Massachusetts Muslims Seek Social Justice

By Anna Syed

In Roxbury, at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, there stands a building whose very address evokes its community’s commitment to social justice. From exploration and discovery to education and engagement, the Cultural Center of the Islamic Society of Boston serves as a home for Boston’s growing Muslim community. The Center, known locally as the ISBCC, provides many sorts of spaces to its visitors: it contains a cafe, in which they may nourish their bodies; it houses a shop, in which they may clothe themselves; it includes a prayer space, in which they may worship and it features a large event space, in which they may gather. It was within this space at the ISBCC last May that some 1200 Muslims from across the Commonwealth gathered in partnership with leaders of other faith communities to engage in dialog with Governor Deval Patrick. The event’s participants brought to the Governor their stories of suffering and discrimination, their acutely felt needs, and their hopes for the future. They sought his promise to assist them in the pursuit of their civil rights, and cheered with joy as his pledges were received. From a promise to use a $50,000 grant to increase sensitivity training for law enforcement officials, to a commitment to personally visit more Islamic centers, the Governor demonstrated to his audience that they formed a valued component of his constituency.

A closer look at the forum’s planning, execution and follow-up reveals the core ingredients of good community organizing which made this success possible. In the weeks leading up to the event, organizers met with hundreds of Muslims from across the Commonwealth to listen to their needs, and to work together to form the requests they would make of the Governor. Time and again, when asked about their struggles, these community representatives pinpointed the treatment of Muslims by law enforcement officials as a key problem. They also cited difficulties on behalf of their children concerning public schools, where a lack of awareness of Muslim customs too often creates feelings of isolation and hardship. They spoke of problems in soliciting permission from their employers to attend the obligatory Friday prayers, and of the painful attacks which they and their families have suffered. In response to these grievances, the leadership of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, in partnership with the Muslim American Society and other Muslim community leaders forged a plan to ask the Governor, in person, for his help. Meeting with and generating support within the widest possible swathe of the Muslim community ensured broad support for the event. Indeed, when the big day came, representatives of at least 25 different community groups (including 15 mosques) turned up in droves.

The faces of the crowd assembled at the forum spoke volumes of the richness of Massachusetts’ large Muslim community. Men of all ages, boys and girls, immigrants and American-born citizens, women veiled and unveiled crowded together within the Center to hear and be heard. With eagerness, sincerity and hopefulness, they listened to one another. This provided another ingredient of the event’s success: the possibility for community members to develop empathy for one another, to promote justice and to provide mutual support.

As the election season draws to a close, the Muslim community seeks the fulfillment of Governor Patrick’s promises. While some have already been enacted, more remain. An upcoming meeting is planned with the state’s gubernatorial candidates to reaffirm the Governor’s commitments. The organizers of the Governor’s forum in May hope that this will form the lynch pin of their success. By reminding the Governor publicly of his promises, they hope to highlight the need for his accountability to his Muslim constituents.

Anna Syed is an American born convert to Islam.  She is pursuing a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at Simmons College.  She lives in Roxbury with her husband and daughter.

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