Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
December 1, 1997 | M, M.
Attending the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is always a rewarding experience, and it was no different this year. This is the single largest annual gathering of Muslims in North America. After a decline from 1983 to 1993, ISNA has turned itself around and has been gaining rapidly in strength. According to the ISNA organizers, “around 22,000” people attended the convention that was held in Chicago, Illinois, between Aug. 29 and Sept. 1, 1997.

A Chicago Tribune article, published midway in the convention while participants still were arriving, placed participation close to 20,000. The newspaper noted, however, that Warith Deen Mohammed’s Muslim American Society, which is the largest African-American Sunni Muslim organization, also was holding its convention in New Jersey over the same Labor Day weekend, taking away many who otherwise would have been at the ISNA meeting in Chicago.
Going to any weekend conference or convention in America entails considerable cost and expenditure of time. The ISNA convention came almost on the heels of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) convention in Pittsburgh, PA over the July 4 weekend (see Oct./Nov. issue, p. 55). Although many people attended both the ICNA and ISNA events, others could not afford to attend them both. As a result, a tacit understanding now has been reached between all of the major American Muslim groups to hold their annual gatherings at more widely spaced intervals.
Islam, as is so often repeated, is the fastest growing religion in America. But estimates of the actual number of practicing Muslims in the U.S. vary widely, from four to eight million. While the total size of the Muslim population remains a matter of contention, the composition of the Muslim community is not in dispute. African Americans are the largest component, at 42 percent; 24.4 percent are South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) and their descendants; 12.3 percent are Arabs; 3.6 percent Iranians; 2.4 percent Turks; 2.0 percent Southeast Asians (Indonesians, Malaysians, Philippinos and Singaporeans); 1.6 percent Americans of European ancestry; and 5.6 percent are unspecified.
In an Aug. 28 article before the convention opened, the Chicago Tribune reported that “in greater Chicago…Muslims now number between 350,000 and 400,000, substantially more than the metropolitan area’s Jewish population, and second only to Christians.”
ISNA’s claim that it is a national umbrella organization for U.S. and Canadian Muslim groups is largely valid. Today, it loosely oversees more than 1,400 mosques and community centers scattered all over North America. Besides its annual convention, it also organizes conferences and seminars on topics relevant to the current affairs that directly or indirectly affect the Muslim community, works with other major religious groups to promote better mutual understanding, and encourages its membership to become active in American politics. It also offers economic and financial advice and counseling and, above all, provides leadership to Muslims in the new continent.
ISNA’s mission statement asserts in part: “ISNA’s mission is to provide a unified platform of expression of Islam, to develop educational, da’ wah and social services that translate the teachings of the Qur’an and sunnah into everyday living, and to enhance the Islamic identity in the society at large.”
On a regular basis ISNA also reaches out to the Muslim community through its bimonthly magazine, Islamic Horizons.
ISNA has just inducted into office its new majlis es-shura (consultative council), which has broad representation of all segments of the Muslim population in the United States. Its new president, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, of Southern California, who was elected prior to the convention, brings with him the modesty of a scholar, the humility of a leader and an unflinching willingness to serve the community. This strength at the helm is further enhanced by the sagacity, dynamism and dedication of ISNA’s secretary-general, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, and the professional team he has brought to the organization’s Indiana headquarters.
The Convention
Proclaiming Aug. 29-Sept. 1, 1997 to be “American Muslim Community Week in Chicago,” Mayor Richard Daley urged all “to be aware of the many contributions that American Muslims have made to our city, state and country.” This may have been a courtesy that a mayor extends to all significant groups who meet in his city, but the compliments paid by a Chicago fire marshall and the city’s police chief rang with sincerity and attested to the laudable reputations of expanding Muslim communities all over America. “The city has no problems with the congregation of Muslims because they do not pose any law-and-order situation and conduct themselves in an exemplary, peaceful manner,” said the police chief, in contrast to the normal panic-stricken reaction of officials when huge numbers of almost any other group gather in one place.
Chicago’s Grant Park on the shore of Lake Michigan was a feast to the eye when, at 1 p.m. on Sunday of the Labor Day weekend, Muslim guests streamed out of the Hilton Towers, the main site of the ISNA convention, and all of the nearby major hotels to participate in a peace demonstration and be welcomed by city, county and state officials.
In fact, however, the sidewalks in the hotel district bustled with Muslims almost round-the-clock for three days.
According to one source, of the 20,000-plus attendees, approximately 50 percent were women and between 5,000 and 6,000 were young people. This was a clear sign that Islam in America is healthy, growing and here to stay.
ISNA manages to attract a broad ethnic cross-section of South Asian, Arab and indigenous Muslims. They comprise an equally wide social spectrum from well-established professionals to less affluent but equally serious young couples and groups passing children back and forth as they hurried from ballrooms to seminar rooms with frequent stops in the “bazaar” area that encompassed three vast rooms with a total area almost equivalent to a full city block.
Among the many known and familiar scholars of Islam that ISNA brings to its platforms each year, it always produces a luminary who draws the attention of everyone. Last year it was eloquent scholar Dr. Murad Hofmann from Germany and Turkey. This year it was Hamza Yusuf, a young American-born imam from California who displayed an exceptional command of the Arabic language as he quoted from the Holy Qur’an and the shariah with facility to make his points. There was not even standing room left in the huge Hilton Hotel banquet halls whenever Hamza Yusuf addressed the audience on Islam and current affairs. Strikingly clad in his black robe and white turban, he is a scholar and an orator of no ordinary merit.
This year’s convention theme, “Muslims for Moral Excellence,” once again reflected the concern of a deeply conservative community that finds itself in the midst of a rather permissive society and confronted by an avalanche of visual, electronic and print media that invade every home in America. The emphasis, as is evident, is not just on the preservation of the moral values as propounded by Islam, but in excelling in those values.
A vast majority of the rank-and-file of ISNA attendees consists of first-generation immigrants to the United States who now find their progeny coming of age, and in some cases already producing a third generation, who are exposed to the moral trepidations of the times. Reiteration and serious study of the Islamic moral code is, therefore, considered essential.
The convention theme was expressed in different sessions through such topics as Staying on Track; Overcoming Dualities; Muslim Youth in America; Developing Skills in the Use of Media in Building a Moral Society; Fiqh of Parent-Child Relationships: How Close is Too Close?; and Using Qur’an in More Ways Than One. The convention program also addressed problems arising from observing Islamic values while participating constructively in American society. Questions of Islamic banking and particularly the issues of interest (ri’bah) were examined in the U.S. context; the matter of Islamic personal law and its application in the framework of American jurisprudence was discussed; the opportunities and avenues of financial investments in the country that are permissible in Islam were probed; methodology for political empowerment of Muslims in America was examined; international sore points like the future of Jerusalem were pondered; and the need for inter-faith communication occupied a whole breakfast session. The compendium of papers read and speeches delivered at the 34th annual convention of ISNA will make good reading for those who could not physically attend all sessions, and the many others who could not make it to Chicago.
The progression from the 3,000 who came to the ISNA convention a decade ago to the 20,000-plus this year reflects not only the growing numbers of Muslims in America but also their growing self-awareness. The fact that it was a uniformly happy and uplifting experience, and the palpably warm and sincere welcome extended by the host city to our colorful and varied multitude, also reflects the willingness of our chosen homeland not only to accommodate but actually to rejoice in diversity.
Article Courtesy: wrmea.org

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