Director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team Speaks on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on American Muslims

June 5, 2020

On May 19th, Ismail Royer, director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, participated in a webinar entitled, “Faith-Based Nonprofits in the Public Square During COVID-19.” The panel discussion highlighted alarming frontline stories from diverse faith-based institutions and religious leaders and fostered dialogue on what justice requires during this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The panel was part of a broader series organized by Independent Sector, a national membership organization that brings together a diverse community of changemakers, nonprofits, foundations, and corporations working to strengthen civil society and ensure all people in the United States thrive. 

The webinar began with introductory remarks by David Brooks, executive director of the Aspen Institute. Royer was joined on the panel by Pastor Harold Dugger of First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights and Dr. Denise Strothers, National Director of Operations, Healing Communities. Chelsea Langston Bombino, Director of the Sacred Sector initiative at the Center for Public Justice, organized and moderated the panel.

The panel focused on how congregations and faith-based organizations are carrying  out their sacred missions during COVID-19, and the distinct challenges, opportunities, and redeeming moments which they are witnessing.

Ismail Royer began by discussing the theological basis for Muslim contributions to the common good, citing the sayings of the Prophet of Islam: “None of you will have faith until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself,” and, “Whoever would love to be shaded in the shade of God, let him help someone in hardship or waive a loan.”

Royer went on to discuss the work of dozens of Islamic social service initiatives across the United States, including medical clinics, legal assistance, mental health counseling, and women’s shelters. Many such efforts have roots in the indigenous African American convert community, and others in the immigrant Muslim community. Like their counterparts of other faith traditions, Islamic social service organizations live out their religious missions and offer their services in the public square. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented particular challenges and opportunities. 

However, Royer said, these organizations have experienced serious obstacles in serving their community more effectively. Many of their efforts began as ad hoc responses to local needs, and their leaders often lack access to funding opportunities and the resources to establish effective and legal corporate structures. Many of them, moreover, are based in underserved communities, which exacerbates such problems and stifles the potentially rejuvenating effect that faith-based services often have. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the acute need for training that many Islamic social service organizations have, which would empower them to increase their capacity to serve those in need around them.

Moreover, there are special religious freedom considerations for Islamic groups related to measures aimed at alleviating the impact of COVID-19 on nonprofits, including religious institutions. An example is the CARES Act, which provides funds to organizations structured as interest-bearing loans to cover operational costs. This is problematic because Islam forbids Muslims from charging or paying interest. The CARES loans are forgivable if they are used for their intended purpose of paying for payroll and overhead. This makes the loans effectively grants, rendering them potentially permissible for Muslims under Islamic rules, but the loan contract’s interest provision has caused apprehension among some Muslims.

Royer also explained that, while mosques are subject to the same restrictions as all houses of worship, rumors that mosques have remained open have contributed to a divisive narrative that Muslims are getting special treatment over that of Christian congregations. Accordingly, Muslims have remained reluctant to join other faith communities  in challenging state and local policies that favor reopening secular spaces over houses of worship.

Watch the entire video here.