32nd Annual ICNA-MAS Convention (2007)

On the first weekend of July, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and Muslim American Society (MAS) held their 32nd annual three-day national convention in Hartford, Connecticut. Both ICNA and MAS are non-profit national Muslim associations with divisions in Muslim education, media accuracy campaigns, youth groups, civil rights, and humanitarian work.

Fifteen thousand American Muslims came from across the country to attend the event, designed to provide them with knowledge and insight from the forerunners of Islamic thought and scholarship through lectures, panels, and interactive workshops. The convention also serves as a social forum by which Muslims who are usually geographically isolated can interact with the diversity of their national community. Attendants reflected the ethnic diversity of the Muslim American community, though a large majority were of South Asian and African American descent.

At this year's convention, ICNA premiered two new conferences centered on women and outreach to non-Muslim Americans. In years past, annual conventions have included lectures on Muslim women's issues, but a separate Women's Conference was held this year by the Sister's Wing of ICNA to publicize their projects and to hold discussions about issues specific to women in Islam. "Window to Islam," an interactive symposium for non-Muslims, was also introduced at this years conference in an attempt to reach out and inform non-Muslim Americans about Islam. Speakers at the symposium outlined the basic tenants of Islam, spoke to stereotypes and current events surrounding the Muslim community, and led attendees on a tour of the larger convention.

“Muhammad: Mercy to Humanity and Beyond...”

The theme chosen for the ICNA-MAS 2007 annual convention was the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. The title of the conference, “Muhammad: Mercy to Humanity and Beyond...,” was conceived in reference to the Qur’anic verse: “And [thus, O Prophet,] We have sent thee as [evidence of Our] grace towards all the world,” which conference organizers believe captures the significance and continuing relevance of Muhammad’s life and words for Muslims and, ultimately, all of humanity.[1] The Prophet Muhammad was constantly referenced as an inspiring example of justice and compassion for Muslims and non-Muslims living almost fourteen centuries after the prophet’s death.

In the opening session, entitled “The Awaited Prophet,” Dr. Khurshid Khan, president of ICNA, explained the significance of choosing the life of Muhammad as the central theme of the convention. Coordinators of the ICNA-MAS annual convention intend to provide North American Muslims with the best of contemporary Islamic thought and strategies for improving the state of the Muslim community in America. Defined as such, it seemed clear that Muhammad would be the perfect headlining figure for such an event, because he is considered by the Muslim community to be the best model and the highest teacher of the Islamic way of life. Dr. Khan felt the American Muslim community had not placed enough value on the ideal example given by the Sunnah, or Muhammad’s way of life, and therefore should resolve to “rediscover and emulate [Muhammad] in [their] personal and collective lives,” in order to, “enlighten [their] intellects and beautify [their] hearts.”

Speakers following Dr. Khan at the first session echoed his thoughts on the Sunnah as an important example for the Muslim community and beyond. Dr. Talat Sultan, the director of education for ICNA, described Muhammad as a “gift” to all of humanity because he had not only brought God’s final revealed words in the Qur’an, but also presented an entire way of life as guidance for those striving to live a life in God. Imam Mahdi Bray, another speaker at the first session, challenged Muslims to “become authentic voices” as inheritors of Muhammad’s community, taking a stand for the correct representation of Muhammad and Islam and to continue Muhammad’s legacy of being an “active voice challenging the status quo."

Throughout the convention, speakers were quick to point out that Muhammad’s campaigns against sexism, racism, hegemony, and interest in interfaith dialogue are immediately pertinent to the fight of the Muslim community to create justice in contemporary life. In fact, Muslims believe such universal values can be shared with and embraced by their neighbors of all faiths; in the words of Dr. Esam Omeish, "it is vital to the American Muslim community to contribute to the greatness of all humanity." Imam Shabbir Ally, a speaker at the main Muhammad lecture series, felt the struggle of American Muslims for such ideals was a test of their faith and commitment to serving God above all else.

Know Your Rights

One piece of advice prevalent amongst certain speeches throughout the weekend was that Muslims need to recognize the importance of educating themselves beyond the realm of academia and theology, and to become more familiar with the facets of social justice, civil rights, and the world-system. Lectures on media relations, civil rights, immigration, and social justice confronted this dilemma, as speakers urged audience members to become more active in their communities.

“Know your rights,” was the message Imam Mahdi Bray conveyed during the first lecture of the series on civil rights. Detailing the issues surrounding the lack of activism, he challenged his audience to contribute to financial advocacy for the legal protection of Muslims. He elaborated on the fact that millions of dollars are spent for the building of mosques while little is invested in the development of a national legal fund for Muslims that would be comparable to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Imam Bray went on to challenge the duties of imams, stressing the non-theological responsibilities they must upkeep, particularly in light of current political events. “Imams and leaders need to stand up for civil rights. They need to challenge the theological components of their communities.” He listed a few of their responsibilities which include understanding the nation they are living in, understanding the rights of its citizens, and providing their communities with legal advice and assistance, while also mentioning the need for American-born imams. Before concluding, Imam Bray remarked on the number of attendees, stating that it was the largest crowd he had delivered a civil rights speech to on a Saturday morning: “You showed up, and that’s great.”

Even more elemental than the need for financial advocacy for Muslims is the need to educate oneself about one's civil rights as reserved under the U.S. Constitution. During a lecture on immigrants and Muslims in America, panelists briefly outlined some of those rights and elaborated on the ways in which citizens can and should use such rights. Renee Redman, an American Civil Liberties Union legal director, touched upon the issue of home visits from law officials, a scenario many Muslims in the U.S. are presently confronted with. “Law officials,” she began, “cannot enter anyone’s home without a warrant.” While informing her audience that they are not mandated to answer any questions asked by law officials, they should neither lie nor argue with officials, and also made clear that answering certain questions will grant officials the right to ask further questions.

The violation of civil liberties was also a hot topic during some of the lectures on civil and human rights. Specific legal cases that occurred post 9/11 and which demonstrated violations of First Amendment Rights were discussed. In addition, one speaker went on to detail what he perceives to be two critical dilemmas regarding public policy that Muslims in America currently face: “inherent fear” of terror-related cases and the lack of understanding of such cases. The problem of fear, he explained, needs to be overcome so that the voices of the large Muslim community that is against terrorism can be heard. The audience was once again called upon to educate and prepare themselves for the continued trying times ahead.

The Power of the Media & The Struggle for Social Justice

Coupled with the lectures on civil rights issues were lectures on media relations that included topics on the power of the media, the need to understand how the media works for and against certain ideologies, and how Muslims can be influential in what gets presented in the media. Dr. Ahmadullah Siddiqi demonstrated the scale of operation that the media controls, noting that mainstream media includes approximately 1,500 daily newspapers, 5,000 magazines and countless radio and TV stations.

While Dr. Siddiqi spoke to the power and effects of the media, British journalist Yvonne Ridley discussed the rise in internet use and the decline in reliance on print. “Blogs” and other online political and social-based resources that are not monitored and controlled by mainstream media are being used to attain and extend information. Ridley noted the phenomena as a consequence of the distrust many have developed against mainstream media and explained that “the web provides resistance” to it. Speaking to the bias of mainstream media, she commented on recent events that have taken place in Islamabad, Pakistan pertaining to a group of veiled Muslim women from Jamia Hafsa (a madrassa, or school) who broke into a brothel and demanded those inside to “end immoral activity”.[2] Describing some of the news coverage of the event, provided by sources within mainstream media, Ridley quoted and criticized their labeling of the happenings as the “Talibanization in Islamabad.” She described the attack as one against the Pakistani pornography industry which would have had “feminists and women all over the world cheering had not the attackers been veiled Muslim women” whose acts were condemned as Islamic extremist activity rather than acts of courage.

Community activism was stressed in congruence with such lectures, as the image of Muslims in America does not currently reside under positive light. Youth were called upon to consider careers in broadcasting, journalism, and media relations. Leaders of mosques and Islamic community centers were encouraged to provide media outlets and resources for members and visitors, as well as to develop media workshops for administrators.

Amy Goodman, of radio and TV news Democracy Now!, was also critical of mainstream media, maintaining that honest and reliable media is desperately needed. She explained the current controversy surrounding the Lewis “Scooter” Libby case, and in explaining the details thereof, emphasized the importance of up-keeping the law irregardless of who is accused. Goodman asked the audience to think about what the U.S. Government is teaching younger generations when cases such as Libby’s are unjustly pardoned. “Are we telling the youth that it’s okay to lie because they know someone in high office and can get away with it?”

Goodman also enumerated on the integrity of 2007 Presidential Scholar, Mari Oye of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts who, during the June 30th awards ceremony at the White House, presented a hand-written letter to the President. Forty-nine of 140 of Oye’s fellow scholars signed the letter she wrote to the President asking him to halt the torture terrorism suspects are subjected to by the U.S. government.

Muslim Youth: The Future of American Islam

Muslim youth commanded a formidable presence at the convention with their own ICNA-MAS youth conference titled, “The Final Messenger; The Eternal Message.” The parallel conference was created to educate and empower youth through lectures, forums, award ceremonies, and evening entertainment. Like the main sessions of the convention, lectures at the youth conference stressed the importance of studying the life of Muhammad as the ideal model of a Muslim life. Sessions pertinent to youth issues included topics such as leadership, sexuality, and one entitled “Bridging the Generation Gap” that invited Muslims of different age groups, particularly parents and children, to come together to discuss the differences in experience and understanding of Islam. Given this safe space to express their sometimes conflicting understanding of Islam, youth and adults were able to, as the flyer for the event described, "speak their mind and finally find common ground."

Youth were also visible at the conference through the Young Muslim (YM) division of ICNA, which ran two booths at the bazaar, facilitated many of the youth conference sessions, and provided night entertainment in the form of skits, a spoken word competition, and a midnight basketball tournament. Outside of their work at the convention, YM works to maintain youth groups, educational programs, and camps throughout the country.

On Saturday evening, at a session titled "Youth: Passion of the Prophet," Dr. Altaf Hussain gave a heartfelt lecture on the pressing need to invest responsibility and give a voice to Muslim youth in America. Dr. Hussain began by sharing a story of his childhood in the mosque, where he was made to feel guilty and inept by the khutbas (Friday sermons) of the imam and unwelcome at shura (council) meetings of his community.

Dr. Hussain did not intend to make a generalization about the American Muslims with his story, but wished to wake up his audience members to the task of giving meaningful involvement to and respecting the insight of the youth in their Muslim communities. As mentioned in an earlier lecture by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, Muslim youth are the future of Islam in America and hold a special insight into society because they are of America and naturally understand its culture. Since so much work needs to be done within Islamic communities, involving youth is as simple as inviting them into the already established Islamic organizations, shura councils, and mosque projects. Dr. Hussain felt that if the Muslim leaders of today did not make an investment in youth, to take an "active role in their lives" all the time, then he feared that there would be no one there to maintain Islam's message in America.

An Invitation to Islam: Dawa in America

"Call thou [all mankind] unto thy Sustainer's path with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the most kindly manner." Qur'an 16:125 [3]

A component of the year-round work done by ICNA and MAS is dawa, a word meaning to "invite" or "call out" in Arabic, and describes the spreading of the message of Islam to those outside the Muslim community. Islam does not condone forced conversion, but rather enjoins Muslims to perform dawa by: giving those interested access to the Qur'an; providing accurate information about Islam to the general public; and exemplifying the universal values of justice and compassion inherent to Islam's message through their everyday actions and active efforts of community service and political involvement. At the ICNA-MAS convention Muslims tried to outline the way the Muslim community should perform dawa in their specific American context.

This year ICNA and MAS premiered "Window to Islam," the first "interactive symposium" where non-Muslims were invited on Saturday to a day of lectures and discussion about the fundamentals of Islam and "hot button" issues such as terrorism, women in Islam, and interfaith dialogue. The room was filled by a diverse group of about 100 people interested in learning about a religion that is thriving, alongside their own faiths, in America. In between lectures, the "Window to Islam" participants were taken on a tour through the bazaar, main convention area, and to watch the mass communal prayers at lunchtime. One participant, Jennifer Warner Cooper, gave an honest account of her fears and apprehensions in attending the conference in an article in the Hartford Courant, speaking to the important task of non-Muslims to question their stereotypes and educate themselves about their fellow Americans.The program was organized by Why Islam?, the outreach division of ICNA, which works through public advertising to provide accurate information about Islam as a counter to the way it is misconstrued in mainstream media.

Within the main sessions of the convention, speakers challenged their audience to become "ambassadors of Islam" in America. Despite a growing interest in learning about Islam after September 11, ignorance towards and discrimination against Muslims continues in America. While Muslims across the country work to fight ignorance and injustice, many others refrain from speaking out in fear of retaliation and misunderstanding. In the face of the continuing misconceptions and skepticism towards Islam, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, speaking at a Friday session, felt it was the responsibility of American Muslims to "show the true face of Islam" through their words and example, in the hope that people can learn about the good nature of Islam when observing it in the actions of Muslims in their local community. Given this exposure, speakers were confident that non-Muslim Americans would see the value of Islam's messages of justice and tolerance.

Former U.S. military Chaplain Yusuf Yee gave a powerful speech entitled "How Do Muslims Get Involved in Public Life?" at a dawa session on Saturday afternoon. Chaplain Yee began with his compelling life story as a Chinese convert who felt a calling to be a chaplain for fellow Muslims in the US Armed Forces. After receiving the proper religious training in the Middle East, Yee returned to serve as one of the first Muslim chaplains for the US Armed Forces, and was touted as a great bridge between the Islamic community and the US government until false accusations were brought against him while working at the prison complex of Guantanamo Bay. While working on the navy base, Yee was accused of conspiracy and links to al-Qaeda, and was subsequently locked in solitary confinement for two and a half months, until he was proven innocent and honorably discharged.

Despite the tragic end of his military career as a chaplain, Chaplain Yee was energized at his sessions while educating fellow Muslims about public engagement in the name of Islam. Chaplain Yee began by saying that by just leaving their homes, Muslims are involved in interfaith work, as their community members are usually non-Muslims. He continued, forthright, that Muslims needed to go outside their comfort zone and make a "commitment to engage others publicly in a way pleasing to Allah." If Muslims wished to be properly represented they needed to get involved in all areas of public life, not only in interfaith councils but also on the board of education and the police force. To take up such an effort, Chaplain Yee believes Muslims need to develop the right communication skills and understanding of their surrounding community and media.

Speakers at the final Muhammad session on Saturday, entitled "Prophet's Mission: Illuminating the Way for Humanity," followed Chaplain Yee's line of thought by pushing Muslims present to construct a realistic vision of Islam in America. Dr. Yasir Qadhi felt that the goal of an Islamic caliphate pursued in some traditionally Islamic countries was an inappropriate and unrealistic goal for Muslims living in America. Furthermore it would be against the Sunnah for a peaceful minority of Muslims to overthrow a foreign government. Instead Dr. Qadhi felt the goal of American Muslims should be to spread Islam peacefully, to plan and have visions about giving dawa to America, but to be pragmatic in planning such work. Dr. Qadhi was emphatic about moving away from the empty rhetoric of "Islam is the Solution" and work towards a realistic, contextualized framework for keeping the message of Islam strong and relevant in an American context.

The Ever-Present Struggle

On Sunday morning, approximately a dozen protesters rallied outside the convention center, accusing ICNA of ties to terrorist groups and demanding that government officials shut down the organization and freeze its financial accounts. Though the group did not interrupt the day's events, their presence serves as an example of the ever-present struggle that American Muslims must face against discrimination and misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, events such as the ICNA-MAS annual convention give Muslims a means to become informed, connected, and invigorated by thousands in their American Muslim community who are interested in improving their faith and becoming better equipped to fight stereotypes and to work towards a better future for the Muslim community in American society. And, for non-Muslims, the "Window to Islam" interactive symposium at this year's convention provided a means for fellow American citizens to learn about their neighbors and build the bridges necessary for a pluralistic society.

—Nour Goda and Katie Merriman, Student Researchers


[1] Asad, Muhammad. “The Message of the Quran: Translation of the Holy Quran.” Sura 21:108. http://www.geocities.com/masad02/021; accessed July 12 2007. [Editor's note 2016: This site is no longer available.] ↩︎

[2] "Students raid Islamabad 'brothel,'" BBC News (03/28/2007). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6502305.stm; accessed July 12, 2007. ↩︎

[3] Asad, Muhammad. “The Message of the Quran: Translation of the Holy Quran.” Sura 16:125. http://www.geocities.com/masad02/021; accessed July 15 2007. [Editor's note 2016: This site is no longer available.] ↩︎