“Why I am Taking my Mosque to Court” - an Imam Speaks Out

In April 2017, the Imam Yahya Barry reported Edinburgh Central Mosque to the Scottish Charity Regulator when his concerns regarding corrupt practices harming the community went ignored by the mosque's administration and board of trustee members. In September 2017, the Mosque fired him. The Employment Tribunal will rule on whether his dismissal was unfair in a hearing at the end of this month (July 2018). This blog post shares Yahya’s thoughts on why and how he has taken these decisions.

Never had I ever imagined a day would come that I, as an Imam would summon the mosque I once served to court. But such is life. I have contemplated long and hard over whether to open up. One reason driving me to do so is the sad reality of our Muslim world which - to a certain extent - is the net result of a culture of doing nothing about and remaining silent on wrongdoing, oppression and even abuse. I served Edinburgh Central Mosque for a year and nine months, and during that time, I have come to see how a mosque is a microcosm of the Muslim world.

The problems and issues I encountered in the day-to-day round of life in the mosque were actual lived realities across the Muslim world. Our mosques should be sanctuaries of faith, places of hope where love is created and spread through knowledge, culture and service to community. However, to my dismay and hurt, I witnessed with my very own eyes how houses of Allah can be turned into places where power games, corruption and intrigue create a toxic faith system which harms, divides and breeds hatred. But you will still find yourself ask: why and how can taking a mosque to court help solve any of this?

Everything is not fine - we have a problem

The first thing to highlight is: I am taking the administration - not the mosque - to court. The mosque remains the brick and mortar whose structure is brought to life by the people who are supposed to maintain and serve it. Within our Muslim community, we have a culture of sweeping things under the carpet to save face and uphold an image. In some cases, tact, diplomacy and mislabeled ‘wisdom’ serve to only entrench and empower this culture. This is harmful because little gets solved yet we play the “no problem here” game.

I have seen the destructive effect of this on families and individuals one generation after the next. Islam teaches us to repel harm in the best way possible. Islam is a religion of ‘being realistic’ and taking the practical, effective, and legislative means to bring about positive and healthy change. This begins with advice and counsel. I saw in the Edinburgh central mosque administration, a deliberate rejection of this. A system was firmly in place.

When Religion turns into a toxic system

To begin with, structures were put in place to filter advice and early intervention. As long as you weren’t within a certain circle, spoke with the voice of this circle and served its agenda, your advice risked being seen as a threat to the system. Islam came to free humanity from the bonds of enslavement to the creation. It taught Muslims that nothing should come in between them and their Creator. However, as has occurred in other faiths, religion can turn into a ‘toxic faith system’ when dysfunctional organisations replace God and faith with ‘rules and dictates’ which serve to give power and material.

The ‘glue’ which holds such systems or institutions together is the role playing that takes place. Roles are created and evolve to support the system at all costs. This is where religion turns into a toxic faith because the welfare of individuals, families, community and relationships are all put on line for the sake of keeping the system going even when it becomes clear that harm is occurring. Going back to the case of Edinburgh Central Mosque, how is this the case?

A toxic culture within Edinburgh Central Mosque

In December 2015 , I was employed alongside an incoming director and facilities manager to bring in a new team responsible for the mosque. “We were faced with the challenge of picking up from where a previous 12-year administration had left. We acknowledge the good work done by the previous administration. Our focus was on continuing the good as best as we could and minimising turbulence to bring about positive change.” These were my words in the mosque’s first ever annual review in December 2016. I became increasingly aware that a narrow circle of influence had been running the mosque.

When a clique runs an organisation, elitism and nepotism creates a system of ‘trusted’ people, ‘favourites’ and ‘yes-men and women’ who run the institution according to their interests. This excludes the wider community, creates division and breeds conflict. As a team, we were interested in building community. Our approach remained being inclusive, transparent and creating opportunities for involvement. Things started to rapidly change following the dismissal of the director.

A new director arrives

The mosque's board of trustees appointed a new director in January 2017. My regard for the best interests of the community remained as I fully cooperated with him. From my own initiative, I reached out to his management team during their analysis period giving suggestions of ways to continue the community building work. Within his first three months, we lost the head of school, accountant and facilities manager through resignations and departure. Support for youth and our mental health project was abruptly cut and the vision of being a mosque of sanctuary started to fade away. I have ensured that I work with the best intention I could muster, treating people with fairness and equality.

I have however not been afraid to speak the truth in representing my faith, belief and principles which guided my work in upholding the community’s and institution’s best interests - not the interests and agenda of a narrow circle of power and influence. This became the point of conflict between myself and the current administration. When I saw an abuse of power coupled with financial and administrative malpractice, I sought to address it. When my concerns fell on deaf ears and I saw a nonchalant attitude towards the harming of the community, I stood up and blew the whistle. I was consequently marginalised, discriminated against and treated like an outcast. My firm belief in and hope for justice remains.

I believe in justice - Islam taught me so

I will forever hold onto the words: “Allah sent us to free you from being enslaved to the creation ... and to deliver you from being confined in this earth to the vastness of this world and from the oppression of the religions to the justice of Islam.” These words of Rabi’ ibn ‘Amir to Rustam the Persian general were among the first things I learnt about our history as I received my training at the Islamic University of Madinah. How could I therefore graduate and turn my back on these teachings especially having taken the role of Imam? Growing up having to accept that the world was just the way it was for a young black African man, Islam empowered me by telling me that Allah established the earth upon justice and that He would always be on the side of the just - even if they weren’t Muslim. I believed this, and I continue to hold onto it.

If Allah doesn’t change the condition of a people until they change what is within them, I believe that as a Muslim nation we need to start asking serious questions about where we stand on justice. And this questioning should not necessarily start at the governmental and political level as it so often does. It needs to start within our individual selves, in our families, our institutions and communities. Me taking Edinburgh Central Mosque to the Tribunal is to make a stand that injustice, oppression, abuse and corruption is unacceptable no matter what the circumstances are. What is at stake is far more than one Imam against a mosque administration. Rather, the welfare of an entire community, the future of an upcoming generation and relations between a minority Muslim community with their fellow non-Muslim citizens has to be accounted for when an institution exercises the power to act with impunity in ways which causes deliberate harm.