Musleh Khan on Effective Youth EngagementWritten by Maha Ansari
Musleh Khan, one of North America’s youngest imams, serves at the Sakinah Community Center in Toronto. Educated at the University of Medina, the city where he was born to Indo-Caribbean parents, Khan has been recognized for his ability to make some of Islam’s most complicated concepts easier to understand.
Muslim Link caught up with Khan at the Jami Omar fundraising dinner. In this exclusive interview, Khan shares his thoughts on how to prevent youth radicalization and gang involvement, as well as how to effectively engage youth and increase ethno-cultural diversity in mosques.
You’re a prominent speaker among Muslims. Based on your experiences, what kind of strategies do you think work best for engaging Muslim youth at the mosque?
This is an excellent question, and a question that is essential in our day and our times. Engaging the youth and the students in this day and age is really very, very simple and I think that the community has become very slow over the last ten, twenty years to do this. Getting Muslim youth in the masjid has always been a challenge, because there were never resources for them – there were never facilities for them, that they could come, they could engage, they could meet young people, play sports and just simply hang out.
For all of these mosques and masjids out there, they really, really need to step up their game, to at least facilitate or at least allocate some part of their organization just to the youth, and actually build them as leaders – give them responsibility, teach them, train them [in] how to understand the religion. Actually give them quality, quality advice and not just, “this is permissible" and this isn’t.” So I think the key issue here, that Insh’Allah (God willing) would work very well, is to give these youth an opportunity to be themselves, and not just be furniture that we shove around. No, we can’t do that anymore. These youth are intelligent, they’re willing to learn, they want to engage with the community so we just have to provide those resources for them.
In recent months, Muslims parents have raised concerns about their children being exposed to avenues to radicalization online. For example, Muslim youth are watching ISIS recruitment videos online. Given these concerns, do you think that youth engagement at local mosques is especially important?
Absolutely. I mean, the key here is youth education, because the bottom line is whatever they have access to online and anywhere else is not going anywhere. We live in a time where we have an information explosion. There’s just so much we can learn and every Youtube video, any website you can think of, the young people, they have access to this. The key method to dealing with this is to keep these youth busy with other things. Keep events, and programs and conferences attractive to them and give them that responsibility. So I think the key thing here is really to engage them as much as possible – steer them away from that option. When youth are idle – they don’t have anything to do and no one to talk to – this is where their mind goes, and this is where their decisions go. They end up making some of the worst decisions of their lives.
Do you think this fundraising dinner serves as an opportunity for youth to get engaged at their local mosques?
This is an opportunity for them to at least get involved, to support a project that’s good for them and good for their community. So they can learn that being a good Muslim is not about you, you, you. It’s about everyone. It’s collectively a group of people or a community coming together, so it’s important for them to see that. It’s important for them to get involved in that, and like I said, the key issue here is to make these youth part of the community as much as possible. For too long we’ve just been shoving them to the side – just pushing them into a corner, and we’ve been saying to them, “ You can do certain things but we’re going to tell you how to do it.” As a result, these youth felt restricted, they felt pushed around, so some of them remained and most of them ran away and did their own things. So an event like this is really, really important and, Alhamdulillah (Thanks to God), it’s always successful. The families come out, and they can engage with everyone else.
Given the size of the new Jami Omar mosque, what kinds of community engagement programs do you think can be implemented at this particular mosque?
Well for sure we need facilities where youth can just be youth. I think one of the ideologies that most Muslim leaders have when they think about youth is, “We need to teach them Islam and we need to make them imams. The other side of that picture is [that] we need to just let them be themselves. We need to let them come to [the] masjid and interact with other people and just be young people.
If you look at all of the other designs of the older mosques that have been around here in the Western world, it’s always just the prayer hall, and the washroom facilities and the exit. It was never anything else. It’s only recently maybe in the last fifteen years you’ve started seeing a mosque and there was a gym attached to it, and now today you see throughout the whole city, the same mosques that have just those standard facilities are now extending their properties, adding a gym, adding youth facilities, because they realize the importance of this. So I think that, Insh’Allah, is what’s going to do the job for these youth.
Members of the Muslim community have recently expressed concerns about Muslim youth in gangs here in Ottawa. If you look at the last three years, many of the shootings have involved Muslim youth, as shooters and as victims. How do you feel this issue can be tackled by Muslim communities and community spaces?
So this issue is part of a bigger problem. Most of the youth that suffer from these issues come from broken homes. They come from broken families. They have been brought up in a pretty difficult life, and it’s going to require us as a community to come together and provide whatever social service we can; to understanding what the problems of these families are and how to resolve them. Because the bottom line is that again, for so many years, we’ve been very slow at this – in catching up with more than just giving khutbahs and lectures to these people. These people actually have another life aside from when they’re in the masjid. They actually have real problems – abuse, and issues with gangs and drugs – these are real phenomenon that these people are growing up with.
The second thing – once we recognize that the issue is there, it’s just a matter of us collectively coming together. Whether it’s at a small community level, or many communities altogether, to collectively build these resources and support systems that these people can come, they can talk to a professional counsellor, they can seek advice, they can seek guidance; they’re being bullied at school, they’re suffering with drugs and alcohol and all these things, and they can come and get a proper Islamic treatment. I honestly believe that this is the fault of us as community leaders. We’ve ignored this problem too long. It’s just about time we just have to wake up and stop investing in building buildings and invest in building people.
Ottawa is incredibly ethnoculturally diverse, but what we’ve been getting is “the Desi (South Asian) mosque,” “the Somali mosque,” “the Arab mosque,” and so on. What advice would you give about making the mosque more ethno-culturally diverse and inclusive?
So to diversify a mosque is really just one thing: to have different ethnicities of people involved in working in that mosque. I grew up in a predominately West-Indian community, but when I started becoming involved in this line of work and became an imam and got involved in these masjids, I realized that it was very, very easy to be selective and have certain individuals who had the proper qualifications and say, “Look: We need your help,” “We need you to be involved on the board level,” “We need you to be involved in this mosque” and “We could really use your skills” and throw aside where they came from. That was a really easy thing to do, but again, this goes back to an initial problem that has been lingering for so long which is, we were just so used to being in our own bubble. We just wanted our own people, our own food, our own snacks. We wanted those things that we were accustomed to, and we brought that mentality into the masjid, and it nested itself for so long.
This second generation of Muslims – I have to honestly say, at least based on my own experiences, in the last fifteen years of doing this work – honestly speaking, they are far more brilliant than that, and they’ve looked beyond that. They are actually focused on the work. So I think, and I feel very optimistic saying this, that the future of these masjids, once the older leaders complete their work and complete their service, this next generation is going to look beyond that. So it’s just really a matter of dedication and really focusing on the work that needs to be done.
Why did you decide to get into this work?
In terms of how I got started in this line of work, I come from a family where we have very much been practising the religion for some time. My father had already studied the religion as well, so it’s a family legacy kind of thing. My dad was, my uncles, were all in this line of work, so [it] was just, I guess, inevitable that at some point, I was going to fall into the same thing. And I went off to study – I fell in love with memorizing the Qur’an, and things just kind of snowballed from there. It was really Qur’an that opened the door for me. Once I established a relationship in just reciting and memorizing the Qur’an, the desire and the thirst just got that much stronger, and as a result, I pursued my studies overseas and came back and this is the thing that I love to do.
How do you feel that imams can start to understand the social realities of their communities?
The reality is that the times have changed, the level of fitna (civil strife) and trials and decisions for youth have become that much more complicated. The questions that youth asking are far more intelligent, because remember, these youth now are going into educational systems where they’re taught theories about life, the purpose of creation, anthropology and all of these different things, so their questions now are more, “Why this?” “Why that?” They want to logicalize everything. It’s not about just, “Here’s the verse, here’s the hadith, take it and goodbye.” Once upon a time, it worked.
An example I use all the time is back in the day, you could tell a child, “Hey, be good to your parents, because they have birth to you,” and a child will say, “Yes, you’re right.” Today, in 2015, if you tell the child the same thing, they’ll be like, “Well why? My parents weren’t good to me, my dad doesn’t support me. Why should I be good to them?” So now you have to sit there and you have to be far more intelligent and far more critical. That requires all imams and Muslim leaders to, number one, understand the problems of their community (you’re never really an imam now unless you do that). So you have to be well-engaged in the problems, be well aware of what the issues are, and to really, really stay in touch with the news, stay in touch with the youth, stay in touch with the community, have interactive programs, keep yourself as engaged as possible. This is the new phenomenon that every Muslim leader out there needs to have, at least in this part of the world, and I think once that happens, then the engagement or that connection between the youth and the rest of the Muslim community will be there.
What are your hopes for the future, with regard to Muslim youth?
My hopes are many. I can’t choose one. I’ll choose a few. My hope for these young people is that they get involved. They learn their religion authentically – with a teacher, and don’t make “Sheikh Google” and “Sheikh Youtube” and all these things the source of their knowledge, because these are the things that have led these youth to be radicalized and to be extreme and to hold these really bizarre views that are unheard of in our Islamic history. My hope is that these young people will actually take knowledge seriously, by finding qualified men or women out there.
Secondly, I hope that they get involved in these communities, even if it means to at least volunteer some of their time, but really get involved, give some of your time and effort back to this community. Those are the two main things that I hope for the community and those are the two main things that drive me and push me to do the work that I do – to educate, and say to these young people, “Hey, now that you’ve learned that, I want you to lead the prayer. I want you to organize a conference. I want you to organize this” and really give them that leadership. After that, whatever hope that I have, it is only in the hands of Allah that our success will come from.
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