Do ideology-led movements need systems?

I was asked some questions about the importance of organization, systems, and processes in ideology-led movements. I have tried to answer these questions below. I hope this will enable those who lead such movements to rethink their attitudes and learn to appreciate those who have the knowledge and skills to enable the movement to succeed.

It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that no ideology-led movement seems to have sustained and succeeded over an extended period. At least, I can’t think of a single one that did. Especially a Muslim one. The reasons are not complicated or difficult to identify and understand but the solutions seem to be almost impossible to implement. We have too many examples of failures, some quite spectacular and bloody to boot, and so I am not going to list them here. I will leave you to think of them and ask, “Why did it happen?” As I say, ‘The truth is not difficult to see. It is difficult to swallow.’

Allah sent us, human beings, to establish a system of governance that is good for all inhabitants of Planet Earth based on three cardinal principles; Justice, Compassion, and Accountability to Allah from whom nothing is hidden. In order for us to do this, He sent his Book, the Qur’an and the best of teachers, Muhammad (S), to teach us the Book and demonstrate how to live by the system that Allah prescribed for us. Allah’s concern for us arises out of His infinite Mercy and desire that we should have a life of contentment, harmony, and prosperity. Not for a small group of moneybags but for all humanity and all those who share this planet with us. That is the reason that Islam has a complete system of instructions to deal with the entire gamut of human experience, civil, criminal, social, marriage, inheritance, finance, war, government, food, clothing, prayer, sacrifice, charity; what did I miss? Islam therefore is not an ideology alone but a practice. Its power lies in living by it.  Not merely knowing about it.

This gulf between knowledge and practice is our trap. To live by any ideology, including Islam, we need tools. And these tools must change from time to time because society, technology, cultures, and challenges change from time to time. Ideology remains the same. Tools must evolve. This is where we have failed. To give you an example, we are like people who own a library of automobile engineering books. Every morning we walk to the library, read about automobile engineering all day, and in the evening we walk home. Why do we need to walk to the library and back home? Because if you sit on a book of automobile engineering it won’t take you anywhere. If you want to use automobile engineering, you must build a car factory. Then not only will you ride, but you will take the world with you. Now, if someone argues and asks, “Why do we need auto-workers, mechanical and electrical engineers, drivers and so on, when we have these wonderful theorists who know all about the intricacies of the internal combustion engine”, you will say to them that the knowledge of how the engine works will do nothing until you build an engine, put it into a body that can convert the energy that the engine produces into motive power and drive that vehicle on the road. Therefore, to ask who is more important, the theorist, the scientist, the engineer, or the driver, is an oxymoronic question. Each of them is important in his place and time. In my opinion, the reason ideologically led movements didn’t succeed is because the theorists didn’t respect the expertise of the ‘technologists’ and vice versa. The reason for failure lies, not in the theory or the technology but in something entirely different but perhaps more important than both i.e., human behavior. It lies in our inability to deal with dissent, with difference of opinion, with respecting knowledge, experience, and expertise different from our own. It lies in our failure to appreciate that we truly need the ‘other’ person, because without him, we and our ideology will fail. It is time to learn from our traditional mistakes and do something about this and not repeat the mistakes.

The questions that I was asked are below with my answers.

Is the task of the ideology-led movement also to establish institutions to fulfill different types of needs?

That depends on whether the movement is serious about implementing its ideology or not. The question is like asking, ‘Should a movement dedicated to health care, establish or support hospitals?’ Organizations are tools. They are the ‘How’ to the ideology’s ‘Why’. The ideology provides the reason for the effort. The organization provides the means for the reason to become a reality. For example, one of the objectives of an Islamic movement would be to implement Allah’s command prohibiting dealing in interest-based transactions. How are you going to do that without creating Islamic banks? If you don’t have a way for people to borrow money in an Islamically correct way, you can proclaim the prohibition on interest all day, but nothing will happen.

Take another example. Allah made Zakat Fardh and prescribed laws for the division of spoils of war (Surah Al-Anfaal) by 2AH. But it was only after Omar ibn Al-Khattab (R) established the Baytul Maal as an institution that systematic social welfare schemes could be implemented. Until then charity was spontaneous, sporadic, and incidental. The institution of Baytul Maal was the key to ensuring that financial help was given, to every person who needed it. This was also the case with the first standing army with soldiers on payroll instead of booty and the formalizing of land holdings which soldiers owned because of distribution of Ghaneema. Distributing land as ‘spoils of war’ resulted in thousands of square miles of fertile land, especially in Iraq and Shaam lying fallow because the soldiers who became its owners, had no idea about cultivation. The old owners/farmers abandoned the land. Omar ibn Al-Khattab (R) took back the land in the name of the State in the face of great opposition and returned it to its erstwhile owners and established a system of taxation based on what Rasoolullah (S) had decreed with respect to Zakat on crops and produce. This was a huge benefit to the State which otherwise was cash strapped despite having conquered huge territory.

Another example of how the lack of organizations and systems sabotages good intentions, is as follows. Every Muslim and his grandmother will agree on the need for Taziyyatun Nafs and Tarbiyyatul Akhlaaq. But look around you. Do you see any sign of either, in Muslim society? Do you see any sign of it in your own home? Or even in yourself? If you do, all power to you. But the reality is that the majority of our social and interpersonal problems stem from a marked absence of both these essential elements of Islamic teaching. Ask why? When everyone is agreed that it is essential, why doesn’t it happen? It doesn’t happen because we have no institution or organization to implement it. Even in our Madaaris we don’t have Tazkiyyatun Nafs wa Tarbiyyatul Akhlaaq as a special subject with teachers, metrics of measuring progress, and counseling for those who have difficulties with its practice. Just as we don’t teach Seeratun Nabi as a special subject. The complete futility of religious institutions teaching Islam, not teaching the life of Rasoolullah (S) just doesn’t strike us.   

We have ignored Tazkiyya wa Tarbiyya  and the Seerah for so long, sufficing ourselves with simply talking about it passionately in our Bayans, that we have lost the skills to do Tazkiyya for ourselves or anyone else. Similarly, we talk about the need to unite but do nothing practical to make it happen. Instead, we emphasize differences and demonize those who are different so that unity can never happen. We don’t understand the difference between agreeing and agreeing to disagree. We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable. When we have a conflict, there is no system of conflict resolution or body to arbitrate, and everyone suffers. I don’t need to mention the two spectacular splits in the two major Muslim movements in India that happened in recent times, the repercussions of which reverberated across the world. My tears have dried but the pain in my heart is still fresh.

In the words of Westminster Fuller, “In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” Organizations are essential to implement ideology in real life in a sustainable way.  Without organization, systems, processes, performance measurement and metrics, implementation will be based purely on individual energy and dedication. That, by definition, is not sustainable over time and impossible to hand down from generation to generation. As a result, the movement suffers. It is not the absence of ideology but the absence of organization, which has brought us to this calamity.

The success of organizations depends on professionalism which requires experts while the direction of organizations is determined by ideology which requires theorists. How to meet these two requirements simultaneously?

The way to do this is for each to respect the other’s expertise. Historically this has been our biggest failure and continues to be so. We have zero tolerance for dissent and difference of opinion. We, i.e., those who head ideology-led movements treat it like their personal property and behave autocratically. The fact that in many cases, the leadership is handed down from father to son, emphasizes the personality cult and alienates those who are not interested in kowtowing to the ‘Grand Master, Shaikh, Peer, or Whatever’ with prefixes and suffixes to match. The use of grand titles reinforces the power distance and makes hero worship the most desirable trait and questioning, a capital crime. The movement becomes a personality cult which spells its own doom which happens when the founder dies. The followers blindly follow, have nothing new or original to say or do, except quoting the founder in deferential tones with grand titles at every turn. The founder’s words take a Divine color and even the thought that the founder could have been mistaken in some ways, is treated as blasphemy. Difference of opinion is treated as rebellion and treason and dealt with accordingly. This effectively destroys the basis of cooperation and ensures that the movement fails. Our history is replete with examples of this, but we don’t learn from history and so are condemned to repeat it. Those who want to succeed must learn how to succeed. Or they will become another statistic of failure. Change must begin with the self.

What is the ideal form of accountability of the institutions established by the movement?

The process of accountability starts with collaborative goal setting, deciding on measurement metrics, and performance assessment. I say ‘collaborative’ because accountability must be based on mutual respect for the different talents, knowledge, and skills that each brings to the table. This is not an employer-employee or boss-subordinate relationship. Rather it is a collective collegiate assessment of progress. The process must be free of blame and must have only one goal: the success of the mission. The purpose of accountability must only be to recognize success and high performance, and to identify areas of improvement and to chart a course for that to happen. Not for punishing unless a crime was committed. Therefore, before accountability, a culture of mutual professional respect must be established.

Why do many movement-run institutions fail to perform well? What are the real obstacles? What are the ways to overcome them?

They fail because they don’t develop the tools to succeed. Passion, enthusiasm, and sincerity are not a substitute for expertise and skill. To lead the army, Rasoolullah (S) didn’t appoint his greatest friends Abubakr Siddique (R) or Omar ibn Al-Khattab (R) or his cousin, Ali bin Abi Talib (R), all of whom were among the first Muslims and his greatest supporters, highly learned in Islamic knowledge, pious, dedicated, passionate, and skilled warriors. Instead, he appointed a new convert, Khalid bin Waleed (R) who didn’t match the others in either knowledge, or piety but had the skills and track record of being an exceptional army commander. It was merit that drove his decision, not friendship, relationship, or even liking. Yes, there must be a baseline agreement on principles because the purpose of the movement can’t be achieved by someone who is opposed to the idea that the movement seeks to propagate. But once that baseline is reached, responsibility must be given only to those who have the training, skill, and knowledge to perform. Ideology defines the goal and the path that leads to it. Skill is necessary to do what it takes to reach the goal. Leaders must always keep the purpose in mind and not allow their ego, personal likes and dislikes, affiliations, or anything else to get in the way of choosing the right people. Nobody can succeed on their own. Right people are critical to success. No matter how talented, skilled, or learned the leader may be, without competent supporters he will fail. Let’s ask how we hire, especially if the person who is fit for the position is someone, we may have a difference of opinion with or don’t really like very much. The ability to work with diverse people and be able to relate to them depending on the situation defines successful leadership. Please see my book, “Hiring Winners”.

Is there confusion among ideology-led movements about the need for and importance of organizations? What is the solution?

There is tremendous confusion. The reason is that most if not all those who are in top management positions in Muslim ideology-led movements have no corporate organizational experience and so they have no appreciation for it. Let me remind you that the world is run by multinational corporations, for a reason. Corporations have perfected the art of leadership and of its seamless transfer from leader to leader which enables them to call the shots and make or break economies, even nations. All these skills are learnable and usable but only by those who understand the need and are willing to learn. I am not sure that we can apply that definition to those who run Islamic ideology-led movements. Our leaders don’t understand hierarchies, authority, delegation, professional collaboration, or teamwork. Most come with a Madrassa background which is totally authoritarian, with a premium on blind obedience and dissent and questioning brutally suppressed. Working in teams, working with diverse people, especially those of the opposite gender, working with younger people, especially if that younger person is in authority, respecting education, skills, and competence of a ‘worldly’ nature on par with religious knowledge, and more, are not part of the culture of Islamic ideology-led movements. This has a detrimental effect on professionals. Competent ones leave and sycophants remain. The result is inevitable.

To change this is an upcliff task, not only uphill. But unless we learn to respect each other (not merely pretend to do so), we can never work together productively. Most of our ideologues, who head ideology-led movements are arrogant and fearful of others like themselves and disdainful of those who differ. Their followers blindly venerate them, warts, and all, and refuse even to correct any mistakes that they may have made in their speeches, writings, or practice. The mistakes are repeated slavishly and acquire a patina of holiness because of the one who did it. Anyone who points out the mistake must face the wrath of the blind devotees (Andh Bhakt). The fact is that in all the ideology-led movements that I know, there is not even a pretense of succession planning or leadership development. Once someone is in the leadership chair, only death can displace him. I know of one case when the head died, others would not even sit in his chair because of their veneration for the piece of furniture that his backside had graced for so many years. The chair was kept in its place and people sat on the floor in front of it to transact their meetings. I am not sure if I should laugh or weep. Predictably, the organization split with those who had any self-respect going off on their own. The egos of those in positions of authority are the main problem, without correcting which nothing can be solved.

The bottom line to all this is for the heads of ideology-led movements to ask one simple question. “Do we want to succeed or not?”

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Zahid Qadri

A lot of the ideologues seem to have reached the top via the usual organisational politics. Once they’ve gotten there, it seems to be more about staying there than serving there.

Hence, keeping these institutions hamstrung seems to serve their purpose better.

Zubair Kareem

The crisis of Muslims is the crisis of governance, from a family to these so-called ideological enterprises. I am not sure what the real intention of the questioner was but the answers provided, in some ways, are like an experienced and passionate doctor’s advice to a patient with morbid obesity, who is unable to change his wrong behavior and looking for a quick-fix pill. The only solution for the patient is either an entirely different system of nutrition and diet, or a surgical one. Many of these institutions are similarly bloated and diseased. I hope leaders of these enterprises understand… Read more »

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