Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

American Muslims Find Strength and Unity at ISNA's Annual Conference

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

American Muslims Find Strength and Unity at ISNA's Annual Conference

Article excerpt


As many as 30,000 faithful Muslims gathered on Labor Day weekend to attend four days of seminars, prayer and socializing at McCormick Place's lakefront convention center in Chicago, IL for the 36th annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the continent's largest Islamic organization. Attendees, who may be used to living as a minority in their communities back home, appeared to enjoy the sense of belonging and camaraderie of being among fellow Muslims.

Unity was stressed throughout the weekend. In his welcoming speech on Sept. 3, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said dialogue between Christians and Muslims is crucial to America and the world. "In the century, in the millennium to come, the primary carrier of civilizations and of cultures will be the great faiths," Cardinal George said. "Here in Chicago...we are at a new moment when cooperation and honest dialogue can take place."

At a Sept. 4 news conference, ISNA president Muzammil Siddiqui focused on unity, saying the theology of mainstream Islam "is to have good relations with all humanity, regardless of religion, color or gender."

The melodious voice of Yusuf Islam, the former British pop singer Cat Stevens, who converted to Islam in 1977, called attendees to prayer throughout the weekend. His program, titled "One God, One Humanity," commanded the largest audience of the day on Saturday. "This is a great context for us to get together for Allah's sake," said Yusuf Islam.

The Muslim American Society, consisting largely of African-American converts to Islam and led by Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, was holding another conference in Philadelphia over the same holiday weekend. In the spirit of unity Imam Mohammed also spoke at the ISNA conference.

Professional basketball player Tariq Abdul-Wahad, 23, of the Orlando Magic, who attended the conference to coach children's sports camps, told attendees, "Now, today, we are dealing with American Muslims. The Muslim youth of America went to American schools, and they're the ones who are going to take Islam to the next level." He cautioned young people to resist the temptations of a society in which there are what Yusuf Islam called "uncontrollable freedoms." This anything-goes mentality stands in stark contrast to Islamic rules and laws, he said.

In a shopping area reminiscent of a Middle Eastern souq, Islamic businesses marketed their wares. Among those doing a brisk business were bookstores, boutiques, and gold, handicraft, and carpet merchants, and even a company catering to Muslim insurance needs.

Throughout the weekend North American Muslims had a unique opportunity to listen to and learn from Islamic scholars from all over the world. Programs included sessions on marriage in Islam, raising Muslim children in America, Islamic schools and even foster care for Muslims. Other seminars discussed how Muslims in America can respond to the nation's broader social problems. Now that first-generation Muslims are not just trying to survive in America, many thriving second-generation Muslims are ready to look beyond themselves and help others.

Various speakers mentioned that many Americans' only exposure to Islam is through media reports on tensions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The speakers expressed hope that through the conference and similar events they would reach non-Muslims and inform them about Islam. Someday Islamic holidays may be as familiar to the general public as such Christian and Jewish holy days as Easter and Yom Kippur.

Among many politically oriented workshops, Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Political Action Committee (IMPAC), Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Najir Khaja of the American Muslim Council (AMC) held a panel discussion on coordinating Muslim political action regarding secret evidence as a weapon. …

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