The public good: An interview with Olive Tree Foundation's Muneeb Nasir

The public good: An interview with Olive Tree Foundation's Muneeb Nasir

Muneeb Nasir is a religious leader, writer, and interfaith activist. He is Chair of the Olive Tree Foundation, former Co-Chair of the National Muslim Christian Liaison Committee, Executive Director of the Cordoba Centre for Civic Engagement and Leadership, a member of the Muslim Advisory Board at Emmanuel College, and the founder and Managing Editor of the online magazine,

And that’s only just scratching the surface! Earlier in the year, Muneeb received the National Muslim Christian Liaison Committee 2023 Award for Interfaith Collaboration. He was recently awarded the Masjid Toronto Award for Community Service in recognition of his service and support of this community for over 20 years.

What an honor it was for us to interview this trailblazer, innovator, community builder, and champion of social justice.

Read on for the full interview between Beatrice Ekoko, FCG Communications Manager, and Muneeb.

BE: What motivates you to do all the charitable work you do?

MN: A number of things. Of course, I am an observant Muslim, and one of the values of the faith is not only belief but action. There is a recurring theme in the Quran, in that you believe and you do good works, very much reflective of the Jewish Tikkun Olam; ‘repairing the world.’ There is a verse in the Quran that most Muslims know: Humanity is in a state of loss except for those who believe and do good works. Apart from that, I grew up in a family that for generations was engaged in community activism (active in public service, not only religious work). We lived and breathed activism.

BE: You stand out. You’ve taken the teachings to heart, above and beyond the call. How is that?

MN: When I was growing up (in Guyana), people asked me the same question. I said, wherever we are, we need to improve the community, society. We can’t just sit back, you know, see things happening and don’t do something about it. Whether it’s income inequality, food insecurity, all of these things should resonate with us, because these are the core principles that distinguish people of faith: feeding the poor, alleviating hunger, demonstrating for justice, as we did recently in Toronto over the budget where faith communities came together calling for various things including having shelters opened earlier, and not waiting for minus degree temperatures.

BE: Connecting the dots. I have noticed that even when people are doing acts of service, the bigger picture, the root causes are still not broadly understood. For example, climate injustices and poverty; the interconnectivity of these issues.

MN: We are in silos. We have adopted a neo-liberal approach, specialization has also crept into this sector. So when we are feeding the hungry, we don’t see the connection with climate.

BE: Exactly. Asking why are people going hungry. But you do this. You have a holistic approach.

MN: We’ve lost that. Over the years, I have done work in many sectors and you know, most of the hospitals in my section of the city–Scarborough–were established by faith groups, because they saw that if you don’t have a healthy population, it trickles down to other things. Same goes for climate and Indigenous issues. We need to come back to that.

BE: What motivated you to set up the Olive Tree Foundation (OTF)?

MN: As new faith communities in Canada, (the majority of Muslims came in the last 60- 70 years) we are more concentrated on building mosques, schools. As well, because we are a very diverse community around the world, we are pulled to our relief work. For example, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia; resources go there and the local projects are not being attended to. In 2005, a group of us who had been involved in local work, felt that there was a need to start looking beyond overseas donations and direct some of those donations locally. We thought an endowment or public foundation would be a pilot project that we could establish within the Muslim community, and reinstitute this understanding that endowments were always part of Islamic history. It was a major part until the last 150 years. Most of the institutions that were established in the Muslim world and are still functioning under public foundations. This practice goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohamad. It became widespread where the common person would establish a legacy through a foundation. This foundation became known as a Waqf (in Arabic).

We felt that we needed to introduce this concept of the public foundation, and we started the OTF to encourage people to establish a legacy or a family foundation. The returns would be used to support some of the issues Muslims are facing, whether its social and community services, taking care of the disabled, etc, issues that are becoming prevalent in a large community that is growing. It has grown slowly. People have lost that understanding of the public foundation and the value of it, and part of it is because of the diversity of the Muslim community, as I said, and the crisis in south-east Asia, Africa; naturally they will send their donations there.

By the way, the Muslim community is the most generous of faith communities. Studies in the US and Britain show it is the most generous in terms of donations. $4.1 billion is collected annually because of the concept of Zakat—We have to give 2.5% of income every year to the poor and needy.

BE: You’ve managed to squeeze in the environment. Usually, let’s face it, the environment does not have a high profile.

MN: We focus on the intersectionalities. Climate is related to food insecurity. As well, at OTF, we are focused on 4 priority areas of funding for 2023 that Muslims need to get involved in. These are: Anti-racism/Islamophobia, Indigenous & Interfaith, Climate Action and Youth.

BE: Can you say more about the Indigenous-Muslim work?

MN: I wrote an article where I presented the argument that for the Muslim Community to be a successful community we have to intersect, and support the issues of the Indigenous communities, and learn from them. Because one of the core values of our religion is justice. So, anywhere that we are, if there is a social injustice, we have to address social injustice; we can’t be a community if we don’t address it.

In 2010, Muslim leaders came together and signed an agreement with Turtle Lodge in Manitoba, agreeing that we would seek to learn and be allies with Indigenous communities and seek to derive our values with Indigenous communities because we have much in common. For example, justice. We are both oral communities, we do the sharing circle and consultation (Shura), before anything is done we have to consult. So we found that there are a number of areas that overlap, share certain values we can incorporate as a Muslim community.

Over the years we have done a number of projects, such as seminars at Emmanuel College on peace building in both communities. We did one on Indigenous ways of dealing with health and medicines, another on anti-racism. So we see a lot of intersectionality between the Muslim and Indigenous communities and over the last 14 years we have sought to deepen this connection.

BE: Your initiatives are ahead of the curve; other groups are only just catching up.

MN: The Jewish community has contacted us to see if they can do similar things, or to collaborate.

BE: FCG is seeking more interfaith collaborations. We are interested in building relationships with indigenous communities.

MN: It’s not easy, Indigenous communities, like Muslims, are very diverse. You have to establish a relationship over a period of time, which is what we’ve been doing this last decade.

There’s a project by Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre at Toronto City Hall, where they are establishing the Spirit Garden project that responds in part to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Call to Action 82. Faith groups are raising money for it, all the major religions are there, to help the project. Construction has started with plans to be finished in 2024.

BE: Can you tell me more about the interfaith work you fund?

MN: Last year, we provided funding for the Canadian Council of Churches, as well as the National Muslim-Christian Liaison Committee to establish an interactive tool that maps the relationships taking place, providing resources, opportunities to log what they are doing. It should be coming online soon.

BE: I love that kind of collaboration! It's a channel to keep things moving, the conversation going.

MN: These may seem like small projects, but what I look for, instead of doing it as a Muslim community, I involve other communities. So, last year, the month of April saw the coinciding of Easter, Ramadan, and Passover and I started with my colleagues to encourage faith communities to make a financial contribution to the food bank. We had about 25 groups come together across the country. It was last minute, but this year as well, we did the project again.

BE: Food is a great rallying point because everyone has to eat.

MN: The other partnership I am discussing with a colleague. At Duke University in North Carolina. I saw this article about a food truck called YELLA (Arabs and Jews say, COME), serving both kosher and halal, at Duke University. So we are exploring this, where we go to a synagogue and a mosque and do a similar project.

BE: The Youth focus. How is that coming along?

MN: In the faith work, it’s hard. People are older and retired, unless it’s a project like around food banks, or it’s something very hands-on, time restricted, you don’t get youth.

BE: Unless you are paying them!

MN:That’s the other thing that needs to be explored. In the United States, they have been successful projects but in Canada, we tend to be less overtly religious so we don’t get the youth. Youth tend to think in silos, so if they are doing a project, they will go to the local mosque, church. It is not done as interfaith projects, so we need to move differently.

BE: Sikhs are very good at engaging people.

MN: Yes! I find some Muslim communities are doing it now, the Jaffari community is doing that now, preparing meals, blankets and taking them to the inner city, and involving youth.

BE: If youth can see this is valuable, connected to their own future, they need to see things that make an impact.

MN: Relief agencies in the Muslim community have been doing that. They have been going across the country establishing core groups, preparing meals. One of the things communities are doing is planting pollinator gardens and community gardens. In Toronto, the Bengali neighbourhood has community gardens plots, where they are planting and donating to food banks.

BE: It reminds me of a project FCG participated in a few years ago, called Faith Food Forests, planting food forests. And Brampton! Many faith communities were involved in the city’s Backyard Garden program. Not only are people enhancing food and biodiversity, it’s tangible. And it’s also a way to connect with others, new Canadians. There’s so much isolation. These kinds of projects bring hope.

MN: The skill sets are there for new immigrants. Many of them have the skills of planting from their home countries. A lot of new immigrants live in apartment buildings. Along the corridor between Markham and Scarborough there is still farming land still available for people to plant. There’s a connection here between the pollinator gardens, community gardens and food insecurity. FCG could do this. Because most of the new immigrants go through the temples, gurdwaras, social hubs, right?  If the food can be connected through the interfaith work as well as providing fresh products for the food banks.

BE: Can you talk about why OTF funds FCG? Why do you like us?

MN: I was looking back at the first project we funded in 2014; neighborhood community service resilience hubs. Out of that relationship, we were able to open avenues to the Muslim community, because at that time FCG didn’t have much connection with the Muslim community. I provided a gateway for some of the other FCG projects. A lot of that went on in the early years. FCG became more interfaith, including Sikh, Hindu communities etc, and over the last couple of years, we’ve been funding the Greening Canadian Mosques (with EnviroMuslims). We also funded the Climate Narratives webinars.

OTF funds FCG, 2014

BE: Favourite projects?

MN: There are a number of them. One of the organizations we seed-funded was the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities. We had them do a needs assessment. It resulted in the creation of the Muneeba Centre in Mississauga that provides programs for youth. In the Muslim community, there are many disabled people from war-torn countries, and the group is worried about what will happen to them, so they are looking to buy a building for a live-in centre. We got them to a point where they can apply for funding elsewhere.

Another project we funded was to document the history of the first Mosque in Toronto in the early 60s. It was on Dundas Street, established by Albanian and Turkish communities and as the community grew it spawned other mosques. There’s a documentary that came out of it called Mosque One Project.

We funded Scouts Canada, for a project that started out very simply as a diversity training manual for the Toronto community, and then they saw the possibility of broadening it, and it was picked up by the national organization and it is used now across the organization.

Other projects include one in the Somali neighborhood, a collaboration between the Toronto District School Board and others. It was a mentoring program (pilot project) with middle school children mentoring elementary school students in an area that needs that support.

Another project, was one that supported isolated newcomer women, where we funded the purchase of some sewing machines at the local community centre, they learned to sew costumes, started off micro-businesses and then they got a contract with the Ontario Science Centre. This was 10-15 years ago.

One of the most beautiful projects still going on is in Regent Park. Women in the apartment buildings have a catering service. They have a menu of Afghan, Arab, South Asian foods and  they gain business skills, established their own micro-businesses, and of course the project is managed by a community group. There are some projects that start out simply, and then expand. People see possibilities and it grows. You know, sometimes you start stuff and you don’t know where it ends, right?

BE: Do you have any parting words? Hopes, visions?

MN: I am a strong supporter of FCG, and I am hoping it can develop, that it can pick up not only the climate action work but see some of the other areas of interfaith work, so that we can support each other.

The late Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks said the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. He said religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning. One of the things we noticed in the pandemic, people were looking for meaning in their lives. They are asking “What do all these difficulties mean?” They are looking for spirituality, religion. I think this is where faith groups have a role to play, maybe not in an organized fashion. Faith groups are very good – they have one underlying feature: Reverence, a shared devotion to higher ideals, things like compassion and justice resonates with all faith groups because these are common across all faith groups. If we can highlight the fact that we are a compassionate group of people, we are concerned about justice, all of the difficulties we have, like Toronto City Council; they are discussing the budget and going back and forth. This is where the faith communities can raise their voices, to say, fund supporting people, not incarcerating people. Fund the front end, the endemic issues that are causing these things. Basic Income for instance, would alleviate housing, health, food insecurity; things would immediately change if it were implemented. This is where faith communities can raise their voices and provide that moral justification for why we should do it.

I am hoping that interfaith groups see this, and come together as one voice, since all of our faith communities call for basic support. Whether it is Muslim Zakat, Jewish Tikkun, Christian tithes and offerings, they are all calling for this. Basic support could save on health care, because the increase in food bank use will increase 60%. People are working, and can’t survive. I think this is where faith groups can come together. We have the numbers to influence politicians. That is why I am so passionate about interfaith work.

Muneeb Nasir and Donna Lang
Muneeb and Donna Lang, FCG