Mapping Arab Diasporasâ€”Intâ€™l Conference
April 29â€”UM Dearbornâ€”The Center for Arab American Studies of the University of Michigan Dearborn hosted a 3-day conference from Thursday thru Saturday of last week, inviting dozens of scholars from around the country and around the world to participate in a multi-faceted forum on Arab intellectual issues.
The event was hosted in the Fairlane Center (which houses UMDâ€™s School of Management) of the UMD on Hubbard Drive in Dearborn. It had in total 12 panel-discussions of intellectual issues, presented by professors and intended largely for the consumption of other professor participants.
One of the panel discussions, more relevant and interesting to mainstream non-intellectual audiences than most of the others, was â€œArab Americans, the Arab World, and U.S. Middle East Policy.â€
The conference was a success, in large part because of the exchange of somewhat subversive ideas and because of the cross-pollination of ideas made available to the intellectuals present. The conference illustrated an essentially important dynamicâ€”the tense relationship between Arab-Americans and Islam. Another important feature of the conference was that it provided a venue to show off the talents of yet another effective and capable Dearborn-area Arab organization, the CAAS.
The tone of the conference was surprisingly open and sincere, a mutual exchange of ideas by high-caliber intellectuals with common belief structures largely a reflection of the political interests of Arabsâ€”a drive to explain their ideas, a shudder at the mistreatment since 9-11, and an effective engagement (from so many different points of view) with the intellectually-eroded underpinnings of the American mindset towards Arabs and Muslims since 9-11.
There was an exchange of subversive ideas at the conference. The fact of post-9/11 hysteria and bigotry was illustrated ad nauseum. This provided an opportunity for participants to enter an environment that validated their perceptions of bias and the deep discord between their internal perceptions of who Arabs and Muslims are and the way Arabs and Muslims are perceived by most Americans.
Participants at one panel exchanged notes on the agenda of Americans to vilify Arab men while â€œliberatingâ€ Arab and Muslim women from their veils. In a warmly received lecture in the â€œArab Women and Gender Dynamics: Families, Communities, and Exileâ€ panel, Professor Nada Elia spoke on this topic. Prof. Elia showed that American intellectuals now as a part of their unspoken agenda wish to hear Arab and Muslim women speak, but they want them to say that they are oppressed, that they are escaping oppression, that they disapprove of Muslim and Arab men mistreating women, and so on.
In a lively lecture that sparked frequent laughter from her audience, Prof. Elia explained that while to the American consciousness Arab men are bad and terrorists, Arab women are seen by Americans as mysterious and attractiveâ€”good either as belly dancers or as speakers at conferences.
The perceived weakness of Arab women, she explained, is not the most important issue even to left-politicized Arab and Muslim womenâ€”the most important issue for such women intellectuals and professors is the mistreatment of Arab men by American policies, prejudice, and government-sanctioned discrimination and detention.
She advised the other women professors in attendance at the lecture to speak on the issues that are important to them, when invited by people with anti-Arab or anti-Muslim agendas, rather than the issues that they are asked to speak about. She said, â€œYou will face some hostilityâ€ when you do this, and â€œyou will be accused of hijacking the mike.â€ But at least you have, she said, an opportunity to speak on the issues that are relevant and important to you, and to break the frames of references offered as tools by anti-Arab intellectuals to subvert Islam and Arab communities.
The conference illustrated a vitally important issue that is not usually talked about, the tension between Arabs and Islam. Approximately 65% of the Arabs in the United States are Christian. Also, many Muslim Arabs in America are secular and non-practicing and have a deep aversion to Islam.
A refrain echoed by Arab-Americans at this conference and others is that â€œTo Americans, â€˜Arabâ€™ and â€˜Islamâ€™ are almost the same word.â€ When they say this, such speakers show an aversion to being associated with Islam.
This tension was reflected in the dress of the women at the conference: only one woman (a CAAS volunteer) wore hijab out of dozens of women at the conference, and none of the speakers did. It was reflected in the unspoken but clear hostility directed by some at bearded men.
The speeches sometimes showed an open aversion to Islam, also. For instance, Moulouk Berry, of UMD, in the â€œArab Womenâ€ panel, advised Professor Jehan Saleh of Wayne State University, the author of a study on the Shiâ€™a practice of mutaâ€™a marriage, not to be so respectful of Islamic mores (Prof. Saleh had shown exceptional understanding of the practice and showed a deep and sympathetic sensitivity to Muslims and to the practice of mutâ€™a), cajoling her to probe deeply to find in the practice mistreatment of women.
â€œOf course,â€ said Ms. Berry, â€œ[Imam Qazwini] will say the practice is great and everything is fine, but we want to know what are the problems that come from it.â€ This statement was another manifestation of an agenda that is at odds with Islam itself.
Dearborn is awash with creative, powerful and effective Arab organizations. The community service organization ACCESS is perhaps the queen bee of such organizations, serving thousands yearly and having existed for several decades, but this queen has a large retinue of other Arab organizations, including the Arab Anti-Discrimination Council (ADC), social organizations like the Lebanese American Heritage Club (LAHC), decades-old news institutions like the Arab American News, and the Arab American Institute (AAI-based in Washington), cultural organizations like the Arab American National Museum, and charitable organizations like Life for Relief and Development. There are professional organizations as well, like the extremely active and influential Arab American Chamber of Commerce.
Young organizations are bringing large events to fruition as well. The Arab Student Union held a large fundraiser at Bint Jebail in late March.
It is gratifying to see so many polished and thriving Arab organizations, especially when one run by such young individuals (CAAS) is capable of putting on so oustanding a conference, with speakers from literally the other side of the United States (Seattle) and from across the Atlantic ocean (Cyprus).
CAAS will host a series of debates (the Jerusalem-Dearborn institutes on debates and intersections of Arab and Arab-American studies from May 1-5, 2006.
Prizes Awarded by Siraj Wahhaj
Flintâ€”April 29â€”The Flint Islamic Center coordinated a huge function to celebrate the birth of Prophet (s) on Saturdayâ€”children competed in a program designed to elicit the very best praises in writing and in spoken form about the glorious Messenger Muhammad (s), the best man ever to grace the universe simply by existing.
The competition has existed for about ten years, a long-standing tradition at Flintâ€™s oldest mosque, on Corunna. It is intended to coincide with the Milad-un-Nabi celebrations on the 12th of Rabiul Awwal (this year was a little late).
About 400 people attended the event, at which parents beamed over the successes of innnocent young people who praised the Holy Prophet (s). Ten young children presented their papers on why they loved Prophet (s) and spoke of his astounding greatness from various points of view.
About 40 students competed by writing papers on the greatness of Prophet (s). From those 40 papers, ten were selected as the best and were invited to give presentations on Saturday. The ten were given scores, half of the score consisting of the essay and half based on the quality of presentation. Five judges scored the students, including Dr. Jones, the principal of the Genesee Valley Academy, the school attached to the mosque. Dr. Jones asked each student a question after the presentation to elicit more information.
This year the six core organizers of the competition, Dr. J. Hammoud, Dr. Sajid Aslam Chaudhry, Dr. Aftab, Mr. Faheem Khan, Mr. Mohammed Aslam, Mr. Mahmoud Hyder, with the help of Mr. Hassan Zauari (in charge of audio support) decided to make the competition a much wider-scale event by making it available to young adults throughout Michigan.
The idea of making a wider-scale competition was a great success, as youths participated from as far away as Lansing and Detroit (each city about an hourâ€™s drive from Flint). From the students from outside of Flint who stood among the top ten competitors, four were from outside of Flint.
There were two classes of competition, seniors (9thâ€”12th grades) and juniors (5thâ€”8th grades).
The competition winners were as follows: senior group, 1) Rana Al-Dabagh, 2) Leila Tarakji, 3) (third place a tie between Omar Hammoud and Omar Malasâ€”no fourth place), 5) Rhami Khorfan; junior group: 1) Saara Mohammed, 2) Taha Suhrawardy, 3) Salaam Tarakji, 4) Hana Al-Harastani, 5) Aamir Bandagi.
Some of the students of the Genesee Academy sang very beautifully the song Talaâ€™al Badru â€˜Alayna both in Arabic and English, and only the interruption of Imam al-Galaeini, visiting from the Grand Blanc Islamic Center (GBIC), dampened the zeal of those present who began clapping in time to the music by insisting that they not clap.
Imam al-Galaeini spoke on the importance of young people learning their religion, telling a sad story of how he had attended the jinaza prayer of a man in Ontario whose own children did not know how to pray jinaza and did not participate in the jinaza prayers for that man. For this reason he was happy that the children present were engaging in the study of the life of the holiest Prophet (s).
Dr. Hammoud followed up the competition by speaking briefly but very touchinglyâ€”he said that in fact although this was a competition, the winner, the best one, is Prophet Muhammad (s).
The famous Imam Siraj Wahhaj of Brooklyn New York attended the competition and spoke briefly after the presentations of the children. He spoke on the difference between good competition and bad competition, saying that it is an intrinsic part of human nature to want to be better than others. He also spoke on the importance of accepting people from different ethnicities. He said that Muslims in the U.S. are less than 3% of the population, and said that in the world there are 2 billion Christians, 800 million Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 15 million Jews, many atheists, black people, red people, white people and yellow people.
He then handed out prizes to those judged winners of the competitionâ€”the prizes were $500 for first place, $300 for second place, $200 for third place, and $100 each for fourth and fifth places. All top ten contestants received CDs by Yusuf Islamâ€”The Life of the Prophet (s).
After the competition there was a large banquet fundraising dinner for the Flint Islamic Center and Genesee Academy, and Imam Wahha spoke again. The competition was a great success, and the organizers intend to continue their new tradition of making it a state-wide event.
If you are interested in getting involved as a contestant or as the parent of a contestant, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The organizers intend to make a website for the conference, but it is not yet built.