For Milwaukee Muslims, solar is an act of faith and service

With assistance from the Wisconsin Faith and Solar Initiative, co-led by Wisconsin Green Muslims, the Islamic Da'wa Center and Alice's Garden in Milwaukee are pursuing solar energy.
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Kari Lydersen and Yana Kunichoff, Midwest Energy News

Spreading light

Perry, a Milwaukee native who worked as a firefighter for 27 years, had long been interested in the idea of solar power for the center. But he embraced it in earnest at the encouragement of Huda Alkaff, who runs the Wisconsin Green Muslims organization.

The group works with mosques and other faith-based communities across the state to encourage recycling, water conservation, gardening, energy efficiency and solar energy. Alkaff has done more than 40 presentations statewide about the potential for solar, and if a mosque or other institution wants to move forward with the idea, Wisconsin Green Muslims helps them arrange financing and set them up with an engineer to analyze the roof.

In August, Alkaff offered information about solar energy to an interfaith group gathering to discuss poverty and religion in Neenah, Wisconsin, about 40 miles southwest of Green Bay.

While the event was a lively and friendly show of interfaith unity, Alkaff mentioned that that month was the fifth anniversary of a shooting in a Sikh temple in nearby Oak Creek, where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four — a still-painful reminder of the prejudices and discrimination that exist in the U.S.

Alkaff sees solar energy as something that can bring people together and symbolize hope at a time of growing xenophobia and serious environmental challenges in our country and beyond.

“Solar has a unifying power, and it really resonates,” says Alkaff, “especially when we talk about the power of light in the time of darkness.”

Alkaff thinks solar can help Muslim communities build bridges with people of other faiths and even combat Islamophobia. It’s a dynamic that Perry has seen work through the food bank at the Dawah Center.

“We’re responding to the needs of the community here,” he says, but also showing the local community that the mosque is “a place of safety.”

“A lot of folks have come and this has answered a lot of questions for them,” says Perry. “We show that Islam is not always what it appears to be in the media.”

Alkaff is working on a study to see how a focus on solar and sustainability affects public perceptions of Muslims. She surveyed 500 people anonymously with an online survey over three days in March 2017 and asked them a series of questions about their interest in solar power; how Wisconsin gets its power; and whether they’d like to find out about the Faith in Solar initiative she leads.

Some participants received a survey with an image of Alkaff in a headscarf, while others had a priest as the central image. While she went in with the hypothesis that people would respond more positively to the questions framed under a Christian image, Alkaff was surprised to learn that there wasn’t a statistical difference in how people responded.

The takeaway, to Alkaff, is that despite rising rates of Islamophobia in society, exposing people to Islam through solar energy might help them gain a positive view of Islam and understand that it shares the values of other religions.

A recent solar assessment Alkaff did with the group Alice’s Garden, a spiritually based community garden in Milwaukee, shows the way those who work with her see her passion first, and then her religion.

“I don’t look at Huda and see someone of a different faith,” says Venice Williams, executive director of Alice’s Garden. “I see a sister, an ally and a comrade.”

Alice’s Garden works as much off the grid as possible, says Williams. They currently don’t have electricity, and rely on a generator to run events like movie nights and outdoor theater. So solar panels could be a big help.

“Right now we use our pavilion to harvest rainwater. Being able to use our pavilion to generate power from the sun would be lovely,” says Williams.

Connecting Faith, Environmental Justice and Sustainability through Education and Service, Since 2005.