Building Capacity and Developing Leadership among American Muslims and Their Organizations


Faith-based organizations play an important role in social service provision, advocacy, public education, community development and organizing, and other arenas within the American public square. Especially for minority faiths, faith-based organizations (FBOs) create a space for religious communities to meet the social needs of their members and work alongside individuals and organizations from different faith traditions. The arena of faith-based organizations is an important location where religious groups can negotiate their place within America’s religiously pluralistic landscape.

Like other religious minorities in the United States, Muslim communities initially developed congregations, schools, and other bodies to meet the religious needs of the faithful. However, in an environment of increased hostility toward Muslims, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Muslim organizations and those who lead them have been forced to undergo a process of rapid development in response to external factors. As a consequence, many of these organizations have not fully evolved to effectively address the broad demands being placed upon them as they attempt to find their place as full and equal participants in the United States.

This paper addresses the development of faith-based organizations and the roles they play in the American public square, and looks at how other religious minorities, specifically the Jewish and Mormon communities, have navigated this space. The authors then examine the current state of affairs among Muslim FBOs in the United States, and conclude by offering recommendations for how to increase the capacity of Muslim organizations to be more effective public actors. While this paper does not explicitly address the role of Muslim FBOs internationally, it will offer some possible areas of inquiry to broaden this conversation about the public role of religious organizations abroad.

During the 2011 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, practitioners from North America and global Muslim communities who work on leadership and capacity building with Muslims and their FBOs were convened to discuss lessons learned, outline potential ways to leverage experiences, and explore areas for collaboration. The working group’s objective was to identify programs and methods to strengthen Muslim nonprofit leaders and organizations, so that they can work more effectively in the public square and participate as full partners with non-Muslim groups on issues of shared concern. Over the three days of the forum, the group addressed many of the topics presented in this paper. Although the paper reflects the views and research of the authors, the working group identified several common themes and trends in this field that warrant additional research and opportunities for practitioners to explore in greater detail. A summary of the working group’s discussion is included at the end of the paper.