Working to boost social activism among Muslims

For the first 15 years of his working life, Naim Shah Jr. was the personal assistant to the imam at Masjid Ibadallah, a mosque in Los Angeles. He helped with Friday sermons and religious classes and dealt primarily with his Muslim congregants.

But for the last six months, Shah has worked with Christian and Jewish activists across the city, drumming up support for the “responsible banking” ordinance, a law that would spur banks that do business with the city of Los Angeles to modify mortgages, increase loans to small businesses and invest in their neighborhoods.

What does community banking have to do with his commitment to Islam? Everything, says Shah, 41, who is also a professional accountant and a former director of Humanitarian Day, an American Muslim day of service to local communities, especially the homeless.

“One of the solutions to Islamophobia is organizing around city-based issues,” he said. “Trying to deal with global issues can lead to entanglements. Uniting around local issues can broaden understanding.”


Shah is one of four paid trainees in Southern California and 16 nationwide who are completing a six-month Community Organizing Residency (COR), a program launched a year ago by Jewish Funds for Justice, a national nonprofit organization.

Shortly after Shah arrived at his placement with the group LA Voice, he noticed that there were no mosques — and no Muslims — among its 24 faith-based organizations. LA Voice is an ecumenical federation that promotes civic action on the congregational level.

So Shah lined up 35 one-on-one meetings with Islamic clergy and lay leaders, and within two weeks he had mobilized 70 Muslims to participate in a responsible-banking rally organized by LA Voice. Now several mosques have joined the group’s network of churches and synagogues, which represents 30,000 families.

Simon Greer, president and chief executive of Jewish Funds for Justice, said COR’s guiding principles are that activists need not distance themselves from their faith traditions when they engage in community organizing and that true dialogue happens when people work closely toward shared goals.

“For those who say that the Jewish and Muslim communities can’t work together, I have the program that says otherwise,” Greer said. “This is not interfaith discussion. It’s not about finding two Jews, two Christians and two Muslims who know each other.”

Greer had noticed that although many Jews work toward social justice, their activities are not always connected to their Jewish identities. And those active in Jewish organizations often take a “parochial” approach, he said, not looking beyond their own group.

At the same time, agencies that receive grants from his group — many of which are not Jewish organizations — have expressed frustration that staff and volunteers are ill-equipped to deal with the religious dimension of the diverse populations they serve.

“There weren’t enough people doing community work who were comfortable in their faith traditions,” Greer said. “We found the same thing affected the Christian and Muslim communities.”

In Los Angeles, in addition to Shah’s assignment with LA Voice, the residency program placed Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann with Ikar, to stimulate civic action at that progressive Jewish congregation. Perla Placencia, a Christian, worked to mobilize voters in South L.A. for SCOPE, an advocacy group for the poor and disenfranchised. And Rachel Gold, who is Jewish, is assigned to One LA, a secular alliance of unions and other groups working for social change.

Similar COR residencies took place in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Organizers hope to fund 25 residents in 2011 and 50 residents in seven cities within three to five years.

A key co-sponsor is the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, part of USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Shah is one of 65 Muslim Americans who have graduated from its nine-month certificate program since 2008.

“We try to get Muslim leaders to think not just about their own community but how their community works in the larger society,” said Brie Loskota, a co-founder of the institute.

She and director Nadia Roumani came up with the idea for the institute in 2005, concerned that American Muslim leaders were not adequately participating in public discourse.

Loskota says the two women wished to “expand rather than contract the public square” and asked themselves how to help Muslims get from “suspect to full citizens.”

“We are simply saying that Muslims should be part of the national conversation. It’s part of religious pluralism in our country,” Loskota said. “We found that Muslim leaders often don’t know a process exists or how to participate in it.”

Institute fellows have included Muslims of many backgrounds, including African Americans and Arab and Asian immigrants. Among those who are immigrants, some have been in the U.S. for decades and some have just arrived. Most are university-educated, and all express strong commitment to America and to their Islamic roots.

Training Muslim leaders to access the larger society is particularly important now, Loskota said, in an atmosphere of anti-Islamic sentiment and at a time when many young Muslim Americans are having trouble relating to their religious institutions.

“We have people attaining the highest levels of education and living the American dream but not feeling like they have a stake” in it, Loskota said. “That’s not good for our country.”

The leadership institute works in partnership with a Muslim-Christian center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Now, through the COR program, it also has a strong relationship with Jewish Funds for Justice.

Shah is a prime example of the kind of growth that these groups are supporting. He told a recent COR review meeting in Santa Monica that going beyond his faith community strengthens both his faith and his community.

“We have so much potential, and it is being put toward too narrow a focus. We can be more productive,” he said.

One of his proudest moments, Shah told the group, was when a local leader of the Mormon Church praised his efforts, telling him that his work is “returning the soul back to America.”