By Shahina Siddiqui
From April 27 to 30, 2012, the Islamic Social Services Association – Canada ( ISSA) ran a training program in counseling Muslims for Imams, Muslim professionals, community workers and leaders who are helping Muslims with mental health , social, family and related issues.
The program was attended by 32 people from across Canada.
ISSA has been running these programs for over ten years and they are always very well attended and the reviews are excellent.
The objectives of these trainings are to educate, provide skills and improve understanding of social and family issues facing North American Muslims.
ISSA’s goal is to build capacity within Muslim communities and to provide Imams the opportunity to develop professionally in areas of counseling and conflict and crisis management.
These training programs also provide a venue for Imams, mental health professionals, social workers and service providers to connect with each other, share experiences, insights and latest research and to help each other better serve Muslims in difficult situations, through mutual learning and referrals.
Like any other profession, counseling and social work are disciplines that need training and education to be able to provide professional services.
Unfortunately, Muslim communities in North America have a crisis in terms of lack of counselors and social workers who have spiritual and cultural competency training when dealing with the diverse Muslim population.
There is denial within our communities that Muslims have the same family and social issues as any other community and this has become a barrier for people seeking help and, also, because of the prevailing myth that “Good Muslims don’t have such issues.” .
Unfortunately, this denial leads to dysfunctional coping mechanisms that are making these problems even worse and bringing untold misery to victims and their families.
Domestic abuse, sexual abuse and marital breakup are just few of the issues that we as a community are not willing to face or acknowledge.
The struggle youths are facing in reconciling their faith values with social values of their non-Muslim peers is putting an enormous amount of stress on their healthy social, psychological and intellectual development.
Gender roles are being challenged and there seems to be very little in terms of support and education to resolve and re-establish equilibrium of identities.
Islam is being demonized and this is having a traumatic impact on our youth and yet there are no opportunities for them to have critical conversations or to raise the hard questions and receive intellectually and spiritually relevant answers.
In order to help them to cope with this trauma and crisis of faith that many are experiencing we must put in place programs that will encourage our youth to seek answers from experts, both Muslim and non-Muslims.
Our youth are also facing attacks on their way of life from within the Muslim community- the self proclaimed reformers who are causing self-loathing as well from so-called religious programs that are attacking the West for all the ills facing Muslims and creating fear and isolationist mentality .
The mainstream Muslim community organizations however do not have consistent strategies in place to counter these extremes and offer functional options to youth to preserve and infuse their Muslim and Canadian identity.
We are letting our youth drown in confusion, poor self image and in the “us and them” quagmire.
To serve this need ISSA has established the Canadian Muslim Leadership Institute.
Unfortunately, we are unwilling to recognize that there are professions beyond that of an Imam that are better equipped to help with family and social issues.
The stigma of being labeled as having mental health issues deters Muslims from seeking help from professionals.
ISSA has therefore set in motion a strategy whereby we bring Imams and Muslim professionals together in a retreat-like setting with Muslim and non-Muslim professionals, researchers, academics and experienced community workers and spiritual counselors to learn from each other and inspire each other to do this job as collaborators and partners.
This has been a successful strategy.
Slowly, but surely, ISSA is building capacity and a network of Muslim providers and Imams across North America.
ISSA handbooks and brochures provide an invaluable resource for the participants and ISSA is now in the process of publishing its Hand book for Imams titled : ‘HANDBOOK FOR CANADIAN IMAMS : ETHICAL, LEGAL AND PROFESSIONAL GUIDELINES’.
We hear from many Imams who are interested in attending our workshops to increase their knowledge based on these issues since such topics were never part of their training as an imam, but they are unable to do so, due to financial constraints.
We encourage communities to look at the benefit of such training and make it part of their budget, the professional development training for their Imams and volunteers doing this kind of work.
These training programs also provide a very crucial service and that is the self-care of Muslim providers and Imams who are burning out doing this work without help, assistance and recognition and support of the larger community and the organizational leaderships.
By bringing in experts who have decades of experience working on these issues within the Muslim community from an Islamic perspective and the younger providers, ISSA is building bridges for transference of knowledge and insights and build partnerships of mutual respect and sharing.