This article was first published on December 2, 2016, Issue 36.
“That’s a MAC event; I only go to MYNA events!”
“I can’t go to that, it’s an ICNA event, I only go to ISNA events!”
Whether or not you’re guilty of saying (or thinking) one of those, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard some variation of the sentiment. It’s neither possible nor desirable to have one organization take care of every single need of the Muslim community; I’m not calling for that. Nor am I demanding complete agreement with every single Islamic group there is. We all have our own preferences, our own opinions, and our own backgrounds, and that’s fair. But what is a grave, grave problem in our community right now is blind and exclusive loyalty to specific organizations.
This exclusivity — where we pick one organization and only go to their events or participate in their initiatives — breeds an isolationism that is incredibly dangerous. We get to the point where distinct groups emerge — the “ISNA crowd”, the “MAC crowd”, the “Dar crowd”. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with having multiple groups to serve the Muslim community. Often, they started because there was a lack of a particular service, or there was a community whose needs were unaddressed. In some cases, they were simply due to fundamental disagreements in how best to operate, which is certainly not an ideal situation but an unavoidable one. But what started as a sincere desire to fill a vacuum has led to further separation in our community, exactly the opposite of what we need.
The problem with isolation isn’t just that it hinders unity, but also that it prevents us from being exposed to different viewpoints. Let’s take an imaginary Muslim organization: Group A. If you only ever go to the mosque run by Group A, only go to the events organized by Group A, only attend the lectures featuring speakers endorsing Group A — what do you think is going to happen? You’ll end up believing the entire world exists as it does in the bubble of Group A’s community. You won’t ever be exposed to other valid ways of doing things. You won’t ever realize the incredible diversity of the Muslim community, let alone the world. And worst of all, if Group A is based (implicitly or explicitly) on an ethnic or national identity, isolationism can very easily breed racism.
To maintain the analogy, let’s imagine one day you meet someone from Group B. Both you and this someone are equally intelligent, equally moral, equally practicing Muslims. But because you both come from bubbles where everyone acts and thinks the same way, you find your differences jarring. It could be something as simple as a different way of praying, but if you’ve only ever been exposed to one way of thinking, it can lead to conflict.
That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that by only ever interacting with one, like-minded group of people, you end up developing views that are outright misinformed. A common term going around in politics right now is echo chambers — the idea that people who only interact with those who share the same political views will have the same opinions articulated right back at them, and instead of critically analyzing them, they just find them continuously reinforced. In the case of politics, this might manifest itself in something like opposition to Syrian refugees. The opposition of people might be based on a premise that is factually incorrect (like an incorrect idea of how much money is spent on them), but because they only talk to people who agree with them this flaw is never discovered. We might not be at that stage yet, but it is certainly coming.
So where do we go from here? This is not an idealistic call to break every barrier down and eliminate individual organizations — that is neither possible nor desirable. What it is – is a warning against isolation. If you only go to events organized by ISNA, or MYNA, or MAC, if you only ever interact with Muslims that go to the same mosque as you, if you only ever listen to speakers that your favourite group has sponsored, then this is the time to change. Let’s stop treating organizations like sports teams, let’s stop with the blind loyalty, and let’s stop with the isolation. Embrace diversity, and don’t let yourself fall into the comfort of only interacting with those who agree with you.