This past October, a 2 year old was found wandered off into the night as his 4 year old sibling and parents slept in Love Park in Philadelphia. In a city full of abandoned homes and warehouses, homelessness should not be a problem. Yet, that night the family of four could not find a space at a shelter. Angelique Roland and Michael Jones became the new face of homelessness. Visibly African American American Muslims, their plight reflects the intersection of race, class, and faith. A Christian Ministry led the effort to raise $12,000 to house the family for a year and reunite the family with their children who were in foster care. Philadelphia Muslims also mobilized to raise funds and collect clothing. Across the country, vulnerable Muslims face homelessness. In Southern California Muslims are confronted with the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots–between the destitute and the uber rich. For decades many Muslim national advocacy groups have focused on issues that were seen as unique to the Muslim community, such as anti-Muslim legislation, religious profiling, and foreign policy. But there is a growing shift, as Muslim Americans take stronger stances towards social justice. Muslim led initiatives and service providers work to benefit people of all faiths. When we connect the dots to see how laws, policies, and discrimination contribute to social inequities, we can draw on our faith’s call for justice to address the root cause of issues like homelessness and hunger.
One of the areas that American Muslim communities have taken the lead on is feeding the homeless. This is largely because our fasting during Ramadan increases our awareness. Muslim led initiatives across the country deliver direct services feeding the homeless and providing food baskets for those who face food insecurity. To be even more effective in addressing the issue of hunger, our approach to hunger needs an adjustment. Social, political, and economic patterns contribute to inequities that cause hunger in this society.
For some farmers and gardeners, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods — where a bag of chips can be easier to come by than fresh vegetables, and diet-related illnesses are often rampant — urban agriculture is a means to a more ambitious end: an attack on racial, gender and class disparities and political disempowerment.
While it is good to alleviate the suffering, we as Muslims must begin to look at ending hunger. And we can only do this by addressing food systems, policies, and practices that cause individuals and families to go hungry. Because hunger is a social justice issue, our faith must call us to action to develop creative solutions that end disparities in nutrition and health.
Since I’ve moved to Southern California, I have seen Muslim individuals and institutions work to address social justice utilizing the community organizing model. With over 120 mosques and an estimated 500,000 Muslims, some innovative programs have developed in the area. They work to to build coalitions outside of the Muslim community and within. Umar Hakim, Executive Director of Intellect Love and Mercy Foundation (ILM) explains:
Los Angeles has a deep history in social justice mainly in the days of the Nation of Islam. You had a lot of the Nation of Islam brothers who paved the neighborhood and created an extraordinary economy. These brothers and sisters made the work their livelihood.
Imam Sadiq Saafir started Intellect Love and Mercy (ILM) in 1998 and it is one of the leading African American led Muslim organizations in California. Every last Sunday of the month, ILM provides fresh meals and hygiene kits to the homeless. ILM has impactful programs like Humanitarian Day and Go Beyond the GAME. The acronym GAME stands for Gratitude, Attitude, Mobilization and Education. The program teaches principles to Los Angeles Youth, African and Latino. Umar Hakim highlights that the program provides services to girls and boys with physical and mental workshops, SAT training, and parenting classes. The program is Muslim led, but it offers services to the entire the community, regardless of faith or ethnic background. Umar Hakim makes the connection, saying, “We fight Islamophobia, we show actions of our faith, rather than speeches.”
Other Muslim led programs that provide services to the broader community include the UMMA Clinic, providing healthcare to uninsured residents in South Los Angeles. The Masjid Bilal Learning Center, operated by the Masjid Bilal, the oldest Muslim community in Los Angeles, provides K-5 education. Imam Sadif Saafir’s son, Jihad Saafir, is a new generation of Muslim leaders in Southern California. His work focuses on reviving Islamic education through ISLAH LA, which provides quality STEM education for children and community social services. ISLAH LA recently launched a program called NEXT STEP Fellowship, which is a program designed to help those who were formerly incarcerated develop the next step in social life. The fellowship is a collaboration with Homeboy Industries, a predominately Latino Catholic organization.
Hakim points out that in a city with long standing Black and Latino tensions, the retreat created a bridge where participants continue to reach out to each other. The fellowship works to end recidivism by providing important life skills.
The MiNDS Network is a San Bernadino based network of physicians who are devoted to serving the uninsured and the underinsured in communities by providing free, immediate and comprehensive medical and healthcare services, a Family-Centered Development organization based in the Inland Empire and North Orange County, with a wide charitable network of specialty healthcare providers, community development and economic empowerment programs. They were the force behind the Muslims United for San Bernardino Families, which raised approximately $200,000.
Halal Project is another initiative that has teamed up with local food banks to serve the San Fernando Valley. For the past 3 years, they have implemented an initiative to aid Muslim families with financial hardship in buying groceries and/or paying for their utilities all while maintaining their confidentially.
Community organizing critical for social justice
Community organizing in Southern California demonstrates the strengths of direct services and political engagement. Sara Jawaid, a community organizer with LA Voice, states that within Southern California some of the key social justice issues that Muslims have been involved include: Prop 47, Ban the box, immigration reform, affordable housing and getting needs met like a traffic light for the Islah school in South LA.
Hakim explains ILM’s role in setting the trend towards community organizing. He explains, “When we partnered with LA Voice, part of our vision was to revive community organizing in the Los Angeles Muslim community.” CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Muslim GameChangers Network program, a social justice training program for high school students, is one of the most hopeful programs that I have seen to date. Many Muslim leaders in Southern California are beginning to approach social justice through a community organizing lens. Through Bayan Islamic Graduate school, sixty people took Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)’s community organizing seminar.
This is a critical time for Muslim communities to engage in social justice work. Our multi-ethnic faith community is experiencing the pressure of anti-Muslim bigotry, xenophobia, anti-black racism, and anti-Arab racism through reified by legislation, religious and racial profiling, bias in media. Yet, we are in a unique position to connect the dots and address the root cause of the oppression and marginalization that many groups face in this society, as well as abroad. Anti-Muslim bigotry, structural racism, and social inequality are related in powerful ways. Sara Jawaid explains:
We are often made to feel like these issues are separate, and that we need to stay separate to overcome our perception of individualized oppression. but the source is the same, it’s white supremacy. And we are more powerful together, but it requires a deep humility to hold your own struggle and hear/see the struggles of someone else as connected to your own while still being different.
CAIR-California really marks a shift from insular thinking to broader coalition building. Sahar Pirzada, Youth Development Manager at CAIR-LA, explains, “CAIR-California actively advocates for policies that seek to protect the most vulnerable.” CAIR has also built coalitions with immigrants’ rights groups to advocate against immigration policies that break up families.
According to Haroon Manjlai, CAIR-LA’s Public Affairs Coordinator:
Over the last three years, CAIR-CA has advocated for legislation that seeks to protect civil rights of domestic workers, provide health insurance coverage to all regardless of immigration status, freeze college tuition, enhance privacy protections, and increase accountability on law enforcement officers for racial profiling.Whether it be through our legal services, youth programming or media relations, the focus of our work has always been to stand up against oppression and call out forms of injustice.
When our community focuses solely on Anti-Muslim bigotry, we fail to see how White supremacy oppresses all, black, red, yellow, brown and even white. We don’t see how it pits the marginalized, the poor, the raced against each other. In this way, I see the leadership at CAIR-CA knowing the importance of American and Islamic relations as relating to and building with fellow Americans, and not just those in the position of power.
This new generation of leadership is focused on building power by addressing inequities and pushing for positive change.
Manjlai explains, “We must stand firmly against any incidents of bullying, and injustice in general, regardless of who the perpetrator or the victim is. This requires the community to actively stand in solidarity with other communities who are targeted by bullying and discrimination.” Pirzada adds, “There is power in numbers – if we stand with all those who are affected by the current climate of intolerance, we can transform the climate to one of solidarity and justice.”
Plug in Beyond Hashtags
There are so many ways for American Muslims to plug in beyond hashtag activism and liking tweets. Sara Jawaid explains that with People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) federations across the country, “you can get in touch with your local PICO affiliate and tell them you want to learn how to organize the mosques in your area.” Grassroots organizations are always looking for volunteers and supporters.
When I attended the IMAN community organizer training in October, one of the common themes was the pain participants experienced from racial bullying, anti-Muslim anti-Black, anti-Latino, and anti-Asian. Coming from all walks of life, we see ourselves as belonging to this society. Therefore, we are not bound by respectability politics, trying to prove ourselves as model minorities who won’t make waves. We see silence at injustice as a form of complicity and our struggle as part of the historical legacy of liberation movements.
Connecting the dots means looking at the system of White supremacy, the social, economic, and political forces that led to colonization of Muslim majority lands, the theft of Native American land, and the enslavement and marginalization of African Americans. Loving our society means that we want to alleviate people’s suffering and address the injustices that we see right here on our doorstep.
Connecting our struggles, connecting the dots, is essential for us to thrive in the generations to come.