By Michael Gecan,
March 14, 2014
I want to thank Oussama Jammal for the opportunity to be with you this morning. He has long been a strong and steady leader in the work of the IAF. I am also heartened to see colleagues and friends from the Chicago area -- Imam Kifah Moustafa, Karen Danielson, and Talit Othman -- each of whom has made a major contribution to our work together.
On behalf of the IAF board, leadership, and staff, I am honored to be included in your event. Over the past 15 years, perhaps the most dramatic increase in civic engagement and impact in the arena of citizens organizing has occurred due to the involvement of Muslim institutions and Muslim leaders.
The starting point for this remarkable development is the Chicago metropolitan area in the late 1990's. It was there that our former IAF executive director, Ed Chambers, now retired and in very ill health, reached out to the leaders of the Mosque Foundation, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and others, as he began to build the IAF affiliate in that area -- United Power for Action and Justice. Ed first recognized the new reality in Chicago of vibrant and growing Muslim communities and institutions. For several years, Ed reached out to your leaders, and they joined with leaders of other faiths and civil society groups. You built relationships. You participated in leadership training. You raised and contributed money. And you helped pour the foundation of the emerging United Power For Action and Justice organization in Cook County.
This was all done systematically and pro-actively, not in reaction to any crisis or catastrophe.
Then there was a catastrophe and a crisis. It was 9/11/2001.
Once 9/11 happened, there was great anxiety in the Chicago Muslim community and in the United Power organization. Should everyone just lie low? Should we remain quiet? Should we avoid attracting more attention to Muslims and those working with Muslims? Should we stop organizing entirely? These were tense and serious questions.
Here was the answer. Led by Ed Chambers and visionary leaders, 4,000 people gathered at Navy Pier on November 18, 2001, just ten weeks after 9/11. Approximately 2,000 of those 4,000 were Muslims. Some are sitting in this room. I can see your smiles and your nodding heads. Approximately 2,000 were Christians, Jews, and civic and labor leaders. The event was titled: Chicago and Islam.
And the most important part of that event was when one Muslim paired off with someone who was not Muslim -- 2,000 relational meetings in one place and one time. Thirty minutes of listening, probing, and mutual understanding and mutual respect. We in the IAF say that the most radical tool that we use is the relational meeting. And we demonstrated that -- and proved that -- on Navy Pier that day.
Since then, working together, we identified and shut down the most dangerous gun shop in the Chicago area, ten years before others have begun to see this approach as viable.
Working together, we expanded health care access in Illinois alone for 750,000 residents of that state, long before there was a federal bill to do so.
Working together, we have built housing for those with physical and mental disabilities. And I was heartened to hear the previous speaker from the State Department describe a world-wide focus on this priority.
Working together, this week, today, we are pushing for more progress in the distribution patterns and safety research of gun manufacturers. And an IAF team has just returned from Europe, where it worked on this issue.
Working together, we are fighting to bring resources to those parts of the southwest side of Chicago and the Sherman Park area of Milwaukee to rebuild or improve foreclosed homes. You may have read a New York Times article this morning about an Inspector General's report detailing the weakness of the federal response to this crisis -- a weakness we revealed two years ago.
Working together, we supported the MECCA community in suburban DuPage County when it ran into hate-filled resistance in its effort to expand its facilities -- a battle that we won.
Now, these are just some of the advances that we have made in Illinois and Wisconsin. We would describe a similar list for Boston or Washington or Virginia or other cities and states in the south, southwest, and west, not to mention the important and productive work going on in the UK, Germany, Australia, and Canada..
We in the IAF say that we don't whine. We don't have the time for it or any interest in it. We organize to win.
But that winning is based on some habits and disciplines that require much practice and application.
The first is the discipline of building deep and strong public relationships. I'm here, representing the IAF, because of those relationship with my co-panelists Oussama Jammal and Karen Danielson.
The second is the discipline of study and analysis of the real-world power dynamics in any situation we find ourselves in. There's no room for assumptions for wishful thinking.
The third discipline is taking our trained leaders, clear on the power dynamics, into action that's carefully planned and well focused.
And the fourth discipline -- in some ways maybe the hardest -- is of selection and prioritization. We don't react to every worthy cause or crisis, even though we have great empathy for those caught up in them. We pick issues that we believe that we have a chance to address effectively. We persist until we get a breakthrough. And we try to keep our opponents on their heels by playing offense more than defense. Now, I know that this is an especially challenging issue in your community. You have emerged as a new player in the public arena. Many well intentioned individuals and groups want your support. You have many demands on your time. But prioritizing and pacing are key if we are to avoid being scattered and exhausted by so many demands.
A British professor, Dr. Luke Bretherton, now at Duke University, has described the tensions of being engaged in the public arena very well in his forthcoming book -- Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, being printed right now by Cambridge Press. I recommend this book to everyone. Here is what Dr. Bretherton says:
"One way to frame this question, particularly as it pertains to religious groups involved in broad-based organizing, is as a tension between the duties of being a member of a community of faith and those that come with membership in a community of fate. What I mean by this is that in a world city you do not choose either whom you live next door to or who lives in the next block or neighborhood. You find yourself living in proximity with people fro whom you may be very different, whether individually or collectively.......But, whether one likes it or not, one shares the same fate as them. If the electricity is cut off, everyone loses power. If gangs rule the streets, everyone is under threat......Practically, the community of fate (law, roads, electricity, etc.) is necessary to make the community of faith possible....So the question to be confronted for all groups is: how are the two to be related?"
We live together in communities of fate. We in the IAF are thankful for this.
If we can continue to accept and respect our real differences.....
If we can show restraint and respect for one another when we DO disagree, as we must at times.....
And, at the same time, if we can keep finding common ground around shared issues and concerns and address those issues and concerns with great energy and creativity, then we will enrich our society and we will resurrect our democracy.
That is the work that we have already begun.
With leaders like you and organizations like yours, we have great faith that that work will thrive in the years to come.