Picture this: 25 years from now, each regional American Muslim community has become a giant economic powerhouse financing an ABC, CBS or CNN, and small groups of Muslims within each community run specific institutions like the Museum of Tolerance providing universal service to the American people. It's not a dream but a vision that can be achieved by rejuvenating a cooperative movement in the community.
Organizing cooperative enterprises is a field-tested approach to socioeconomic and political empowerment of community. Muslims have advanced the modern theory and practice of cooperative enterprises but unfortunately aren't really taking enough advantage of its tremendous potential.
Of course community empowerment does not mean economic empowerment only. It means a holistic development that gives us command of choices over things that matter. Ideally, this entails a right mix of spirit (beliefs and values), organizing, practices/culture, finances, and so forth, which are systemically interrelated as are the spirit and body components living organisms. Even economic empowerment cannot be really achieved in isolation from spiritual aspects.
Yet building the economy of the community is a worthy pursuit. As Dr. Muzammil Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), noted in a recent Khutbah (sermon) at a Los Angeles area mosque, we have some rich individual Muslims, but as a community were not rich.
Cooperatives represent one viable, pragmatic approach to restoring and enhancing the economic and political clout of the community. A cooperative is a project or organization owned by the community and operated for the benefit of those using its services.
Historically, cooperatives have helped the development of communities in various fields including agriculture, education, social work, industry, banking, and trade. The idea of the modern cooperative evolved as a byproduct of Industrial Revolution and spread quickly in the 19th century Europe.
Over the past half a century, cooperatives emerged as a movement in the field of socioeconomic development. In the 1960s, for example, the eminent scholar-administrator of Pakistan, Akhtar Hamid Khan took an innovative approach to organizing a most poor community in the district of Comilla in what is now Bangladesh. He persuaded the rickshaw-pullers and villagers to pool their money (as little as one cent a day in wages) on a sustained basis for an integrated irrigation and community development project. In less than a decade, that project became instrumental in eliminating the poverty in that region of Comilla and became renowned as classic model for community development.
Currently, cooperatives remain a popular model for business, even in the individualistic society of the U.S. According the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), more than 100 million people are members of 47,000 U.S. cooperatives, which include varieties of producer-owned cooperatives, consumer-owned cooperatives, and worker-owned cooperatives. Supporting these cooperatives through academic analyses and how-to-do technical assistance are many institutions including the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives.
In a sense, cooperatives are ubiquitous now, formed and sustained not only by individuals but also by companies and nation estates. The mergers of companies and regional economic and defense blocks by nation-states are breeds of cooperative enterprises.
The potential of cooperatives is ineffable. Put simply, cooperatives operationalize the strength of unity, providing economy of scale, minimizing cost and maximizing output. Above all, cooperatives help the members unleash their imagination and creativity in the search for solutions to problems.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, innovation is hardly a product of individual thinking. Creativity is better sparked when people stimulate each other in associations. Peter Drucker, professor of social sciences and the author of many books on management, elaborates this notion in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Principles and Practices (1986). According to Drucker, as people work hard in pursuit of private interests, innovation results from a systematic search for opportunities in the form of gaps between what they actually do and what they could profitably do.
This does not mean that cooperatives do not have pitfalls. Most cooperatives like most businesses perhaps have a life span of a couple of decades, while only four percent of the businesses that were active in the beginning of the 20th century operate now. But the conflicts that imperil cooperatives are endemic and inherent in any joint human endeavor. The key to solving those problems is also inherent in the consultative environment that cooperatives provide.
Muslims have an added advantage in the matter of cooperatives. Their religious traditions emphasize cooperative work and the daily religious and social practices essentially train them to develop espirit de corps. Their main problem is that sometimes they act too cohesively to avoid turning the team spirit into a syndrome that organizational theorist Irving Janis called "groupthink."
Despite human shortcomings, and despite the endemic nature of conflict in social interactions, cooperative enterprises hold tremendous promise, especially for American Muslims. It is essential then to build networks, form cooperative groups and study circles, brainstorm projects, set specific goals and sustain efforts for achieving those goals.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com