American Muslim Politics Misses Grassroots People Power

American Muslim Politics Misses Grassroots People Power

Taking a page from American social movements, are American Muslims using best practices?


An interfaith program attended by a handful of American Muslims in Israel, the White House’s annual iftaar dinner, revelations about the NSA spying on five prominent American Muslims, and Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza have all rekindled debate on appropriate and effective methods of American Muslim political engagement. While it may be too soon to refer to these discussions as concerning the form and future of the American Muslim social justice movement in the United States, these discussions have largely ignored questions involving power and how to build and contest it.

Inside/Outside Strategy

Traditional tactics can be employed to bring about political change including financial donations, electoral endorsements and campaigning, and lobbying. These “inside” forms of civic engagement require heavy funding, large-scale organizational structure, and sometimes sacrificing ideals for the sake of pragmatism. In his article on social justice electoral organizing, Bob Wing, founding editor of Colorlines Magazine, writes that the Right wing’s inside/outside strategy “builds large-scale issue and values based organizations and campaigns outside of the electoral process, but systematically connects them to their strategy to fight for influence inside the Republican Party and the government.” A longtime activist, he argues that while the Right has been successful at its inside/out strategy, the Left needs to work more intentionally toward striking a balance, warning: “If we move into ‘inside’ work without a powerful outside, we will be weak and isolated, or be forced to simply capitulate. If we do ‘outside’ work without a complementary inside, we will be marginalized from power and dissipate.”

Wing’s remarks are particularly useful for those interested in developing a collective American Muslim political strategy, and dare we say, a movement beyond keyboards. Ultimately, having arms in both the inside and outside the structures of power are necessary to enact political change. Without striking a balance between inside/outside engagement, without working with mosques to develop political education programming to engage their representatives, without educational and media campaigns seeking to raise public awareness and change the narrative, without political education trainings, without creative direct actions, without getting tangled in the committee structures of local, state, and national government and making specific demands, without a vision beyond critique for a new society, the American Muslim community can expect to develop little grassroots power to leverage in the political sphere.

These are the key ingredients that when mixed together helped bring down dictatorships across North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring. The April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, for example, was influenced and trained by members of Otpor, the grassroots Serbian youth movement which organized spontaneous, creative nonviolent direct action against dictator Slobadan Milosevic. In a piece titled “Strategizing for a Living Revolution,” Quaker activist George Lakey argues that building grassroots power and contesting the powers-that-be involves five key nonlinear stages: Cultural preparation, Organization-building, Confrontation, Mass political and economic noncooperation, and Building parallel institutions. Any discussion of the form and future of an American Muslim social justice movement must be able to address these stages and how American Muslim activists, writers, and community leaders can collectively build organizational power. Afterall, consciousness without power is a recipe for all parties to conveniently withdraw into their respective corners.

The decision to attend or boycott a White House iftaar reception therefore matters very little to those in power when the American Muslim community lacks a powerful and organized base (or coalition) who has made their discontent known in the public sphere or has made themselves a nuisance to the powers that be.

The civil rights movement, immigrant rights movement, anti-nuclear movement, ACT UP movement welfare rights movement, feminist movement, and climate justice movement all demonstrate that broad social change requires requires people power and people power requires grassroots organization. Groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) are excellent examples of organizations with a localized grassroots political strategy rooted not only in an inside/outside model, but also in working alongside South Asian and Arab community members in New York City. While DRUM and AAANY are not official Muslim organizations, their work intersects with the community and yet they receive little financial support or recognition in broader American Muslim society despite their laudable achievements in fighting for immigrant rights, public education, and labor rights and against state surveillance.

Activist and poet Alok Vaid-Menon of Darkmatter and the Audre Lorde Project recently wrote an article for Resource Generation critiquing the lip service that people often pay to grassroots political action, writing: “I’ve noticed that many of my friends are much more likely to ‘like’ a post on facebook that has a critique of a system of power. But when I ask for money I tend to get a much small response. What this suggests to me as a culture that prioritizes talking about politics and creating new discourse but not actually doing anything about it. What this suggests to me is how the very act of giving money is not really appreciated as a political action, as an act of solidarity.” In order to actualize the social justice values many of us espouse, we should not only be learning from unsung grassroots organizations like DRUM and AAANY, but also financially supporting them as much as we can (and many others) and affirming their labor.

Much of the recent debate has concerned the “mainstreaming” of American Muslim civic engagement and the politics of the table: getting or rejecting a seat, determining who is breaking bread with who, and figuring out if a critique of the table and its guests would be better delivered at the table itself or away from it. While the table debate has enabled the Muslim blogosphere to think through critical questions over collective political strategy, it has ignored an alternative to “inside” models of political engagement: developing grassroots people power through community and congregational organizing, political education workshops, base-building, coalitional work, and mass mobilizations. Well-organized people power and people’s movements, unlike simple lobbying, intermittent demonstrations, or even the inchoate strategies employed by some supporters of BDS (though others are much more politically savvy), are what fundamentally shift public narratives and create lasting social change.

In order to create the political will to make policymakers act, the people will need to hold them accountable to their own power (and this can be done without building an AIPAC). We only need to look toward one particular grassroots organizer during the civil rights movement for some guidance.

Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

Confrontation and disagreement over political strategy is commonplace for political movements for social change. The complex and often obscured history of disagreement within the civil rights movement might provide some historical grounding. While the history of the civil rights movement is often simplified with a short summary of Rosa Parks, the March on Washington, and snippets of a few Martin Luther King speeches, the actual history involves a conglomeration of individuals and organizations with different ideologies, strategies, and memberships for social change.

While the most prominent national American Muslim advocacy organizations [the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)], do not seem to be actively engaged in grassroots political organizing, the Southern civil rights movement was made up of four prominent organizations that diverged over grassroots strategy just as much as they converged: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Caught between the four organizations was the oft-forgotten leader of the movement, Ella Baker. Baker, alongside Bob Moses and Septima Clark, helped transform the civil rights movement in the South to become a much more democratic and participatory movement. Baker’s direct experience working with working class African Americans led her to demand that they should be developed as leaders of the movement as a means to make more people invested, agitated, and mobilized. In doing so, she directly criticized King’s and the SCLC’s leadership of the civil rights movement, claiming once that “the movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement.”

As a labor organizer in New York City in the 1930s, Baker had grown skeptical of large organizations without accountability to a grassroots community base, writing: “I’m afraid [the labor movement] succumbed to a large extent to the failures of what I call the American weakness of being recognized, and of having arrived and taking on the characteristics and the values even, of the foe.” When African Americans began organizing to form their own political party in Mississippi in 1964, Baker warned: “We must be careful lest we elect to represent us people who, for the first time, feel their sense of importance and will represent themselves before they represent you.” As she began working for the NAACP, she realized that the local branches were only working when people came to them with specific legal cases. Baker blasted the local branches in a letter, writing: “Any branch which says it has nothing around which it can build a program is simply too lazy to concern itself with things on its own doorstep.”

In a passage from I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles Payne, the author summarizes Baker’s criticisms of the NAACP, which speaks volumes about the current direction of American Muslim political engagement:

“[The NAACP] was successful enough with its program of attacking the legal base of racial oppression that its very success blinded the organization to its shortcomings. The legal strategy ‘had to be’ directed by lawyers and other professionals, leaving most of the huge mass base of the NAACP–400,000 members by 1944–little meaningful role in the development of policy and program except raising funds and cheering the victories as they came…[Baker] thought the leadership was overly concerned with recognition from whites, a concern that helped prevent the organization from taking a confrontational stance even when such a stance would have made tactical sense. She thought the program was overtly oriented to a middle class agenda and not nearly strong enough on the kinds of economic issues that meant most to working class black people.”

Baker would eventually bring together hundreds of college students to form the direct action group SNCC, which remain intentionally independent from older, established organizations like the SCLC and NAACP. Some of the students wanted to be engaged in militant direct action, while others wanted to provide social services and conduct massive voter registration. When the Kennedy administration, having been placed in the awkward mediary position between racist southern Democrats and student activists, told SNCC to concentrate on voter registration rather than dramatic and confrontational direct-actions, the students became intensely divided over the direction of the organization. Baker eventually and reluctantly interceded, fearing the breakup of SNCC, and pushed forward a campaign for SNCC to take on both nonviolent direct action and voter registration, claiming that the latter would likely produce a violent reaction and therefore the distinction would dissolve.

American Muslims seeking to engage the political system have much to learn from the legacy of Ella Baker and other grassroots movements for social justice in the United States. Baker consistently pushed the leaders of the civil rights movement to work on the “outside” strategy first and develop the leadership potential and political consciousness of its grassroots members. She derided the NAACP for taking on racial and economic injustice solely through a top-down legal strategy on a case-by-case basis instead of developing programs to build collective African American grassroots power. Baker’s insistence and ideological commitment to participatory democracy crafted such a powerful and unified grassroots “outside” that the “inside” of the both the white and black political establishment were forced to respond to the powerful organizational skills and perseverance she helped cultivate in SNCC and other groups.

While Baker’s Jim Crow-era Mississippi was a radically different context than the one confronting American Muslims today, her commitment to building people power offers up important lessons in grassroots organizing today. Baker teaches us that power doesn’t lie in op-eds, social media campaigns, lobbying, banal demonstrations, or even in debates about White House dinner invitations. Current discussions concerning American Muslim politics have largely ignored the importance of grassroots organizing, which, without the backing of big funders, is essential to any program of social change.

American Muslims are uniquely positioned to organize in grassroots coalitions toward racial, economic, and social justice by challenging U.S. foreign policy, anti-immigrant legislation, anti-women legislation, mass incarceration, income inequality, and routinized violations of civil liberties on a local and national level. While the often thankless work of people behind national organizations CAIR and MPAC and local organizations like DRUM and AAANY has laid the groundwork for American Muslim political engagement, we must further develop more creative approaches to cultivate grassroots people power in order to most effectively contest the powers that be.

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