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Sanad Collective Our children are at risk - Perspectives from a prison Chaplain - Sanad Collective

Our children are at risk – Perspectives from a prison Chaplain

BismIllah irRahman irRaheem
Peace and blessings of God be upon you all.

I want to start by sharing some stories and observations from my current career as a chaplain as well from my previous career as a mediator.

In prison, I have met many inmates who, before they committed their crime, were actually doing their Masters, PhD, or already had degrees in higher education.

These people with high levels of education were there for various reasons: from conjugal violence to fraud to murder.

This discovery shocked me because I had always assumed, like many of us do, that jail is for those who did not get an education. That criminals are generally those who don’t have the same options, wisdom, understanding, and direction that those who have been educated have.

Many of the people I’m referring to were Muslims who finished their studies in some of the most prestigious universities of Canada.

In my previous career as a mediator, it often surprised me to find that the most difficult couples to help were those who also had the highest levels of education.

I always assumed, like many of us do, that the higher you go in your education, the better a being you become: the more you increase in understanding, open-mindedness, and ability to operate from a realization that your position is not all-knowing, that you have biases and blind spots and you need to always leave room for others to be be more right than you. That is, in fact, the very essence of being a student. I say to my students often: half of knowledge is admitting you don’t know. The other half is asking a question, in order to learn. I tell them: with just these two steps, you have all of knowledge before you have received even one piece of information.

Education, we are given to believe, makes you a more civil person, a more reasonable, rational, and respectable individual. After all, people with PhDs and Masters are accorded more respect, in our community, than others. Yet, I remember in my mediation work, trying to help a Harvard graduate. I found myself up against a brick wall when she told me, speaking of her ex-husband: “I want to destroy him. I want him to die out of sorrow and pain.” This Harvard grad spent sixty thousand dollars just to pursue this aim, and to ruin her ex-husband, just to see him lost – sent into a state of total brokenness. All the mediation sessions we did could not convince her to change her mind and accept a compromise or deal.

I remember a top engineer, of highest calibre in his profession, working in one of the most prestigious companies – a young man – insisting on sending the three kids he had with his ex-wife back home overseas, only to punish her.

You all know that those who have gone to fight overseas – many of them were engineers, and well-educated from respectable colleges and universities.

I think with these examples we can understand – we can see – that investing in the “education” of your child, does not necessarily make him a better person. Well – “education” in its modern meaning.
Our educated people today lack education – they lack manners, respect for elders, respect for others in general. They lack spiritual awareness, moral excellence, and the disciplined commitment to an ethics of compassion when push comes to shove. They are not really brilliant – though we use that term for a sharp mind. Sadly, they don’t shine – for ‘brilliant’ means something that shines with light.

As a Muslim community that has made it loud and clear that we care about the education of our children, it’s not rare to see a Muslim family going into debt – selling their properties overseas, their prestigious ancestral homes of three hundred or four hundred years, just to have their children be able to get a degree.

I’m sure many of you hear yourselves in this description – recognize your sacrifice or that of your parents. I recognize my poor Father in this description, who had to sell a piece of his land just to send me to Canada for university. This, while in most non-Muslim Canadian families, parents usually give up financial responsibility when the child is 16, 17, or 18. Muslim families continue to carry full responsibility of the child right up to age 25, 26, 27 because we hold so dearly the education of our children, and this education often carries on into our children’s late 20s.

What we often forget is that our children have a spiritual need – that they are in need of spiritual education, personality education, character education – a deeper level of education – not a “higher” level of education – which turns out to not actually be higher after all.

The education that some illiterate people like our Grandfathers or Great Grandfathers and Mothers had, came from just having someone in their life who could listen to them, whom they loved, respected, and listened to: that is to say: a mentor.

I find it shameful that we don’t need to do fundraising dinners to convince the Parents to invest in the academic education of their children, but we need to do all this to convince you to invest in the spiritual care of your children given by a chaplain.

I mentioned at the opening of my talk the many inmates I meet, who hold various degrees in academic education. You know what they have told me? All of them have said that had they only had access to spiritual care and coaching, they would not have been behind bars today. Now they are getting spiritual care and coaching, but it’s too late to save them from a life in prison. With all their higher education, because they lacked spiritual care, they will never be able to contribute to society the way that higher education was supposed to enable them to.

Don’t you agree with me that it’s a shame that we have to make special efforts – like this gathering – to find support for the single thing that is most essential. For a basic need of our very own offspring.

It’s a shame that we forget this single thing – the absence of which makes everything else collapse. The spirit. The spirit. Who is caring for that spirit in your child?
Just to put it into perspective for a moment, in case you think I’m being harsh: would you be proud of a daughter like the one I mentioned from Harvard? Or the engineer who wants to punish his wife? These could be your children, if they don’t get the blessing of spiritual guidance.

In fact, I believe we need more chaplains. As a community, we need male chaplains, female chaplains. Professionals, volunteers. We need to support those people amongst us who are good at taking care of others – to step into this chaplaincy role. Because nothing that even the most advanced university could provide, can replace what a Muslim chaplain can offer. Not their mental health programs and care, not their activities, not their sports and clubs, nothing.

I teach a class on Islam, on Monday evenings at McGill, and another at the Unversity of Quebec in Montreal, on Sundays. I made the mistake of giving my phone number and my email to some of the students who attend – just so that they could ask me questions about the class. With no exaggeration, I receive, on a weekly basis, no less than 20 emails, calls, texts from sisters and brothers – your daughters and sons, dear Parents – for a wide range of reasons. These university students are in dire need. They are in dire need of someone who can listen to their problems. They are in dire need of someone they can talk to.

And their issues are various, from simple doubts about the religion, to severe addiction to porn movies. Three quarters of the young Muslim male university students who come to me are dealing with this last issue. Just consider the ramifications of that. On the entire community. On the marriages they will start within the next few years, the families they will attempt to raise. If they don’t get help now, how will they deal with this sickness that is eating from them and will without doubt be a sickness that affects their marriages in horrific ways.

Last year, I got a call from a young girl. It was the day of her graduation and she was in tears wanting to kill herself. Her Parents were busy getting dressed, putting on their best clothes for this occasion. I could hear in the background the sound of their joyful laughter – isn’t the day of the graduation of their daughter cause to celebrate?
Yet that poor girl, for two hours, while her Family thought she was getting her beauty rest, was convincing me that she should get rid of her life, because she has no worth – no value. Because she is fat and no one would marry her – and she does not look beautiful in her dress and no one would marry her.

Dear Parents, you are not aware of what demons your sons and daughters are living with and trying to fight.
You only see the certificates.
If we let these internal spiritual and personal problems in the lives of our children fester, we are asking for trouble. We are asking for disasters up ahead.
I am asking you: Don’t wait until the problems your kids are facing get bigger. Help a chaplain to be there, to be present, so that he or she can intervene and bring healing.

For all these reasons, my dear Brothers and Sisters, chaplaincy in the university is not a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity.

As volunteer in the two universities I mentioned, as the crazy being I am who doesn’t respect his own private life, even though I’m constantly accepting requests, I’ve had to decline many demands for help.

We need not just chaplaincy, but MORE chaplaincy.

What a spiritual coach and mentor can give to a young Muslim man or woman, no one else can give. The psychologist cannot, the psychiatrist cannot, the coaching department cannot, and the Parents cannot.

Investing in chaplaincy in universities means giving our youth access to correct and mature Islamic understanding. Often, when we talk with engineers, doctors, PhD students about religion, we are taken aback by the shallowness and superficiality of their perspectives and understandings of the religion. You need only to attend a discussion of a shura majlis in any of the MSAs and you will discover this. It’s the unavoidable outcome when everything in that human being continued to grow over the past 20 or 25 years, except for his religion. It got stuck. The last person he had talk to him and interact with him over religious teachings was the Imam who taught him Quran when he was 8 years old. So, that religious part in him – his heart – never grew up to learn how to deal with the world as an adult muslim, and with the reality of being Muslim in the adult world.
Because being a Muslim child is vastly different from being an adult Muslim.

Between brackets, this phenomena is what, for me, explains why graduates would go overseas to fight with ISIS, or swallow such a tribal superficial hate-mongering messages as are offered online today.

We all hear about that phenomenon – the phenomenon of radicalization. But there are other things going on that you may not be aware of. Many Muslim university students I’m meeting are telling me that they feel a real emptiness in their Islam – a hollow place where feelings of love should exist. Feelings of being loved, and loving God. You might say this is normal, but it is not. This is not a tenable way to feel. And because it is so painful, many of these students are telling me they are more and more attracted to Christian teachings, which are all about how loved the human being is by his Lord.

The university chaplain, in this way, is the canary in the mine in terms of Islamic pedagogy – he sees before anyone else what issues are raising their heads, to challenge the next generation of adult Muslims who will be starting homes and are on the cusp of becoming leaders in our communities.

As Chaplains, this is where we are called to draw from the existing discourse in Islam, those elements which must be emphasised today, for the context in which we find our youth. The chaplain is there to provide teachings from Islam that enable the young person to live the life he or she is living – not an ideal Muslim dream life – but their reality: to say to the young man who has sinned: if you had never sinned, you would never know al Ghaffaar – the Extremely Forgiving. To say to the young woman who has been hurt by so many relationships: if you had never been broken, you would never have known the light of al Jabbar – the Mender.

Indeed, university is a special time. A young person is now considered an adult. They have so many more options than they did when they were in high school: new thoughts to think, new forms of recreation and socialization to try out and perhaps take up. Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah speaks of this as being a time of questioning and searching. He too emphasises the need to reach all university students with the Message – not only Muslims. Many are looking for answers to the questions that their university experience confronts them with, whether in class or in their own feelings and personal experiences.

Additionally, being a young adult is such a precious time in terms of one’s ability to think, and to do. Yet, as Dr. Ingrid Mattson points out, this time is not fully utilized in the best ways by university students. Much time goes to waste that could be used to develop spiritually. The sharpness of the mind at that age puts it in a great position to learn Arabic, the strength of the body at that age gives the young person energy she or he will never have again – energy to serve, energy to worship long hours. Yet who is there who can gently suggest such forms of “recreation” – who can suggest these pursuits be taken up? If students had access to a chaplain, these important investments could supported and encouraged.

Finally, university puts to all the question: what do you want to be when you grow up? The student is almost “grown up” in terms of the working world – about to enter a career, making choices that will determine that career. This is a time to answer the internal question: what is my mission in this life? what is my role? what matters to me? And a chaplain can help the student consider the many possibilities and answer the question from outside of the box.

We need more chaplains. And it’s not for the state to provide for this, I’m sorry. It’s for us as a community to show that we care about this, the same way we spend generously without questioning towards the university tuition of our children. The same way you set aside funds for tuition, every parent should put ten percent of that tuition towards making sure his child will have access to a chaplain. Because this access to a chaplain is the thing that will make that whole university degree worthwhile, that will enable this student, receiving all that education, to be healthy, whole, and able to handle the challenge of his or her daily life as a Muslim.

Finally, I want to say that a chaplain is not someone who went to university who studied to become a chaplain and has a degree in chaplaincy. That is not the definition of chaplaincy. The chaplaincy program that some universities provide, is not meant to make chaplains. It’s meant to assist people who are already chaplains. I mean that chaplaincy is a calling above all. It’s a gift from God, a talent. Chaplaincy is a capacity to listen to people’s problems on an almost continuous basis, and yet treat each one like it’s the only problem you’ve heard all week. To give each person the feeling they can talk to you and not be judged. To make yourself available: to engage, to encourage people to come and talk to you and seek your help and assistance. To build trust, and keep that trust.

As Dr. Ingrid Mattson has said: we need to find those people in our community who have this gift, and empower them, support them, and give them these positions. One aspect of empowering them is to send them to follow Dr. Ingrid Mattson’s program in chaplaincy. Another is to pay them a living wage.
Knowing Sidi Amjad, it’s not his studies in the chaplaincy program that made him a chaplain. Even when he was studying, even when he was in law school, he was a chaplain. He was providing that service to his peers. He was the person other students believed they could go and talk to about their problems.
We need to invest in a program like what Sidi Amjad is offering, and honestly it’s a shame that we’re still doing a fundraiser for this. The budget for Sidi Amjad should be secured without having to do this.

My brothers and sisters, we need to wake up to the reality of what is going on for our youth, and we need many like Sidi Amjad – males and females, chaplains in each and every university.

This was a transcript of a talk given by Shaykh Hamdi Benaissa at the annual fundraiser for the Muslim Chaplaincy of the University of Toronto on December 20th, 2015