ICNA /MAS confab hears call for resistance in Iraq -Taliban supporter Ridley cries "victory to the intifada!" after receiving Muslim Weekly Reader Club award
November 22, 2005
Washington Report, September/October 2005, pages 58-63
ICNA Convention Confronts Post-9/11 Backlash
THE ISLAMIC Circle of North America (ICNA) held its annual convention July 1 to 3 at the newly built Connecticut Conference Center in downtown Hartford. Sponsored jointly with the Muslim American Society (MAS), the convention's major theme centered around the importance of the family in the American Muslim community. In addition to listening to a variety of speakers, attendees enjoyed a huge bazaar of stalls selling food, clothes, crafts, books, CDs and games. An area of the bazaar morphed from a basketball clinic one day into a successful Red Cross blood drive the next.
One panel discussion examined "the PATRIOT Act and the Future of Muslim Families." The son of panelist Talat Hamdani, a member of September 11 Families for Peaceful Change, was Pakistani-born Salman, 23, a paramedic and an NYPD cadet who was killed rescuing victims at the World Trade Center. Ironically, this hero was suspected and investigated as a terrorist after his remains were discovered in the wreckage. His mother said Salman's death has propelled her to take action to correct serious injustices being committed in the name of security and the so-called war on terror.
Lamenting the environment of fear, intimidation and demonization facing Muslims after the 9/11 tragedy, Hamdani said, "I feel we've stayed quiet for a long time—three and a half years. Silently, quietly, we accepted whatever was said in the name of our religion, how it was desecrated, how it became synonymous with the word terrorism." She urged the audience to be activists and stand up for their rights and opinions regarding the PATRIOT Act, "first and primarily as American citizens, and then as Muslims." She recommended writing to senators, members of the House of Representatives and the White House: "This is the land of the free, but if you want justice, you have to speak up."
The following day, Mahdi Bray, executive director of Muslim American Society's (MAS) Freedom Foundation, held a workshop to discuss various ways for Muslim Americans to speak up. Civil activism is necessary for Muslims, Bray said, because they are being affected by U.S. laws and policies, as well as by social and educational programs. He then outlined the potential benefits of reaching out to media, public schools, professional associations and interfaith communities, and even of interacting with neighbors.
Bray emphasized the need for Muslims to engage in coalition-building with other groups having similar interests, such as civil rights, environmental, health, and even animal rights groups. "If we look at the history of America," he said, "all great social movements were led by people, but accomplished by coalitions." These coalitions were successful, he noted, because they were led first and foremost by the constituents most directly affected. Muslims need to move to the forefront of the present anti-war and civil rights movements, Bray argued, to preclude the development of what he called a "paternalistic aspect" to such activism.
Turning to "how Muslims are to define themselves in America," Bray said it's the media and the U.S. government who are deciding who represents Muslims in America and who, as a result, are promoting a particular view of Islam that is not representative of U.S. Muslims.
Describing civil rights abuses in the post-9/11 Islamophobic environment, Bray explained why Muslims must engage in civil activism. He cited a Cornell research poll in which 44 percent of Americans favored the circumvention of Muslims' rights "for the sake of national security" as exemplifying "a certain mindset" that permits the marginalization of minorities.
Another panel the same day discussed "The Desecration of the Qur'an: Where Do We Stand?" Panelist Dr. Abdulla Idris Ali, the founder and director of the Center for Islamic Education of North America, said that although Muslims cannot accept the desecration of the Qur'an or any other assault on their religion, Muslims should act wisely and calmly (using Islamic principles), and channel their efforts through Muslim organizations or media circles.
A panel entitled "One Big International Family" featured a talk on the "Asian Quakes and Tsunamis" by free-lance writer Shakeel Syed, who recently visited Indonesia. Describing the immense destruction and deprivation he saw, Syed encouraged the audience to contribute to and expand upon existing international efforts to help the tsunami victims.
A talk on the "Global Village: Our Responsibilities in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, and Sudan," featured Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who was captured while on assignment in Afghanistan during Taliban days. According to Ridley, 32,500 Afghans have been killed since the war on terror was launched. Describing the current chaos today, she said: "Their country is in turmoil...the warlords are coming back...Afghanistan is the world's number one heroin distributor." She told of a woman who lost nine children, killed by an American laser-guided missile. "They talk about the living dead. That is how this woman appeared to me." Americans may offer token monetary compensation to the victims of their attacks, Ridley said, but to them "Muslim lives and Muslim blood are very, very cheap."
Ridley then described her experiences in Iraq. "The resistance is growing stronger all the time," she said. "Where there is injustice, the only answer is resistance. It isn't coming from outside. It's coming from Iraqi people themselves."
Ridley spoke of the other killings of Muslims around the world, including Gujarat, India where, she said, 12 months after the first anniversary of 9/11, 6,084 Indian Muslims had been killed. In 12 months in Chechnya, she noted, 5,078 Muslim civilians were slaughtered by Russian aerial bombardments. Finally, Ridley talked about Palestine, where "Israel ignores international law" with impunity and American support. And, according to Ridley, Chinese Muslims "were being persecuted and executed in public."
In a separate session, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, chair of the National Board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), delivered an address on "Challenges and Opportunities," focusing on the image problems facing Islam and Muslims in contemporary America. Presenting statistics from various polls, including the 2004 Pew poll, Ahmed concluded that "overwhelmingly the public opinion is turning against us...and things are only getting worse."
Public opinion can have critical implications on government policy, Ahmed said, citing the December 2004 Cornell poll cited by Mahdi Bray.
He also discussed the opportunities American Muslims have to reverse the current trends. "People who have an understanding of Islam, and have met and interacted with Muslims, have significantly positive attitudes toward Islam and Muslims," Ahmed noted. The task, he said, is to educate people about Islam, with the hope that five or ten years from now the negative poll numbers can be reversed.
Ahmed closed by advising the audience to write letters to their representatives and newspapers and to get involved in organizations like CAIR.
The final day of the convention included a panel discussion of "Civil Rights and Detentions." Panelist James Yee, the former U.S. Army Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, described his ordeal after he was accused of espionage and other capital crimes, his subsequent release, but the continuation of a smear campaign. In the current climate, Yee warned, Muslims can easily expect authorities to "come and take you away." In response, he urged the audience to "support those groups and organizations committed to protecting you and your civil rights and who are making the effort to correctly portray Muslims in the way they want to be portrayed."
Following his address, Yee introduced Syed Ali, a New York businessman and a teacher of constitutional law, and a former detainee. After 9/11 Ali's business partners accused him of being the financier of the attacks. His home was searched by agents "looking for weapons of nuclear and biological warfare," he said, and he was taken into custody. In the search and seizure, Ali explained, "everything was emptied from my house, right down to my kids' homework." The agents claimed that they found various suspicious things such as computer programs "teaching you how to fly" and foreign currency.
Ali was then detained and sent to Ryker's Island for four months, but was released because "they could not come up with one single charge in relation to terrorism." Ali said he suffered from "a lot of emotional stress," and lost his home and everything else he owned. Concluding his remarks, Ali thanked the Muslim community for the support they had given him and emphasized the need for Muslim unity to prevent abuse and harassment in post-9/11 America.
Muslim Taskforce Gears Up For Elections in 2006, 2008
"I am afraid, now that the elections are over, the major Muslim organizations will busy themselves with other pressing matters and, as far as elections are concerned, we won't hear from them for the next four years," wrote a columnist shortly after the 2004 presidential election.
That did not happen, however, because the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), an umbrella group representing 11 national Muslim organizations, had chalked out a four-year action plan which entails quarterly town hall meetings jointly organized by those organizations. The most recent one was held in Hartford, Connecticut, during the Islamic Circle of North American (ICNA) convention. The next AMT town hall meeting is scheduled for Sept. 3 in Chicago, during the Islamic Society of North American's (ISNA) convention.
The main thrust of these meetings is to involve the community in setting up goals and strategies for 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Participants will identify milestones and establish clear criteria to measure success, help maintain a grassroots-based, bottom-up, democratic decision-making system, and build a clear community-wide consensus about electoral goals and strategies.
Since January 2005, the AMT has formed state chapters in Florida and New York, and is currently negotiating similar chapters in New Jersey and Texas. Not only are these state chapters beginning to develop a genuine grassroots activism in their communities, but this structural expansion is proving to be quite useful.
Sensing greater organization and activity among New York Muslims, for example, various mayoral candidates are beginning to pay greater direct and indirect attention to the Muslim community. As reported in the New York Sun, Manhattan borough president and mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields told leaders of the New York Chapter of the American Muslim Taskforce that "she opposes the PATRIOT Act" and, as mayor, would create a more inclusive "New York City, in which Muslims would have more of a voice."
Cognizant of the role that American Muslim voters can play in city, state and federal elections, the AMT panel urged the ICNA audience to keep their eyes on real issues like civil liberties, human rights, war, jobs, and health care. The four-point AMT program is detailed below:
For more information visit AMT at <www.AmericanMuslimVoter.Net>.