“I grew up in a very multicultural environment in India—as a Muslim, I went to a Catholic school with Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and people of all different religions,” says Zafar Siddiqui, the Director of the Islamic Resource Group and Chairman of the Board of Al-Amal School. “When I came to the United States in 1991, I knew it was a place where I could continue this pluralistic existence.” Ten years later, Siddiqui drew from his experiences with religious pluralism and from the model of a groundbreaking California Muslim organization to develop the Islamic Resource Group (IRG) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. IRG is an educational outreach and interfaith organization that aims to create relationships between Muslims and people of other faith and philosophical backgrounds.
Siddiqui created an organization tailored to the needs of Minnesota, advice he received during collaboration with the Bay Area-based Islamic Networks Group in California. A decade on, the Islamic Resource Group has given nearly three thousand presentations to over 100,000 Minnesotans and produced The Muslim Experience in Minnesota, a Minnesota Historical Society supported project that is a collection of historical and personal narratives from a diverse array of local Muslims. While these presentations and projects form the bulk of IRG’s work, the organization also participates in interfaith dialogues, panels, and workshops, working closely with the Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN), the Minnesota Council of Churches, and the Twin Cities Interfaith Network. In 2010, IRG collaborated in the planning of “Minnesotans Standing Together,” an interfaith prayer service. “Our goal is to de-mystify Islam and Muslims and be seen just like any other religious group,” says Siddiqui, “and become well-known and well-accepted in society.”
Supervised by a Board of Directors, twenty-five volunteers (“The Speakers’ Bureau”) present standardized, yet customizable, teaching experiences about Islam to youth and community members. The informative and accessible presentation style have made IRG a well-respected, active agent in local interfaith work. IRG, like the Islamic Networks Group in California, emphasizes consistency, simplicity, and objectivity. Each member of the Speakers’ Bureau is well-trained to present a unified message about the fundamentals of Islam. This consistent message is then customized to match the needs of each audience. Minnesota audiences are taught the essentials of the Islamic tradition in addition to Islam’s similarities and differences from their own religious backgrounds and are informed about the rich diversity of global Islam. Siddiqui notes that while IRG’s speakers are incredibly diverse, “we can all agree on the basic message.” Consistency enables IRG to train and teach efficiently and provides Minnesotans a strong foundation of learning about Islam and for identifying new interfaith dialogue opportunities.
“We stick to the basics,” Siddiqui says, and indeed simplicity has proven to be a key method to IRG’s successes. Maintaining a simple method that can be reproduced nationally and cultivating a message that can be easily shared with and understood by others have been essential towards IRG’s goal of finding a respectful place for Islam in the pluralistic landscape of the Twin Cities and Minnesota. IRG has already established another center in Rochester, Minnesota, and Siddiqui frequently travels around the state to train new speakers and deliver new presentations. The clarity of these presentations also gives IRG a strong voice against misrepresentations of Muslims in the media and expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment in the larger community.
Siddiqui explains that one of the greatest challenges to maintaining a consistent, objective voice is internal diversity. The Muslim population of the Twin Cities metropolitan area is highly diverse, representing a variety of nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and devotional practices. While Siddiqui and the rest of IRG’s leadership acknowledge that one can never be truly objective, they seek to provide respectful, mainstream information and avoid discussion of divisive or extremist positions. When engaging in interfaith conversations, IRG promotes discussing shared values that can create more fruitful interfaith exchange. Despite IRG’s best efforts, there is still the occasional disruption from an attendee intent on creating conflict. Siddiqui remembers one incident where a speaker presenting on women in Islam was consistently interrupted with shouts of “You’re lying!” from individuals in the audience. Siddiqui, himself the recipient of such accusations during lectures, hopes that greater educational outreach will eventually bring such incidents to an end.
Fortunately, the vast majority of IRG’s stories are positive. Siddiqui is encouraged by the history and successes of IRG to date, and the organization looks forward to a strong future promoting education about Islam and encouraging interfaith engagement. One seventh-grade student’s response to an IRG speaker sums up the organization’s impact: “Thank you,” wrote the student, “Now you are my best friend, and nothing can change that.”