CHICAGO — Religious affiliation may be on the wane in America, a recent Pew study asserts, but you wouldn’t know it walking into the storefront near the corner of West 63rd Street and South Fairfield Avenue.
Inside a former bank in a neighborhood afflicted with gang violence, failed businesses and empty lots, a team of volunteers drawn by their religious faith is working to make life better for Chicago’s poorest residents.
The free medical clinic has expanded its hours; 20-something college graduates are clamoring to get into its internship program; rap stars swing by its alcohol-free poetry slams; and the budget has increased tenfold in the past decade.
The storefront belongs to Chicago’s Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and it is part of a wave of new Muslim institutions emerging at an unprecedented pace. More than a quarter of the nation’s 2,106 mosques were founded in the last decade, according to a recent University of Kentucky study, and new social service organizations, many of them run by 20- and 30-something American-born Muslims, are thriving as never before.
This surge in new Muslim institutions, led by a nationwide network of young activists, “is the most important story in Islam in America right now,” said Eboo Patel, founder of the college campus-based Interfaith Youth Core.
Young Muslims “are going about the process of institution building in concretely American ways,” said Kambiz GhaneaBassiri of Reed College, author of “A History of Islam in America,” adding that the 9/11 terrorist attacks shaped a generation of young Muslim activists.
“The sheer numbers are absolutely new and the funding available for these organizations is absolutely new.”
Chicago may be ground zero of this trend: The city’s 15-year-old IMAN is one of several young Muslim organizations inspiring young Muslims to connect with their faith.
“Charity is an important part of our religion,” said Dr. Adiba Khan, an IMAN staff member.
Other organizations include CAMP, the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals; the city’s umbrella Muslim federation, which organizes the nation’s largest political gathering of young Muslims at the Illinois State Capitol each spring; and the Webb Foundation, a five-year-old organization dedicated to shaping a new model of diverse, indigenous American Islam.
A new campaign known as ‥MyJihad, in which American Muslims describe their personal faith struggles in advertisements on buses and in transit stations got its start in Chicago before expanding to San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
“There are good things happening in many places, but Chicago seems to me to kind of have it all,” said Jane I. Smith, who recently retired as a dean at Harvard Divinity School. “It’s got all different backgrounds represented, and different ways of approaching Islam.”
Chicago’s Muslim community is among the nation’s largest and most diverse. About 400,000 Muslims live here, and the 15 new mosques built in the last decade are just one indication of wealth, growth and political connectedness. Smith sees signs of a kind of Muslim reformation here, not in any single watershed moment but in myriad significant movements that are utterly new.