As long ago as 1835, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and recognized a unique characteristic, namely, the role played by voluntary private associations in social, political, and economic life. He thought this freedom to associate was the “mother science” which illustrated how other societal problems might be resolved.
Today, we refer to these private associations as being part of Civil Society, the social space where individuals come together to address issues of concern to a particular group or to the general public. Governments, from local to national, realize that they cannot meet all the needs of their citizens and that they need to rely on private organizations to assist them in this endeavor. Historically, faith-based institutions, private philanthropic organizations, and citizens have helped fill this void to some extent, largely in dealing with extreme poverty, basic healthcare, and education, especially for the marginalized segments of society.
Civil Society Today
Today, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are now universally recognized as being instrumental in helping address societal issues and, indeed, as being vital to a well-functioning democracy, often by partnering with civic institutions. "Democracy cannot function reasonably without two preconditions. The first is a healthy, civil society… The second precondition is pluralism," noted Mawlana Hazar Imam at the 2004 Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference.
In recent decades, there has been an exponential increase in the number of CSOs that have been created to meet a number of needs, consisting of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), faith-based groups, and professional and community organizations.
"Culture is born of values, and civil society is where people live values most urgently," writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. He adds, "Amid growing social isolation in the United States, a new set of values is emerging around community, healing, and belonging, and they will likely define an era." Whether addressing poverty or hunger or racism, he sees groups of like-minded individuals "reweaving community." And the World Economic Forum has recognized the role that faith communities act as "drivers of community cohesion," although it also notes that they can sometimes create division.
Civil Society Engagement
As a global faith community, Ismailis have long provided for the needs of its members, through their own resources, human and financial, as well as through the guidance and support of the Imams and their institutions, as in our schools and hospitals. They have also been supportive of initiatives to help the communities in which they live.
The global Jamat has its own CSO, such as Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), an international crisis response and disaster risk management agency that offers emergency relief to communities suffering from natural disasters or man-made crises, and has been active particularly in areas of risk, such as Pakistan, Mozambique and Tajikistan, among others.
In the United States, the Jamat created the Ismaili Community Engaged in Responsible Volunteering (I-CERV) organization over a decade ago, with participants ranging from young children to seniors well into their eighties. To assist in improving the quality of life of vulnerable populations, I-CERV has been helping local communities in a number of ways. For example, during the Diamond Jubilee year, the Jamat in the Western United States held over 60 I-CERV events with this objective.
The Ismaili Council for the Southwest, FOCUS, and I-CERV played a significant role in Houston following Hurricane Harvey and the resultant floods, by rescuing residents and providing relief supplies, with the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center used as a Command Center and staging ground for the collection of relief supplies.
Addressing hunger is of prime concern because despite being a wealthy country, the United States Department of Agriculture reported in 2017 that 12.3 percent of American households remain food insecure. On a regular basis, many regions have conducted food drives to help those in need by partnering with other CSOs.
Examples of interventions by the Jamat to address the hunger problem include: the Midwest Jamat preparing 155,000 meals to feed the hungry, in collaboration with Illinois' Feed My Starving Children, when volunteers packed food to feed for 420 children for a full year; and the Dallas Jamat and friends packed 100,000 meals to fight hunger in 2017, and again in 2018, when volunteers prepared 60,000 Meals on Thanksgiving Day at Dallas Headquarters Jamatkhana in Carrollton, Texas.
Intended to provide 60,000 meals to commemorate Mawlana Hazar Imam's Diamond Jubilee In Atlanta, more than 500 Ismaili volunteers participated in the Southeast Jamat's 60 for 60: I-CERV Day of Service. In fact, they actually packed 80,000 nutritious meals, seen in this video. And in Houston, in December 2018, for the third consecutive year, the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center hosted the annual ABC 13 Share Your Holidays Food Drive, where over 100 I-CERV volunteers gathered to help collect, package, and transport over 30,000 pounds of donated food to the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry.
The US Jamat also has CSOs such as the Ismaili Professionals Network, an association of entrepreneurs and professionals in many fields, and the Ismaili Health Professionals Association, whose members have reached out to other Jamats and communities to provide assistance. Recently, following the California wildfires, 25 volunteers from across the country provided much needed medical help to a shelter housing displaced residents.
The Jamat has also created Trade Associations, such as the North American Trade Association, the Atlanta Retailers Association (ARA), and the Greater Houston Retailers Association (GHRA), to allow exchange of information, share best practices, as well as to negotiate for better arrangements with suppliers. The GHRA provided relief supplies to communities in need following Hurricane Harvey, and the ARA K-9 Police Facility was named as such for the ARA's financial contribution to its construction, an important initiative to keep all citizens safe.
Civil Society and Individual Initiative
CSOs rely on individual initiative and dedication to function and carry out their missions. Many in the Jamat have joined external organizations to make a positive impact on their communities, either as volunteers, or being appointed on Boards. As an example, Celina Shariff, Chair of the Aga Khan National Conciliation and Arbitration Board, is a Board Member of the Texas Association of Mediators, where she can share the Ismaili approach to mediation, as well as on the Child Advocates of Fort Bend Advisory Council.
Other examples include attorney Shaiza Damji, who, while managing family hotels in Seattle, had an interest in health care and was appointed as a Trustee for a local hospital, as well as on the Small Business Advisory Council established by the Mayor. “I don’t see a conflict between external Board and volunteer work and Jamati work,” says Shaiza, and that she has been able to leverage her education, law, business, Jamati, and civic life community service experience. She adds, “It is essential to take a longer-term view of how this involvement in civic life is going to help the particular institution, the wider community, the Ismaili community, myself and my family.”
Karim Gowani has been instrumental in making connections with the wider community in Los Angeles, to enable I-CERV to collaborate with effective partners, including the City of Santa Monica, where volunteers assist with the annual homeless count, and L.A. Works, for projects to improve the quality of life of neighborhoods and schools. In addition, Karim is on the Advisory Board of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, and has arranged for several Jamati high school students to enroll in its program to build leadership skills, create lasting relationships across faith boundaries, and to work on important social issues in Los Angeles.
Millennials are one demographic that have shown the most desire to contribute to addressing social problems. "Young people, who are more interconnected than ever through technology and social media, have claimed a key role in shaping civil society and creating a better world for all," said Babatunde Osotimehin, United Nations Population Fund. This generation seems even more determined to contribute its talents to making the world a better place, within the Jamat and outside, especially in addressing climate change and social justice issues.
Service is important for the youth as an expression of this commitment. For five years, the Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board has organized Alternative Spring and Winter Breaks programs, which bring together Ismaili university students from across the country to engage in service activities, in collaboration with other CSOs, civic groups, and faith-based institutions. In 2018, 20 students from around the country came to Dallas, to participate in math and reading enrichment programs, serve food, and work to beautify an urban park and San Jacinto Elementary School. They then prepared literacy packages, updated playgrounds, and served food to families at a local food pantry and community center. Sana Nizarahmed, of Atlanta, says of her experience, “I wanted to take a break from the hectic material life we’re hooked on and take in the values from our faith.”
Today's youth are not constrained by physical borders, responding to needs wherever they arise. Street children, many orphaned, are a common sight in Pakistan, with few prospects for a bright future. Tennessee-based Nasreen Aman became aware of their plight and was determined to help take them off the streets and offer them hope through education. She founded Spark of Hope, to raise funds from various communities, and works with other Pakistani organizations in this endeavor, with much success.
As David Brooks noted, "I believe the coming years will be defined by some of the people in this sector, who are living most urgently to build a new social fabric, who are working most urgently to build a new power dynamic, and who are thus addressing the central problem of our time."
Our Jamat, and our youth in particular, are living the ethics of their faith and engaging with the world around them, to make it a better place for all.