The State of American Muslim Philanthropy: 21 years after 9/11

By Shariq Siddiqui, JD, PhD

Dr. Shariq Siddiqui is Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies and Director of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

 

According to the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), 1.1 percent of the US population is Muslim. Muslim Americans are a highly diverse minority with no one ethnic group making a majority. Muslim Americans are largely a community of color with Asians, African Americans, Arab and Latinos making up the largest proportion of this small minority population.

Muslim American households have a lower than average income than the average American household. Prior research by ISPU shows that Muslim Americans are under a great deal of stress and face a great deal of external prejudice and islamophobia.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001 were transformative to the American way of life. Its impact was particularly felt in the Muslim American community when it was discovered that the terrorists were of the Islamic faith. The US government immediately looked for possible support of such terrorists domestically, scrutinizing Muslim American charities and philanthropists for a possible link, and creating a climate of fear for this small community.

Despite this openly expressed Islamophobia, a new report by the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that Muslim Americans are vibrant contributors to American philanthropy and in particular causes within the United States.  Despite being only 1.1% of the population, they make up 1.4% ($4.3 billion) of individual giving.

The research finds that despite being poorer than the average American household, Muslim Americans participated in charitable giving and volunteering at higher levels than the average household.  Overall, the survey finds that Muslims give more towards both faith-based and non-faith-based causes than non Muslims. Overall, Muslim Americans gave $3200 for charitable giving, compared to $1905 for the general population.

Furthermore, defying Islamophobic tropes that Muslim Americans are more aligned to international causes, only 16% of their giving is focused on such causes while 84% of their gifts support American charitable causes.

The strongest motivation for American Muslims is a feeling of compassion towards people in need (average 4.31 out of 5). Compared to the general population, Muslims have a more positive image of the charitable sector (4.08 versus 3.58). The lowest motivations for giving (whether Muslim or non Muslim) include getting a tax credit, recognition, financial strain, and the belief that giving money to charities is wasted. Overall, the motivations among Muslims and non Muslims are pretty similar.

A significant component of Muslims’ faith-based giving includes giving to civil rights. Muslims give nearly 8.47% of their contributions toward civil rights causes, compared to 5.31% of the general public. This finding suggests that much of Muslim American giving goes towards fighting Islamophobia and cementing their position in the US. Islamophobia is a critical issue that Muslims have faced even before the events of 9/11. Therefore, a large proportion of their faith-based giving goes towards fighting these issues. In this regard, Muslim Americans are not an outlier, at least historically. Faith was an important component of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as evidenced by the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who were both Muslim.

Muslims also support understanding of their faith. They gave 6.43% of their contributions toward religious research, compared to 4.02% of the general population. Muslims also contributed generously towards addressing COVID, which comprised 8.76% of their giving, and contributed 7.11% of their giving towards youth and family causes. However, Muslim Americans give less to houses of worship than the general population.

Muslim Americans have been on the front lines of COVID-19 response.  Muslim Americans make up only 1% of the national population, but they play a more significant role in the front lines of COVID-19. For example, 15% of physicians and 11% of pharmacists in Michigan are Muslim Americans. In New York City, Muslim Americans make up 10% of the city’s physicians, 13% of the pharmacists and 40% of cab drivers, all designated essential workers.  Other than houses of worship, Muslim Americans gave more significantly to domestic poverty relief, COVID-19 related charities and civil rights.

Muslim American organizations are at the forefront of dealing with unfair scrutiny due to Islamophobia.  Making the work of these organizations even more difficult is the complicated notion of “strategic philanthropy.”  This misunderstood term is pushing donors to focus on programmatic funding, rather than building the capacity of the nonprofit organization to serve the mission of the organization.

These challenges are further exacerbated by an anemic response by mainstream philanthropy.  American foundations have sought to either fund intermediary groups within the Muslim American community that seek equity or have been focused on programmatic  support.  Mainstream foundations have not engaged with Muslim Americans by building an internal expertise on the Muslim American community.  While many oppose bigotry, it would seem that these national foundations are afraid to engage because of the fear of partnering with the “wrong actor.”  Islamophobia has created enough caution to limit the engagement of mainstream philanthropy in the latest American civil rights battle and challenge to pluralism.

It is important to note that Muslim American philanthropy has achieved a great deal with very limited resources.  However, this philanthropy is generally focused on the challenges and conflicts of today, rather than seeking long-term innovative solutions.  Diversity, crisis, conflict and prejudice has limited the opportunity of Muslim Americans to engage in philanthropy more broadly and through a strategic collaborative approach.  There are important exceptions to this like the Pillars Fund, Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, Zaytuna College, ElHibri Foundation, Unity Production Foundation, Community Collaboration Initiative, Muslim Collaboration Prizes and Zakat Foundation Institute to name a few.  However, these important initiatives represent a very small portion of the Muslim American nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

Philanthropy, both Muslim American and mainstream, needs to focus on the broader health of the Muslim American nonprofit and philanthropic sector by building organizational capacity and fostering greater collaboration.  Strategically building capacity and collaboration will result in greater programmatic activity and more innovative solutions.

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