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The Praxis of Organizing by Two American Muslims

“Organizing is very hard work. You might not see a result right away. But with enough education and consistency you can move the needle. And it also shows how refugee and immigrant communities, with the right information and with time, they become parts of the community.”

The relational meeting is notoriously hard to teach, but the most orthodox description might go something like the following: The relational meeting is a 30 minute intentional conversation to build a public relationship focused on a potential leaders self-interest. The organizer should ask probing, reflective “why” and “how” questions. An appropriate level of vulnerability should emerge, as the organizer searches for stories that have formed and shaped the leaders understanding of anger, power, politics and religion. Relational meetings do not surface “issues” right away, but search for the underlying “fire” that burns in us all for justice. Often, that fire is captured in stories of self, family and community. 

Zulfat Suara and Mohamed Shukri are two crucial leaders in the Tennessee Muslim Community. Zulfat is one of the founding members of the American Muslim Advisory Council, and Mohamed was an organizer for AMAC, who has now expanded his work beyond a single organization, taking part in movements all across Tennessee. My conversations with Zulfat and Mohammed certainly address themes of religion, anger, power and politics, but orthodox IAF style relational meetings often miss the theological depth and lived reality of religion that Zulfat and Mohamed brought to our conversations.

For Zulfat, a Nigerian woman who immigrated to the United States almost 20 years ago, her activism as an American Muslim in Tennessee is grounded in her experiences in Nigerian high school and by her memories of her father, who, she said, always “had her back.”

A: How exactly did you know that your dad had your back? Can you think of a specific example when he made that clear?

Z: I’ll tell you a story. When I first started high school we had a recognition day and the administrators told me to invite my family. As the procession begins, the students are walking down a long hill to go into the auditorium. And as we are walking, I see my dad standing right in front of the door with about five of my teachers surrounding him, kneeling. In Nigeria it is a sign of respect and honor to kneel in front of someone. So I’m going down the hill and I see my teachers kneeling in front of my dad. I’m thinking, what in the world is going on!?

Many years before my dad was traveling by train from northern to southern Nigeria. The train was packed, and there were two women who were struggling to get on, one with a baby. My dad helped the two women on, and when they got on the train he had a seat, and they did not. One of the women was sleepy, so my dad gave up his seat for her, then he took that child and held the child on the train. He didn’t know her, and she did not know him. They departed ways and they were gone. One of those women ended up being my teacher. Now that I have found out more about my faith, I have discovered that what my dad was doing was actually living out his faith.

Family and those whom we love the most are often figures in formative stories of self. Mohamed Shukri is a tall and skinny Somalian man in his late 20s who grew up in Georgia. His experience is different than Zulfat’s in important ways that illustrate the distinct experience of American Muslims. His story illustrates the disgusting face of Islamophobia that is a strong current in the religious culture of the U.S. South.

M: I grew up in Georgia and when 9/11 happened I was just entering high school. During the beginning months of high school our mosque got vandalized. When that happened no one knew how to handle it. I come from a refugee community and the experience of having cameras outside our mosque was unsettling. Nobody was equipped to do anything and everyone was so scared. When I was interviewed by a local channel I remember saying, “we didn’t cross the seas as a refugees, just to face this hate and this vandalism here.”

A: Why where you interviewed, did you volunteer?

M: I was asked, because the imam said to me, you speak english well and no one else here does, so you should do the interview. I was just thrown into it. My point was that we didn’t come all this way just to face this racism because of our faith.

“Muslims go home” was spray-painted on the mosque. But there were also crosses around the words. This is a good example of Christianity used in the political arena in negative ways. It was basically saying that Christianity is opposed Islam.

A: It’s a great example of Christian nationalism.

M: Exactly! That’s the word.

I took away two questions from that experience—Why are they doing this? and, Do I even belong here? It makes you question your sense of belonging.  It makes you question the whole narrative that this country is built on, and even the solidarity between Abrahamic faiths. Does that solidarity or sense of welcome exist or is it for only certain people, for a certain community?

Mohamed’s early experience of working in the Muslim community persisted throughout his college years in Tennessee, and he found he had a knack for bringing people together—for education, agitation, and organizing

M: The whole issue of organizing and helping the community get organized doesn’t exist in the Muslim community, and so one thing I started doing is encouraging basic stuff, like registering to vote.

For a while I faced resistance within the Muslim community. Where a lot of people who were new arrivals would say that from our perspective and our culture, our way of life, we don’t know the system, and so our involvement in the whole democratic system is haram.

A: Can you explain what that means?

M: Basically, from their perspective, participating in the system itself is illegal.

When people say this, it comes from, I would say, a lack of civic knowledge, from people who just don’t even understand how their local city government operates. But they are used to political environments that are very volatile, so this idea of participatory democracy is very foreign. They have fear about their involvement because their experience has told them that to get involved in political life, you are flirting with fire.

So I have spent about a decade in this space, educating folks and organizing folks and mobilizing folks in different ways. You meet people where they are. You engage them. You try to educate them. Sometimes you see progress, people who used to fight you on political work are now standing by your side.

A: What do you take from that lesson?

M: Organizing is very hard work. You might not see a result right away. But with enough education and consistency you can move the needle. And it also shows refugee and immigrant communities, with the right information and with time, they become parts of the community. It plays out in the usual way, if you look at the history. You see that for some communities, like Italian immigrants in the 18th century, it took them 80 years to be completely incorporated into American life, into the bigger story of this nation.

A: I want to sort of push back on that last point. Is that necessarily a good thing? Is that not just assimilation to a broader narrative of white Christian identity?

M: I think that in a sense, it depends on who you talk to. I feel like right now, the way this country is, Americans are going to have to deal with this. Muslims are in every profession, and are they going to say that just because of our faith we don’t belong here? There are those here who are second and third generation immigrants, who are really as American as apple pie.

A: What I hear you naming is that the predominant story of the U.S. is a Christian, white nationalistic nation that denies the reality of Muslims from its founding.

M: Exactly.

A: Because Muslims were here from the founding, through the middle passage of the African slave trade. And I think that’s something important to point out in addition to what you’re saying: this is about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what it means to be a member of our community, and what it requires of us in terms of public life.

M: Yeah! I think this also says a lot about America as a country and the way on one side we say that we are a beacon of hope. That’s how we bill ourselves in the world. And then, internally, we see contradictions and realize that the “beacon of hope” story isn’t actually representing everyone.

It was then that Mohamed shared the importance of mercy to his faith

M: There is a beautiful verse in the Qur’an when God is literally speaking directly to Prophet Mohammad, and he says: “The reason why we made you prophet is to be mercy to the people that live in the whole world.”

For a Muslim being merciful is meeting every human where they are. Being empathetic, being merciful across the board, and not only to Muslims: to the whole world. And so you embody that. You can certainly elevate your own community by being merciful, or your own social group. You could be a leader in the city or you could be an educator, but it all comes down to how you embody that mercifulness.

A: I’m happy you talked about that concept of mercy because that seems to be really important. This is one question I have about that, however. So you are called to be merciful to the whole world, but the world doesn’t believe the same things you do. So talk to me about that, especially within community organizing. What are the challenges of doing good interfaith organizing without giving up your values.

M: I think actions, an action that a person takes every day are the kind of fruits of his knowledge or what he knows or where he is. Islam as a faith is more commitment-based to both people and principle.  You cannot choose who you can be merciful to and who you cannot be merciful to. If you choose that, you are being more “tribal,” or rigid or sectarian. It’s about showing up, and being merciful. Islam doesn’t put you in a place where you have to choose between your community and others.

A: To me that makes a lot of sense, because you have encapsulated an important idea to me: that good organizing is done on values, not issues. Issues fade, values don’t. God revealed to Mohammad something that you can’t renege on — you have to be committed to that.

And when you recognize mercy as a sacred value within your life, all of your politics begin to center around that. But then things gets difficult. Because the world involves compromises and negotiation. We don’t always win in politics.

M: No, we don’t.

A: And so we are often confronted with situations where we either have to sacrifice or compromise on those things we hold sacred. So that principle of mercy that you hold to be most dear is the place where organizing becomes the most important and also where you see the best organizing done.

M: Right, and I’m curious to hear what you think about this in your own organizing too.

A: I want to share a story that exemplifies the importance of religious differences and paying attention to sacred values in community organizing.

Several years ago I was organizing a public meeting in Nashville during Ramadan. Over the years, the Nashville Community Iftar grew from its first year crowd of 75 people to selling out the 250 tickets for the third year over a weekend. City council members, the mayor and powerful religious leaders were all regular attendees. The Iftar’s theme sought to make clear the deep connection between Islamic values and their public expression in the life of the Muslim community in Tennessee.

This event took place the day after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on marriage equality. The main panel, featuring a rabbi, an imam, and an African American Baptist minister addressed the challenges and opportunities of building relationships across religious divides. Going off script, the rabbi commented positively on the Court’s ruling. He then turned to the imam and said that religious congregations have to be more welcoming to the gay and lesbian community. This put the imam in such a place where on the one hand, he felt obligated to recognize his (yet again) minority status in relation to the larger community. On the other hand, he felt obligated to express an experience of loss in regard to what his community holds sacred. He commented that while he recognized the legitimacy of the Court’s rule, as a leader of a faith community he had to disagree with the rabbi’s statement. For him, as an imam, it was a sad day. 

This story raises a couple of points. First, religious differences do matter when you are trying to build public political power. And if you don’t pay attention to those differences, you can be blindsided by examples like this story. And second, if we don’t talk about those differences, if you don’t address those things that perhaps are not items of political action right now, they are still worth exploring. Often, organizers will say that they only work on “winnable” issues, and that some sacred values aren’t “winnable.” My point is that they inform all of the work, regardless of whether they are top priority in terms of a campaign. And actually, exploring those differences of sacred value, understanding how they interact or conflict will help you build stronger ties within the community.

M: I totally agree. And I think that organizing from an Islamic perspective, some of the goals should be based on that verse in the Qur’an that being mercy, showing mercy to the whole world, and that means everybody including the LGBTQ community. And by doing that you are following God’s command. But the moment you start choosing between your principles, and making a conflict with certain people, that’s where you create more challenges.

When I shared that story with Zulfat, she commented on the importance of using one’s religion for good. She said, “When I say you have a right to practice what you practice, to do you, what Im asking for is the reciprocity to do to that.”

A But you’re not asking for it. You should demand it!

Z: Demand it! Yes.

A: Absolutely. Because you are due that as a member of this community.

Z: And just like I’m respecting you, I have the right to the same respect. And that’s what the Muslim community is fighting for. Because I should be able to worship and practice my faith. I cannot care less what you do. I mean, really.

A: I get the sense too that the importance of community is obvious in your stories. What do you think the primary challenge facing the Muslim community here in Nashville?

Z: I grew up in an interreligious household. And so knowing your faith and learning about it, and really understanding it is different from doing something because someone told you to do it. Often people don’t educate them on the ethical or political teachings in Islam, so they assume that they can’t be political or shouldn’t, when really that is not the case at all.

A: You mentioned earlier that the Muslim community is not one community, it experiences fractures and tensions for different reasons. One might be ethnicity, which can often be associate to a sense of whether you are more or less authentically Muslim, based on one’s assumed religious knowledge.

Z: Yeah! So, I grew up in an interreligious family—my mother is a Christian. And so I had one half-brother who is Christian. And there are others who do not have that. But if you do struggle with the faith, and if you learn about the prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him), you will realize that the time he was living was very religiously diverse. You don’t have to experience it to understand it. You just have to be knowledgeable about your faith.

A: The story I shared about the Iftar also reminds me of your dad on the train, that religious differences matter not because I’ve read them in the Bible and I’ve had special religious training as if they were handed down from heaven. No, they matter because often these differences are illustrated in the lives of leaders whom we hold as examples for building community, who really move us and hold us accountable to our beliefs and each other. Those religious communities are founded on the values that we hold most dear. And those values differ with other religious communities, in important ways. And, when we don’t attend to those differences that can lead to deeper fractions and divergences.

Z: The Qur’an says, “Oh you who don’t believe in Islam. You worship that what you worship. And we worship what we worship. And you will never worship what we worship and we will never worship what you worship.” Because for you is your religion and for us is our religion. You cannot say it any better than that.

Zulfat then asked me a question that I think is worthy of being posed to all kinds of academics.

Z: I wonder, Aaron, with all of the time you spend thinking and writing and taking classes, what is the thing that has most surprised you in your organizing work—what have you encountered on the ground that you see is most out-of-sync with the theory you study? And what have you done to reconcile that?

A: I think it’s important to refuse the separation between theory and practice. Organizing work is not un-theoretical. It is deeply informed by theologies, theories of change, theories of politics, theories of value. But theoretical work is also practical. The way we think about the world informs how we act in it; changing our conceptual models of the work changes our actions.

But recognizing that our work should be guided by praxis doesn’t mean that it is easy to do. Often, the first hurdle to jump over is equipping ourselves with a language to help us achieve the change we desire. This is why so much of broad-based organizing is focused on reconceptualizing our concepts of “anger,” “power,” “self-interest” or “leadership.” We are taught by the broader culture that anger is an inappropriate political emotion. Part of what I’m interested in teaching and testing out what we call, “cold anger.” Anger that is focused, directed to a temporary enemy, that arises from the violation of our sacred values.

I have struggled to consistently push my theory to be based on reflections from organizing work. Our concepts need to be developed; what a leader looks like in broad-based community organizing is broadly built off of a Christian theological and ecclesial model. Good interfaith organizing will challenge us to develop concepts of leadership that learn from Muslim faith communities and theology, for example. 

Too often academics “tell” the value of theory. We need to show it. This returns us to the importance of story and narrative. I suppose that instead of telling the story about sacred values and the Iftar I could have said something like this: “Sacred value are the things that we value intrinsically. They are not open to trade-offs or instrumental logic. We are most often tipped off to our sense of the sacred by our experiences of moral horror. The horrendous is a ‘sign-post’ to the sacred. Something is horrendous at the violation or desecration of sacred value. The violation of those things we hold sacred causes us to grieve and get angry. And so we often disagree on the proper conditions to ask minority communities to sacrifice their conception of sacred value in order to remain a part of a larger democratic community. Ignoring sacred values threatens the health of the consistency because people ground their organizing work in values, not issues. Our evaluative attitudes of the sacred influence which issues we deem politically appropriate for action. To ignore them stifles the range of our organizing, and in the end prematurely separates religion and politics.”

But the point of that theory is to help us organize better. It’s meant to ask questions like: what was going on in the Iftar story, and why did the imam respond the way he did? Most importantly, since theory and practice are interrelated, how can we organize and think better knowing that such conflicts are experienced often in our common life? Good theory shows its worth, it doesn’t merely tell it. This is the same with organizing: it proves its worth by its ability to demonstrate a new democratic culture embodied in the constituency, and (but not limited to) the political wins wrought by the constituency. Good theory and good organizing prove their worthy by showing it.   

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