When I was twenty years old I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time and the power of Brother Malcolm’s story lead me to the 4 great passions of my life: Islam and working in Muslim communities globally, faith rooted community organizing, fighting for racial and economic justice in the world, and the development of media institutions. My first experience with faith-rooted organizing came in 2004 when I stood in the streets of Denver with the American Indian Movement of Colorado who led us in prayer and in action as we stopped the Columbus Day parade. From that moment on I knew that people of faith had to bring their voices to bear on the important issues of our times and it was with that in mind that I started my work with the PICO National Network in 2011. PICO is building powerful faith rooted networks throughout the United States working on issues primarily in Christian communities ranging from mass incarceration, to poverty and rights and citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the United States. It was with this network that I started building faith-rooted organizing in Muslim communities by focusing on building a powerful network of clergy and focusing on my home Mosque, a mosque I helped to found, the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland.
On March 4th, 2014 the Bay Area Muslim community turned out in huge numbers to an Oakland City Council meeting to stop the building of the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), a proposed city-wide surveillance system. Driven by Imam Zaid Shakir the co-founder of Zaytuna College and the Imam of the Lighthouse Mosque in North Oakland, the mosque decided to explore the deep connections between mass incarceration, racial profiling, surveillance and mass deportation by throwing itself into the campaign to stop the building of the DAC which would have created a $12 million dollar Department of Homeland Security-funded surveillance center that would have aggregated information from nearly 1,000 video cameras, sensors, social media feeds and real-time data that could spy on anyone within Oakland city limits. Working with key privacy, and civil liberty advocates the Bay Area Muslim community played an instrumental role in stopping the building of the DAC and confining it solely to cover the port of Oakland. Imam Zaid, one of 30 Muslims sharing public testimony at the council meeting, stated, “This is not a Muslim issue, but an American issue. We don’t want other communities to go through what the Muslim community has gone through.” This was a powerful Muslim faith-based organizing victory that is resonating throughout the Bay Area.
With strong opposition from local privacy activists, the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the city initially passed the building of this city wide surveillance center in July of 2013. Once the Muslim community became involved it added extra strength to the organizing by bringing in powerful faith voices and personal testimonies about what surveillance has meant for the Muslim community and how it has stifled civic engagement amongst Muslims by creating a deep culture of fear and distrust.
From Oakland to New York City the Muslim community has faced the largest counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) in the history of the United States, with at least 15,000 paid informants and an estimated 45,000 unpaid infiltrators and informants in our mosques, we have been singled out at political protests, our families have been divided, and we have even had people in our community entrapped by the FBI. Despite all of this, this action by the Lighthouse Mosque and other area Oakland mosques was the first major mosque led congregation based organizing victory within the Muslim community over the last decade.
In the interfaith funders recent report Building Bridges, Building Power: Developments in Institution-Based Community Organizing it was reported that Mosques represent only 1% of the 4500 total member institutions make up the ecology of the Congregation Based Organizing (CBO) field. This does not mean that Muslim communities have not been organizing for decades with the likes of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and Warrith Dean Muhammad communities leading the way in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Starting in the early 1990s up to today a number of organizations led by the Inner-city Muslim Action Network in Chicago, Desi’s Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), the Arab American Association of New York, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco and many others have built powerful, though often underfunded work around a number of important issues within the Muslim and larger AMEMSA community. However, most of this work was not led through a congregation based organizing model.
Over the last nine years, I have worked within the Bay Area Muslim community, and over the last three years I have worked with the PICO National network to explore the state of Muslim organizing within the network and key opportunities for us to deepen our relationships to key Muslim clergy, faith leaders and congregations. With the example, we set working with the Lighthouse Mosque, and as the number of Muslim organizers and mosque involvement in organizing grows throughout the country the time is now for foundations to make investments in organizing on a local level within the Muslim community. The Muslim community lives at the center of a number of social injustices that affect people throughout the United States broadly, ranging from Mass incarceration in the United States, to immigration struggles similar to many communities, to the laser focus of racial and religious profiling of the surveillance state on the Muslim community (by the NSA, FBI, as well as local police departments such as the NYPD), as well as global war and drone warfare within the countries where many American-Muslims are from.
We hope to continue this type of work with MPower Change rooted in the values of our faith. For us this work is rooted in a chapter of the Qur’an called The Quarters where God speaks of the divine purpose of the diversity we live within in our world, “People, We created you from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.” (49:13). These words in the Arabic language Li Taarifu mean to recognize or to know one another is about truly seeing each others humanity within the divine light we are all born into. It is interesting that just a few lines before these words in the same chapter of the Qur’an are the lines that the Muslim community had printed on signs and held at the Oakland city council meeting, “Do not spy on one another.” As God is warning us here if we spy on another, if we back bite and speak badly about one another, we ultimately create mistrust, stereotypes, and misunderstandings of one another. Misunderstandings, prejudices, and racism which can create hatred between people and keep us from living into and understanding the divine purpose of our diversity and differences across race, gender, nationality, and religion. Multi-faith organizing forces us to be in relationship with one another so that all of our families, can live dignified lives together as we take on the great triple evils that Martin Luther King warned us of at the end of his life of poverty, racism, and war. As the great Muslim poet Amir Sulaiman reminds us in his piece “Come to the Hills (We Must Win)” it is not a question or a choice for us to work on these issues, this is a matter of life and death for many communities, and “We must win.”
This post was originally published at The San Francisco Foundation by Dustin Craun.