A small group of powerful U.S. Muslims has been a silent force in philanthropy for years. But with Donald Trump in the White House, they can’t stay in the shadows any longer.
In Illinois, a mother’s heartache over her daughter’s autism led to a nonprofit that helps Muslims with disabilities. Out of Michigan, an activist network pushes Muslims across the nation to address racial injustices. And in California, a Muslim civic institute has trained more than 100 rising leaders.
Those three projects emerged in recent years as part of a boom in Muslim-led nonprofit work that counters ideas of Islam as foreign and dangerous. And all of them are connected by an invisible thread: Pillars Fund.
The Chicago-based charitable fund, whose name honors the five pillars of Islam, started seven years ago when a handful of wealthy American Muslims pooled their money and quietly began giving solely to nonprofit groups in the United States — no mosques, no overseas charities. Today, Pillars is emerging as a powerful, behind-the-scenes engine of Muslim activism, a secret weapon in the war against the multimillion-dollar “Islamophobia” industry.
Pillars donors rarely speak publicly about the fund; it’s unknown outside philanthropy circles, and that’s how they prefer it, out of privacy concerns as well as cultural traditions that frown on showy giving. In Pillars’ early years, nobody was sure it would even work, given all the potential pitfalls. There’s already a wariness about where charity dollars go, an issue seen most recently in questions about how the Red Cross and other agencies would handle donations to Texans dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. When Muslims are involved in fundraising, however, that general wariness kicks into overdrive.
But the urgency of this moment, with anti-Muslim attacks on the rise and a demonstrated bias against Islam from the White House, is nudging Pillars into the spotlight.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News in Chicago and Washington, DC, Pillars officials spoke in depth for the first time about the fund’s mission and the many hurdles to harnessing U.S. Muslim wealth.
For starters, Pillars is vulnerable to the same hostile climate it’s trying to change, with outsized scrutiny of its operations and smear campaigns against associates such as Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, an outspoken civil rights activist who’s on the Pillars advisory board and who co-founded a Pillars grantee, MPower Change, an online Muslim organizing platform. Sarsour has faced right-wing attacks, including death threats and terrorist labels, for years based on her pro-Palestinian stances and charged social media posts.
If Pillars’ success continues, philanthropy experts say, it’s poised to become the first national Muslim community foundation, akin to Catholic Charities or Jewish Federation. Any missteps, however, could have a chilling effect on U.S. Muslims’ ability to raise money or find big foundation partners for projects that guard civil liberties and promote community service.
The high stakes of this gamble mean sleepless nights for Pillars co-founder and Executive Director Kashif Shaikh, the son of Pakistani immigrants who left his steady job as a program officer with the billion-dollar Robert R. McCormick Foundation last year to work full-time for the fund. But there’s also what he calls “unbridled optimism” — a rarity among American Muslims these days — about the role he hopes Pillars will play in changing the national conversation about Islam.
In the early 2000s, a few wealthy U.S. Muslims bonded over the lack of ways to donate to causes that weren’t either tied to a mosque or for overseas aid. They brainstormed ways to contribute to projects at home, but the timing wasn’t ideal for big dreams about Muslim philanthropy.
Communities were still reeling from the devastating effect on such work after the government’s post-9/11 crackdown on Islamic charities, while anti-Muslim campaigns increasingly influenced national politics and mainstream public opinion.
Every year since its inception, Pillars Funds has inched closer to giving out a million dollars; this year, the fund is expected to award around $700,000, Shaikh said. That’s a good start, donors said, but they know it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the deep coffers and political connections of anti-Muslim movements that specialize in squashing Muslim organizing. Dozens of anti-Muslim groups had access to more than $200 million in funding between 2008 and 2013, according to a study last year by the advocacy group Council on American–Islamic Relations and the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender. That money has been used to intervene in mosque-building projects, meddle in how Islam is taught in U.S. schools, influence policymakers, and smear Muslim organizers.
It doesn’t take much to land on the anti-Muslim industry’s radar; just being a Muslim public figure is enough. Prominent Muslims such as longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and Minnesota lawmaker Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, have been painted as undercover extremists or Muslim Brotherhood operatives.
Under the guise of defending “national security,” anti-Muslim groups monitor Muslim activists, waiting for the slightest slip-up, the most tenuous connection to a controversial figure. Avoiding those traps, Shaikh said, means operating 24/7 “at the highest levels, pristine levels.”
“If one of our grantees makes a dumb comment, in a normal world, that wouldn’t matter. You’re not going to fold an entire organization,” he said. “But we have to operate with that added layer of threat.”
Hannah Allam/BuzzFeed News