ISNA’s 49th Convention: Striving for the Common Good

Greetings Pita-consumers!  This past weekend, August 31st-September 3rd PITAPOLICY covered the 49th Annual Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) convention in Washington, DC.  This year ISNA celebrated “One Nation Under God: striving for the common good” by hosting a selection of community organizing and international discussion panels to supplement its spiritual mission of where Twitter users could participate with the hashtag #49ISNADC. 

PITAPOLICY was impressed that ISNA leadership welcomed the National Geographic Museum exhibit “1,001 Inventions from the Muslim World” where a the museum offered discount tickets and rides to ISNA attendees.  (Currently ISNA leadership includes: Imam Majid, President; Safaa Zarzour, Secretary General; Azhar Azeez & Asad Ba-Yunus, Co-Chairs; and Tayyiba Taylor, Member.) Viewing 1,000 years of inventions from the MENA region and beyond from Muslim, Christian and Jewish inventors brought both smiles and tears since this represented the “light” in what many Western historians have termed as the “Dark Ages”.  

On September 2nd in Lafayette Park, a coalition of Syrian American organizations coordinated a rally to leverage attendance by the 20,000+ ISNA attendees.

Selection of Panels Devoted to Community Organizing and MENA Area Issues Under-appreciated

Among the many panels, I attended those focusing on community organizing and MENA area issues.  However, some panels only had 25 percent attendance–and not because the speakers lacked expertise.  The first reason might be that the speakers are not specialized.  I repeat: specialized speakers, not just people who moonlight on the subject, presented…like Khuram Walid an attorney who has organized several grass-roots campaigns in Florida, which resulted in a database of 100,000 American Muslim voters in Florida.

The second reason for low attendance might be the topic.   However, the low attendance was not the result of bad topic selection: it’s an election year, we all need to better organize with specific messages.  Also, for Muslim Americans who obsess about foreign policy, ISNA provided a forum to review the Arab Awakening/”Arab Spring” as they invited Sheikh Fatah, who flew in from Tunisia.  Fatah discussed how Muslims need to increase harmony with their non-Muslim citizens and secular parties.  He also applauded how people must hold their elected officials accountable consistently so that corruption does not balloon into something that erodes the socio-economic rights of a country’s citizens.  Sometimes I forgot if we were talking about Tunisia or Egypt because the advice relates to my goal as an American citizen who believes that voting symbolizes this accountability effort.

The room was not too warm or cold either, (since temperature might have been the third reason) so I was puzzled because apathy is a dangerous thing.

“I was not asked to present, so that is why I did not attend the session,” responded one ISNA attendee after I had asked why an important panel that tackled institution building was so poorly attended.

I was frustrated.  When we ask government officials to listen to Muslim American and Middle Eastern American grievances, it is a hypocritical irony when we have to ask the same of our community members and leaders.  Not everyone can be at the microphone.  In fact, even when the message is repeated over the microphone, it’s more important for an audience member to call the speaker out politely and follow up with some more thoughtful questions.   That’s what townhalls are all about, so why not practice what we preach to our friends regarding local and state elections.

After hearing the data that Jim Zogby presented at an earlier ISNA panel, the irony of the earlier comment is reiterated in the data produced in “The American Divide: How We View Arabs and Muslims”, which was published two weeks ago.  Take note:

  1. Muslims were the only group with a net unfavorable rating.
  2. Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and American Muslims have the lowest favorable/highest unfavorable ratings among the groups covered.
  3. “Democrats and Obama voters give no group a net negative rating.  Republicans and Romney voters only give strong negative ratings to Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and American Muslims.

Many pita-consumers will state that the above information was already known.  A study of this sort simply reiterated what many of us already expected.  Then WHY do many of our American Muslim, American Arabs, and others of Middle Eastern descent in the US persist in short-sighted thinking? In a convention of over 20,000 attendees, why not hear what others have to say when they are facing the same challenges in their state legislatures.  Why channel all energy into one foreign policy cause when the very mechanisms that ALLOW American Muslims to voice grievances via caucus, voting, and Political Action Committees is the topic of discussion?  I won’t even mention that it is an election year.  (Oh, I just did, because the obvious just hasn’t resonated yet among a large segment American Muslims.)

Bazaar Continues to Offer a Platform for Non-Profits Devoted to Social Justice Issues

As usual, an integral part of the ISNA experience is the Bazaar: over 900 some vendors showcased goods, services, and ideas.  Aside from the US government presence, like the US Agency for International Development, secular-oriented non-profits also drew attention.  I spoke with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which reported that American taxpayers will have contributed 30 billion U.S. dollars between 2009 to 2018 according to “U.S. Military Aid to Israel: Policy Implications & Options”.  The budgetary analysis was overseen by Director and former US Congressional Research Service Analyst, Josh Ruebner.  Ramah Kudaimi, who serves as their Membership & Outreach Coordinator told me that secular non-profits benefit from participating in the annual ISNA convention because “Most Muslim-Americans are sympathetic to social justice causes.  We chose to host a booth because the large amount of US aid to Israel may be better used at home [in the U.S.] for our needs in healthcare and education.”

I recommend checking out the following organizations, as they are now PITAPALS:

  • Emerge USA – Khurram Wahid, A.J. Durrani, Nauman Abbasi, Arif Ghafur, and Zeba Khan (Leadership)
  • Islamic Relief International – Jihad Saleh (Public Relations)
  • Amana Mutual Funds
  • Syrian American Council – Mahmoud Khattab (Director)
  • Arab American Institute – Jim Zogby

Artistic Expression Produces More Discussion on Social Justice

Moreover, the growing art exhibit and film screenings showcased artistic expression from the Muslim American community with some photography exhibits from the Middle East & North Africa region.  2012 Academy Award winner for Best Short Documentary “Saving Face” was presented to show the aftermath of acid attack victims, Zakia and Rukhsana, in Pakistan as a variety of non-profits and individuals intervene:  1) Survivors Foundation and Islamic Help, non-profits in Pakistan; 2)  Dr. Mohammad Jawad lends his plastic surgeon hands to address some of the emotional pain; 3) Ms. Sarkar Abbass, an attorney who fights Zakia’s case; and 4) Marvi Memon, a politician who advocates for new legislation.  The film was directed by Oscar® winning and Emmy®-nominated American filmmaker Daniel Junge and Oscar® and Emmy®-winning Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Another film “5 Broken Cameras” took us to Palestine where Palestinian journalist, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, document daily life close to Tel Aviv.  But that is only the prologue–or better yet, the social justice version of “Groundhog Day” where the same events predictably happen because of  a silly rule that has been broken.  The real story is that each daily life chapter Burnat captures is interrupted when Israeli security forces break his camera.  This happens five times.  As a Daily Beast writer asks, “Can a West Bank film change Israel?”  The short answer: “5 Broken Cameras” will more likely change opinions in the US as ISNA attendees discuss it and request permission to show it at their campus theaters.

ISNA will be getting ready for its 50 anniversary in Chicago next year.  Each year they improve and review the next set of challenges.  Building on the blood and organ donor drives, PITAPOLICY hopes to see voter registration drives organized in the Bazaar too!




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