Why We’re Allies of the Muslim Community – Five Short Stories

By Kate Chance, Interfaith Coordinator; Marcia Beauchamp, PhD, Affiliate Director; Henry “Hank” Millstein, PhD, Content Manager & Program Analyst; Tim Brauhn, Communications Manager; and Steven Cohen, Media Consultant. 

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

Does it make sense that an organization named Islamic Networks Group (ING), whose mission is “to counter prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions,” have a sizable number of staff members (five out of twelve ) who aren’t Muslim? We — the non-Muslim staff members at ING — think it does, especially in the current climate around Muslims and Islam.

While it is not common, we’re not the only Muslim organization to have staff who are not Muslim or have non-Muslims working in close partnerships (Muslim Public Affairs Council, MPAC, and Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, are two other that come to mind). There is a lot of good that comes out of this; the most positive is the development of real allyship.

Here are five testimonies from ING staff who are not Muslim, speaking to their common commitment to working with and for the Muslim communities and why they do so.

Next: Meet Kate Chance, Interfaith Coordinator

As a Christian American born and raised in the Bible Belt, I am often asked why I’m working for a Muslim organization. Here’s my best attempt at an elevator response: As a Christian I cannot think of anything more Christ-like than standing with those who are being maligned and persecuted, and as an American I cannot think of anything more crucial to our nation than religious freedom.

My working with a Muslim organization is the most Christian and the most American thing about me.

The heart of my faith is found in the Gospels and in the radically inclusive nature of Jesus, who accepted all people whatever their faith tradition, their ethnicity or even their sins. All too often this message of love and inclusion finds itself put on the backburner by those quoting the Bible to promote discrimination against those of a different race, religion, or sexual orientation.

I have been met with nothing but love, patience and hospitality by the American Muslim community and simply cannot comprehend the depth of ignorance and hate these loving individuals have been met with, especially by those who claim the same religious identity I do.

In the year 1620 my ancestors boarded the Mayflower and faced hell and high water to come to America in pursuit of religious freedom. Our nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty by those who risked their lives, abandoned their property and left their friends and family behind so that they and their children could practice the religion of their choosing.

I find it baffling that the actions of a small group of radicals are reason enough to jeopardize the basic principle that our nation was established on. There is nothing more American than our right to practice religion freely, and I’ll face hell and high water myself before I’ll see our nation’s notion of religious freedom compromised.

So, while my career choice may seem odd to some, I simply cannot see myself working for any other cause that is more in line with my values both as a Christian and as an American.

Next: Meet Marcia Beauchamp, PhD, Affiliate Director

My father was a military man, so I was raised in a household that stressed the importance of the founding values of the United States. Having served in a post-World War II military, my father served alongside men of differing faith commitments and races where he learned first-hand the important “glue” produced by a common commitment to those values.

He taught us that the constitution guarantees protection of diversity in claims of conscience, both religious and non-religious. My father instilled in us a respect for persons of any and all races and religions, and he underscored the precious worth of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Out of that background, I developed a curiosity about what role being committed to a particular faith plays in people’s lives, and how they are related to U.S. citizenship. This interest led me to study religion in undergraduate as well as graduate school and, in the process, I developed a strong desire to articulate, educate others about and support a healthy relationship between these two ultimate commitments in people’s lives.

Over the years I have been fortunate to participate in work through which I could achieve my aims. What I have learned has been invaluable and has only strengthened the lessons my father taught me about the crucial nature of our common agreements to live with our differences in peace.

This peace is now, more than ever for the Muslim community in the Unites States, meeting severe challenges. Simply, what motivates me to be here, now, serving the Muslim community through ING in these challenging times, is the warning, paraphrased from the poem written by Reverend Martin Neimöller in Nazi Germany, that if we are unwilling to stand up for the rights of others, particularly those who are different from us, our own rights are also in peril.

I stand unwavering with my fellow Muslim American brothers and sisters in the struggle for equal protection under the law, fairness, respect, and the freedom to walk the streets of their neighborhoods free from fear and to worship as their consciences demand.

Next, Meet Tim Brauhn, Communications Manager

I’m a Catholic. So why do I work for an organization whose primary mission is to teach Americans about Islam and Muslims?

My commitment to this mission comes in three main flavors. First, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past decade doing interfaith work. I believe deeply in bringing people together across religious lines to work toward the common good. Next, America is a diverse nation trying hard to guarantee basic constitutional freedoms to all people regardless of their culture or faith.

Lastly, a rising tide lifts all boats. Accurate information about one religious minority has spillover effects on humanizing other religious minorities. In an era where the unchurched (or unmosqued) portion of the American public has grown huge, it’s more important than ever to dispel lingering misperceptions about our various religions. It keeps the peace.

As an American Catholic, I have good reason to support the full acceptance of American Muslims. Only a few decades ago, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was viewed with deep suspicion as an agent of the Vatican. And decades before that, Catholics (especially immigrants) were excluded from large swathes of public life by nativists who feared them and, at times, visited violence upon the dangerous Papists in their midst.

Catholics made it into the mainstream only with the support of many non-Catholic allies.

The eventual acceptance of Judaism as a legitimate American faith is a similar story. Jews and Catholics, once despised and feared, are now viewed as “normal” Americans.

So, as an American Catholic, I have to stand up for those similarly maligned. When I’m asked, “Why do you work for a Muslim organization?” I answer, “Because we’ve been down this road before, and it’s ridiculous. This is America, and we’re better than that.”

I don’t deserve any special congratulations for believing that Muslim Americans are just as boring as I am. All I know is that we have to keep working, educating, befriending, and listening. Only then will we guarantee the promise of an America where people of all faiths and none can live and thrive together

Next: Meet Henry “Hank” Millstein, PhD, Content Manager & Program Analyst

I can answer the question of why I work for ING in one word: Solidarity. Solidarity is a key concept both in Catholic social teaching and in the labor movement — and I’ve been both a Catholic and a union activist and supporter for many years. Solidarity means putting myself on the line when others are threatened or attacked — not just out of altruism (though that’s important) but out of the understanding that it’s my life and that of my family and community that’s on the line too.

As the old labor movement adage has it, “An injury to one is an injury to all”; or, as Martin Luther King put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If Muslims’ rights and freedom are threatened, so are mine.

Five years ago, I welcomed the opportunity to work at ING because I wanted to learn about Islam, a major religion that I knew little about. Muslims today find themselves on the front line against what’s turning out to be a global movement of exclusivism and xenophobia. And my work with ING was a good fit for what has turned out (though no plan of my own) to be my career path: Working to defend and preserve minority cultures.

But now, my commitment to ING’s mission has taken on a new dimension. Muslims today find themselves on the front line against what’s turning out to be a global movement of exclusivism and xenophobia that threatens all of us. I feel that threat all the more because, though by religion I’m a Christian, I was born and still identify as a Jew. So, I’m glad to be on the front line with my Muslim sisters and brothers.

Moreover, I’m glad to be on that front line with a religious organization that sees love and understanding rather than hostility and violence (verbal or otherwise) as the way forward. Left to myself, I can easily descend to hatred and rage. ING reminds me to live by another of King’s statements: “Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that.”

Next: Meet Steven Cohen, Media Consultant  

I’m committed to working with and for Muslim communities because of how I was raised. Both my mother and father were extremely active in San Francisco civic life and civil rights. My father was a prominent lawyer, a leader and president of SF’s Council for Civic Unity and a board member of the International Institute, which assisted immigrants and new Americans. My mom was a very prominent activist and change agent.

I’d describe myself as culturally Jewish. Though I didn’t have formal Jewish training, my younger daughter was the first person in our family to have been mitzvahed. As she went through that journey, I thought about how my family values relate to the tenets of the faith: education, learning, justice, tolerance…

Working for justice and tolerance for all people is in my blood.

Kate, Marcia, Hank, Tim, and Steven are employees at Islamic Networks Group (ING), a national non-profit with affiliates in 20 states that counter prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of America’s history and cultural diversity, while building relations between American Muslims and other groups.