From the in-school arrest of 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed to Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson stoking the flames of Islamophobia, American Muslims are a frequent topic of discussion, but we rarely hear their voices. That’s why Linda Sarsour,* executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, teamed up with Dustin Craun of Ummah Wide and Mark Crain of MoveOn to launch MPOWER Change, a digital organizing platform for American Muslims.
Like Color of Change, Presente.org and 18 Million Rising, MPOWER Change will serve as a hub for petitions and other forms of political engagement. The "for Muslims by Muslims" platform, which will launch on November 2, is the result of two years of planning by 16 Muslim-American grassroots organizers around the country. Colorlines talked to Sarsour about how the new platform will build more organizing capacity and political participation for Muslim-Americans.
How did MPOWER Change come about?
Over the course of the past two years, 15 Muslim organizers around the country have been having a conversation about building the organizing capacity of the American Muslim community. We came up with three areas we wanted to work on: The first was building a digital organizing platform. The second area was creating a Muslim organizing training institute. And the third piece was to create a community organizing curriculum similar to PICO‘s or Industrial Areas Foundation‘s but rooted in Islamic values. The digital platform was most promising because there were people who wanted to invest time and resources in it.
There are a number of social-change communities using digital platforms including Color of Change, Presente.org and 18 Million Rising. What do you like about them?
These platforms consistently add their voice to progressive issues and respond to attacks [on] marginalized communities in a proactive way. They also build online communities that they can engage consistently. In the Muslim community we don’t have that infrastructure. We’ll have a social media campaign that will get buzz for a day or two, but we lose people immediately after the frenzy. The Muslim community has been able to have a few campaigns that have trended and shift the conversation, but once they’re over we have to start from scratch. We felt the need to create the same online platforms that like those of African-American, Asian and Latino communities, among others. We want to create our own online base that we can consistently engage on multiple issues.
People use the phrase "Black Twitter" to describe how black social media users immediately converge on an issue. Is there a Muslim Twitter?
There’s definitely a Muslim Twitter, but it is disconnected. Our new online platform will be the closing circle.
There isn’t one place for all the issues we talk about as Muslims to be found together. We don’t have any national Muslim organizations that work on immigrant or workers rights or economic justice issues like creating a living wage. These are all issues that we care about. We’re hoping that our platform will demonstrate the positions of the Muslim community and also to make sure our community stays informed.
Like other communities, American Muslims don’t agree on every issue. How are you thinking about that going forward with this new platform?
We have principles and guidelines. For example, we will not allow content that is homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-black or anti-women, even if they’re coming from people in our communities. … Once we create our online community, it will inform our position on certain issues. We want to get to a place where we ask our [150,000 members] a question such as, “Do you support the current state of Countering Violent Extremism programs?” If our membership says no, then that is our position. We want to have a grassroots feel. This is about taking it to ordinary people who are engaged on the Internet and on social media.
The Dream Defenders recently took a hiatus from their well-established social media platform claiming that their digital presence distracts from on-the-ground grassroots organizing. How do you relate to what they’re saying about the dangers of social media activism?
This is why we created an entire online organizing platform dedicated solely to the online organizing. My co-founders are all grassroots community organizers and we definitely don’t see online organizing as a replacement for street organizing. The difference between us and Dream Defenders is that they are a grassroots organization that happens to have a strong social media component. For them, it could be a distraction from the transformative work they want to do on the ground. But for us, we created a separate entity just to focus on online organizing that still gives opportunities for organizers and organizations around the country to continue to do grassroots work. We’re just providing complementary tool to the organizing on the ground. We’re hoping that our platform can be used to uplift the campaigns and work of local organizers and communities who don’t have the platform to tell their stories. American Muslims who don’t live in cities like New York will have a larger platform to talk about what’s going on in their communities.
Are there plans to move people from signing petitions and having conversations online to engaging in offline action?
We want to keep communities informed. Right now, we saw some things online about 20 protests planned for October 9 and 10 by armed far-right white militia groups. We want to be that platform that puts out that information. But it’s kind of like Move On; if you become a member and there’s something happening in your zip code you get an e-mail about it. We want to target people in places where there isn’t a lot of organizing happening and there isn’t a CAIR chapter. We also want to create an action kit.
Can you describe your vision for the Muslim organizing training institute that MPower Change will put together?
Besides our digital platform, we think it’s immensely important to develop more Muslim community organizers who engage people face-to-face. We’ve seen the models of PICO and IAF that are rooted in Christian theology around the good Samaritan as something fundamental to being a person of faith, that faith calls you to action. In our own faith, Islam, whether we’re following the footsteps of our prophet or looking at passages in our own Holy Book, there’s so much about workers’ rights, women’s rights, anti-racism and immigration. We want to [infuse] general community organizing training and practices with Islamic theology. The curriculum will move ordinary Muslims to understand that being an active member of your community means standing up for justice, and that this is an Islamic principle. We’re going to help give you practical ways to do that through this training institute. We have two imams helping us work on that. One is an black American in Detroit named Dawud Walid and another is an Algerian-American imam in San Diego named Taha Hassane. They are leading a team of people looking at appropriate religious sources to infuse into a new model of American Muslim community organizing practices.
How have you seen American Muslim activism and community organizing grow in the past decade?
I’ve seen organizing in the American Muslim community become a lot more strategic, more organized. I’ve seen a lot more victories, from passing police reform legislation and incorporating Muslim holidays in New York City to defeating the introduction of surveillance programs in San Francisco. We’re seeing more successes because our community is becoming more intersectional and branching out to work with Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, progressive Jews and other folks of conscience.
Waleed Shahid is Philadelphia-based writer and the political director of Pennsylvania Working Families Party. He tweets at @waleed2go.
*Post has been updated to reflect that Linda Sarsour is the current executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, not the former executive director.