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Report on the first conference of The Muslim Alliance of North America - Philadelphia Nov.2 - 4 2007

December 24, 2007

First MANA Conference A Long Time Coming

By Zainab Cheema
Muslim Link Staff Writer

From November 2 to 4, the Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA) held their debut conference in Philadelphia: the State of the Black American Muslim Community.

MANA is a national coalition of organizations and community centers devoted to the social, economic, and cultural strengthening of the African American community. The conference served not only to launch MANA as a high profile coalition organization, but to bring core African American issues to the table that have long been neglected.

Many high profile imams, community leaders, and activists were spotlighted in the program. As Amir of MANA and the driving force behind the conference, Siraj Wahaj was a key figure. Other speakers included Zaid Shakir, Warith Deen Mohammad, Laila Muhammad, Jamillah Karim, Altaf Husain, Ihsan Bagby, Karimah Al-Alamin, Mauri Saalakhan, Johari Abdul-Malik, Imam Abdul Malik, Luqman Abdul Haqq, Talib Abdur Rasheed, and Joshua Salaam.

One of the key phrases of the conference is paradigm shift: it was grounded in the sense that African American Muslims must create a platform for addressing core issues that affect the communities, instead of waiting for the Arab and Indo-Pak communities that dominate the established Muslim organizations to let down their barriers. The conference opened up frank discussion about the impact that the prejudice and racism from the Arab and Indo-Pak communities have had on the African American Muslim community, and how key issues affecting the latter have persistently been neglected.

"The agenda of the immigrant Muslim community in America is preoccupied by foreign polices at the expense of the domestic agenda," noted Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, a member of MANA's Executive Committee, "MANA has been working to develop, critique, and synergize those on the ground addressing issues plaguing Muslims in America. We are addressing the long neglected urban core, which is the historical home of the Muslim community living in America."

"We call ourselves Muslims, but what does that mean in the eyes of people we interact with everyday?" asked Imam Talib Abdur Rasheed, Deputy Amir of MANA, "It means to do unto others as others would do unto you. The immigrant Muslims have been invited to a dialog for a long time. However, they have not come forward."

"In the 20th century, WEB DuBois said that the problem in America is the color line," declared Altaf Husain, former president of MSA National, "and it is a shame that in the 21st century, the problem in the Muslim American community is the color line."

Many participants and audience members responded positively to the message. "There is an energy and appreciation happening at the conference," said Bonita McGee, "I think that this conference could best serve as a model for establishing practices that other conferences could follow. I am looking forward to the solutions and action steps that will come out of the conference."

"I think this conference is excellent because it is focusing on African American issues," noted Karim Amin, Development Director at the Islamic Relief, "We are focusing on issues that have long been ignored. This is not to separate African Americans from other Muslims, but to empower African Americans to come up with a strong Muslim agenda."

The other major theme of the conference was not just remaining content with speeches, but generating action. The organizers designed the format to be more interactive, with workshops on issues such as the participation of Muslim women in organizations, revitalizing the economic health of the masjid, bridging the communication gap between adults and youth, and challenging the mushrooming of Supermax prisons for incarcerating Muslim men. Facilitators jotted down the audience members' concerns and recommendations.

The final day of the Conference was devoted to pooling the action points generated in the workshops. "The theory behind the conference is that this is a working conference," noted Joshua Salaam, the Youth Director at Virginia's ADAMS Center, "The people are expected to come here, participate, and take back action plans to their communities."

While the idea is indeed excellent, some workshops implemented it far more effectively than others. Also, the limited time, the wide range of topics to be covered, and the number of speakers also meant that the Conference was perhaps more effective in presenting a menu of ideas than opening a platform for dialogue.

Some audience members also thought that the emphasis on action could be further enhanced. "The Conference is excellent, but there needs to be a mode of follow up," commented Shakura Mateen, "I'd like them to concentrate more on the Q&A parts of the sessions. We all know what the problems are, and now we need an influx of solutions."

In general, the conference signaled a shift inwards, where key African Americans leaders are now pooling their resources, and the wealth of the African American historical experience to create change on critical issues for the African American community.

"MANA's message is to think globally but act locally, and to do so with love and compassion," noted Imam Abdur Rashid, "We are ready to transform initiatives by communities and mosques across the nation into viable projects and action plans."

Presenters and audience members spoke about the lingering scars of slavery that display in the persistent devaluation of their talents. "There are pathologies that we continue to bring over from slavery," said Abdullah bin Hamid Ali of the Zaytuna Institute, "the low confidence, the feeling that blacks can't be in government or business." The move towards confidence in problem solving is important, for some of the most powerful aspects of the African American experience are community mobilization and development. This shone through in numerous workshops in the conference.

For instance, the Masjids and Economic Development section spotlighted the achievements of community leaders such as Earl Al-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, and Luqman Abdul-Haqq, the CEO of Universal Companies.

Their presentations highlighted the work done to revitalize the economic health of inner city communities and to provide needed core services. Al-Amin underlined the importance of safeguarding the economic and social health of the Muslim neighborhood.

"The masjid is a filter for influencing the neighborhood's environment," he noted. The achievements of the MCCC include the purchase of numerous grave sites, key support services, and real estate development where Muslims can own properties around masjid. In turn, Universal Companies is a community revitalization engine that is targeting Southern Philadelphia, taking a holistic approach to institutional development, such as building schools, providing medical services, and creating small businesses.

In the sessions on education, MANA illuminated a focus in coming up with new solutions targeted to the community's needs.

Sr. Daaiyah Saleem, an educational expert who is currently working at Clark Atlanta University, outlined a new model for relieving children of the tedium of public school education: service based learning in Islamic schools. This form of learning involves a dynamic curriculum that organically integrates the Quran and the Sunnah in the teaching, and helps the children to put knowledge in context by volunteering with key social service projects for the community. "We need to harness their youthful energies to help solve the community's problems," commented Saleem, "and the best way to do that is to teach them standards and academic concepts through service projects."

Other issues that MANA brought center stage was building effective relationships with youth. Joshua Salaam and Jamillah Karim, Assistant Professor of Religion at Spelman College, pointed out the communication gap between adults and the youth, highlighting the need for adults to guide youth in important issues like gender relations through the critical years of 13 to 17. Imam Abdul Malik agreed. "The important thing is to give the young people critical information," he said, "this generation wants to keep it real. We don't need celebrity leaders, we need individual people empowered to think for themselves."

MANA itself is designed to be a nation wide network for masjids and community centers across the nation. At the Conference, MANA extended its promise to work with organizations or masjids with whatever issues they are struggling with.

"The vision of MANA is to network resources so that we can build our communities, and bring the fruit of Islam to the society," noted Ihsan Bagby. At the same time, MANA has outlined a definite agenda to meet the African American community's social service needs. These include providing re-entry services for young men coming back from prison, creating a support system for ensuring healthy marriages, and setting up SHARE Centers, which are social service centers that provide communities with job opportunities, marriage counseling, substance abuse programs, women's shelter, medical services, youth mentoring, and other needs.

The conference provided an opportunity for discussion on many issues that affect the African American Muslim community, as well as the Muslim American community at large. Imam Johari noted that issues like the stability of marriages and incarcerations of Muslim men affected the Arab and Indo-Pak communities as well, but stigma surrounding these issues in the communities prevented open discussion. "MANA is making an attempt to put together a draft action plan to address [this issue of] highest importance for this constituency," added Imam Johari, "the items are open to be executed by the whole Muslim community, including sectors that are important to us, living in the matrix of America."

In general, the conference marked a shift where African American issues are given center stage, and where African American problem solving approaches are valued. As many agreed, this has been a long time in coming. "This is so healing for our community," declared Amenyonah Bossman, "we are coming to appreciate ourselves as a people, and learning that we are a great nation and can do great things."

It is also to be noted that the audience was mostly African American. Mauri Saalakhan, the founder of the Peace and Justice Foundation, commented: "All parts of the country were represented, and the sheer number of Muslims who convened for the conference was excellent. I was a little disappointed, however, that the immigrant Muslim community was not better represented. I estimate that about 80 to 90 percent of the attendees were African American."

However, MANA's general approach did draw feedback that outlined the need for reflection. For instance, Br. Saalakhan, reflected: "While the conference was very successful in most respects, the only brotherly criticism I have of the organizers is . . . that justice component of the conference was seriously deficient. For a conference organized around the Black American Muslim perspective, and one in which key organizers openly invoked the memory and legacy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (aka Malcolm X), this deficiency was a profound disappointment for me and a number of other committed African American Muslims at the conference."

MANA's first historical conference has helped to launch a new presence on the Muslim American organizational kaleidoscope. As noted by Tahra Goraya, Deputy Director of CAIR, "I believe that Muslims can't have enough organizations, and I wish MANA the best of success."


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