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Bridge Builders

Story by: Joe Stumpe

For members of the state’s largest mosque, working across factions is a crucial leadership skill that has led to progress inside and outside the Islamic Society of Wichita. But steep challenges remain in serving the congregation’s diverse membership and building connections with the broader community.

 

Not long after a U.S. congressman publicly criticized her mosque for scheduling a speaker accused of supporting terrorism, Tanya Abdelaziz responded in the best way she knew how. Using her background in marketing, she started a magazine to highlight positive news coming out of the mosque.

“I wanted the non-Muslim community to see what’s going on,” she says. “All we can do is try to build bridges and teach people who we really are.”

Manzoor Ali, also a member of the mosque, faces a different kind of challenge while serving on its governing board: finding a way for the mosque to achieve more financial stability. Using his extensive business experience, he’s helping push a housing development that would generate a steady stream of revenue.

He’s also worked to empower younger Muslims in the community to exercise leadership by encouraging them to participate in training conferences at the Kansas Leadership Center.

Abdelaziz and Ali are part of the Islamic Society of Wichita, which operates the largest mosque in Kansas. With members from an estimated 40 different nations, who speak a dozen languages, it’s surely one of the most diverse religious organizations in the state. But it’s more than a place of worship. It also operates a school and serves as a focal point for much of the local Muslim population, which is thought to number somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

 

The mosque’s reach generates multiple issues for members who try to exercise leadership, including:

How does their community cater to such a diverse membership while also helping members born elsewhere assimilate to life in the United States?

How can they be accepted as part of the community by the non-Muslim population?

How can they give the society the resources it needs to continue to grow?

And finally, how can the mosque achieve the chief goal of any religious organization: helping members live out their faith to the fullest extent?

It’s a lot to balance. To achieve those sometimes cross-cutting purposes, society members must be tremendously skilled at working across factions, both those within their mosque and the non-Muslim community. Recent efforts by individuals such as Abdelaziz and Ali have shown that progress can be made. But the magnitude of the challenges
can still feel daunting.

“All of those people come to the Islamic Society of Wichita from different backgrounds, different schools of thought on everything from culture to Islam,” Abdelaziz says. “It’s very difficult. We are representing and serving such a diverse group of people. ISW is a community center beyond a mosque.”

 

Connecting a Diverse Membership

The mosque, Annoor Islamic School and other facilities are located on eight acres near Kansas 96 Highway and Woodlawn Avenue in north Wichita. The society’s religious leader is Imam Mohamed Al-Hilali, a small, outgoing man, who, when not leading prayers, can be found teaching physics part-time at Wichita State University or walking on the Andover YMCA track for exercise.

Because of growth, the mosque now has two main Friday afternoon services, typically drawing several hundred people each. Hilali leads services at the mosque, offers individuals spiritual advice and counsels people going through the same crises – death, divorce, financial problems – that those everywhere endure. About 2,500 people make use of the mosque or society community center at some point each year. A much smaller portion – perhaps 400 people – are what Hilali calls active dues-paying members.

 

  • Imam Mohamed Al-Hilali greets a congregrant after prayers during the month of Ramadan at the Islamic Society of Wichita.

 

The society primarily serves members of Islam’s Sunni sect, the largest in the world. There are two smaller mosques in Wichita not affiliated with the Islamic Society of Wichita.

Hilali says the religious and cultural views of society members range “from the left to the right.” In attire, for instance, some members opt for long robes and headdresses while many others would be indistinguishable in dress from a typical Kansan. Hilali says most of the differences are cultural, and a key part of his role is showing all they stand on common ground.

His message to inspire a collective purpose: “Let’s remember we are all Muslims.”

On a Friday in July, men remove their shoes before entering the mosque. They alternate between standing and kneeling as they offer individual prayers, then sit on carpets spread across the floor waiting for Hilali to speak. Female worshipers gather in a separate room upstairs, with a third room set aside for those with young children. It’s been a typical week for Muslims – which is to say, they’ve again seen their faith and terrorism connected in news reports. In France a day earlier, a Muslim terrorist drove a cargo truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 85 people.

Early in his sermon, Hilali refers to the attack as part of a senseless pattern of killing that seems to go on indefinitely. “To condemn, rationalize or disagree does nothing,” he says. (In a later interview, he clarified that condemnation of such attacks is “a given.”) Instead, he exhorts members to live their own lives as mandated by their Islamic faith. And also not to adopt a bunker mentality.

 

Instead, Hilali invites members to operate outside their comfort zones and engage with others in the community. “We must play a critical role in society,” he says.

 

In fact, the society has had an active outreach program to the community for years, inviting guests to tour and eat with them at the center and volunteering in the community. But going forward, the imam wants to see it do even more. He sees the property in north Wichita becoming a community center for all, perhaps by housing a health clinic.

Wichita Muslims, as diverse as their community is internally, also must be able to step outside their own faction and engage in productive ways with non-Muslims.

“This is critical,” he says. “All these neighbors (of the society) should have something to do here. The center should become not a Muslim but a community-at-large center.”

 

Factions to Work Across, Inside and Out 

However, an incident that occurred last March demonstrates just how different the society’s situation can be from other faith groups. That month, the mosque planned to bring in Monzer Taleb, a speaker from Texas, as part of a fundraiser for its school. The day before the event, society members learned that armed protesters planned to demonstrate outside the mosque. They accused Taleb of supporting terrorism.

The same day, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Wichita, called on the mosque to cancel the speaker’s appearance, noting among other things that it was scheduled to take place on the Christian holy day of Good Friday. Taleb and society members disputed that he supports terrorism and noted that he had already spoken several times at the mosque on the importance of charity.

Nevertheless, the society canceled the fundraiser. But opinions diverged. Some members opposed the decision and some – including Hilali – objected to the tone of the statement issued by the mosque, which apologized for the timing of the fundraiser during “this solemn Easter season.” The imam called it “a big mistake.”

“My opinion was the event was canceled. No explanation” was necessary, he says.

The story didn’t end there. Pompeo later initiated a private meeting with society members to explain his position in person. A Pompeo spokesman says the congressman did not apologize but emphasized that his criticism of the scheduled fundraiser related only to terrorism, not Islam. In November, Pompeo was selected by President Donald Trump to head the CIA, pending confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

 

  • While members of a Muslim youth group are mostly American-born children of immigrants, many attendees still feel strongly about cherishing the culture they came from.

 

That Imam Hilali’s opinion diverged from how the society responded to the fundraiser incident illustrates something about the leadership of the mosque. Hilali is its religious leader, but he is also an employee of the society, which is run by a board of trustees elected by members. Those trustees handle administrative and management matters that would be performed by a priest or pastor in some Christian churches.

Hilali, who was among a group of Wichita State University students that started the city’s first mosque 40 years ago, has concerns about the set-up. In fact, he devoted considerable space in the dissertation he wrote for his doctoral degree to what he sees as its shortcomings. But he seems resigned to the arrangement, saying the division between secular and spiritual leadership is typical of Muslim organizations in the United States. He understands the reasoning behind the arrangement: Muslims, he says, want their imam “to stay as a holy.”

 

Mix with the People’ 

Manzoor Ali, the trustee, is a relative newcomer, having moved to Wichita eight years ago. After arriving in the United States in 1976, he worked in marketing and sales for energy companies in New Jersey, Texas and Iowa before moving to Wichita, where one of his three sons is a radiologist. He works as a consultant but devotes considerable time to the society’s development projects.

The society’s seven trustees are elected by members. When Ali stood for election, he says, it was clear that most members wanted him to focus on finances. “The basic question is: What are the (mosque’s) projects, then … how are you going to be successful with these projects?”

Ali’s focus on the proposed housing development is an example of one of the leadership challenges he is working on within Wichita’s Muslim community. He says the proposed housing development would lessen the society’s dependence on fundraising, which relies heavily on two special collections taken in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Ali also wants to see the school become self-sustaining through additional tuition, grants and other sources of income. The easiest way to achieve that would be for more Muslim parents to enroll their children. The school’s academic and religious teaching are solid, Ali says, but it could use a better gymnasium and sports facilities in general. Currently, there are about 180 students in grades K-10. Plans call for 11th and 12th grades to be added over the next two years.

Believing society members would benefit greatly from leadership training, Ali two years ago started a foundation that has sent a dozen people to the Kansas Leadership Center for training, with the help of a grant from KLC. Most were in their 20s – the next generation of society leaders – and Ali believes they benefited from the experience.

He advocates Muslim involvement in the political process, too; the mosque has helped register voters. Ali guesses about 40 percent are U.S. citizens, although many more are legal permanent residents and could become naturalized in the future.

In contrast to Hilali, Ali thinks the society’s organizational structure works. At the top, three trustees elected by their peers act as an executive board, with the president, currently Abid Mallick, a cardiologist, functioning as the closest thing it has to a CEO (albeit a volunteer one). Below the trustees are boards of volunteers for four areas – administration, education, development and communications.

Ali, like the imam, believes the society can best move forward by becoming a full participant in the community. He says he tells foreign-born members yearning for their homeland to “forget about it. This is the place where you will live and die. You have to mix with people.”

 

Taking on Leadership

One of the younger generation of society leaders that Ali refers to is Maha Madi, in her early 20s. She’s a Wichita native whose father, Hussam Madi, emigrated from Palestine in 1987. Madi graduated from Wichita State University with a psychology degree last year. She spent the summer working for her father’s tire and automotive-repair business while waiting to attend graduate school.

Madi embodies the Kansas Leadership Center idea that anyone can lead, at any time, and has already proved skillful at mobilizing others through leadership, including her Muslim peers.

Madi was active in Wichita State’s Muslim Student Association and was also director of public relations for the WSU Student Government Association. She grew up in the mosque, attending its school from kindergarten through the eighth grade before finishing in the Andover public schools. As a teen, she and her younger sister, Heba, started an
all-girl group at the mosque called OMG, for “Our Muslim Group.” Later, boys and young men were allowed into the group. It typically meets twice a month, once for socializing and once for religious study. About 40 young mosque members belong, ranging from eighth-graders up to college students.

The youth group has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and Ronald McDonald House, and it played a big role in the society’s community dinner this year, to which neighbors, city officials and members of other religious organizations were invited. “Basically, the youth ran the volunteer aspect of it – serving food, engaging guests,” Madi says.

Madi also sat on the mosque’s board of administration for a year – she was the youngest member at the time – where her chief role was as liaison between it and the youth group. Madi says most youth group members are like herself: American-born children of immigrants.

 

“There is a generation gap,” she says. “I feel like a lot of (older members) come from a culture where they want to cherish that culture, which isn’t bad at all. But sometimes they forget we were born and raised here.”

 

But Madi thinks having a liaison between younger and older society members was effective in making sure the former’s wants and needs were met, or at least considered.

Another challenge faces any Muslim woman who, like her, wears the traditional hijab, a headscarf.

“Being a woman in a hijab, it’s a lot more difficult to make my voice heard at the table,” she says. “I have to reiterate it multiple times. There’s a lot of ‘man-splaining’ that goes on.”

And yet, as Madi and Abdelaziz point out, there is nothing in Muslim teaching that prevents women from exercising leadership.

During her time on the administration board, it became more diverse with more female and American-born members. Madi says another effective way for the mosque’s younger members to achieve their goals is to find older allies within the society.

Madi puts her father, Hussam, in that camp. He sits on the board of trustees and serves as its spokesman in matters like the controversy involving Pompeo.

“He understands the culture here,” Madi says. “I think he understands both sides of it, which is nice.”

 

Moving Forward

The dustup with Pompeo both stung and motivated Abdelaziz. Born in Wichita and raised in Vermont, she married a native of Egypt and converted to Islam, eventually giving up her marketing business to focus on raising their two children.

The magazine she started, called Salam (a term of greeting that means “peace”), has a dual purpose: serving as a sort of newsletter for the society and also as a window into it for the larger community. In addition to being available at the mosque, it’s free at several advertisers. The first issue featured articles on young Muslim professionals, a tribute to a volunteer and a parent’s testimonial to the value of Annoor Islamic School in her daughter’s development. The issue also contained the mosque’s prayer schedule and financial ledger.

Abdelaziz serves on the society’s board of communications. She thinks finding volunteers and keeping them motivated is the biggest challenge facing the organization. As with any group, “you have a few people who are active and then a lot of people that aren’t quite as active.”

 

 

The challenge is heightened because the society’s property serves as a community center, rather than a traditional mosque that people “walk in and out of” for purposes of worship alone. More opportunities to engage also bring more chances for misunderstandings.

“It’s a new challenge for (American Muslim organizations),” Abdelaziz says. “They’re serving dual purposes that they had never done before. It creates a lot of questions about what the goals are and who’s going to do what.”

Abdelaziz says that such debate over the roles of organizations is considered healthy within Islam. “We’re challenged to ask questions and look at different angles.”

The day after a recent meeting of the board of communications, Abdelaziz says “this by far is the best board I’ve ever been on, the most cooperative and most excited and passionate. I see a lot of good things happening in our community in the future. There’s always a learning curve and always a challenge, but we have a really great foundation as we move forward.”

Abdelaziz thinks the way society leaders can make more progress can be found in the precepts of Islam itself. Muslims are taught to attribute positive intentions to others and to avoid backbiting, she says, and she has seen efforts fall apart when those lessons aren’t followed. On the other hand, the manners and kindness of Muslims made a huge impression on her prior to her conversion. Abdelaziz is careful to say she “is by no means a perfect Muslim” and plans to work on those manners herself.

Hilali, the imam, says an incident that occurred in Wichita this summer shows that Muslims are, for the most part, valued and respected in Kansas’ biggest city. A social media user identified a local restaurant owner as a Muslim and declared that he would not eat at the establishment again. In response, numerous Wichitans publicized their intent to visit the restaurant. “The masses are on our side 100 percent,” Hilali says.

Hilali says he won’t be satisfied until the mosque enables all its members to live their faith to their fullest – a perhaps impossible goal. “In this, I will tell you, we are failing.” But in earthly terms, even he concedes that the society of today is very different from the mosque he helped start four decades ago.

“A bunch of immigrants and students who had nothing built up this huge organization,” he says. “There was no vision, no plan. It’s like God said, ‘Let it be.’”

 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe

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