UMA Celebrates 25 Years: Discusses Gap between America & Islam

By Ras H. Siddiqui

United Muslims of America (UMA) held the 25th anniversary of its birth with a high profile gathering at the Chandni Restaurant in Newark, California on Saturday, April 29, 2006. Celebrated at this event was the first meeting of the founders of this organization in nearby Stanford a quarter of a century ago when a group of Muslims took the activism route roughly around the time when Israel invaded Lebanon. UMA was formally established in 1982 and has since then been active in the realm of politics, interfaith activity and in raising awareness on civil rights issues within the area Muslim community. Its main goal has been to get American Muslims involved in all aspects of American political and social life.

L to R: Pete McCloskey, Robert Tappan and Muqtedar Khan
L to R: Safaa Ibrahim, Suhail Khan and Isi Siddiqui
Julie Nielson presents plaque to Shafi Refai

This particular event attracted around 400 people. It was based on the theme of “Bridging the Gap between the US and the Muslim World - the role of American Muslims” which in post-9/11 and post-Iraq War America has become critical. In the backdrop of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” in which a collision course between the Islamic and Western civilization has been predicted, American Muslims probably have the most cause for concern. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place! Two panels planned for the evening discussed many of the community concerns.
The event started off with registration and a social. The formal session began with a recitation from the Holy Qur’an and an introductory welcome by Mr. Shafi Refai, the current President of UMA. “It is my pleasure to invite you all to the 25th anniversary event for United Muslims of America,” said Shafi. “My thanks to all the speakers and especially those who came all the way from the East Coast and also the distinguished guests from the State Dept., State Senate and Assembly members and City Council members, Mayors and interfaith community leaders,” he added. Shafi reflected on his 35 years here in American and the impact of 9/11 and its aftermath on our lives, especially when President Bush declared war on terrorism and was careful to note that this was a war on extremism and not Islam. He said that American Muslims still enjoy the freedom of religion in the US in spite of curtailment of some of their civil liberties. The UMA President also elaborated on the beginning of modern terrorism in Afghanistan and the quick abandonment of “freedom fighters” there after a victory against the Soviet Union in which no American blood was spilled.

“This war on terrorism is not a traditional war between two armies that could be won merely with force. This war is going on for the last five years and we are still debating whether or not we are winning in spite of its high cost. It needs serious and somber evaluation of our policies and strategies and I hope that this symposium will help in raising the awareness of the problem and opens public debate and honest dialog,” said Refai, while concluding his address.
The next speaker Reverend Paul Chaffee then gave his Faith Based Overview. The Reverend is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, San Francisco. He stressed the need for peace between religions as a precursor to peace in the world. He said that before 9/11 there was not much dialog between Muslims and other religions here and thanked UMA’s Iftekhar Hai and Dr. Waheed Siddiqee for taking the first steps. “After 9/11, there has been a kind of flowering” (in the interfaith relationship), he said. He spoke on meetings with the Japanese American community who gave their support to Muslim Americans and asked our community to continue to reach out by following the pioneers, and remain guided by our hearts.
Master of Ceremonies, Omar Khan who has his own show on a Pakistani satellite TV channel next called and introduced the first panel. Omar asked for more dialog than speeches and from the evening’s proceedings one could gather that he got his wish.
Islam (Isi) Siddiqui, one of the founders (and past President) of UMA and a Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration spoke first. He said that he was very pleased to be here and to see such a large gathering. He thanked former Congressman Pete McCloskey for giving the community the initial inspiration to become politically active and asked for a round of applause for him. He briefly went into the initial meeting at Stanford 25 years ago that gave birth to UMA and recognized three individuals who are no longer with us, namely Ghafoor Serang, Inam Siddiqui and Marghoob Quraishi for their efforts on behalf of the community and the organization. He said that UMA started off with three goals, namely 1) Education of Immigrant Muslims, 2) Launching the Interfaith Initiative and 3) Improving the image of Islam in America. He added that today, the last one was most important “after the barbaric act of 9/11.” “The challenge is tremendous,” he added. He said that Muslims do not have the luxury of being introverted or to remain in despair today. “I am an optimist,” said Dr. Siddiqui.


Reverend Paul Chaffee and Moina Shaiq

Lawyer and activist Suhail Khan was the next speaker. He has worked in various capacities in the corridors of power here in California and in Washington and is currently serving as Associate Director for Congressional affairs for Secretary Norm Mineta at the Department of Transportation. He started off with what President Kennedy often described as a unique characteristic of the Chinese language, with just one word or symbol for crisis incorporating “both Danger and Opportunity.” “The Muslim community is in crisis at this time,” he said. But he added that this could also be an opportunity. Quoting from a Yiddish proverb (and to the large number of Jews present within the participants here) “The optimist sees the Bagel, the pessimist sees the hole.” Suhail Khan said that there was reason for us to be optimistic. But not without challenges. Describing 9/11 as a “horrific act” which killed more people than Pearl Harbor, he added that it has harmed Muslim Americans most. He said that that the Muslim community needs to face many local and global issues now and that it should take a lesson from the Prophet (PBUH) who found a solution for unity while being asked to help place the holy stone in the Holy Kaaba. He commented on the recent cartoon controversy and the harm that had been done overseas and commended the American Muslim community for its educated response. “We have a voice as Americans. We need to continue the dialog,” said Khan.
Mrs. Safaa Ibrahim offered another American perspective. She was born in Egypt, came to the US in 1981 and is currently Executive Director of CAIR (San Francisco Bay Area). She thanked God that people of her parent’s generation established roots for us here in America, and that they came over here for freedom and opportunity. “I never thought that there would come a time to question if there is truly liberty and justice for all (here in the US),” she said. She asked Muslims to become a part of and integrate into American society and to remain fully engaged in a dialog with it. “9/11 has awakened the Muslim community,” she said. “In order to change our condition, we have to change it ourselves.”
After a lengthy Question and Answer session during which dialog and cooperation remained topics of discussion along with the rhetoric from Iran, civil rights issues, anti-Americanism, sectarianism and talk of democracy, Sister Moina Shaiq recognized a number of community leaders for their presence. Julie Nielson, Director from the local district office of Assembly member Alberto O. Torrico presented Shafi Refai a plaque of a California State Assembly Resolution to UMA (Resolution No. 1434).
After dinner and Magrib prayers the second panel was introduced. And this one generated a great deal of interest along with a few sparks.
The first speaker, Dr. Muqtedar Khan is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science and International; Relations Department at the University of Delaware. He is also a non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institute and currently Editor-In-Chief of the Muslim Public Affairs Journal and already the author of two books. On bridging gaps he said the gap between Washington and intelligence needs to be bridged/filled (that humor takes time to sink in). He said that his wife and him share two kids with America (American born) but that unlike his wife which was love at first sight, with America his attraction was even present even before he saw it, since it was already a metaphor for freedom, human rights etc. He said that four gaps need to be filled between the US and the Muslim world. 1) Between Mainstream America and American Muslims, 2) Between American Muslims and the American Government, 3) Between the US and the Muslim countries, and 4) Between American Muslims and other Muslims. He elaborated on these observations but this report cannot incorporate all of his acute observations.
“Can we rely on Americans to distinguish between American Muslims and Muslims overseas?” he asked. “If foreigners hate America then America will hate foreigners,” he added. He said that we have to fight the rise of anti-Americanism globally. He said that Muslims here need to have a major paradigm shift and that if they think of themselves as foreigners here they will be treated as such. “American Muslims have become too full of themselves,” he said. He attributed this to the tolerance of Americans and added that if a 9/11 type event happened in India, thousands of Muslims would have been slaughtered. “The biggest threat to American Muslims is another attack,” he said.
The next speaker Mr. Robert Tappan is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the US State Department. He has been officially recognized for his services in Iraq and has been awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. He has had continuing links with media here (Washington Post, ABC, NBC and CBS). He presented the US Government perspective here on this panel, and one must commend him for keeping his composure amidst some tough questioning. It is indeed difficult to present the Bush Administration’s case before Muslims these days but Robert did just that. He presented three points: 1) The State Department and the Bush Administration is actively engaged in trying to fill the gap, 2) They are engaging the Muslim world and have energized this effort. “This is a long-term effort and not just a Bush Administration issue,” he said. 3) “We in the Government don’t have all the answers. We are actively seeking your advice,” he added. “Our engagement with the Muslim world did not begin with 9/11,” said Robert. He spoke of the most recent initiatives made by Karen Hughes who has the benefit of being close to the Secretary of State and whose efforts are a top priority. He spoke of three “strategic imperatives” namely, 1) To offer people hope, 2) To isolate violent extremists and separate them from those who are our friends, and 3) Foster relationships based on common universal values. He said that in order to do this funding has been increased, education efforts added abroad, outreach to Arab and international media expanded, a new Rapid Response Center created with the media and disaster relief addressed. “We must be proactive,” he said. He stressed the need for showing respect to other faiths. “Our intentions are well meaning,” he said. “We hope that you partner with us to push this forward,” he added.
Former Congressman Pete McCloskey is certainly no stranger to us here. He has supported minority political empowerment for many years and has been an upholder of “rights for the little guy” and one of a handful of American educators of the Muslim community here. Pete is running for Congress against Richard Pombo in the 11th District (Stockton area). He started off by commending UMA for its efforts during the last 25 years. He spoke of respected Muslim individuals living on each block who are the real ambassadors of the faith here in America. He said that 1) Bridging the gap is best done by individuals, 2) Be proud of being Muslims, and 3) The great hope of the Muslim world is when children serve in public office (internships need to be pushed). He said that Muslims should organize like the Israeli lobby and that voter registration has to be pushed amongst the women and children in our community. He also called for justice for the Palestinian people.
The concluding Question and Answer Session certainly provided a few fireworks. But in the end one can congratulate UMA for its 25th and once again stress that communication is the key to our collective future in this world. Communication between America and the Muslim world is the immediate imperative but eventually there has to be communication between Israel and the Muslim world too. And as for another 9/11, American Muslims know that we have to do all that we can to stop any such horrific act from impacting anyone’s life again.

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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