Investigative reporter Susannah Johnston spoke to an October 7th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Dexter Van Zile, editor of Middle East Forum's Focus on Western Islamism. Johnston discussed her attendance at the 2022 annual convention of the Islamist organization, ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, held in Chicago, Illinois, and revealed some of her findings.
Johnston noted that the crowd was varied but included "a lot of young families'" around half of whom "were under forty." Most of the young women were wearing hijabs, with a number in niqabs (i.e. with faces covered). Although ISNA leadership expected fifty thousand, Johnston said the actual number was "in the low thousands." The relatively sparse attendance was an issue raised in the plenum, where members noted the apparent dwindling of the organization's membership. In a comment Johnston construed as "defensive," Safaa Zarzour, ISNA's president, remarked that the voting membership is around "five thousand." ISNA's attendees expressed concern about reaching "the next generation" of American Muslims.
Johnston observed that in the past ISNA was considered "one of the leading Islamist organizations in the U.S.," garnering the attention of "presidential administrations" and courting votes "as far back as Clinton."
ISNA used the opportunity of the convention to tout the presence of the elected officials who spoke there. Among these were U.S. House Representative Andre Carson and Indiana State Senator Fady Qaddoura. In addition, Illinois' governor presented a video message. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security spoke, and a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) booth was among the vendors present. The CBP booth generated "complaints online" against ISNA, Johnston noted, which was criticized for "selling out" because CBP has "gone after immigrants."
Johnston said that although there was a lot of "political ... enthusiasm," it was mainly self-congratulatory 'hot air' and consisted of ISNA's message that as a minority, Muslims had "made it to the highest places in the land." Beyond that, Johnston said there was not "anything more substantive that they were saying." Johnston confirmed that the party breakdown of the politicians and public officials that attended the convention was "mostly Democrat." She agreed that the "social agenda" of some of the attendees did not "necessarily align with [Democrat] values."
Democrat Senator Qaddoura, with reference to this issue, "was bragging about getting crossover votes" and saying that "Republicans resonated with his message," but stressed to his audience that "Political parties are vehicles [for Muslims]." And that Muslims should not "get caught up in being one party or the other."
Johnston was also surprised to hear speakers offer revisionist versions of the origins of America, saying that the founders were influenced by "Muhammedan Christians," and denigrating "evangelicals" for rewriting America's history. Claims that "the Enlightenment" only happened because of Muslim influence were also included among the many comments that were, Johnston noted, "fantastic pie in the sky."
The political capital ISNA depends upon is dependent upon its ability to resonate with the next generation of supporters. ISNA Vice President Magda Elkadi Saleh is concerned enough that she has left her position to concentrate on recruitment, which Johnston said will likely be a hard sell, given how "vague" their messaging is on "social issues." Johnston observed that the younger generation in attendance had questions regarding "how to rear their families." Panelists who tried to present both "progressive and Islamist positions" on hot-button topics such as "abortion" or "LGBTQ issues" demurred on these issues, telling the crowd to invest in schools which would tackle the "tough questions." Johnston had the impression that there was a great deal of frustration among audience members looking for "hardline answers." Panelists "hardly had anything to say," with no "clear message" regarding future goals, which Johnston said will make it difficult for ISNA to attract the next generation. She noted that while panelists did not give the hardline answers that many questioners seemed to be seeking, there also "wasn't any kind of reform message. It was just a non-message."
Johnston said that internally, ISNA is "split" — a result of a falling out between ISNA and Turkey, which had more of a presence at ISNA conventions in years past. This year, she said there seemed to be "a Turkish boycott" of the convention. Another Islamist organization, the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), boycotted the event. Johnston said, "it seems like there is a split between Muslim Brotherhood- Turkey influence and the old guard ISNA in the U.S." She anticipates ISNA will "continue to dwindle" as she sees the U.S. Muslim community at a "crossroads," with other Islamist organizations available for Muslims seeking "how to live their lives."
Johnston saw no indication that ISNA has changed its Islamist stance with any "reformist message." She noted that ISNA was "actually holding an event ... celebrating Qaradawi," the recently deceased radical Islamist preacher who justified jihad against America, Israel, and Jews. But that the main impression she gained from INSA was one of vagueness. "They've got to have clearer messaging on what they mean from the ground up on their moral messaging, their social issues messaging. They've got to figure out what in the world they believe on things. And then their politics is going to be downstream from that. You were asking earlier, why were people there? What did they want? I think they want to know how to live their lives, and it was very vague." Johnston said that questions regarding a trend towards "Islamism" among the younger generation of U.S. Muslims is a "concern" that should be taken "seriously."
She also responded to a question on Professor Mahallati of Oberlin College, noting that the Oberlin leadership has so far not responded to a congressional letter raising concerns regarding Professor Mahallati's ties to the Iranian regime. Johnston said that she was not surprised by the lack of response.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.