Magazine article Islamic Horizons

Navigating Challenges and Seizing Opportunities

Magazine article Islamic Horizons

Navigating Challenges and Seizing Opportunities

Article excerpt

WHILE ISNA HAD BEEN ANNOUNCING LEADING UP to their 2016 convention, held Sept. 2-5 in Chicago, that 48% of the speakers would be women what was even more refreshing was an opening day Friday panel that was made up entirely of women, yet was not limited to discussion of token "womens issues." It included Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a Christian, who was fired from her teaching position at the evangelical Wheaton College, when in solidarity with Muslims she wore a hijab throughout the Advent season, and had the courage to teach that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. While news media constantly exposes us to a certain type of Christian using the Bible as a blunt object to insist on their bigoted views, it was pleasant to hear from Hawkins. A Christian who is politically engaged, progressive, and at the same time deeply knowledgeable of her scriptures, she spoke of her experiences. She was moved how she felt that her faith community expanded to include Muslims due to the outpouring of support she received from Muslims during the controversy.

The panel, expertly moderated by Mariam Sobh of WBBM, 780 AM, an all-news Chicago radio station, stood out in the convention as one of the most thorough and productive sessions. With a focus on media relations, it dealt with issues that continued to be revisited in various sessions throughout the rest of the convention. The panelists discussed with searing candor the blessings and burdens of being made into a spokesperson for the Muslim community, by virtue of their position as public figures and their visible connection to the community through their hijab. While many watch on television in awe as these women verbally duel with hostile journalists, deflecting their loaded questions with confidence, the panel members took the opportunity to share their very human struggles. Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, shared, "I know that I'll be second-guessing everything that I just said, there's always at least 40% that I wish I could redo. This is not a lack of gratitude. I am privileged to represent this community on the world stage but it is a very heavy load and it's hard to do it justice."

Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympian sabre fencer medalist and fashion designer for her company Louella, discussed her unorthodox path through life that led her to success. She stressed that it was not due to a unique position in life that allowed her to take this path, but rather she simply looked for opportunities, making a conscious decision to work hard. She saw that fencing was a sport uniquely modest in its dress and it presented a path to athletic scholarships at good schools. Unfortunately, she pointed out, there are many paths to success that we neglect when "we put our children and ourselves in a box. We have cultural boxes." Not only has she found success for herself, but also many young Muslims, both girls and boys, are inspired by her struggle. Fellow panelist, Mogahed announced that she was the "proud mother of two boys in fencing, and they take inspiration from Ibtihaj, so yes, our boys are taking inspiration from our women!"

Muslim Americans have been struggling with having to react constantly to incidents and defend themselves against Islamophobic suspicion and hostility. While the panelists agreed that the community needed to move past this stage to start producing its own stories and narratives. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, showed how indeed Muslims have begun to succeed in this. During the 2016 presidential primary race, Muslim voters caused one of the biggest political upsets in modern history by coming out to vote in large numbers in Michigan for Bernie Sanders, a Jew, shocking those who assumed that Muslims were usually anti-Semitic recluses. The hijab wearing Sarsour also personally made a historic statement by speaking at official Sanders' campaign rallies - not to speak about Muslim concerns, but to address issues that interest all Americans, allowing people to see her not simply as a poster-woman for Islam, but as a holistic human being. …

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