Philanthropy and the Fight Over Muslims in America

Relations between Christians and Muslims, historically complicated, have grown increasingly tense in the United States in the years since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Lately, things have gotten especially bad. Issues including the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, and the status of women under Sharia law have led to low levels of trust of Muslims among Americans.

Data from the Pew Research Center found that Muslims ranked even lower than atheists among groups that Americans viewed positively. While 41 percent of Americans indicated they viewed atheists in a positive light, only 40 percent reported holding a favorable view of Muslims.

Philanthropy has played an active role in fostering this mistrust. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, first released in 2011 and recently updated, a network of conservative donors have given some $57 million to U.S. nonprofits that focus on the threats they believe are posed by Muslims. Among other things, these donors have supported groups sounding the alarm about Sharia law coming to the United States. As a result of those efforts, the report finds, "thirty-two states have introduced legislation to ban the nonexistent threat of Sharia law from being used in their courtrooms." All told, it says that 100 anti-Islam bills have been introduced in state legislatures. 

The report identifies the eight largest donors to U.S. think tanks and organizations that the Center for American Progress categorizes "as being anti-Islam and/or supporting policies discriminating against Muslims." Two of these funders are well-known stalwarts of conservative philanthropy, the Scaife and Bradley foundations. But others are well less well known, including the Fairbrook Foundation and the Alan and Hope Winters Family Foundation. As well, Donors Trustthe right's biggest array of donor-advised fundshas been an active funder this space.  

Grantees have included the Society of Americans for National Existence, or SANE, which has taken the lead in promoting anti-Sharia law bills, and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which has organized Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week programs on hundreds of U.S. college campuses. 

Meanwhile, though, an array of other funders have supported initiatives aimed at pushing back against anti-Muslim sentiments and fostering interfaith dialogue. Groups that have received backing for such work include the Interfaith Alliance, Sojourners, the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Campaign, and New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Because most of these groups work on a range of issues, it's difficult to identify grants that specifically have supported their work on Islam. 

One funder that supports interfaith dialogue is the El-Hibri Foundation. In 2013, for example, the foundation provided a $40,000 grant for an effort by Religions for Peace USA called Our Muslim Neighbor project. 

Other funders have given support to groups working with Muslim communities to fight bias and hate crimes in specific areas. For example, several foundations, including the California Community Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation have made grants in recent years to combat anti-Mulsim bias in California. Groups such as Muslim Public Affairs Council Foundation and the Council on American-Islamic Relations-California have received funding. 

Not surprisingly, the Ford Foundation has also been active in this civil rights work. Most notably, it's given nearly $800,000 in recent years to Muslim Advocates to advance the "full and meaningful participation of Muslims in American civic life."

Meanwhile, we recently learned about a New England seminary that wants to do its part to foster better relations between Christianity and Islam, and how it just received some help in doing so from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. The Florida-based funder recently awarded $130,000 to the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut for a new fellowship program focused on Christian-Muslim relations.

The Hartford Seminary Peacemaking Fellows program is a one-year, expenses-paid fellowship for young Christians with leadership potential and an interest in peacemaking and interfaith relations. Participants in the program spend a full academic year immersed in interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, and leadership skills. They also reside in on-campus interfaith housing.

Hartford Seminary is well positioned for this type of program. Since 2004, the seminary has operated its International Peacemaking Program (IPP) for students from countries torn by religious conflict. IPP has hosted Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students from such countries as Israel, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. The new Peacemaking Fellows program funded by the Davis Foundations provides a way for American students to participate in IPP and foster Christian-Muslim dialogue in American cities. What's more, the seminary also offers a graduate certificate in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations.

Davis’ religion funding program emphasizes global religious trends, interfaith dialogue, and theological education. Most grant recipients under the funder’s religion program include seminaries.

Leaders produced by the Hartford Peacemaking Fellows program will have their work cut out for them, as many U.S. Christians perceive Islam as a political, as well as religious, threat. Both faiths also have viewed attempts at dialogue with mutual suspicion, with many Muslims seeing it as a covert crusade against Islam, and many Christians viewing dialogue as naïve exercises that fail to confront threats of perceived fanaticism.