By Safiya Ravat
HOUSTON, TX: An American convert to Islam, Carmen Andries, said Saturday at a convention in downtown Houston that she feels so many immigrant Muslims are just hiding, living their lives day to day, afraid that any bout of activism might get them into trouble or labeled as terrorists.
â€œThereâ€™s no way to dispel the myth that Muslims are terrorists unless Muslims go out there and show themselves as good members of society,â€ Andries said.
Having converted to Islam a couple of years ago, Andries is very aware of the change that is needed to transform the perception of Muslims in society. She wishes that Muslims would be more approachable and more out in the open. â€œI swear, for the last two years, Iâ€™ve asked myself, â€˜why arenâ€™t Muslims seen in the community so much?â€™ They are such nice and good people,â€ Andries said. â€œBut if I were to walk by any sister in a Hijab (headscarf) on the street, I guarantee you she wonâ€™t have a smile on her face. What image does that tell non-Muslims?â€
Andries attended the annual Muslim American Society â€œMASâ€ convention in association with the Islamic Circle of North America â€œICNAâ€ on Thanksgiving weekend at the Hilton Americas. This yearâ€™s theme â€œA Time for Changeâ€ resonated throughout the many lectures and workshops, alerting the Muslim American community that things need to progress at some time, and that time is now.
â€œI think the Muslim community is one of the least understood communities,â€ Harris Countyâ€™s Sheriff-Elect Adrian Garcia said in his speech Saturday. â€œAnd it is important for members of an executive leadership to understand its people.â€
Garcia, a Houston City Council member and soon-to-be Sheriff of Harris County, told his audience which ranged from students and toddlers to lawyers and politicians that his story was very similar to many at this convention. His family migrated to the United States from Mexico City, seeking a better life and more opportunity. On the road trip to the U.S., his father stopped the car and asked everyone to get out. â€œMy father had us all kneel on the ground to make a prayer,â€ he said. â€œWe prayed to God and thanked him for the opportunity in front of us. We asked God to help us follow the rules of the country we were about to enter and to allow us to give back to their community for everything we would reap from it.â€
According to Garcia, Muslim Americans are in a similar position. They have come here from foreign lands, have reaped the benefits of the United States, and must now continue to give back to the community by being active citizens. One way, Garcia said, is by joining the sheriff department.
â€œWithout representation from each community,â€ Garcia said, â€œwe wonâ€™t be able to recognize and understand our similarities and differences.â€ Former president of MAS National Dr. Souheil Ghannouchi agreed with Garcia, remarking that â€œit is about time for Muslims to become comfortable with their American identity.â€ Ghannouchi explained that Muslims in America have been following the similar path of many other U.S. minorities. The Muslim minority, however, is a standstill. â€œHistorically, the first thing other minorities did was isolate themselves to preserve their culture,â€ Ghannouchi said. â€œBut finally they would see the need to integrate into society in order to excel. The Jews, the Mexicans and the Koreans have all integrated and excelled. It is now time for the Muslims to turn from isolation to integration. Muslims need to start uplifting themselves and start impacting others.â€ According to Ghannouchi, Americaâ€™s fast paced advancing society has no room for a weak and unrepresented minority.
â€œAs a minority in the U.S.,â€ Islamic Society of Greater Houstonâ€™s Treasurer Fayez Ghwari said, â€œMuslims have to work together to achieve our mission and practice our religion.â€
Islamophobia is one of the negative repercussions Muslims have faced as a result of their self-imposed isolation.
â€œPeople hate that which they do not know,â€ Ghannouchi said. â€œThe best way to combat Islamophobia is through integration, outreach, education, civic engagement, community service, and the media.â€
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a guest at the convention for the past three years, stressed the same points of civic engagement and applauded MAS, ICNA and the Muslim community in Houston for their commitments toward society at large. â€œI look forward to seeing Muslims engage more and more with the new administration,â€ Jackson Lee said. â€œI hope that soon we will see more Muslim staff members in the new government and in the hallways of the Senate and Congress.â€
Lee presented a Congressional recognition certificate to MAS and ICNA, expressing her wish to see the Muslim community make a positive impact on the new direction that the new administration will be taking. Political engagement was not the only form of integration discussed at the convention. One African American convert to Islam, Abdullah Oduro, talked to the Muslim youth in a workshop Friday and showed them one alternative method of integration – poetry. He introduced two young Muslim men who had been expressing their conflicts, their passion, and their love for their faith through poetry. â€œThese brothers have been using poetry to spread the religion of Islam,â€ Oduro said. â€œNowadays you have to utilize all the different mediums to get your message across.â€
These young men perform regularly in and around Houston to groups of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Using their words to try to break the imaginary barriers, the young men wish to educate their fellow Americans about Islam so that it might resonate well with them. Andries also proposed a unique way for Muslims to get their message out. She suggested to utilize an important tool in the community that has often been neglected – the growing population of converted American Muslims.
â€œThe Muslim community needs to accept and use new Muslims,â€ Andries said. â€œWhat better tool can you have than an American to relate to other Americans?â€ The new convert felt that the speakers at the MAS convention â€œwere right on the moneyâ€ about Muslimsâ€™ need to change. Her only hope was that their wise words donâ€™t go by unheeded.
Ghannouchi concluded the convention Saturday night with a reminder from U.S. anthropologist Margaret Mead, â€œNever doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.â€
â€œThe question is,â€ Ghannouchi said, â€œwhether weâ€™re going to be making change or going to be subject to change. The decision is in your hands.â€
For more information about Muslim American Society Houston activities, Visit www.MASHouston.Org or call 281-530-4MAS. For ICNA-Houston, Visit www.TheElementsOfFaith.Com or call 832-275-0786.