By Abbas Haleem

Why Representation in Muslim Organizations Matters

Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor, high-fives a peer at an Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) event in Chicago called “Takin’ It to the Streets.” | Zakat Foundation of America photo
Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor, high-fives a peer at an Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) event in Chicago called “Takin’ It to the Streets.” | Zakat Foundation of America photo

The perception is beginning to match the reality. The truth is leading us backward.

So let’s take a step back.

For generations, Black History Month used to be about remembering the cycle of slavery and what life used to be like for Black people in the United States, said Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor. A Black woman. 

Black History Month has become about how Black people in the United States have overcome these issues, honoring pioneers, not just among Black people but throughout society. The perception about Black history is beginning to match the reality of its excellence. The truth is leading us back to our innate understanding of equality.

With that excellence comes recognition, and that recognition must lead to representation. That one step backward has to lead to more than two steps forward — and we can’t keep going back to achieve progress.

Neil-Demir was a child of the civil rights movement who grew up in a household with older siblings who marched forward with Dr. King. Her social justice advocacy was something that would just naturally follow suit. The times were not unlike now in a sense where you had to choose your own path, she said, focusing on what it means to obtain one’s rights.

Honoring Black History Month, especially this year, means not letting Black Americans who were historically actively overlooked be set aside any longer. It’s about consciously fighting off the ignorance it takes to pretend the United States’ history was always noble and flawless.

It also means not repeating the practices of shutting Black people out. And beyond that, it means more than just representation — it means proper, accurate, effective representation. Even with that, there must be people willing to listen. 

“If you don’t have the proper voice, there’s no speech. If the ears aren’t open, nobody will hear,” Neil-Demir said. “Representation is absolutely necessary, and it has to be a two-way street. We’ve had centuries of voices — when you say proper representation — we’ve had centuries of those, centuries of protests, movements.”

There have always been movements and a voice, but there hasn’t always been someone willing to hear, she said. She said the question might not be “How important is proper representation?” 

Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor, speaks to the press at a COVID-19 food distribution in Springfield, Illinois, on July 3, 2020. Neil-Demir is often on the ground, providing food, clothes and medical attention as part of her work with the organization. | Zakat Foundation of America photo
Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor, speaks to the press at a COVID-19 food distribution in Springfield, Illinois, on July 3, 2020. Neil-Demir is often on the ground, providing food, clothes and medical attention as part of her work with the organization. | Zakat Foundation of America photo

Instead, the question is more “Is it the proper people willing to listen and help create change?”

Public injustices are not new, especially not race-based crimes in the United States. But public injustices without proper voices of representation leads to a lack of societal understanding because of missing historical context. Seeing that missing context has made representation within humanitarian organizations mandatory. Proper representation making a positive impact at Zakat Foundation of America is something she said the organization has always prided itself on.

And representation can be shown in different ways. At Zakat Foundation of America, women currently comprise the staff’s majority, and more than 60% of the organization’s leadership are women. Three out of six of the nonprofit’s board members are also women, and the Chief Operating Officer is a Black woman of multicultural background. There are American and non-American Black employees, Arab Americans and Arabs born and raised overseas, Americans of South Asian descent and those born in South Asian countries. Employees from Latin America and of different religions. 

“I think one of our best examples is when we did the film Same God,” Neil-Demir said. “We had such an array of people there who stood up for justice. And we didn’t all look alike. We had a mini America in that room. That’s something we’ve always stood for. That’s how me and Mr. [Halil] Demir [Zakat Foundation of America’s Executive Director] see the world. We are all beautiful enough to be who we are individually and independently, but we’re a collective of the world. I hope long after we’re gone, inshaAllah, the foundation will be around, and it will continue to be an organization for the people, by the people and of the people. Hence, humanitarian and humane. We see that in our staff. We strongly support and uphold diversity because the world is diverse.”

Dr. Larycia Hawkins (center) speaks with Dr. Simran Jeet Singh (left) and Linda Sarsour (right), a social justice activist of Palestinian descent, at the New York City film premiere of the documentary Same God. | Zakat Foundation of America photo
Dr. Larycia Hawkins (center) speaks with Dr. Simran Jeet Singh (left) and Linda Sarsour (right), a social justice activist of Palestinian descent, at the New York City film premiere of the documentary Same God. | Zakat Foundation of America photo

The Same God synopsis reads (watch a snippet from the premiere here): 

In December 2015, the political rhetoric against Muslims was escalating. Dr. Larycia Hawkins, an African-American political science professor at Wheaton College — a prestigious evangelical school outside of Chicago — wanted to show support for Muslim women. She posted a photo of herself in a hijab on Facebook. “I love my Muslim neighbor,” she wrote, “because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity … we worship the Same God.”



Within days, Wheaton’s Provost suspended Dr. Hawkins, eventually moving to terminate her tenure. Were the school’s actions a move to protect its Christian theological purity, as it insisted? Or was it, as some suggested, the result of racism and Islamophobia? “Same God,” directed by Wheaton alumna Linda Midgett, follows the journey of Dr. Hawkins while exploring the polarization taking place within the evangelical community over issues of race, Islam, religious freedom and politics.

Representation in our Muslim organizations matters because it comes about in conjunction with representation in elementary and high schools, universities, for-profit organizations, and weaves itself into the fabric of our society. And at the end of the day, like Dr. Hawkins was quoted saying, “Solidarity from a distance is not solidarity at all.”

The path forward has always come from understanding — and pausing to understand — our differences so as to prevent miscommunication and misrepresentation. In knowing our differences, we learn our similarities and shared values.

“Real life is diverse unless you make it otherwise,” Neil-Demir said. “Even if we talk about just between villages — same country, different village. There’s some diversity in there. People eat differently, people dress differently. There are different dialects and colloquial terms. We try hard to maintain that to be a space for everyone.”