By Altaf Husain
As Americans pause on 4 April, the anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, it is worthwhile to reflect on the culture of service and social justice that were part of his teachings. While the values King espoused could be internalised by anyone who is passionate about improving the human condition, his teachings resonate especially with faith-inspired people. Muslim Americans, for example, have a profound appreciation for King because he dedicated his life to addressing societal injustices – a central tenet of the Islamic tradition.
Of particular relevance from King’s teachings is the concept of a “world house”, comprised of peoples of different faith traditions. He wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
The concept of a world house is especially relevant when applied to interfaith collaboration on social justice initiatives today. Such interfaith collaboration is an American tradition, and Muslim Americans are integral to it. In fact, social activism among Muslim Americans is at an all-time high.
Inspired by their own faith tradition and responding to invitations from other traditions, Muslim Americans have been noticeably advancing the concept of a world house, especially by focusing people’s attention on hunger in America.
Consider the Interfaith Hunger Initiative (IHI) in Indianapolis, of which the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is a partner. The IHI reports that 16,000 children die from hunger each day throughout the world. In Indianapolis alone, a total of 18,000 children are frequently hungry. With the active involvement of Muslim Americans, IHI aims to end child and family hunger both at the domestic level in Indianapolis, and internationally in Kenya.
While hunger is an issue nationwide, in inner-city neighbourhoods, a related issue is the disproportionately large number of unhealthy food options being sold in stores. This issue, conceptualised as food justice, is being addressed head on by a Chicago-based organisation, Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN). IMAN is located in Chicago’s south side and was founded by young Muslim Americans. IMAN is unabashedly targeting “food and liquor” stores (including ones owned by Muslims) in inner-city black neighbourhoods, challenging them to take responsibility for the food options they offer. IMAN recently sponsored a forum entitled “Food For Life, A Human Right: Food Justice, Corner Stores & Race Relations in the ‘Hood”.
Muslim Americans are also represented both by ISNA and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an American membership organisation of 300 religious communities. NRCAT asserts that “torture is a moral issue”, and aims to end torture in our own backyard. A declaration regarding prisoner treatment, torture and cruelty states that NRCAT members “agree that the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American.” As active and vocal partners in NRCAT, Muslim Americans are exerting tremendous energy in organising campaigns to educate community members about the adverse psychological and physical impact of current practices on prisoners, such as 23-hour solitary confinement; they advocate prohibiting torture outright for mentally ill prisoners, as well as certain interrogation techniques.
As these examples indicate, there are sufficient members of the world house, among them Muslim Americans, who are not only putting into practice the teachings of their own faith and cultural traditions but also exemplifying the continuing relevance of King’s teachings to contemporary social issues. King’s life was cut short nearly 45 years ago; however, his teachings remain relevant today, inspiring Muslim Americans and others to uphold social justice through interfaith collaborations.
Altaf Husain serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Society of North America. He is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Assistant Professor of Social Work at Howard University in Washington, DC.