N. American Muslims Debate
Role in Society
By Ian Brimacombe
Mattson, a Canadian convert to Islam and an Islamic
law scholar at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, was
elected to lead the Islamic Society of North America
Chicago, IL: The sessions at
the Islamic Society of North America's annual convention had
a little something for everyone. Some people came to ask questions
about Islamic banking, others wanted tips on Muslim dating.
It was billed as the biggest gathering of Muslims in North
America, and tens of thousands of delegates turned up to the
three-day event, which was held over the weekend near Chicago.
"It's been opportunity for us to fulfill some of our
aspirations as Muslims and learn some new things that are
going on with our religion," said Abdul Fatai Adisa,
a delegate from Merrillville, Indiana.
Many of the sessions touched on issues related to women in
Islam and in American society. On the eve of the convention,
Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian convert to Islam, was elected as
ISNA's new president, making her the first woman to hold the
"The election has huge symbolic importance," said
Edina Lekovic, a delegate based in Los Angeles with the Muslim
Public Affairs Council. "It opens doors for communities
who would otherwise not consider having women in leadership
positions and I think it sends an important message to those
more conservative elements within the American Muslim community.
"It's a signal to the establishment."
On the first day of the convention, Ms Mattson held a news
conference in which she criticized President George W Bush's
use of the term "Islamic fascism" when describing
the enemy in the "war on terror".
"This is a term that had
very bad resonance in the Muslim majority world and makes
us feel uncomfortable," she said. "We're hoping
there can be some adjustment to this language."
It was not just the politicians who came under scrutiny.
The criticism of the way in which Muslims are portrayed in
the American media was also an important theme at the convention.
"Media Islam is the result of a one-sided understanding
of Islam that is represented to us in a solitary, cliched
and vicious way," said former Iranian President Mohammed
Khatami in a keynote speech.
And some delegates agreed.
"I think the media portrayal of the crises around the
world, many of which are dominated by Muslims, usually tends
to accentuate the negative," said Dr Hesham Hassaballa,
a Chicago-based columnist and author.
"If it bleeds, it leads. And so, a Muslim woman holding
a candle praying for peace is not as newsworthy as a Muslim
driving a truck bomb into a building."
Dr Hassaballa also said that as the five-year anniversary
of the 11 September attacks approached, Muslims in the US
had to grapple more than ever with campaigns of misinformation
"There are websites and pundits and commentators which
disseminate misinformation about Islam, and they're becoming
very sophisticated and very savvy and they give an air of
credibility that they don't deserve," he said.
But Firas Ahmad, senior
editor with the Islamic magazine, Islamica, said the Muslim
community also needed do better at selling itself to the US
"We don't value the idea of communicating properly,"
"We have stories to tell that can connect with mainstream
Americans. If they knew them, we'd become a little more human
instead of the dehumanizing effect of terrorism.
"We need to tell our story in a way that is compelling
and only when we do that will these perceptions of the Muslim
communities be diminished and a more accurate portrayal be
But not everyone was downbeat.
Ann Siddique from Albany, New York, had a more optimistic
take on things. The 25-year-old converted to Islam a few years
ago after becoming interested in the religion.
"The main things I get from non-Muslim people are questions,"
"Just sheer curiosity, and so it's fortunate that a lot
of people want to learn and are willing to ask questions -
and seek the truth.” (Courtesy BBC News)