Building on New Foundations > Standing Up, Reaching Out

New York and New Jersey

Adem Carroll

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Islamic Circle of North America

The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) was founded about 20 years ago. ICNA Relief, based in Jamaica-Queens, mainly funds development projects.

Before 9/11 most charitable giving by immigrant Muslim communities focused on overseas projects, especially on disaster relief. We also had projects in the US focusing on social services, like homelessness prevention or assistance with housing and jobs.

Since 9/11, the continuing civil liberties crisis in Muslim communities has left many families in need. After 9/11 we began helping families, especially those who could not gain access to family members. Sometimes people were not even sure whether and where their family members were being held. Early on we could help with rent, utilities, legal bills. Now our assistance is more measured, because donations are down.

South Asians and African Americans are our two strongest constituencies, then Arabs. The South Asian constituency is influenced by more conservative currents in Islam. Many people are retreating to traditional customs in the face of the challenges posed by Western societies. It’s not really anti-Western in an ideological sense …

Special Registration got the attention of the Muslim community. With detention, many people looked away – assuming that “something was wrong” with the detainees. With Special Registration, people began to see how it affected everyone. A lot of people thought that they were fine but they weren’t – like people trying to make the transition from student to work visas.

What’s happened with Muslim charities has been almost as harmful as special registration. It creates a lot of fear. Nobody understands why they were closed down rather than being audited. Charity is central to mosque life, so this has been very demoralizing to the community. Compared to before 9/11, giving is down by half or a third.

Institutionally, the response has been decentralized and very localized, with each mosque acting on its own initiative. There are not enough channels for the community. There needs to be a way to identify needs and coordinate the delivery of services.

ICNA relies on religious giving. We receive $25 contributions from thousands of people – we have only a few big donors. We are very concerned about safeguarding Muslim institutions, while also making sure they are accountable.

Broader networks that exist in Muslim communities are mainly focused on advocacy and anti-discrimination work. They don’t have the capacity for providing direct services.

There is a starting level of poverty among African Americans Muslims as well as immigrants. A lot of people are out of work. The immigrant community either doesn’t qualify for or won’t accept government support. Even with food pantries, people are afraid to eat because the food is not halal.

Many people feel like they are under scrutiny, being judged. There is reluctance to accept help even from us, because it is taking charity.

We need outreach workers to help the community understand what their rights are and what services are available. It can’t work without staff to go to mosques in different neighborhoods and put it in a cultural context for people. Especially with immigrant communities, with Pakistanis or Bangladeshis.

There is also a crisis of confidence in Muslim institutions. Muslims don’t know what to understand or believe about their institutions. Some have become more open and egalitarian under the influence of American culture. Some are more patriarchal. Maintaining institutions while dealing with this kind of diversity is a major challenge in itself. Part of the answer will come with younger, more progressive leadership. Older leadership is not always responsive – and doesn’t always know how to be. We need to create a new synthesis for Muslim life in America, to keep evolving.

Knowledge of human rights is beginning to spread. It also goes along with feeling that Muslims are being singled out and victimized. There’s truth to that – but we also need to understand how to move beyond that.

Providing for the poor is also strong sentiment in Muslim communities. There is a lot of interest in social justice and equality. Outrage about economic polarization is very strong – coupled with people’s frustration about not being able to change things in their countries of origin. People hold a vision of a more just and egalitarian society, as in the days of the Prophet Muhammad.

We work with the media to find families who are willing to speak out. In the US media, we’ve placed stories in the local press about the effects on families. The national press has been very slow to look at the big picture. These are issues that drop without a media response.

There have been mass deportations of stateless persons – Palestinians and Somalis – through third countries. The government is breaking new legal ground, without discussion. There are occasional articles but no proper discussion of what is going on.

People are being sent into danger. Some are very long-term residents here, with as much as 35 years in the country. It should be a scandal, but it’s not being treated like one.

To strengthen our community, we need to go beyond buying buildings to establishing services. We need to give more attention to communication – which is beginning to happen in various ways. Before 9/11, the tendency for the Muslim community was to isolate itself. Now we are all building our own networks.

People think there is one Islam. They buy the “clash of civilizations” model. In reality, there are many conflicts. Immigrant communities bring local viewpoints as they come to the US A lot of the African American Muslim leadership emerged from the Black Panther movement – there is an ongoing investment in fighting injustice, a sense of creating a counterculture as well as a mistrust of government. By contrast the South Asian community voted Republican in the 2000 election. On foreign policy issues, people’s perspective is colored by where they come from.