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Are You Accidentally Supporting Corrupt Nonprofit Organizations and Charities?

Muslim Nonprofit fiefdoms
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Former Pennsylvania State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell has a compelling story.  Even the State Attorney General, who recently charged her with several crimes, alluded to the pain she experienced in her life.  It was a remarkable story of perseverance after being affected by gun violence, triumph and helping others. Yet, there she is, facing time in prison for using a charity called “MECA” for assorted alleged acts of theft, fraud, and other crimes of dishonesty.

According to the Attorney General, Johnson-Harrell has accepted responsibility for her crimes and is pleading guilty.  She has also resigned from her public office.  Johnson-Harrell has stated she may dispute some charges. She like any other defendant is innocent until the state proves her guilty.

What is also undeniable is that many of the kinds of things the Attorney General accused Johnson-Harrell of are common with nonprofits, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  Indeed, the President of the United States has also done egregious things with his “charity” in New York, undetected by law enforcement despite his public profile, until news media started asking questions. The President faces no criminal charges. 

My purpose here goes beyond Johnson-Harrell’s legal troubles. Instead, it is to help nonprofits and their leaders stay out of trouble and to give donors an essential tool in being a thoughtful donor. We often donate because of “social proof.” Someone invites you to donate online; a friend invites us to a fundraiser, we hear a good speech or testimonial, and we give.

 We often don’t particularly care about accountability. We should. Let’s dig deeper to understand how charities work so that we can be better donors with the limited funds we have to give with excellence. 

The Role of Government Oversight in Charities 

What state a nonprofit is in makes a difference.  The state attorney general typically has regulatory authority over the nonprofit sector.  Charities have tax benefits because of the social good they theoretically provide. But what happens if the charity is not keeping faith with its beneficial role?  If a CEO of an environmental charity pilfers funds for personal use, you cannot reasonably expect a family of ducks to sue. The Attorney General is there for the ducks, the trees, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the beaches, the works of art, the future poor patients who are not yet poor or sick, and everything else charity should benefit.  At least that’s the idea 

Abuse by nonprofits is a violation of the public trust.  It is public corruption against society and not merely cheating a donor. 

Because of this role, from time to time, you see lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions by state attorneys general for corruption by nonprofit leaders. A high-profile state representative like Johnson-Harrell is an obvious target since prosecuting her lets the rest of us citizens know law enforcement is paying attention. But these lawsuits and occasional criminal prosecutions are rare compared to how rampant nonprofit corruption is. Attorneys General typically don’t put adequate resources into regulating the more than trillion-dollar nonprofit sector. 

Religious Charities Can Usually Get Away With More

In some states, for example, California, religious corporations are exempt by statute from oversight for things like breaches of fiduciary duty. The lack of accountability is remarkable since religious charities can be extremely corrupt, something known to Americans for much of its history.  Exposing religious charity corruption has long been fodder for documentaries and movies. Certain Christian preachers on TV are known to abuse nonprofit status to flaunt extreme wealth with no negative consequences.

People who run religious nonprofits, including Executive Directors and board members, can still be criminally prosecuted, but you usually would not expect it. Various taxing authorities also have authority over charities. The IRS is the primary regulator for charities nationally. For the most part, though, the IRS has been leaving nonprofits, even obviously bad ones, alone. Religious nonprofits, like those classified as “churches,” don’t need to file Form 990s, annual disclosures required for other nonprofits. Therefore much of what these groups activities are opaque to both the government and the public. 

With some notable exceptions, governments and law enforcement at all levels mostly ignore nonprofit corruption. The times they do is typically the exception that proves the rule. 

For the most part, then, sorting out the good nonprofits from the bad ones is left to donors. We all contend with hard-sell data-driven marketing tactics from social psychology.  We don’t usually don’t know how to distinguish between good organizations and bad. 

Look Beyond The Pitch

Stories of nonprofits and their leaders can be compelling. But narratives can also be used to manipulate, distract, and hide. The raw charisma of a speaker quoting Quran and Hadith can be waived up to donors to make them think they are doing good work in the path of Allah when they may sometimes be enabling criminality. Charisma and the power of stories can get us to contribute to causes better than just about anything. 

There are various red flags to look out for, but I will focus on perhaps the most obvious one, an executive of a charity acting as a member of the board. 

No Real Board Accountability

Johnson-Harrell was on her own nonprofit board while also serving as an executive.  This practice was also present at scandal-plagued Ta’leef Collective. State law does not typically forbid a CEO or other employee (like an imam) from being a board member, despite it being a glaring conflict of interest. It has never been nonprofit best practices to have employees oversee themselves since it is a horrible idea on its face.  The only possible real justification for this is when a nonprofit is new, small, all volunteer-run, and there are not enough volunteers or funds available to make accountability a priority.  While there is potential for abuse here, we tend to ignore it out of practicality. 

Now larger nonprofits can have employees, as well as others, with personal, family or business interests with the charity (like a vendor) on the board might point to a “conflict of interest policy.”  Of course every nonprofit should have one in case unexpected conflicts come up.  They are not, however, solutions to self-created problems the organization never needed to have.

Accountability is Hard 

It still begs the question:  Why engage in the reckless practice of having an executive overseeing himself or herself?  Are there no sufficiently qualified people in the Muslim community capable of helping with the board of an organization?  Unlikely. 

What we do know is the main reason Muslim leaders (non-Muslims as well) chose to police themselves is that real accountability is hard, maybe even a little messy. 

You may have heard this story before: An Imam and a Masjid Board have a conflict, resulting in the Imam leaving.  The Imam does not go quietly, though, since he is angry with the board. He tells his supporters (of which he has many in the local community) that boards are incompetent, imbecilic, don’t understand the “youth” or whatnot.  The best way to run a Masjid, you see, is for the Imam to call all the shots. He will usually adorably say all this with the earnestness of someone who feels he is the first person who ever had this insight. Plenty of Muslims believe him and are hurt by whatever petty drama took place at the Masjid last week. They will join his new storefront Masjid, sometimes across the street from the Imam’s former Masjid. 

These are often pop-up institutions born out of vainglorious temper tantrums, built on the foundation of one man and some upset donors who soon move on to chase the next shiny thing, or simply rejoin their old Masjid. Such places typically do not last over the long haul. If you have been around a Muslim community for a few decades, you have seen several come and go.

Badly Governed Respected Institutions 

More of a long-term threat for the Muslim community is when real institutions with staying power with endowments, employees, and buildings go the route of slipshod accountability-free governance where an executive gets to oversee himself.  Eventually, when you set up institutions with plain-as-day opportunities for corruption and abuse, everything can collapse. It happened in a spectacular style for Christian institutions with no real accountability for the people running it (many are still like that).  Many Muslim institutions we all respect that do good work have nonprofit governance so poor they almost seem custom-built for corruption. 

The beautiful Crystal Cathedral outside Los Angeles once boasted a massive endowment, a global TV viewership for its “hour of power” and donor memorials that would last forever.   It fell into bankruptcy because of the same kind of nonprofit governance increasingly common in the Muslim community. Inadequate or non-existent board oversight is a form of structural corruption, even if no abusive practices are currently taking place.  It should be enough of a red flag that someone can abuse authority with no real accountability. Unless we start demanding accountability from Muslim leaders, those we trust our donations to, we should reasonably expect more criminal charges as we saw with MECA, scandals like Ta’leef, and spectacular failures like the Crystal Cathedral. 

Other Board Members May Not Be Much Help

One response by self-interested board members may be to point to the existence of “independent” board members to keep insiders (like the CEO or equivalent) in check.  You should never assume this creates accountability. We cannot stereotype nonprofit boards, of course, and many operate in different ways. I have seen Muslim institutions were board members: 

  •  Have no visibility into the organization’s operations, budget, or much of anything else important. Though they do have meetings and manage to argue about things. 
  •  Never attended board meetings despite being members for many years and did not know if the charity has been having meetings all these years.
  •  Were never informed they were members of the board, despite their names being on public information filings with the state.
  • Helped start the organization as Ph.D. students and got a lifetime membership on the board, but that was decades ago when they lived in the United States.

Those who dislike accountability prefer “straw” board members who are either not present or can be “handled” by management.   A well-known example of this is Theranos, a Silicon Valley “unicorn” startup with a fake blood-testing product. Many supposedly sophisticated investors were reassured when the company stacked its board with famous octogenarians and nonagenarians. None of them knew and did not bother to ask if the entire operation they were overseeing was a fraud

These kinds of board shenanigans generally take place where there is a CEO who is also a board member and would prefer to run things without dealing with pesky difficult questions.  Board members are there for the appearance of accountability but are often little more than seat-warmers. 

It’s Not About a Leader’s “Integrity”

Some Muslim leaders will take a call for accountability as a personal insult to their integrity.  This sentiment is misguided. Instead, it is about building systems that make our institutions sustainable. I don’t know Johnson-Harrell.  However, no Muslim can honestly claim to be better than her, either in intent or commitment to the community.  Yet, without a system of accountability, the fallibility of decent men and women magnifies.

 You need to have a Shura (mutual consultation) in leadership, that is how the Quran advises us to handle our affairs.  A nonexistent or fundamentally insincere “Shura” designed to not hold anyone accountable is asking for trouble.

Muslim nonprofit leaders can find their freedom to spend charitable dollars without meaningful accountability intoxicating. Leaders who you would never think can make severe errors in judgment start to make them.  It only gets worse from there. 

Work in an Islamic charitable institution is bigger than one man or woman.  If you create a charity with no meaningful checks and balances, your work won’t be sustainable. 

Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), the first Khalifah, could not determine his salary as the leader of Muslims.  He was always accountable, and as I pointed out in a previous article, he preferred it that way. Muslim leaders should welcome accountability and not think of it as a personal slight when asked about the issue from within the community.

What Board Members Should Do 

If someone entrusted you with oversight of a charity, there are helpful educational resources that can help you be excellent. Use them.  Remove board members with conflicts of interest, especially employees and vendors. 

You need to prepare for and be present at meetings.  Hold the organization and each other as board members accountable.  Don’t be on the board to win anyone’s favor, least of all the CEO or Imam. You have an Amanah (a trust), to make sure the charity is operating with excellence in everything it is doing.   Ask difficult questions that donors will rarely know to ask. Read all financial statements and reports, that is where the mischief happens.  Make sure no executive can “handle” you into submission.  If you cannot do these things, don’t be on the board. 

The common denominator in virtually all nonprofit corruption cases is executive domination. Don’t be used.

What Donors Should Do

Encourage charities you like that have weak governance to change their practices. Uncritical support can enable structural problems, which can be destructive to the organization over the long term. Sometimes, the best contribution you can make to an organization is to encourage them to reform their governance. You can do this as a small donor. Don’t expect major donors to request such changes. 

You may not know much about the organization’s finances or how good or bad the organization’s operations are. However, you do know an employee or vendor is on the board of a charity is a signal the organization is uninterested in holding its leaders accountable. There are plenty of good charities worth supporting. If the charity remains stubborn about not allowing accountability, move on to the next one. 

 

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Ahmed Shaikh is a Southern California Attorney. He writes about inheritance, nonprofits and other legal issues affecting Muslims in the United States. He is the co-author of "Estate Planning for the Muslim Client," published by the American Bar Association. His Islamic Inheritance website is www.islamicinheritance.com

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The Islamic Perspectives And Rulings on Rape and Sexual Assault

Code of Conduct for Islamic Leadership, Institutions
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Black Youth Matter: Stopping the Cycle of Racial Inequality in Our Ranks

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

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As we joined the rest of America in celebrating Black History Month and commemorating the legacy of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., with tweets, infographics, and sharing famous quotes, racism and colorism continue to plague the Muslim community. 

When we hear of a weekend course about the illustrious muadhin of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Bilal Ibn Raba’ah, may Allah be pleased with him, or a whitewashed cartoon movie based loosely on his life, we flock to the location. When the imam retells his story during a Friday sermon, we listen intently and feel inspired, we smile in awe upon hearing about his fortitude in the face of incessant torture. We cry while reliving the part where he enters the city of Makkah alongside the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) victorious, and calls the adhan atop the Ka’aba. 

Then, we leave. 

We return to our homes and all but forget about it until the next time he is brought up— unless we are Black Muslims. Like King, his impact comes in waves, maybe once a year like MLK Day or like Black History Month, for many of us. Yet, there were more Black companions and renowned Black Muslims in our history, just as there were countless civil rights leaders who fought for racial equality in America. For many of us who are not American of African descent, we live our lives unperturbed by the implications of ignoring the racial disparities that exist within our own places of worship.

However, it is our youth that bear the brunt of this injustice. 

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an incident that made me reflect deeply on the effects of racism and fear on our youth and the Muslim community. After picking up my son from middle school in Baltimore County, I drove to a nearby 7-Eleven for some snacks. While I was standing in line to pay for my groceries, I noticed that the man behind the counter was Muslim. From his outward appearance, accent, and name tag, I guessed he was South Asian. We greeted each other with salaam, a smile, and a head nod of camaraderie.

As he was ringing up my items, a group of chattery students still in school uniforms, approached the entrance of the convenience store. The cashier looked up horrified, and in mid transaction swung his arm back and forth as if swatting a fly. I turned to look at who he was gesturing to and saw the children were swinging the door open to enter. They were about 6 African American children from the same public middle school as my son. In his school, each grade level wears a different color polo with khaki pants as part of their uniform, so I could tell that most of them were in his same grade level.

“No! No! No!” the cashier cried harshly, “Out!”

I turned to him grimacing in disbelief, surprised at his reaction to the kids and then I noticed his expression. He had a look on his face of fear coupled with disgust.

One child cheerfully told him, “I got money, man!” My head turned back and forth from the students to the cashier. He reluctantly said, “Fine,” but as more students followed, he added sternly, “Three at a time!” I wondered if this was a rule when one of the girls in the group said, “Yeah, three at a time y’all,” and the majority stayed back, as if they were familiar with the routine. Some of them rolled their eyes, others laughed, but they remained outside the door. The cashier followed the ones who entered with his eyes intently as he finished bagging my items. He looked genuinely concerned. I tried to make light of the situation and get his attention away from the children, asking, “The kids give you a hard time, huh?” He smiled and nodded nervously, but I was not satisfied with his answer. 

As I swiped my debit card to pay, I felt troubled. My maternal instincts were telling me that I should defend these children. I felt anger and helplessness at the same time. These kids were tweens or barely 13 years old, yet they were being judged because of the color of their skin. There was no other logical explanation. They were not rowdy or reckless, not any more than any other child their age. They did not look menacing; in fact, they were all smiling and joking with one another.

Yet, this cashier, my Muslim brother, was looking at them as if they were a threat. The same way some white American may look at a Muslim sporting a beard and thobe boarding a plane.  

I tried to find excuses for his behavior. Perhaps he had a bad experience, or he was having a bad day. Could some of the kids from the middle school have stolen something before and this prompted his apprehension? There is some crime in this neighborhood located in the southwestern part of Baltimore County, on the outskirts of the City. Could he have suffered from some type of trauma that led to his anxiety? Maybe there was a fight in his store one day? Yet, even if any of these assumptions were true, I still felt like he was overreacting.

After all, these were just kids.

In Dr. Joy Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, she mentions that policing continues to represent one of the most pervasive and obvious examples of racial inequality; one that even the youth are unable to avoid. She cites an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlighting a study by UCLA, the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Boston, Massachusetts, Penn State, and University of Pennsylvania that investigated how black boys were perceived as it related to childhood innocence. They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. 

They found, “converging evidence that black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their white same-age peers.” Consequently, African American youth are often unfairly singled out as troublemakers. Click To Tweet

On November 22, 2014, a 12-year-old African American child, like my son and his middle school peers, was fatally shot by police while he played with a toy gun in a playground. The child, Tamir Rice, was just a young boy playing cheerfully outdoors, but police officers regarded him a threat, demonstrating the ghastly reality of the above-mentioned study. After hearing about this atrocity, I remember telling my own children that they can never play outside with nerf guns or water pistols, out of fear of this happening to them. This is the type of world our children are living in. As Muslims, why do we choose to be part of the problem and not its solution?

Black youth

Junior football team huddling together

As I walked through the door and past the group in front of the 7-Eleven, all I could think about is that the kids were no different than my son who was sitting in the car, hungry, waiting for me to bring him some food. The only difference was that I was there to defend him, if need be. The children did not have an adult to stand up for them against the discrimination to which they were being subjected. I felt guilty for not saying more. I also remembered an incident where a group of African American youth were turned away from the tarawih prayers at a local mosque, not too far from the 7-Eleven, during the month of Ramadan, because they were perceived to be “too rowdy.” This prompted me to write about this incident; to speak up for them now, and to remind myself and other Muslims that the Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us compassion. 

He said, “Whoever does not show mercy to our young ones, or acknowledge the rights of our elders, is not one of us.” (Musnad Ahmad)

Even when a bedouin came into the masjid, the House of Allah – a place much more sacred than any convenience store – and urinated, yes urinated there, he still treated him with dignity. (Muslim)

The students standing at the door of the 7-Eleven were just going in for a snack. Even if they had been misbehaving, the gentleman at the counter could have addressed them with kindness. Similarly, the youth at the local mosque just wanted to pray tarawih. Now imagine the impact it had on them to be turned away from praying with their brethren during the month of Ramadan. 

I sat in the car where my son was waiting and found him looking out the window, unaware of what was happening. We were parked far from the entrance.

“Do you know any of those kids?” I asked him. “Yeah, the girl on the right is in my gym class,” he said.

My heart sank more and as we sat in the car, I wondered, what would have been the cashier’s reaction if the kids had been white? More than likely, he would not have treated them the same way. This racial profiling leads to devastating consequences. A recent news report by WUSA9 revealed that the state of Maryland leads the nation in incarcerating young black men, according to experts at the Justice Policy Institute. Their November Policy Briefs for 2019 entitled, Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland, revealed that disparity is most pronounced among emerging adults, or youth ages 18-24, where, “Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.”

“Nearly eight in 10 people who were sentenced as emerging adults and have served 10 or more years in a Maryland prison are black. This is the highest rate of any state in the country.” Click To Tweet

What was most troubling about the incident at the 7-Eleven was that the students had been conditioned; they were already used to being treated that way. It was routine for them and business as usual for the Muslim cashier. While he may believe that he is doing the right thing, by averting a potential “problem,” the harm that he is causing has greater ramifications. He is adding to the trauma these children are already experiencing being black in America. Black students in Baltimore County were not even allowed by law to earn an education past 5th grade in 1935, and 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the county’s schools are still highly segregated. Local and federal leadership in America have continuously failed African Americans, and it is disheartening to think that the immigrant Muslim community is headed in the same direction. 

I was haunted by this incident and returned to the 7-Eleven a week later to ask the cashier or the owner of the store about their (mis)treatment of the middle schoolers. I parked directly in front of the glass doors of the entrance and it was there where I saw a sign typed in regular white computer paper that read, “AT A TIME NO MORE THAN THREE (3) SCHOOL KIDS ARE ALLOWED IN THE STORE & please do not bring bags inside the store. Thanks.” I had not seen the sign before, maybe I overlooked it the day of the occurrence. Nevertheless, I went inside and spoke with the owner of the franchise, a Muslim gentleman who greeted me with salaam. I asked him about the sign outside the door and the reason why the middle schoolers were treated like would-be criminals. He explained that students from local schools have stolen goods from the convenience store on many occasions. To prevent this, they established a rule that only three unaccompanied school children could enter at a time and they were not allowed to bring their backpacks. The owner further added that crime and vandalism were prevalent in the area. Unfortunately, because this side of town is predominately African American, the blame falls disproportionately on this group. 

Nevertheless, patrolling and intimidating the African American youth in the area is not the solution. As Dr. Degruy stated in her book, “The powerful oppress the less powerful, who in turn oppress those even less powerful than they. These cycles of oppression leave scars on the victims and victors alike, scars that embed themselves in our collective psyches and are passed down through generations, robbing us of our humanity.”

A thirty-four-year veteran police officer named Norm Stamper wrote a book about racism in the criminal justice system entitled, Breaking Rank, (2005) and he mentioned that, “It is not hard to understand why people of color, the poor, and younger Americans did not, and do not, look upon the police as ‘theirs’… Do the police protect ‘the weak against oppression or intimidation’ or do they oppress and intimidate the very people they’ve sworn to protect?” Likewise, this young generation will begin to see Muslims of all colors as no different, if we take the role of the oppressor. 

When Abu Dharr insulted Bilal ibn Rabah, may Allah be pleased with them, by calling him, “O son of a black woman!” and the Prophet, peace be upon him heard of this, he rebuked Abu Dharr and said to him, “By the One who revealed the Book to Muhammad, no one is better than another except by righteous deeds. You have nothing but an insignificant amount.” We may have read or heard this and other narrations before, however, we fall short in implementing these teachings.

In Malcolm X’s Letter from Mecca, he said, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” Yet, as Muslims living in America, we are not fulfilling our role in eradicating racism from our own ranks. We are making race our problem. With so much injustice plaguing the world, the time is now to embrace the youth, celebrate their diversity, and let them know there is a place for them in Islam.

Sometimes it takes one person to stand up and point out the wrong to set the right tone. The sign at the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood has been taken down.

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Civil Rights

Podcast: Lessons from the Life of Malcolm X | Abdul-Malik Ryan

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One of the things that happens with historical figures who continue to remain well-known and influential years after they can continue to speak for themselves is that others seek to speak for them.  Attempts are made to co-opt their legacy, either in sincere efforts for good or in selfish efforts for ideological or even commercial gain.  This is especially true of Malcolm X, who is not only a historical and political icon but in many ways a “celebrity” remembered by many primarily for his style and attitude.

The only real and meaningful tribute we can pay to Malcolm X is to follow his example. Click To Tweet

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