative male speakers or community leaders for what they taught or the advice they gave individuals—as long as the teachings or advice were properly Sunni and socially conservative. I never observed anyone holding writers accountable for what they wrote—as long as they were male, preferably Arab, conservative, and toed the “mainstream” conservative Sunni line on “controversial” issues.
And not only that, but I never observed any mosques or other Muslim groups feeling that they were somehow accountable for distributing the writings of such conservatives. It didn’t seem to occur to very many people that someone might literally put the ideas in such writings into practice, and that the results were likely to be bad. Mind you, they would have felt that they would be held accountable by God if not also by the community for permitting the distribution of, say, Ahmadi or Shia or Quranist literature on their premises, so they would not have allowed that. But a book written by a conservative Sunni writer that tells husbands how to “discipline” their wives? No problem. No need to worry about what the outcome of that might be. Or even a strikingly misogynist book that claims that women are inferior to men and that they must live in strict purdah or society as we know it will collapse? Why would any decent person object to a book like that??
Generally speaking, while I witnessed a fair amount of concern among conservatives to censor more “liberal” writings (even though such “liberal” writings were typically still quite conservative in comparison to “mainstream” North American society…), they were usually unwilling to censor the writings of Muslims more conservative than themselves. Apparently, being even somewhat “liberal” was highly problematic, but you could never really be too conservative. Especially not when it came to social issues.
So, this was a context in which inaccurate or frankly misleading dawah literature could be written and widely distributed. The writer was defending Islam. He was a well-meaning, right-thinking brother, who based his writing on the Qur’an and Sunna. So what else would there be to say?
But while conservative writers operated with little or no accountability, the situation with actual leaders could be even worse. Especially (for some reason) among certain neo-traditionalists. Which I find particularly sad, in a way. Those same people who strongly criticized the Salafis and “mainstream” conservative Sunni orgs and mosques who had been influenced by them for the lack of accountability, and swore that they of course would be different… sometimes ended up being much the same, if not worse. Though we didn’t realize that this was what they had become, until it was way too late.
In The Cult, the leaders were not accountable. In fact, we were taught that the trappings of accountability that some more “liberal” Muslims orgs or mosques had—such as boards, or elections, or constitutions—were emphatically blameworthy signs that they had either unthinkingly or deliberately allowed their practice of Islam to be contaminated with ungodly secular modern ideas. So, we should definitely steer clear of any groups or Muslim institutions that permitted such things.
I would like to believe that such lack of accountability of leaders is a thing of the past. And maybe in some communities it is. But I recently tripped across a neo-traditionalist discussion thread that unfortunately provides a frankly chilling trip down memory lane.
The issue being discussed was whether or not the fact that a number of followers of a certain well-known Sufi shaykh had left Islam, as well as the rumors about the negative impact of some of that shaykh’s teachings and advice on the lives of some of his followers ought to raise “red flags” (as one commenter put it). Another commenter energetically argued that as long as a shaykh’s teachings and practices are in accordance with the Sharia, and that his methods are not proven to be harming his followers, then there is nothing wrong. And (the commenter insisted) in order to prove that a shaykh’s methods are harmful, the experiences of a few people do not indicate anything—in his view, it would pretty much be necessary to carry out what would amount to a sociological study (!!) in order to demonstrate harm. And failing that, then “it is not appropriate to bring, or even think, either implied or explicit accusations against the Shaykh.”
“…or even think” ?!
In other words, shaykhs have a great deal of latitude. No kidding. And those who raise questions about what shaykhs say or do can anticipate attempts to shut them down. The focus is quickly turned away from what the shaykh is said to have done to why this presumptuous person dares to raise questions, what his/her agenda might be, how his/her adab is lacking, etc. And the shaykh gets off the hook again… and again… and again….
We equated following our leaders in The Cult with safety—safety from “the world” and its evil ways, safety from satan, safety from misguidance, the hope of safety in the hereafter. Safety for us and hopefully for our children. So of course we were reluctant to question them, much less expect them to be accountable to us. And of course if anyone started to question, others would try to pull them back into line. It was our true guidance and salvation that were supposedly on the line, after all.
But what we thought was safety turned out to be more like a fire trap. And by not valuing or expecting accountability in our leaders, we walked right into it.