American Muslim activism should focus on doing good

By Ismail Royer

American Muslims have tragically erred by putting an imbalanced focus on demanding rights for themselves instead of living out their Islamically-rooted commitment to the common good. In doing so they’ve obscured the truth and good of Islam and contributed to the secularization and polarization of America.

I converted to Islam in 1992 in St. Louis, moved to Washington, DC in 1993 and began working at CAIR when we were only 3 people in a tiny office. I worked there as a civil rights coordinator and media relations specialist until October 2001 with some time also spent at American Muslim Council, Islamic Relief Worldwide (in Sarajevo), etc. In 2002-2003 I also worked at the Muslim American Society’s headquarters as communications director, and I’ve worked in various capacities for and with many other Islamic institutions, in DC and locally. So I have spent a lot of time observing the American Muslim scene from my point of view working for Muslim advocacy organizations primarily rooted in the immigrant community.

I believe that a lot of good has been done by these organizations but that the emphasis from the very beginning has been on demanding rights, expressing outrage and condemnation at supposedly offensive statements by public figures or portrayals in movies, etc.

It’s not that Muslims shouldn’t seek to vindicate their rights or that offensive statements shouldn’t be addressed. Indeed as I look back at my time at CAIR I feel the most good I did in my time there for the Muslims was in helping to resolve dozens of workplace religious accommodation and discrimination complaints. But an imbalanced posture of constantly demanding rights and condemning offensive things is not the way to achieve the goal of persuading society that Muslims mean good for the community. It is abrasive and does not earn good will. Even when one’s demands are accommodated, it is not accompanied by a tranquil heart. The result is that apparent gains are superficial. And if and when the leverage one used to achieve these gains disappears (as happened to a large degree after 9/11), there is no reservoir of good will to sustain them.

Of course much of the problem could have been avoided by these organizations by still advocating for rights but in a wiser way, relying more on networking and alliance-building over shared goals and values, and far less on “calling out.” But likewise the imbalance I saw was in a failure to focus more effort on doing good in the community.

Of course Muslims have done a lot of good, but that good has been concealed and overshadowed by national organizations’ incessant condemnations and demands for rights which is cranked up to a volume of 10, whereas any communication they have done about the good local Muslims have done is drowned out.

Even more, I believe that far too much time, energy, and resources have gone into such methodology. The Muslims should have been pouring most of that money into food banks, hospitals and clinics (I was born at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis), foster homes, housing for the poor, and so on. The political issues that we focused on should have been issues that impacted broad segments of society–environment, criminal justice reform, abortion, gambling, food insecurity–rather than narrower issues focused solely on Muslims (indeed on immigrant Muslims). Yes we should have continued to have litigation efforts related to civil rights for Muslims, but only as one part of that broader approach.

And equally importantly, we should have directed resources from these advocacy groups and put it towards Islamic education. Again, there’s no question that much of this goes on, and has been going on, but it’s a matter of imbalanced priorities. With respect to the brothers and sisters at CAIR, looking at their news releases is an endless stream of “CAIR condemns, CAIR condemns, CAIR condemns…” These operations cost a lot of money. They should be using a larger portion of that attention span that they occupy in the heads of the people they reach to be letting people know what good Muslims are doing. Moreover, these resources should be directed to building these organizations’ capacity and building more of them. In 2003 I wrote an essay called Muslim Activism at the Crossroads discussing exactly this. I discussed there how Muslims should put far less emphasis on demanding rights and more focus on boosting the efforts of groups like Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Today, I would add the efforts of groups like the The Mosque Cares and the Red Crescent of Alabama. But almost 20 years later, in my view, we didn’t take the correct turn at the crossroads. We went down the wrong path.

And how has this contributed to secularism and polarization? Because the imbalanced condemnation and demanding of rights without a correspondingly clear, loud message of divinely-inspired commitment to the common good in word and deed, is in fact secularizing. It is entirely worldly and self-centered, rather than directed away from the self. This approach has contributed to the loss of religion in the public square: Muslims have been present but Islam has not.

Had we been emphasizing doing good for others citing our religion as our inspiration, we would have contributed to a sense that religion in the public square is something good, something healthy and vital, rather than the current notion that has overtaken the polity that religion is something backwards, hateful, etc. And our actions have contributed to polarization because these advocacy organizations pioneered and foreshadowed the shrill uncompromising stance of our current culture, divided into hostile tribes. This is the opposite of our divine role, which is to unite people around goodness and fear of God.

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