‘Service to our country’

Muslim boys
Youth members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association Philadelphia chapter are pictured during a New Year’s service day where the boys picked up the remains of a night of New Year’s Eve partying along Philly streets. | Image courtesy: Salaam Bhatti

There’s no redeeming quality to being a Muslim in America right now. 

On a world scale, there are internment camps in China, ethnic cleansing proposals in Myanmar and laws created specifically to exclude those of the Muslim faith in India. 

Here in the United States, the Trump Administration has essentially listed Muslims as Enemy No. 1, a travel ban still employed on many Muslim countries and a war in Iran kickstarted following the assassination of a general in that predominantly Muslim country, it’s been tough to find a silver lining.

All of that hatred is enough to make one disregard doing anything of value in a country that essentially devalues what their faith stands for, but it hasn’t stopped one group from carrying out their civic duty all across America. 

On New Year’s Day, a group of youth from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association took to Philly streets to literally provide a clean slate heading into a new decade. Picking up litter left over from a night of New Year’s Eve festivities, a collective of 10-12 young men swept up portions along South Street. 

Despite a political climate that doesn’t favor people of their faith, these Philly-based Muslims say it’s important to carry out a basic sense of civic responsibility. | Image courtesy: Salaam Bhatti

They did this on the same day insensitivity of a different kind was on full display when, despite previous outlash, a few Mummers still thought it to be OK to wear blackface during Philly’s annual New Year’s Day celebration. 

It’s no secret that Philadelphia, despite its boast of diversity and inclusion, still has a long way to go in both. It’s a city deep-rooted in past discrimination that to this day still has a seedy underbelly depending on which section of the city you inhabit. 

So what’s it like being a Muslim man picking up trash on the streets of Philadelphia?

We caught up with Madeel Abdullah, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association Philadelphia chapter, to discuss how this mission came about and what it’s like to carry it out within a social and political climate mired in hatred, bigotry and a whole lot of misinformation. 

What sparked this nationwide action by members of your organization and of the Muslim faith?

For decades, our brothers have spent New Year’s Eve at our mosques across the country. We engage in fun activities, enlightening conversations, prayer, and good food. With this concentration of people who have a desire to do good, the logical next step was to go out and do something. But what? Five years ago, we piloted a project to clean Times Square after the ball dropped. We were inspired by Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association chapters in Canada, England, and other nations who did this in their country. The pilot worked well, and so we rolled it out across the country.

“With this concentration of people who have a desire to do good, the logical next step was to go out and do something.”

— Madeel Abdullah, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association Philadelphia chapter 

Specifically here in Philadelphia, why did you decide to make the cleanup after the Mummers Parade?

We did not clean up in that parade area before or after it. We cleaned up in other areas. 

Historically, the Mummers Parade has been known to allow both racially insensitive and other derogatory costuming and performance. What is the sentiment of AMYA’s Philly chapter knowing that the cleanup will help with a parade that still has a great deal of sensitivity training to undergo?

We don’t have any affiliation with that group. Trash is trash. We pick it up because cleanliness is very important in Islam. We’ve adopted roads, highways, and also cleaned up Independence Hall during the government shutdown early last year because the trash was piling up.

What does AMYA believe this cleanup teaches the youth who take part?

We believe this teaches our Muslim youth that service to our country is a part of Islam. Through this service, we have a great time with each other throughout our sleepover event and enjoy the camaraderie of cleaning up our community. It also teaches each one of us that littering exponentially increases into a bigger problem, so it’s best to throw things in a trash can rather than on the ground.

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    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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