M. Bilal Kaleem entered MIT with dreams of becoming an astronaut, but the tragedies of September 11, 2001, changed his plans. “I was concerned because I would likely need to join the air force and was not sure a Muslim would be welcome,” he says. “Perhaps that was my misperception at the time.” Instead, Kaleem graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. He worked for a startup and then as a software engineer at Oracle for a few years.
But now, as president and director of the Muslim American Society (MAS) of Boston, where he encourages Muslim civic engagement, he feels he should have forged ahead. “My message is always that you have to dream big to make an impact,” he says.
Kaleem’s career evolved after he enrolled in a master’s program involving sociology and religion at Boston University. He was inspired by similar graduate studies undertaken at Boston College by his wife, Najiba Akbar, an alumna of Wellesley College who is now the Muslim chaplain there. He soon landed a job as associate director at MAS Boston and, after only two months, became the executive director. Using a systematic, engineering-inspired approach honed at MIT, he analyzed the demographics of the Muslim community, built a volunteer base, and sought donors. Three years into his tenure, MAS Boston has expanded from just him and another part-timer to 10 full-time staff members, and the budget has grown sixfold.
“There are a lot of very well-educated Muslims who have a lot to give to our community and society, but there wasn’t something to harness these resources,” he says. Now MAS runs the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which officially opened last June and functions as a mosque but also welcomes people of all faiths. The center hosts films, panels, cultural shows, SAT-prep classes and college advising, and career-prep events such as job fairs and networking meetings. In the coming year, it will offer a library and interfaith center; a community café is also in the works.
Kaleem is proud of the center’s outreach efforts, particularly those that motivate youth. A group of young Somali refugees registered voters, and many of those volunteers now work on campaigns, because they realize that they have a stake in their new community. Another initiative unites young Muslim and Jewish professionals for community service, study of religious texts, and cultural gatherings.
It’s challenging to dispel misperceptions about Islam and encourage American Muslims to invest themselves in their communities, he says, but he considers himself well prepared by the MIT ethic, which he summarizes succinctly: “You can take on anything and do it.”