Faced with an increase in hate crimes, threats to their civil liberties and an assault on their faith, about 40,000 American Muslims gathered in Chicago for the 40th annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) at the Labor Day weekend. The annual event attracts Muslims from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds from across Canada and the United States.
The theme of the four-day gathering was "Islam: enduring values for daily life."
Participants addressed issues ranging from defending Islam to increasing their political influence in the United States. It included a number of workshops including on steps to take if Muslims are victims of harassment or hate crimes. One workshop showed how Muslims can work with their congressional representatives to repeal the Patriot Act. Seminars were also held on how to join political campaigns to elect candidates who will fight for Muslims' rights.
Leaders of the American Muslim Political Coordination Committee (AMPCC), meeting at the sidelines of the convention, announced plans to register 1 million Muslim voters and make civil rights a top issue in any endorsement of a presidential candidate. The AMPCC includes American Muslim Alliance, American Muslim Council, Council of American-Islamic Relations and Muslim Public Affairs Council. Dr. Agha Saeed, Chairman of the newly formed Muslim American Congress, led the crowd in a chant. "I am an American, I am a Muslim and I vote," he said, joined by thousands gathered at the convention.
Senator Carol Moseley Braun: In an unannounced appearance at the convention, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun compared the civil liberties struggle of Muslim Americans today to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. "The Islamic community today is faced with a new version of an old struggle," Braun said. "My late mother used to say it doesn't matter whether you came to this country on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, through Ellis Island or the Rio Grande. We're all in the same boat now."
Braun, who noted that ISNA is holding its 40th annual convention the same week the 1963 March on Washington marked its 40th anniversary, asked the crowd to support her as a Democratic candidate for president in 2004.
She was the only presidential candidate of any party to ever address the convention.
Mr. Kareem Irfan, chairman of the Council of Religious Leaders of Greater Chicago, introduced Braun as "the darling of the Muslim American community," for her opposition to the war in Iraq and the USA Patriot Act, which many critics believe has eroded important civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism.
Protestant leaders: The Islamic Society of North America had invited moderate and liberal Protestant leaders to share the stage with Muslim leaders and address participants at the opening session. The Rev. Daniel Vestal of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which represents moderate Southern Baptists, told the audience that not all Baptists agree with recent statements by evangelicals "demeaning Islam." "Please know there are many other Baptist Christians whose words and deeds are different," Vestal said. "We desire understanding, community and common cause."
The ISNA Secretary General, Sayyid Syeed, pointed out that when Muslims began immigrating to the United States in large numbers in the 1960s, it was the Christian campus ministries that provided Muslim college students with space to worship.
The Rev. Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches, which represents thousands of mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christian congregations, condemned what he called the "hate speech" of conservative Christian leaders who condemn Islam and committed the resources of his organization to fostering respect for the religion. He drew applause when he noted his group had opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
Esposito: ISNA recognized John L. Esposito, an Italian American Islamic Studies Professor to be the current "Abu Taleb of Islam" and the Muslim community not only in North America but also worldwide. In appreciation of his long time support and advocacy of the true essence of Islamic values, lending countless effort towards dispelling myths about Muslim societies and cultures, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, Secretary General of the ISNA compared the role of Professor Esposito, of Georgetown University, to that of Abu Taleb, the Prophet's uncle who gave unconditional support to the Muslim community at a time when it was weak and oppressed.
Professor Esposito advised the Muslim community on the necessity of transforming their current challenges into opportunities. He said that despite the setbacks of 9/11 - manifested in increasing waves of discrimination and hate crimes - the community should be able to make use of the present situation and move beyond playing the victim's role.
He added that the time has passed for Muslims to keep blaming all the ills of the Muslim World on the colonization period and imperialism, saying that the experiences of the American Jews in the U.S. and other minorities should be educational examples on how to overcome challenges. "Unite and cooperate: still not done enough. When you are under siege, there is no time to split," he said.
He warned of what he called the "Muslim Coach Potato" syndrome, where some Muslims are content with playing the role of the commentators rather than activists. "One would talk about the issues of Palestine, Iraq or any other distressed part of the Muslim world over dinner, only to go home and feel good about it," he said.
Delivering his message in quick, energizing tone, Esposito remarked that this is the time of Jihad for faith and value. "A time to empower the next generation, and the way is to focus on education, to engage in a process of Islah (Reform) and Tajdeed (Renewal). "It is a process of emphasizing faith and value, emphasizing non violence over violence. It is a struggle of faith and knowledge, a never ending struggle supported by faith," he added.
Film Festival: A film festival was a major cultural event at the convention. What began last year as a small, unpublicized session featuring seven films has blossomed into a full-fledged film festival this year, with 30 films set to be screened over three days.
The films range from a million-dollar PBS documentary about the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim-themed cartoons, to student films and two short satirical films, "BBQ Muslims" and "Death Threat," that poke fun at the Muslim terrorist stereotype.
"As we've gotten away from building the bare bones of the Muslim community in America--we have the mosques, we have the schools--now we're getting to the higher efforts, the refinement of our Muslim culture," said Fawad Siddiqui, an organizer of ISNA's film festival and art exhibition.
The film that opened ISNA's festival was "Bilalian," a documentary from director Aminah Abdul-Jabaarr, a 28-year-old filmmaker from California. It chronicles the emergence of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed's American Society of Muslims from the Nation of Islam after the death of the Nation's founder, Elijah Muhammad, in 1975.
The American Society of Muslims also held its annual convention in Chicago as traditionally the two Muslim groups hold their annual conventions at the Labor Day weekend. The society's leader, W. Deen Mohammed, spoke at the ISNA convention, and an ISNA official addressed the society's gathering.