Being a Michigan native, I still look at Philadelphia with an outsider’s eye, even after five years of living here. The impact upon me of how many Muslims there are here in this city still rings with a newness for me. Last weekend, I happened to meet a young man from Baltimore who was up visiting the University of Pennsylvania in hopes of attending a graduate program there. We spent part of the afternoon together and he continually remarked about how many Muslims there are in Philadelphia. From your bus driver to a world-class surgeon and everything in between, Muslims are quasi-ubiquitous in Philadelphia; they are just everywhere. Everywhere that is, unless you’re looking for civic engagement.
I have been on the Mayor’s inter-faith counsel for the past five years and I have seen Muslims present from time to time but what continues to disappoint me is the lack of structure and organizations that Muslims in Philadelphia have. Most masājid are run down and broke, to be frank. Their operating budgets [if they even seem to have something so official] are minuscule; ramshackle buildings in blighted areas are not out of norm. I write these observations not out of a sense of malice: I often deliver khutbahs in these places and I love my brothers and sisters dearly. But I cannot ignore a glaring problem when I see it. I ask myself: “Why are Philadelphia Muslims so content with their predicament?” Poverty; violence [we lost another young Muslim to violence just this week: an 18-year-old girl]; educational and economic disparity. Why are these dear brothers and sisters not using their Islam as a means of uplift instead as a blunt instrument of complacency? I can’t tell you how many places I have visited and communities I’ve spoken with, brothers I’ve talked to, all whom bellyache, bemoan, and impute the “kafir system”, yet do little to nothing to affect positive changes in their own neighborhoods. Has Islam in Philadelphia simply become a cultural practice [and here I am specifically addressing the Blackamerican community]? Is this not the same crticism we level at so-called immigrant Muslims, who no longer “practice” but still have some feeble notion of Muslim-ness?
This past weekend played host to the Islamic Heritage Festival. My wife and I had a nice time hanging out in the sun, talking to friends we hadn’t seen in a while. Even the music was entertaining, if not somewhat questionable [Miss Undastood singing, “Muhammad Akbar Ali, here’s the number to my wali“]. But what was most noticeably missing to me was the lack of heritage. Philadelphia is ripe with Muslims history, from brother Malcolm to the Ahmad and Muhaimin families, just to name a few. There seemed to be very little to no heritage and more just a gathering. I recognize the importance of social gatherings but how could one of the most important cities in American in terms of Muslim history, have a heritage festival without any heritage? For me, this is indicative of the issue in Philadelphia: there are so many Muslims that Islam is taken for granted.
In a recent e-mail from Mayor Nutter’s office, I received this e-mail:
On behalf of Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the Executive Committee and Steering Committee of NewCORE, we are pleased to invite you to NewCORE’s upcoming dialogue: Moving Toward A More Perfect Union … Two years ago, at the National Constitution Center, Barack Obama gave a famous speech in which he challenged Americans to help form “A More Perfect Union” … Locally, an interfaith group called the New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity (NewCORE), has accepted the President’s challenge, to spur the Philadelphia community to be a leader in this effort … In February 2009 NewCORE convened its first large-scale public dialogue, attended by 100+ faith and civic inspired people, at Philadelphia’s City Hal l… NewCORE is comprised of many individuals and faith organizations, but key support comes from: Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University; the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia; WHYY, Inc., and; the University of Pennsylvania, Project for Civic Engagement.
The part that grabbed my attention above was not so much the NewCORE organization but the lack of any definitive Muslim presence in the line: Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University; the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia; WHYY, Inc., and; the University of Pennsylvania, Project for Civic Engagement. In a city this size, with a Muslim population this big, how is it there is not one Muslim organization involved? There are so many opportunities for Muslims to engage the broader public here in Philadelphia in contrast to almost any other city I’ve lived in or visited in the states. Non-Muslims here are either familiar with or accustomed to—if not sympathetic towards—Muslims. These advantages should be capitalized upon. If Islam in Philadelphia is going to have any hopes of succeeding in giving birth to a new generation of Muslims that are going to live for and die for Islam, then a much more aggressive approach is going to be needed. The consequences of not doing so are already present amongst us here. I pray that Allah gives us the fortitude, intestinal and spiritual, to do what is incumbent upon us.