Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
March 1, 2002 | Hanley, Delinda C.
Walt Disney World’s Hilton Hotel in Orlando, FL was a challenging location for the Islamic Society of Central Florida’s (ISCF) and the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) third annual conference from Dec. 21 to 25. How could organizers entice families to attend conference presentations instead of exploring Disney World in the mild Florida weather?

While the conference theme, “Islam: Model Community–Successful Family,” was chosen in early spring 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks organizers and speakers decided to address as well the new problems faced by American Muslim families. As a result, Mickey Mouse lost a lot of Muslim visitors whose urgent need for current information and advice outweighed even the attractions of Disney World.
Some Muslim attendees were afraid their gathering might invite outside trouble. ISCF president Imam Muhammad Musri and Dr. Zuliqar Ali Shah, president of ICNA, along with conference organizer Heba Ali and other staff met that possibility head-on, posting guards in the lobby and checking conference badges carefully at the door to assuage any fears conferencegoers may have had.
The action-packed convention included programs for Muslims of all ages and interests. Imam M. Bashar Arafat, president of Civilizations Exchange, and Imam Benjamin Perez, a Native American Muslim from Oakland, CA, discussed the importance of interfaith dialogue. Dr. Muqtedar Khan, secretary of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (MSS), and Dr. Louay Safi, MSS president, discussed the role of progressive Muslims in a session entitled, “Bridging the Gap: Islam and America.”
Dr. Khan declared that as a result of Sept. 11, one-third of the U.S. Bill of Rights had been abandoned. The American constitution used to guarantee rights for all those who live in America, he said, but as America redefines itself, non-citizens as well as Americans are losing many freedoms. Dr. Khan advised the Islamic community to examine what it means to be American Muslims. Muslim immigrants don’t just live in America to make more money, he said, but to enjoy the freedom and quality of life available to Americans. “I can talk to Muslims anywhere in America about Islam and I won’t be shot because I’m talking `unIslamic,'” Khan explained.
“The colonial experience took the Islam out of us,” Khan stated, and he recommended a revival or a return to Islamic roots “to make Islam more central to us.” After 150 years of progress, how could Muslims in the end produce the Taliban? he asked rhetorically. If Muslims had applied the early Islamic principles correctly in Afghanistan, Dr. Khan argued, they could have had a successful civil society.
Dr. Louay Safi noted that Islam and Christianity share a core group of values: both believe in moral freedom, equal dignity for human life, freedom, charity, family and honesty. Secularization in the Western world has resulted in a great society, freeing people from the domination of one religion, Dr. Safi said. Nevertheless, he pointed out, there are anti-Islamic forces in the West, with Zionist and Christian evangelical organizations working to distort Islam’s image. The Taliban and the Sept. 11 hijackers made it easy to depict Islam falsely as a religion of intolerance, Dr. Safi said.
American Muslims have a moral duty to bridge the gap between Islamic countries and the West, he continued, and perhaps even to shape the future direction of Islam in a changing new world. Noting that as Islam spread across the globe it always interacted well with local cultures, Dr. Safi argued that Islam in America must “adopt an American accent.” As a result of the interaction between the two cultures, he concluded, this nation and all its inhabitants will grow.
Dr. Khan enthusiastically agreed. “In America we can grow a better breed of Islam, suitable for the future and not dependent on the past,” he told the audience. “Let’s not impose our own cultural baggage on our children. Let’s give them the opportunity to grow Islamically as Americans.”
Dr. James Jones, associate professor of world religions and African studies, and a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Virginia, and this writer, news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, examined “Muslim’s Vital Role in American Pluralism: Facing the Challenges of a New America.” Dr. Jones said that Islam had been hijacked on Sept. 11 and, like the horrific ruins at Ground Zero, “the fires are not out, but still smoldering. They can still flare up,” he warned.
Muslims in America are a little less comfortable living here and more mindful of Muslims around the world, Dr. Jones said. On the other hand, he countered, Sept. 11 gave Muslims more opportunity to talk about Islam in the last 100 days than they have in the past 10 years.
Muslim Americans can learn from the African-American experience, Dr. Jones opined. The 21st century problem is not the color line anymore, he said, for there are more minority elected officials in critical government positions than ever before. The problem, Dr. Jones said, is crimes against humanity caused by the greedy arrogance of the power-hungry. The freedom of black people is the responsibility of black people, he said–and the same goes for Muslims. Each Muslim has a vital role to play, he explained: “We need to be good advisers for every administration so injustices are not committed in our name. We need to get America back on the right track in the Middle East.” Muslims must advise this administration and teach them to understand Muslim issues, Dr. Jones concluded.
Next this writer discussed the vital importance of the Muslim bloc vote, especially in Florida, during the 2000 presidential elections. Already politically organized as a result, the Muslim community was able to leap into action to prevent some of the post-Sept. 11 backlash, but Muslims in America will continue to face profiling, the use of secret evidence and the other serious abuses of civil liberties. In the opinion of Washington Report executive editor Richard Curtiss, smear campaigns against Muslims occur because the Israeli government and its supporters in the U.S.–both Jewish and Christian–believe that Israel’s expansionist policies can only be maintained by driving wedges between the U.S. and Islamic countries. The same reasoning applies to driving wedges between Muslims and their neighbors, in order to prevent American Muslims from obtaining political power reflective of their growing numbers. So long as the Israeli-Palestinian problem remains unresolved, Islam is going to be slandered, even in an otherwise respectable American media, and attempts will continue to make the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” virtually synonymous in the mind of the public.
The conference panel that generated the most excitement and discussion was the one on “Muslim Women as Leaders in America.” Panelists Sherifa Alkhateeb, president of the North American Council for Muslim Women and president of the Muslim Education Council, and Dr. Amina Wadud, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Qur’an and Women, looked at ways to improve the image of Muslim women and open up more possibilities for them in America.
The perpetrators of the Sept 11 attack were men, Dr. Wadud noted, but it was women who were made the victims and scapegoats in Afghanistan and America. With 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, she said, not even a quarter of 1 percent are radical terrorists, yet somehow terrorists have become the primary representatives of Islam.
After the terrible events of Sept. 11, Professor Dr. Wadud said, men acted as the spokesmen for the Muslim community in America. It was men, she continued, who explained to the media how women wearing headscarves, which easily identified them as Muslim, felt threatened by America’s backlash. “In recent history men have been telling women how to be Muslim women. It’s time for women to tell women,” Wadud declared. “It was a little unbelievable for slaveholders to say, `our Negroes are happy to be slaves.’ It is a lot more credible for Muslim women to say `there is gender equality and no gender disharmony.'”
Women comprise at least half of the Muslim community but not always half the participants, Dr. Wadud said, despite their high levels of education and professionalism. “It’s time to show the softer side of Islam,” she argued. “The Muslim community must make a greater effort to place their highly qualified women in policymaking positions.”
At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, Alkhateeb said, the newer immigrant culture in America assumes that men should lead, and women should serve. “We’re not thinking of girls as potential leaders,” she cautioned. “Women must be encouraged to dream and have a vision for their future. There must be a change at the family level–how we envision what our girls are going to be. Are they going to be somebody’s mother or an independent woman?”
At the organizational level, Alkhateeb observed, women often are functionaries: men plan, women carry out what the men planned. In Muslim organizations, she said, virtually no women are invited to policy planning or strategy-making sessions. “Is that what Allah wants from women?” she asked the audience.
Alkhateeb argued that, instead, Allah expected high things: women as thinkers, doers, contributors of ideas. There are numerous examples of women in early Islamic history speaking out, she noted, and four Muslim countries have had women as prime ministers. By contrast, this country has never had a woman president or vice president.
After 9/11 Muslim men agreed there was a need to let women go out to speak on the radio and in schools, Alkhateeb said, with the thought that women’s words could save the lives of other Muslims. For the first time in 30 years, she observed, Muslim men embraced women’s involvement in an open-minded way. They realized that it is not Islamic to prevent a woman from passing through the glass ceiling, Professor Alkhateeb concluded.
Sunday’s sessions included Dr. Muqtedar Khan’s talk on “Standing up for Justice in the Aftermath of the Sept. 11 Tragedy.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations-FL highlighted its recent triumphs and challenges. This author and American Muslim Council director Aly Abuzaakouk discussed “Detecting and Correcting Anti-Muslim Bias in the Media.”
Other topics of interest ranged from “Islam Among Latino Americans,” and workshops on domestic violence. The role of the Internet in shaping the Muslim e-community was analyzed by Mohammed Abdul Aleem, president of Islamcity.com, and another session zeroed in on the role of the Internet after 9/11.
Dr. Abdalla Idris Ali, director of the Center for Islamic Education in North America, and Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah examined “American Muslims’ Vital Role in World Events” and discussed American Muslims’ political and social participation. Aly Abuzaakouk educated participants on the anti-terrorism legislation and its impact on American Muslims, and Faisal Choudhry spoke on “What does the WTC tragedy mean for young American Muslims?”
That didn’t leave much time for Disney World.
Article Courtesy: wrmea.com

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