Monday, 30 November 2009
The Decline of the Befrienders Scheme
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
Analysis of the Programme
The Befrienders Scheme was once one of the most phenomenally successful programmes at Darul Arqam Singapore. At one time, it was the only consistently active volunteer programme running. The legacy of the programme can be attested in the fact that a significant number of currently active volunteers, teachers, Council members and Executive Committee members are from this programme or were in some way involved in it.
The programme is actually a modified version of similar programmes found in churches and other volunteer organizations. It was originally envisioned as part of a wider convert’s follow-up programme by Sheik Mustafa in that particular incarnation. The pilot batch was a resounding success. And the first few batches of volunteers were of good quality.
The current Befrienders’ Scheme is actually the 3rd incarnation of the programme by that name. It has existed in some form or other in Darul Arqam Singapore for many, many years. It was Sheik Mustafa and the resident social worker, Siti Maryam, who decided to tag it to the latent Beginner’s Course in Islam and that, is where the programme found its niche.
The initial recruitment had the most stringent standards and conditions. One of the core principals was dedication. This pilot programme was supposed to be the first phase of a converts’ follow-up programme. It was recognised that almost all the major challenges of faith occur after conversion.
An analysis of past cases of apostasy and the patterns of the counseling cases indicated that in many cases, conversion actually damaged the support network of the converts. The idea was to ‘be their friend’ and to recreate a support network whilst at the same time putting a framework for identifying potential cases that might require counseling early. We are not replacing the support network. We are supplementing it and trying to repair it. You cannot, for example, replace the relationship with the parents.
That in itself was the reason the programme was initially managed with the support of the social worker / counselor. The Befrienders were supposed to be the first line of contact. The original plan was to carry it further by developing the post-Befriending period of the programme as part of the overall follow-up.
Conversion is a sensitive and very personal decision. It is imperative for people to understand that a significant minority of these people who convert do not feel the need to highlight their conversion. Many times, their parents, their colleagues or even their employers do not know.
Despite the official party line, the fact remains that in many parts of the government service, there are still no Muslims or they have a token, marginal presence. Due to historical reasons and the realities of the current political climate, Muslims are still for the most part, distrusted.
The Selection of Volunteers
The volunteers were selected on a very stringent criterion to match the demographic of the attendees of the Beginner’s Class. But, in the main, they had to be dedicated and they had to be flexible. We wanted friends, not preachers.
Also, it was recognised that it is easier to lower standards but extremely difficult to raise them once they were slackened. For this reason, the drop-out rate was high and the culling of unsuitable candidates was brutal for the pilot batch.
What is not generally known is that some of the initial batch of Befrienders was not even Muslims, although they eventually converted. But there was a conscious effort to recruit between the mid-twenties to the late thirties to better match the age group of the students. Also, we wanted people with working experience and who had been married. Converts were preferred over born-Muslims to better establish the credibility of the Befrienders.
The Mechanics of the Programme
The Beginners’ Course in Islam is the primary programme for those who want to convert to Islam. At that time, it was once a week for 15 weeks. This included one mosque visit and a practical swalah and wudhu demonstration.
The class begins at 2000h on weekdays for an hour and a half. At 2130h, the students were released and highly encouraged to join the Befriending circles. They would be introduced to the Befrienders for the first week and there would be a structured discussion based on a pre-set series of topics.
Every 7th and 15th week, there would be session with catered food to better facilitate interaction. The session would be held from after maghrib before the class began. If there was a mosque visit, it took up almost all of the class. Same with the swalah and wudhu demonstration.
The BCI course has since been amended to 10 weeks. The swalah and wudhu demonstration has been removed since a swalah tutorial covering both has been appended to the course. The mosque visit is no longer integral.
There was a briefing before the start of the class (after maghrib) and another one after the Befriending session ended. There used to be a separate day for discussion of the topics. The purpose of the briefing was to compare notes on the Befriendees, how to deal with the topics and any other issues that may arise.
The most important aspect of the Befrienders Scheme was supposed to be the post-Befriending period. And that is why initially, Befrienders were banned from doing a cycle immediately after the end of the current one to focus on the Befriendees. They had to plan at least two social events within a 2 month period. Depending n their rapport with the Befriendees and the skill in which they planned the programme, the attendance varied.
What went Wrong?
How do you measure the success of the programme? By the following criteria: -
Attendance of the volunteers: There is a dearth of volunteers for the programme. It is so dire that for the second half of 2009, there has been no Befriending whatsoever. The recruitment was a failure and the retention of previous volunteers is abject.
Attendance of the Befriendees: The key indicator of how good your Befrienders are is the retention rate of the Befriendees. You cannot say the programme is working if at the end of the cycle, no relationship has developed. If by the middle of a cycle, the attendance to the break-out session declines precipitously, there is something wrong. It impacts on the morale of the Befriender and the failure becomes cyclical. At the end, the volunteer does not come back. If they are new, they might even leave halfway.
The converts’ follow-up rate: By these criteria, the Befrienders’ Scheme has been a failure for a long time already. It has simply become a programme that has been run for the sake of being something on the budget and the AOP. How many of these converts have come back t Darul Arqam Singapore in any sort of capacity? Most of the time, we never see them again. Or worse, when they end up in Shari’ah Court because of divorce or as another statistic - an apostasy case.
The 2 Main Reasons: Lack of Understanding of the Programme’s Position and Lack of Focus
The decline and ultimate failure of the Befrienders’ Scheme can be attributed to two main areas. One of them is the lack of understanding of the programme’s position in the entire context of conversion and converts’ development. The programme out of necessity remained autonomous since the volunteers needed to think outside of the box when dealing with a fluid series of event involving people’s lives. But it was never meant to stand alone. It was mean to complement an entire converts’ follow-up programme and the counseling unit.
The other primary reason for the failure of the programme is the loss of focus. Convert’s Development Division itself does not do any convert development. The entire Annual Operating Plan of CDD does not have a primary programme dealing with converts’ development. CDD should rightly be renamed ‘Welfare Division’. When the entire division has lost focus of its primary function, it is almost impossible for the programmes to be on track.
Over the course of several years and many cycles, the focus of the Befrienders’ Scheme had moved from the post-Befriending and converts’ follow-up to the presentation of the weekly topics. The ceased to become the friends and started to become the preachers.
The Discussion Topics are Irrelevant
The topics of the Befriending sessions are outdated and a distraction of the primary purpose of the session. Some of the topics are presumptuous. For example: Would you leave Islam after conversion if your boyfriend or girlfriend left you? This is insulting since it assumes that everybody converts because of relationships. It shows the failure to understand that whilst relationships may be the catalyst, it is overall simplistic to assume that people convert because of that.
Furthermore, whilst the world had changed, the topics became concretized. In the aftermath of September 11th, there was a wonderful opportunity to address the issue of terrorism since people were converting to a ‘terrorist’ religion. Unfortunately, it was decided that it be best to avoid it altogether for fear of controversy. In terms of public relations, it was a disaster. It implied that Islam had something to hide.
The Quality of Volunteer Recruitment has Declined
It is always easier to lower the bar rather than raise it. With the loss of focus, it was inevitable that the volunteer retention and recruitment would ultimately fail. Since they have no idea the raison d'être for the programme, the demographic matching became irrelevant and was eventually discarded.
This presented a problem on several fronts. The commitment of the volunteers declined. Morale became a problem since they were unable to identify why Befriendees started skipping or simply refused to come for the sessions. Their commitment waned. There have been several times when they have trained an entire cohort but due to mismanagement of the schedule, the volunteers have not turned up for the actual Befriending.
The Befrienders have focused too much on the topics without understanding the psychology of the people considering converting to Islam. Furthermore, the demographic of the Befriender was not compatible with the demographics of the Befriendees. Far too many were too young with little understanding of the challenges of conversion.
Volunteer Development is Curtailed
Darul Arqam Singapore’s strength during its development has always been the volunteer spirit. The constant flow of volunteers engendered a family atmosphere within the organization. People who volunteer must be part of the dynamic process of organizational development. Make them feel like genuine stakeholders in the process and not only will they come, they will stay.
The added responsibility of developing, running and managing programmes help them to develop skills and add to a shared organizational memory - the proverbial Learning Organization that our Civil Service is always talking about in the 1990s and early part of this decade. In return, as they develop, it is hoped that some of them can contribute by sitting on the policy-making body of the organization - the Council itself.
One of the mistakes that Ridzuan Wu’s old Executive Committee made was in deciding to have more staff and giving them executive control over the programmes. The net result is that the volunteers (including the Council and Executive Committee have become complacent) and the programmes have stagnated. To the staff, this is just a job, not a calling. It is not in their interest to make things difficult by tweaking what already ‘works’.
With the influx of volunteers stilled, Darul Arqam Singapore has become less dynamic and the flow of ideas has stagnated. The people who work there or are part of the establishment (such as many on the Council) are simply unable to think outside of the box, enact a paradigm shift and identify the problems, let alone solve them. There is not a single volunteer programme developed by the staff that is an unqualified success.
With the staff in charge, there is an autocratic set-up of the system. As people are wont to do, they only work with people they are comfortable with. As a result, it can be argued there is an inherent prejudice within the system. Consequently, new ideas have become an anathema. This has contributed to cyclical decline.
Recommendation? Or Inevitable Outcome
It is quite obvious that the programme has become a waste of funds. It has had a glorious run bit it has since become irrelevant. Just like the previous incarnations of the programme over the last two decade, there is a need to relook the system. Of course, the most likely outcome is that the programme will die a natural death. There will be a cut back of the Befriending sessions corresponding with a cut in budget. And then, one day, it disappears from the budget.
Darul Arqam’s Befrienders Video