The Justice Files
THE FAILURE OF ISNA TO MEET THE CHALLENGE!
The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), in association with its co-host, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, convened (over the Labor Day weekend) ISNA’s 2005 convention in Chicago, Illinois. This year’s convention theme was "Muslims in North America: Accomplishments, Challenges, and the Road Ahead."
The theme was designed to reflect ISNA’s “pride in the American Muslim community's accomplishments and achievements, not only in self-improvement and community development but also in contributing to the American society at large,” with the stated aim of celebrating, “Muslim contributions to American society in the past while inspiring further contributions in the future.”
So far, so good; however, a forthright appraisal of the convention itself - from start to finish - might lead an honest observer to conclude that the organizers failed to meet one of the most critical “challenges” of our time.
The convention began on Friday, September 2, with a press conference that featured the newly appointed U.S Department of State Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes - the Bush Administration’s official representative to the 42nd Annual ISNA convention. Secretary Hughes was charged with introducing the President’s Initiative in Public Diplomacy to the Muslim World.
ISNA really wanted Bush himself to attend. In fact, one of ISNA’s officials made some rather unfortunate (to put it lightly) remarks in the days leading up to the convention, in a futile attempt to accomplish this goal.
Rummana Hussain, writing in the Chicago Sun Times on August 29, reported the following: “Islamic Society of North America officials are pleased top Bush aide Karen Hughes will be at their side when they kick off the 42nd annual convention at Rosemont’s Donald E. Stephen’s Convention Center on September 2. But they said Bush’s presence would show the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims the United States truly respects and honors Islam. ‘If he really wants to make a difference, a real impact, he should come himself,’ ISNA’s secretary-general Sayyid Syeed, said Thursday. (“Respects and honors Islam?”)
Still quoting Dr. Syeed, the article continues, “Most Muslims overseas would also be able to see that the United States’ dealings with Muslims aren’t limited to the Iraq war and the Guantanamo Bay prison abuse scandal. Many Muslims living outside the United States don’t even know there is a prominent Muslim community here. Bush’s attendance will put the vibrant community of Muslims in America on the map.”
The language here is unbelievable. Dr. Syeed is speaking of a U.S. President who, in the name of a “war on terrorism,” has led a global campaign which has facilitated untold suffering for tens of millions of oppressed Muslims around the world! The reporter went on to note, “The White House press office did not return a call from the Chicago Sun-Times.” They were probably at a loss for words.
President Bush didn’t attend the convention; nor did I. I did, however, receive a call from one of the attendees while the convention was still going on; and in the days since, I’ve had an opportunity to hear from others who attended. I’ve also visited ISNA’s website to read what the organizers themselves (and posted media) have had to say about their convention.
From what I’ve been told, and from what I could read on the website, neither the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, nor the latest developments in Occupied Palestine were on the ISNA agenda – as major issues for examination, dialogue and constructive debate. Given the enormity and centrality of these issues to the madness going on in the world at present, this constituted a major failure on the part of the ISNA program committee.
Another failure was the so-called “anti-terrorism” thrust of the convention. ISNA reportedly introduced its newly established Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Extremism Committee (ATAEC). The problem with ATAEC is in the one-sided nature of its calling. Any initiative that purports to address the cancer of terrorism and extremism among the Muslims, while having little or nothing to say about the state-sponsored “terrorism and extremism” orchestrated against Muslims, is bound to fail! (I say this to ISNA and to all of the other prominent Muslim organizations who have rushed forward of late to announce their competing “anti-terrorism initiatives.”)
Having said this, I would like to commend Dr. Hina Azam, one of the speakers at ISNA’s conference, for an excellent presentation on the subject of terrorism. I fully agree with her analysis, wherein she states: “Al-Qaeda and its various branches have set aside Qur’anic spirituality and ethics, as well as traditional law, in favor of a return to [a] pre-Islamic condition of total war, in which all the members of the opposing tribe are fair game, including old men, pregnant women, babes-in-arms, Jewish doctors, Christian teachers and Muslim engineers. The totalistic mindset of the vendetta sees only one distinction, that between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It allows for no cooperation and no friendship between members of different tribes. It leaves no room for reconciliation and no avenue for settlement of differences. The hardness of heart demonstrated by a group that exacts vengeance on the innocent for crimes committed by others is the heart that lacks hilm, and is dominated by jahala.” (Dr. Azam’s full address can be accessed at www.isna.net )
I couldn’t agree more. This is a very important point that needs to be repeated over and over in different venues. However, to make such an excellent point in a program that lacks balance is to significantly reduce the potential impact of the point being made!
On a related note, ISNA welcomed a 19 member official [PR] delegation from Britain. They came to discuss the Taskforce established by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. (Another one-sided initiative.) My understanding is that while the delegation’s leader, Lord Nazir, criticized Mr. Bush, he had nothing but praise for Mr. Blair and the British government.
On a more positive note, ISNA - in conjunction with a number of other prominent Muslim advocacy and relief organizations – has established a special fund for the Hurricane Katrina humanitarian relief effort. (After Friday prayers ISNA announced that it had already collected $2 million of a $10 million pledge.)
ISNA must now embrace the challenge to publicly do more for the tens of millions of desperately poor and long suffering Muslims in different parts of the Ummah; in Africa and Asia, in Chechnya, Bosnia (and other parts of the Balkans), the Middle East, northwestern China, the Philippines; and, believe it or not, right here in America! For to do less is to raise legitimate questions of sincerity!
All this being said, at the end of the day, ISNA, and a host of other “Major Muslim organizations,” suffer from three major deficiencies, in my humble opinion: the Firun complex (a desire to be close to power); the inability to speak truth to power (one of the best jihads, and a requirement of our deen); and a refusal to be inclusive in their programming (of Muslims who they find discomforting – not unworthy; just discomforting).
While the Islamic Society of North America may call itself a “preeminent international Islamic organization,” with these types of deficiencies, “The Road Ahead” (under its leadership) doesn’t leave room for much optimism.
El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan serves as Director of Operations for The Peace And Justice Foundation. He can be reached at (301) 762-9162, or via firstname.lastname@example.org .