By Naeem Vahora and Jamie Merchant
It is safe to say that the Trump era in American politics is off to an appropriately dark beginning.
On the afternoon of January 27th, the President signed an Executive Order immediately barring all entry into the U.S. for refugees for 120 days, for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for 90, and for Syrian refugees indefinitely. The order will result in interrupted lives and families torn apart, as people are forcibly cut off from their loved ones and their livelihoods ― apparently the price we must pay for our “national security,” though the claim is dubious at best.
At a deeper, symbolic level, the executive order amounts to a sweeping redefinition of the American polity. The brazen renunciation of the moral duty to receive and protect the innocent victims of war and immiseration flies in the face of the words inscribed on the foundation stone of the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It would appear the ideals embodied in those words only apply to less turbulent times.
Fortunately, though, that vision of universal humanitarianism is alive and well in the very communities routinely villainized by the Trump administration. For all his dire warnings about Muslim refugees and his recent remarks about the City of Chicago, the President could learn a thing or two from Chicago’s Muslim community about our moral responsibilities as human beings.
An Ethic of Generosity: the Footprint of Islamic Humanitarianism in Chicago
The unconditional requirement to serve others who are in distress, without recompense, is explicitly stated in Surah Al-Insan of the Holy Quran: “And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive, [saying], we feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.”
Whether it is in the area of voluntary giving, social service or community development, those words are enacted every day by Chicago’s diverse, expansive Muslim community.
Large-scale charitable donations can go a long way toward meeting unmet needs. Accordingly, volunteers distribute thousands of turkeys for needy families at Thanksgiving, feed homeless residents during the monthlong fast of Ramadan, and give out warm winter clothing for underprivileged residents in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
Beyond charitable giving, leaders from Chicago’s faith communities are energizing the broader campaign for social and economic equity. Like other major cities, Chicago has seen a sharp spike in economic inequality in recent years, as well as dramatic reductions in basic services in the face of repeatedly slashed city and state budgets. In this challenging environment, Muslim civic leaders are joining hands in interfaith partnerships with Christian and Jewish leaders to fight for workers’ rights,racial justice and expanded services for those struggling with mental illness.
And whenever possible, Muslim faith organizations are stepping in themselves to directly provide urgently needed social services. For example: the Chicago Community Hub, sponsored by Zakat Foundation of America, is located in the South Shore, a neighborhood hard-hit by school closures, disinvestment, service cuts and chronic violence. The Community Hub provides cultural activities, tutoring, and wellness programs for local children, as well as employment counseling for adults.
Similarly, another organization on Chicago’s Southwest Side, IMAN, or Inner-City Muslim Action Network, provides comprehensive health services, medical support and behavioral counseling to the mostly uninsured population of the area. In communities virtually abandoned by both the private sector and the state, organizations like these are stepping in to provide the kind of help that can mean the difference between life and death.
Here and across the country, Muslim-Americans are continuing the tradition of Islamic humanitarianism by volunteering their time, money and energy to help others – regardless of who they are, where they are from, or what they believe.
A Message of Unity in a Time of Deepening Divisions
This inclusive sense of moral duty is at the core of Islam. It finds its most condensed expression in the principle of “zakat,” one of the five pillars of the faith, which enjoins Muslims to cleanse their wealth by sharing it with the destitute and the disadvantaged.
Zakat has its roots in the earliest years of Islamic civilization. It is an idea motivated by the conviction that a community’s true worth is measured by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable members. As a morality of unconditional responsibility to help people in distress simply because they are human beings, it represents an absolute contrast to the new President’s disturbingly polarized view of society, which sees the interests of different groups as fundamentally opposed to one another.
If conscientious citizens are searching for whatever meaning the American ideal could have in a time of such deepening divisions, the progressive ethic of inclusiveness, unity, and care as exemplified in the idea of zakat could serve as a powerful model. Our most basic moral obligations are too important to be tossed aside in difficult times, as Mr. Trump would have it. On the contrary, it is precisely in such times that our humanity must shine through most brightly, fueled by the clarity of our values and our willingness to act on them.