Muslim Professional Organizations in America: Finding their Role
Posted on: Apr 1, 2012 By: editor In: General
At their core, all minority professional organizations aim to offer their members a supportive environment where they can come together, share knowledge and resources, and empower each other to be the best professional they can be. Over the past several years, I’ve struggled with the question of if/how this core functionality is impacted if the minority group is made up of Muslim Americans. As a minority group, Muslim Americans have had to face what feels like a near endless series of challenges and controversies in the last few years ranging from a national debate over the proposed construction of mosques across the country (most notably in lower Manhattan), to criticism over a reality television show and most recently the news of the surveillance of Muslim Americans by the NYPD.
Finding the answer to this question has been a long and at times uncertain journey, but for one organization, the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals or CAMP (one of the oldest and the largest Muslim professional organizations in the country), this journey has given it a greater sense of purpose than ever before.
Increasing connection with their “Muslimness”
To understand the challenge organizations like CAMP faced we need to first consider the environment its members, Muslim American professionals, found themselves in.
When I first joined the professional world thirteen years ago, I had no reason to acknowledge my faith and any conversation on the topic would usually happen during Ramadan and revolved around the fascination that fasting from sunrise to sunset did indeed include not drinking water. The only thing about this conversation of note was that I knew I would have to explain the same concept and get the same reaction often from the same person the following year. Still those conversations were well-intentioned and light-hearted. 9/11 changed this. Increasingly I found myself in very different conversations than the ones I had before. Post-9/11, when colleagues found out I was Muslim, they would confide, with equal parts surprise and desire to comfort, that I was nothing like the Muslims he had seen on TV. Other times, when Islam was being slandered, I realized that what hurt wasn’t just the attack on my faith but the attack on my identity. And whether I did or did not particularly identify with my faith, airport security saw fit to identify me anyway, taking away my choice and serving as an ever-present reminder that my name and, by extension, my faith had made me the lucky recipient of a trip to “secondary screening”. The bottom line, increasingly I and other Muslim American professionals like me started identifying with what one friend recently called their “Muslimness”. I had never really sought connections based on being Muslim but suddenly started seeking these out. This desire to connect led me to CAMP.
Finding the role of the Muslim professional organization
Established in Chicago in 1994, CAMP was formed in simpler times when the primary goal of such organizations was to connect members through social and professional networking events. Following 9/11, Muslim professionals like me started turning to organizations like CAMP to identify with their “Muslimness”. CAMP experienced a massive growth, quickly increasing from a single city organization in 2001 to 18 chapters across the country by 2005. But while CAMP grew in size, it struggled to find its purpose and address the increasingly diverse needs of its members. Focusing on social and professional networking events as it had in the past felt naïve and oblivious to the real issues facings Muslim Americans. On the other hand, stepping into the potential maelstrom of civil liberties advocacy ran the risk of ostracizing those members that had sought CAMP for the express and limited purpose of professional development. Not doing anything ran the risk of CAMP becoming irrelevant; trying to do it all would lead to confusion of purpose. CAMP was in a word, stuck.
The journey forward was unclear and truthfully for several years CAMP often found its programming mismatched with the needs of its members. The path forward was finally found once CAMP did an honest assessment of its strengths and then focused on formulating a plan for how to best meet the needs of its membership in light of what was happening around us. Its assessment and formulation resulted in identifying three core strengths:
(1) Supportive Environment – CAMP’s programming had always focused on creating a supportive network that allowed for its members to learn from each other, evolve as professionals, and emerge as leaders. With Muslim Americans facing intense and increasing pressure, we realized the need for our organization was greater than ever. We didn’t have to change this focus -- our goal would be the same as ever, enabling Muslim American professionals to achieve their potential, but we would just need to be that much better. The pressure to be perfect is certainly not unique to the Muslim American experience – many including African Americans and Japanese Americans have been there before.
(2) Broad Platform – An organization with faith as the underlying commonality among its members offers great diversity in its ranks. There is no one model of our member -- our membership includes people all along the spectrum of how one chooses to identify with their faith, politics, of civic engagement. Our members include people across multiple industries, some of whom pray 5 times a day, others who don’t. It includes women who observe hijab, others that don’t. It also means that there is a diversity of opinions about what’s going on around them and the approach we should take to address the developments. So although CAMP felt the push to become more involved in civil rights advocacy, there was no consensus, nor would there ever be, regarding how best to become involved. The organization felt it had a responsibility to represent its membership but without a clear consensus on how those professionals would want to be represented in response to current events, we decided it was not our place to represent them in this arena. We felt this was better handed by the many excellent civil rights organizations that had emerged to focus precisely on the rise of Islamaphobia and corresponding developments all around us. What CAMP could do better than anyone else, however, was become a conduit between other organizations and our membership to ensure; we could direct our members to other organizations on issues facing Muslim Americans to ensure that we helped to direct them to organizations that would help them to become better informed and determine options for engaging in the way they want.
(3) Celebration of Success – Finally, we recognized that Muslim American professionals represent perhaps the most successful subset of Muslim Americans, CAMP had an opportunity, if not an obligation, to showcase and celebrate the success of these members as a source of inspiration for all Americans and to counter the predominately negative portrayal of Muslims.
Having focused on what CAMP could do best has allowed the organization to understand its role and set a course for the long-term growth of the organization and more importantly its members.
Today the strengths of CAMP are on display at the organization’s marquee event, the annual Leadership Summit. This day-long summit, this year held in Princeton, New Jersey on Saturday, April 21, 2012, focuses on delivering to attendees exactly what they expect from us – help in achieving their leadership potential. To learn more about CAMP’s 5th Annual Leadership Summit, visit our website.
by: Imran Eba, Executive Director, CAMP. [This article was originally published in the broadstreetimes.com]