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In Chicago, A Muslim Non-Profit Is Engaging The Community Through Activism


Ask faith leaders in the U.S. about their biggest challenge and they're likely to say this - how do they make religion relevant to a new generation? The Pew Research Center found nearly a quarter of people raised as Christians leave the faith; same with Muslims. Though small, Islam is growing here, just as many people join as leave. NPR's Leila Fadel takes us to Chicago and a Muslim nonprofit that is engaging Muslims and non-Muslims alike through activism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Rapping) The sweeter the juice, the deeper the roots.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Outside Morgan Mini Mart on the South Side of Chicago, an emcee adapts Tupac lyrics to make them about fruits and vegetables.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, y'all, we got free smoothies on deck - free, free.

FADEL: It's part of the Refresh The 'Hood drive at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. The acronym is also the Arabic word for faith, and faith is what drives the action at this organization.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Refresh The 'Hood, y'all.

FADEL: People pass out fresh smoothies to promote the subsidized produce sold inside. It's part of IMAN's corner store campaign to make fresh food accessible in urban food deserts. Nearby, there are homes boarded up, and there are stores that have bars on the windows and bulletproof glass. IMAN works to change that.

SADIA NAWAB: We just want it to look more vibrant.

FADEL: That's Sadia Nawab, the 28-year-old arts and culture manager at IMAN who's working with the store to make it inviting. Her hair is wrapped in a colorful turban and her nose pierced.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Deana (ph) I saw you. I was driving by.

FADEL: Behind her, teens from the neighborhood spray paint the words one love and the good food on silver garbage cans. A breakdancer head spins on the corner. Nawab is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and she grew up in a Chicago suburb. Her parents didn't always get what it was like to be an American-born kid of color in a mostly white school. She knew she was Muslim.

NAWAB: I just didn't know what it meant, the identities that society placed on me and even just me trying to figure out who I am myself. Most people probably thought I was Arab and Muslim and an immigrant and doesn't speak English, you know? It just - the boxes people put you in.

FADEL: At 17, Nawab started volunteering with IMAN, and it helped her solidify her identity as an American Muslim.

NAWAB: I needed mentors, and I really didn't have good mentors in place, you know. I just didn't have them in high school. Like, I found them at IMAN, you know.

FADEL: IMAN'S a nonprofit, and its founder, Rami Nashashibi, says it's deeply rooted in Islam's teachings. He started it in his early 20s. He brought together a coalition of Muslims - black, Latino, Arab, South Asian, some from the South Side, others from the suburbs.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: We've passed legislation. We've moved things. We've written things into law. We've built the - those type of coalitions. And, you know, we understand what it means to be genuinely relevant and resonate at a local level in people's lives.

FADEL: And more than 20 years later, Nashashibi is 46, and IMAN has several buildings in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. There's a new branch in Atlanta.

NASHASHIBI: Its larger mission statement is lived out in the capacity of our direct services.

FADEL: IMAN treats violence as a public epidemic, provides medical services to the community through its clinic, resolves gang feuds, lobbies for criminal justice reform; one program provides job training for people returning from prison. They learn those skills by rehabbing vacant and vandalized homes.

NASHASHIBI: We help to stabilize some of the most problematic blocks in the neighborhood. All of that, what does it translate into, I think is exactly what and who we want to be in this moment.

FADEL: A moment of increased prejudice that Nashashibi says is being inflamed by government policies. Half of Muslims in America, according to the Pew Research Center, say being Muslim has become more difficult in recent years. Now, IMAN is not a mosque, and Nashashibi is not an Islamic scholar. He actually comes from a non-religious home - his mom, a Palestinian-American raised in Chicago, his late father a Jordanian diplomat. He was first drawn to Islam through hip-hop and its references to the faith as a source of social justice. The work he and his staff do is their form of worship.

NASHASHIBI: It's much bigger than IMAN. It's like, we're trying to celebrate the legacy of the spirit of a transformational, empowering, inspirational Islam that is not just constantly apologizing or having to explain itself.

FADEL: It's the antidote, he says, to the apathy that leads people away from Islam. It's a solution to feeling marginalized. It's an alternative to violence, whether it's in gangs on Chicago's South Side or extremist groups abroad. And for this work, he was recently given a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for, quote, "building bridges across racial, religious and socioeconomic divides to confront the challenges of poverty and disinvestment."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Where do you guys want to see her do it?

FADEL: IMAN continues that work today through things like art, like this ceramics class. A couple teens, non-Muslims from the neighborhood, soften the clay by slamming it on the table. Nearby, 20-year-old Cedric Smith struggles to make his clay look something like a lantern.

CEDRIC SMITH: I look at this class as an outlet from the day.

FADEL: Smith found IMAN just over a year ago, he says, at a time that he felt overwhelmed.

SMITH: You know, you hear about it on the news, the killings, the police brutalities and, you know, all them type of issues, the food.

FADEL: To help, a friend invited him to IMAN.

SMITH: And mostly that's what they deal with here. So I was kind of looking at this place of trying to find out why I was going through a lot of the stuff I went through. And for the most part, they provided a lot of the answers.

FADEL: Smith learned how to change things for himself and for others. And in the process, he learned about Islam. He converted, started volunteering and is now a youth leader.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) God of love.

FADEL: On one of my visits to IMAN, it's Ramadan, and the organization is hosting a community iftar meal in the parking lot to break the day-long fast. The crowd's a mix of Arab, South Asian, Latino, black, white, Muslims and non-Muslims. There are faith leaders from local churches and synagogues, community organizers and neighbors who use the services. In the background, a graffiti mural on the side of IMAN's clinic has a verse from the Quran in Arabic calligraphy. Is there any reward for good other than good? IMAN's founder, Rami Nashashibi, addresses the crowd.

NASHASHIBI: Whether we’re delivering health care or building houses, we understand that you have to do it by building power, building relationships. And that’s why you will continue to see us continue to use the hashtag #fightfearbuildpower as the ultimate response to the moment that we’re in. So again, I want to hear it - fight fear.


NASHASHIBI: Fight fear.


NASHASHIBI: Fight fear.


FADEL: The dinner goes on most of the night...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Praying in Arabic).

FADEL: ...With the Muslims in the crowd moving to pray together in another part of the parking lot when it's time. This, Nashashibi says, is being Muslim, a call to action and a model to deal with the religion's greatest challenge.

NASHASHIBI: The challenge is relevance. Islam and Muslim identity can become absolutely irrelevant compounded with the challenges of anti-Muslim racism and you ask them, they - the 13-year-old Muslim girl what real incentive, what real passion, drives that person to really want to identify with this once she becomes an 18 or 19-year-old.

FADEL: And it's this form of faith, he says, a faith that pushes society to live up to the unfulfilled ideals of what it could be that will keep Islam alive in the next generation. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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