By Adil James, TMO
President Carter, surrounded by ISNA dignitaries, holds signed declaration in support of womenâ€™s rights. Photo by Laura Fawaz, TMO
The ISNA Convention was held this past Labor Day weekend in Detroit. 20,000 people attended this largest annual gathering of the single largest Muslim organization in the United Statesâ€”with perhaps 1,500 preregistering and a large additional number registering at the event.
The theme of this yearâ€™s conference was â€œGenerations Rise: Elevating Muslim American Culture,â€ and the event was August 29 â€“ September 1, 2014 at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit on the border between the United States and Canada.
What was remarkable about this yearâ€™s conference was that it was in Detroitâ€”the ISNA conference has perennially been in Chicago. Cobo Hall was in fact the perfect placeâ€”the size of the facility was big enough to accommodate the eventâ€”the main conference room can hold 10,000 people which was even bigger than enough for ISNA.
One ISNA volunteer commented that â€œI think itâ€™s better than Chicagoâ€”itâ€™s more spread out, more organized.â€ She commented on her fascination with downtown Detroit which convention visitors were able to see for only .75 by riding on Detroitâ€™s People Mover trainâ€”which makes a circuit from inside the Cobo Convention Center to several other Detroit downtown hotspots and areas of interest.
Said Tajuddin Ahmed, an active ISNA member, â€œI have attended almost all ISNA Conventions but this facility is the best so far.â€
The highest profile speaker was ex-president Jimmy Carter, who spoke on Saturday. His lecture was perhaps the most exciting event at the conference, and very well attended, with people waiting in line for over an hour to hear his speech.
Jimmy Carterâ€™s courageous stand against the abuses of Palestinians by Israel has given him a superstar stature for the Muslim community. He spoke from a deep place of faith, arguing that the abuses that those in his religion once directed against African Americans, and those that some in our faith now direct against women, come in fact from misinterpretations of our religious scriptures. He showed also a sincere understanding of Muslim faith as well, quoting several times from the Qur`an with an understanding of the context and meaning rather than ripping the verses out of context.
President Carter showed his deep tolerance and open-mindedness by describing his childhood.
â€œI grew up on an isolated farm in Georgia,â€ Carter said, â€œduring segregation.â€ However, he explained that nearly all of his friends growing up, with whom he played and later hunted and fished and explored the Georgia woods, were African American. He explained also that of the few people who most inspired him during his formationâ€”only a small percentage were from his own ethnicity.
Primarily Carter focused in his speech on his own agenda, listing the goals and work of his foundation, the Carter Center (â€œWaging Peace, Fighting Diseaseâ€), with a focus on peace (especially in the Middle East), fair elections, and providing health care around the world.
At the conference there were many side panels and exhibits, from an introduction to ISNA history to a Film Festival, to an Art Exhibit, Health Screening, Meet the Author (featuring six authors) and a Qiraâ€™at Competition. Many dynamic and interesting speakers spoke at the various main lectures and side panels, but the â€œrock starâ€ icons of the Muslim speaking tour were Siraj Wahhaj, Suhaib Webb, and Rami Nashashibi.
There was a huge bazaar as usual, with hundreds of stalls, and a food court with a more limited selectionâ€”honestly it was surprising that vendors did not jump on the captive audience of thousands of halal food junkies at the ISNA conference. Vendor stalls at the convention cost $600, and one vendor complained that business was slightly less than normalâ€”however there was a brisk throng of people who came to the convention primarily just to shop at the bazaar so certainly some of the vendors did very well, and some of the vendors appeared barely able to manage the brisk business that came.
One interesting fact was the ISNA history photography exhibit on the main floor of the conventionâ€”ISNA was actually only an offshoot of MSAâ€”founded with only 13 members in 1963. Over time the Muslim students grew exponentially in number. As they travelled into adulthood and through their journeys of life they started and obviously sustained ISNA.
The ISNA town hall was in a side room in the afternoon on Sundayâ€”the ISNA shura council spoke and mainly listened to the concerns of ISNA members. ISNA is the flagship American Muslim organization, however it boasts a membership of only â€œ4,000 to 5,000 paying members.â€ The concerns of the town hall participants ranged from the wise and interesting to somewhat more out of touch ideas, and ISNAâ€™s executive director Hazem Bata entertained these ideas, listening to all carefully.
Concerns raised by ISNA members included advocates of engagement in current dangerous political issues (some of them with multiple Muslim points of view) or engagement in Middle East policitics (with some advocating that ISNA maintain its wise policy of staying above the fray) to people who advocated that ISNA should dramatically change other policies to promote women for instance. Not all of the ideas offered even squared with the factsâ€”for example ISNA leadership is democratically elected so if women are not more prominent that is not because of discrimination or misogyny but because more involvement is needed.
ISNA, without engaging in politics or without even having very clear principles or strategies for engaging with non-Muslimsâ€”or perhaps because its agenda is not so concretely definedâ€”ISNA provides a service to American Muslims simply by virtue of being such an old and large behemoth of an organizationâ€”the annual conference, alone, provides means for Muslim Americans from across this great nation to network, organize, educate, and work together. Because of this ISNA has been the parent organization off of which so many Muslim organizations have spun off.