News & Media

Working to boost social activism among Muslims

January 1, 2011 | Los Angeles Times

L.A. Voice

'One of the solutions to Islamophobia is organizing around city-based issues,' says Naim Shah Jr., who has worked with Christian and Jewish activists across L.A. to push a 'responsible banking' ordinance.

For the first 15 years of his working life, Naim Shah Jr. was the personal assistant to the imam at Masjid Ibadallah, a mosque in Los Angeles. He helped with Friday sermons and religious classes and dealt primarily with his Muslim congregants.

But for the last six months, Shah has worked with Christian and Jewish activists across the city, drumming up support for the "responsible banking" ordinance, a law that would spur banks that do business with the city of Los Angeles to modify mortgages, increase loans to small businesses and invest in their neighborhoods.

What does community banking have to do with his commitment to Islam? Everything, says Shah, 41, who is also a professional accountant and a former director of Humanitarian Day, an American Muslim day of service to local communities, especially the homeless.

"One of the solutions to Islamophobia is organizing around city-based issues," he said. "Trying to deal with global issues can lead to entanglements. Uniting around local issues can broaden understanding."

Shah is one of four paid trainees in Southern California and 16 nationwide who are completing a six-month Community Organizing Residency (COR), a program launched a year ago by Jewish Funds for Justice, a national nonprofit organization.

Shortly after Shah arrived at his placement with the group LA Voice, he noticed that there were no mosques - and no Muslims - among its 24 faith-based organizations. LA Voice is an ecumenical federation that promotes civic action on the congregational level.

So Shah lined up 35 one-on-one meetings with Islamic clergy and lay leaders, and within two weeks he had mobilized 70 Muslims to participate in a responsible-banking rally organized by LA Voice. Now several mosques have joined the group's network of churches and synagogues, which represents 30,000 families.

Simon Greer, president and chief executive of Jewish Funds for Justice, said COR's guiding principles are that activists need not distance themselves from their faith traditions when they engage in community organizing and that true dialogue happens when people work closely toward shared goals.

"For those who say that the Jewish and Muslim communities can't work together, I have the program that says otherwise," Greer said. "This is not interfaith discussion. It's not about finding two Jews, two Christians and two Muslims who know each other."

Photo Credit: (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times)