Commentary: Understanding Muslim America

By Michael Seltzer, Trustee, EMpower-The Emerging Markets Foundation, and past President, Philanthropy New York

Editor’s note: All of us at Philanthropy New York are deeply indebted to Michael Seltzer not only for his in-depth planning and assistance for our February 14th program, but also that he did so while he was in the hospital undergoing a bone marrow transplant. We are also happy to report that he is now cancer-free. Thank you again, Michael!

When I was a teenager, my Russian-born father recounted how he had experienced prejudice in his youth in his new country. In 1917, he attended Dewitt Clinton High School, then located in the aptly named Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Each day, he feared for his safety en-route to school. As he would recount more than 40 years later, Irish gangs would be ready to pounce on Jewish Russian immigrants like him when they stepped on their turf.

Perhaps it was such recollections that fueled my passion for organizing the Philanthropy New York members briefing Understanding Muslim America. The flame was ignited last August when the brouhaha over the location of a Muslim cultural and spiritual center in Lower Manhattan erupted.

Ironically, the Muslim presence in Lower Manhattan started in the early 1600s. In researching our city’s Dutch history, Russell Shorto wrote about a Muslim Berber from Morocco among the colony’s first farmers in his fascinating book, The Island in the Center of the World.

He also noted that in 1658, the magistrates of Vlissingen, now dubbed Flushing, wrote:

“The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extends to Jews, Turks (Muslims) and Egyptians (Gypsies) which is the glory of the outward state of Holland…We are bound by the law of God and man to do good to all men, and evil to no man, according to the Patent and Charter of our Towne given unto us in the name of the States General.”

In fact, religious and ethnic plurality had characterized New York City’s population from the very beginning. Non‐Christian, non‐European diversity was a fact.

Yet, in the public mind, the city’s Muslims have just arrived.

On February 14th, more than fifty grantmakers gathered to discuss how that myth and others like it obfuscate the real lives of 3.5 million Muslim Americans, and New York’s 600,000 Muslims in particular.

New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Fatima Shama enumerated an array of issues facing the city’s diverse Muslim communities, including foster care for children and employment opportunities. Along with The New York Community Trust, Commissioner Shama’s office is working on a robust civic engagement and outreach initiative.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of The Cordoba Initiative noted that American Muslims are not “firewalled” from the rest of the Muslim world. After all, it was Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive, whose Facebook tribute to a young man murdered by the Egyptian police—We Are All Khaled Said—gave voice to the democracy movement when he spoke in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early February.

The Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, described her own institution’s journey of engagement with New York City’s Muslims. Today, through the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, UTS has been able to appoint a Muslim scholar to its faculty. Three imams had seeded the idea when they approached the seminary seeking help in applying the Koran to community problems. Today, Union is developing a program to teach Muslim women to read the Koran so they can issue fatwas and assume leadership roles in their mosques and neighborhoods.

In closing, she called on foundation leaders to make a moral obligation to fund projects in the Muslim world and promote understanding of its diversity. She deemed it “the civil rights issue of our time.” Commissioner Shama called for more engagement and support for local Muslim/Muslim-supporting organizations.

In their concluding remarks, our three speakers concurred that interfaith and intra-faith challenges will require particular effort and work as our city ramps up for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Last summer’s discussion on Park 51 shattered many of our past advances. Now more than ever, it is critically important to assist fellow New Yorkers in finding a sense of community, and not repeating the mistakes of the 2010 “summer of intolerance.”

Many thanks to the Daphne Foundation, the New York Foundation, the North Star Fund, the Open Society Foundations, the Proteus Fund, and the Trinity Church Parish Grants Program for sponsoring this members briefing and to Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, for moderating.

For further reading:
The Island in the Center of the World by Russell Shorto
What’s Right With Islam by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

As a direct follow-up to issues that emerged during this program, and coinciding with the 10th anniversary of September 11th, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the New York Foundation, The New York Community Trust, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Philanthropy New York are conducting a unique site visit that will bring together foundation leaders, government officials, and community leaders to explore New York’s diverse Muslim communities, introduce the secular and religious community institutions that serve and connect Muslim New Yorkers, and highlight ways that Muslims are integrating into the civic life of New York City.

Michael Seltzer is a trustee of EMpower-The Emerging Markets Foundation, a Philanthropy New York member. Previously, he served as the President of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (now known as Philanthropy New York), and as the program officer at the Ford Foundation in charge of advancing organized philanthropy worldwide. Currently, he is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, the blog of the Foundation Center, and an Executive on Campus at Baruch College. He consults with foundations and nonprofits in the United States and abroad.

1 Response to “Commentary: Understanding Muslim America”


  1. 1 David L. Hertz August 12, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Suggestion for further reading: Rock the Casbah, by Robin Wright


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