The Influential Network for a New Generation of American Muslim Leaders

It was June 12, 2016, and a man named Omar Mateen had just opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding dozens more.

Shireen Zaman reached for her phone. A program director at the Proteus Fund, a social justice-focused foundation based in Amherst, Massachusetts, Zaman knew the tragedy would hit two groups hard: the LGBTQ community, because the shooter had targeted a gay nightclub; and American Muslims, because he was a Muslim and there was sure to be a backlash. Zaman knew someone who walked in both worlds: Urooj Arshad. “She was in my contact list,” Zaman says. “I texted her to ask: How’s she doing? Does she need any support or help?”

What happened next opens a window into one of the country’s most influential networks of American Muslim civic leaders. Arshad is a co-founder of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, and she met Zaman four years earlier when both were fellows at a professional development program in Los Angeles: the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, or AMCLI. Their partnership in a time of crisis is just one example of the impact of this tiny program’s powerful network.

Within hours of the Pulse shooting, Zaman connected Arshad with a Proteus grantee who provides free media support. The consultants helped Arshad and others navigate media requests and tell nuanced stories about gay Muslims for national outlets including The New Yorker, the Associated Press and USA Today. Arshad’s message—don’t use the stories of LGBTQ Muslims to demonize and divide—got out there, fast. Zaman’s help was indispensable, Arshad says. “I don’t know what we would have done without her.”

AMCLI (its alumni call it “AM-a-klee”) is based at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. The Carnegie Foundation helped kick off the program with an initial $50,000 grant, followed by a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Since its first cohort graduated in 2009 more than 250 Muslim activists have attended its training programs. Part professional development, part support group, AMCLI has trained national and regional cohorts in intensive sessions led by interfaith organizers, academics, and activists. Its impact on key members of a rising generation of Muslim leaders is profound.

Linda Sarsour, an organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., is an example of an AMCLI alumnus who has national name recognition, as is Rabia Chaudry, an attorney whose advocacy for convicted murderer Adnan Syed later became the focus of the megahit podcast “Serial.” Other alumni include Umar Hakim, founder of the ILM Foundation, a community service venture in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and Kashif Shaikh, a rising Muslim philanthropist. Shaikh’s Chicago-based Pillars Fund is poised give out close to $1 million in grants this year, all to U.S.-based nonprofits focused on the Muslim community and social change.

AMCLI alumni represent the broad diversity found in the American Muslim population at large: men and women, Sunni and Shia and Ismaili, gay and straight, urban and rural; many are non-profit leaders and founders working in philanthropy, politics, public policy, immigration rights, social justice advocacy, and more. They’re a who’s who of prominent Muslim leaders inspired by their faith but primarily working outside of mosques to promote social change.

“I think it’s a very exciting institute,” says Aminah Beverly McCloud, professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. She notes it’s also a very small one, and wishes the program would build a higher profile. “I don’t know that the average everyday person in the community has any clue that it exists.”

Its connections can be powerful. Sarsour serves on the Pillars board, and AMCLI alumni often turn to each other when they’re looking for contacts, staff, or advice. The network is so close, in fact, that some call it the “FAM-a-klee.” Zaman says, “It gives in some ways a stamp of approval when you’re reaching out to someone, and they say, ‘You’re name is familiar,’ and you find out you’re both AMCLI alums.”

As an open, queer Muslim, Arshad didn’t have strong contacts among Muslim leaders in the U.S. when she applied for an AMCLI fellowship in 2011. But frustrated by the Islamophobia she saw among many LGBTQ activists, she decided to reach out. There were some painful conversations—she learned later that not everyone in her cohort felt comfortable that she was there—but she left feeling supported and part of something larger. In July 2016, thanks to a referral from another AMCLI alum, Arshad found herself at the White House’s Eid al Fitr celebration, watching President Obama give a shout-out to the “LGBT Muslims who are on the front lines in the fight for equality.”

The story of AMCLI begins back in 2005, when a UCLA graduate named Edina Lekovic had a bad day at work. (She jokingly calls herself the “patient zero” of the program.) She was in her late 20s, and amid a cacophony of anti-Muslim rhetoric four years after the September 11 attacks, she was writing news releases and doing national media as the communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles. “I was working around the clock, I was in over my head, and the landscape of American Muslim advocacy was tiny and disconnected,” Lekovic says.

After one particularly long day, she shared her frustrations with two friends, Nadia Roumani and Brie Loskota. “A big part of it was how alone I felt,” Lekovic recalls. “I didn’t have other colleagues in Muslim advocacy to consult and complain to. We should be able to learn from each other and look at each other as colleagues not competition.”

Roumani grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, and had an expertise in the philanthropic world. She’s now director of the Effective Philanthropy Lab at Stanford University’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society. Loskota worked at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where she’s now executive director. She’s a self-described “white blond Pentecostal who has a graduate degree from a Jewish seminary,” and a keen understanding of interfaith activism. Roumani and Loskota had collaborated on a project on political activism in American congregations, where they noticed a generation of energetic young Muslims building and leading vibrant new non-profit institutions—but with little structure or support. There was “a constant narrative of burnout and exhaustion,” Roumani says.

They decided to do something about it. In late July 2006, tapping their connections and with a small stipend from USC’s Center for Civic Culture, they invited 22 young Muslim activists from around the United States to the Pocantico Center in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Most who attended paid their own way. “We said, ‘Who do you know that wants to figure out this challenge? There’s no money on the table. Will you come?’” Roumani recalls. “And everybody came.”

For three days, on an estate with a massive, century-old granite barn originally built to house the Rockefellers’ horse carriages and cars, they talked about their challenges (work/life balance, institution-building) their frustrations (difficult boards, anti-Muslim media attacks), and the future of American Islam. “There were a lot of tears,” Roumani says. The attendees included Rami Nashashibi, whose Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago has been a model for a growing set of Muslim non-profit leaders. Nashishibi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” last year.

The meeting was cathartic, Loskota says, adding that many hadn’t had a chance to talk about the stress of their work as advocates for a population that felt under siege. “The weight of the world is a shared burden.” They emerged from Pocantico with a plan to build a leadership program, and AMCLI was born.

Jewish and Christian activists, involved in building leadership networks in their own communities, were partners from the start, sharing curricula, advice, and contacts. Scholars who have spoken at AMCLI include Marshall Ganz of Harvard University, Manuel Pastor of USC, and University of New Mexico sociologist Richard L. Wood, author of A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy. AMCLI is a “smart and very American endeavor,” Wood says, noting the diversity of its cohorts and their expertise. “Anyone with an open mind who is willing to look at their broad profile has got to be impressed with what they are doing.” And given the frequently hostile political rhetoric around Islam in America, Wood says, “In taking leadership, these folks are all too often targeted and vulnerable, so it takes courage.”

Roumani says the diversity is a point of pride. They make a point of accepting anyone who self-identifies as Muslim, and they purposely look for people from different professional backgrounds—everyone from a fair housing advocate to a physician to a national security expert could be around the same table. The focus is on problem-solving. “How to keep the space diverse—and how to create safety for that to happen—has been one of our biggest accomplishments,” Roumani says. The goal is to create “a healthy non profit ecosystem.”

As AMCLI moves into its second decade, the plan is to focus on providing greater support and networking opportunities for program alumni. They have also started focusing on shorter, regional sessions; one took place in Nashville last July, and another happened this past fall in Atlanta. “The stories you hear in the South are just more shocking,” Roumani says. “My jaw drops from hearing some of those stories. One of our participants was talking about how the KKK was having a meeting at their city hall.” Many in the program note an increase in anti-Muslim activity, both in the public domain and in the policy arena, with lawmakers rallying around anti-Shariah legislation.

Loskota acknowledges the mood has changed since they met AMCLI’s first national cohort in Washington, D.C., in 2008, a few days after President Obama’s election. The first AMCLI meetings were filled with optimism and hope; today, they wrestle with the divisive rhetoric of the Trump campaign, the travel ban from Muslim-majority countries, mass shootings at places of worship, and a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. “Some of the things going on deeply pain me,” Loskota says. “Then I look around and I see hundreds of people who are working their damndest and working really hard under tough conditions to try to make this place that we live in live up to our aspirations. To me, there’s nothing more bouying than that feeling of being around people who know how to get things done and are undeterred by the challenges in front of them.”

Zaman of the Proteus Fund agrees. “It was hard to do this work post 9/11 when I started doing this work. But in many ways, who wants to do this now? I can imagine it’s really hard to make the decision to engage in this work now when it feels like so many forces are against you.”

Lekovic, the “patient zero” of the AMCLI program, sees signs of hope. She takes heart in a recent Pew Research Center survey that showed views of American Muslims have warmed in recent years. And she sees more evidence of cooperation around common concerns. “Case in point, the airport protests,” she says, referring to the attorneys and advocates who flocked to airports to support Muslim immigrants after the Trump administration announced travel restrictions on several Muslim-majority nations. “I didn’t see that coming.”

AMCLI co-founder Loskota says she can’t take credit for the work of the program’s alumni. “They do incredible things that having nothing to do with us.” Roumani agrees. “These people were already leading. They’re already amazing leaders in their own right,” she says. “We’re just able to support them so they can go farther and put them in community with one another.”

A recent survey of AMCLI alumni found that the majority found the AMCLI experience, and its alumni network, as critical to their work—a source of jobs, advice, inspiration, and support. Some are starting to invest their time and money back into the organization. An alumnus, Soraya Ahyaudin, started this summer as AMCLI’s first full-time program director. And Pillars Fund, Proteus Fund, and the El-Hibri Foundation—all with AMCLI alumni in key roles—have awarded grants to the program.

The network is also playing a role in developing new leadership programs. Kashif Shaikh’s Pillars Fund is supporting a new Auburn Seminary initiative to provide two-day intensive media and story-telling training to a cross-section of 120 Muslim leaders. The training workshops will be led by Wajahat Ali, an attorney and writer who has become a popular spokesman on topics relating to American Islam. Shaikh, who says AMCLI’s impact has been “massive,” says there is room for many different approaches.

“The more ways you can empower and train civic leaders in the American Muslim community, the better,” Shaikh says. “The need is there.”