This is a summary of a case study of the Islamic Civic Society of America (ICSA), an institutional member of the Renewing the Public Congregation (RPC) demonstration of the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative.
Islamic Civic Society of America (ICSA) demonstrates the compatibility between Islamic and civic principles in a democratic society. Members of ICSA are dedicated to governing for the common good while addressing the specific needs of the Muslim community.
Members of the ICSA Organizing Agency
Abdisalam Adam, Board Chair; Sharif Mohamed, Imam, MACI Lead Organizer; Wali Dirie, MACI Lead Organizer; Abdikadir Ibrahim; Abdirashid Musse; Abdisamad Ibrahim; Fartun Ahmed
In 1993, Somali immigrants began to come to Minnesota to flee the civil war in their homeland. In June 1998, a group of scholars and community leaders established the Riverside Islamic Center in the heart of the West Bank in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. As the services and needs of the community grew, the name changed to Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center.
In 2006, with much effort support from the Muslim community, the building was purchased. At the same time, several key leaders began exploring a civic organizing approach as a way to show the compatibility between Islam and Democracy, and develop a sustainable organization that would include a mosque but also provide broader educational and community services. They took Civic Organizing 101 and upon completion agreed to try to organize a pilot.
A civic organizing pilot was launched in January 2007 with key leaders. In that year the organization changed its name to Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Civic Center. By 2009 leaders in the organization were clear in their intent to organize a civic institution in Minnesota and acknowledged the national and international role they continued to play within the Muslim world. To honor that role, the organization changed its name to Islamic Civic Society of America.
The need for a New Approach to Policy Making
Even before they were introduced to civic organizing, ICSA leaders knew that Islamic values and customs are compatible with democratic principles. But integrating its immigrant, Muslim population into American society is a challenge. They must deal with significant language and cultural differences, and the need to build a new institutional infrastructure in this country that supports the community, prepares them to contribute to American society without losing their own history and identity. Their challenge occurs within the generational patterns that impact all immigrant experiences:
- The majority of the first generation is focused on the country they left with many hoping to go back one day. Their interests are tied to fulfilling commitments to family left behind, the political challenges and struggles of their homeland. At the same time, all are working hard to survive and adjust within a new culture while experiencing the breakdown in traditional social structures and authority between the first and second generation.
- The second generation is often left to find their way between the beliefs and practices of their traditional identity and what they experience as they enter the American mainstream culture.
- The need to develop an institutional infrastructure within this power dynamic.
These common immigrant challenges apply to the Somali experience. Like many immigrant groups, the concept of an institutional infrastructure that supports a society is quite foreign to the Somali experience, where society is structured primarily through family lineage. However, in a democracy, a strong cross-sector institutional base that supports the basic need for family, faith, community, education, and governance is essential to sustainability. Building an effective institutional infrastructure needs to be done while also responding to current challenges.
There is a need for the Somali community to understand the function of policy making in a democracy. Simply implementing current approaches—electoral, service, community-based activism, or advocacy—that do not develop civic capacity, will not address the real needs of our community nor prepare members to contribute in the larger society.
We have an opportunity to promote a new approach to policy making one that holds that the family is a primary policy institution not simply a social unit that is acted upon when troubles occur. This approach includes:
- All systems—faith, family, community, work, education, governance—have the capacity to produce their specific purpose and to contribute to sustaining democracy as a just system of governance.
- Muslim-American families develop an identity that is grounded in the compatibility between Islamic and Democratic principles.
- Families are understood to be core policy centers for producing the mindset (character), skills, and resources to sustain family purpose and contribute to the larger economic, political, environmental well-being of society.
- Stakeholders in all systems—family, faith, community, work, education, and government—see themselves as policy makers/active citizens and develop the capacity to govern for the common good.
- Policy making sustains both the core identity of each institution and the civic capacity and civic infrastructure needed to address complex issues and sustain democracy as a just system of governance.
Understanding and embracing this new approach to policy making is critical to ICSA’s success as they build the more complex infrastructure needed to contribute to American society and sustain their particular identity.