M.I.L.A. (Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism) (2003)
M.I.L.A. is non-profit community organization dedicated to increasing activism and learning amongst Denver’s Muslim population. An underlying goal of the organization is to provide a space for Muslims to participate in the religion of Islam who have otherwise been disenchanted with traditional mosque activities and/or attitudes. Nonetheless, the community hopes to bring together otherwise disparate groups of Muslims, such as Shi’ites and Sunnis or the younger and older generations, in order to foster community cohesion. The organization also makes efforts to increase education about Islam to the surrounding non-Muslim community.
M.I.L.A. was founded by the efforts of few long-standing members of the Colorado Muslim community. Members of Islamic groups across Colorado conducted initial meetings in order to discuss general concerns of the community and the possibilities to address them. Although formally the group became established a few months after September 11, 2001, the process of organizing had begun much prior to that event, indicating that M.I.L.A. is not simply a reactionary group.
The community achieves its ambitious goals by organizing itself as a non-sectarian and non-hierarchical set of individuals and groups who work together on various projects under the auspices of a steering committee that functions more like an organizational network and reporting group than an administrative body. M.I.L.A. hosts large community events once a month that include outside speakers, panel discussions and seminars for educators and professionals. The group also hosts Quranic study sessions, community service projects, and new Muslim support groups aimed at providing the convert to Islam a welcoming environment to learn the new way of life.
M.I.L.A. has made it a point not to interfere with surrounding mosque activities by not trying to replace religious services such as prayer. By in large, members of M.I.L.A. are, so to speak, educated ‘lay’ religious leaders; keeping in mind that Islam does not have a clergy. The group prides itself on being an extremely tolerant space open to a variety of ideas and religious orientations. It has succeeded to a large degree in the fact that M.I.L.A. event announcements and flyers can be seen in nearly every one of the Denver area’s mosques.
Another point of success has been seen in the community’s reaction to M.I.L.A. The group has hosted influential speakers such Hamza Yusef, Tariq Ramadan and others, which have drawn large crowds of both Muslims and non-Muslims. At such events you find members of the Muslim community who might never otherwise occupy the same space. M.I.L.A. events are perhaps the only place in Colorado that you can witness Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi speakers sharing a panel discussion in a non-polemical and constructive context. It is also one of the only places where you might find women speakers addressing both female and male audiences.
The success of M.I.L.A. has not come without obstacles and criticism. It has been negatively stereotyped by many for having an ‘excessively liberal’ nature and irresponsible approach to Islamic learning. At times it has been formally protested by Sunni Islamic centers for hosting Shi’a speakers and members in surrounding communities disagree with the lack of gender separation. One area Muslim who had never even attended a M.I.L.A. function asserted “I would rather not hold hands with Christians and Jews and sing Kumbaya”; an obvious example of the misunderstanding the organization has aroused in the larger Muslim community of Colorado.
Whether constructive or insulting, M.I.L.A. organizers and participants manage criticism by simply understanding that it is something that “comes with the territory” when attempting to inspire dynamism and change in the Muslim community; they rarely allow criticism to deter them from their larger goals. In addition to the attractiveness of its activities, the core reason behind M.I.L.A.’s success has been the passionate and dedicated efforts of its members. There is not a participant in the organization that is not actively enabling, engaging or inspiring leadership and community dynamism. A testament to the success of the group can be seen through its membership that is comprised of South Asian, Arab, African American, Latino and Caucasian Muslims.
It is difficult to assess the size of the organization due to its permeable and networked nature. However, at a given potluck or other M.I.L.A. activity, attendance usually is in the range of several dozen. The organization, like many others across the United States is an example of the formation of creative institutions of Islamic organization and leadership that is unique to Muslims in America. Currently, the group has expanded its volunteer corps in order to facilitate its Ansar, or ‘helper’ program which, aims at assisting needy families of both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds in the Denver area.