American Muslims Define Themselves as Americans


Two speakers—one Muslim and the other Christian—raised similar questions about being American at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North American, held over the weekend in Columbus, Ohio, questions that found parallel expressions throughout the gathering attended by a reported 30,000 Muslims and a delegation of nine Baptists.

"How do you make Islam an American religion," asked Muslim leader Jamal Barzinji, upon receipt of the 2008 Mahboob Khan Community Service Award, given at the prestigious founders' luncheon.

Barzinji, vice president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, lamented the marginalization of American Muslims in the formation of U.S. domestic and international policies. He said American Muslims were challenged by an "unsympathetic media."

The luncheon's keynote speaker, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a self-described Christian, asked, "What's an American Muslim?"

Zogby answered his rhetorical question with the name of Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

He said that Ellison had "made Islam manifest, not by saying what Islam was, but by living what it is."

Zogby also recognized Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the second-elected Muslim congressman.

"There have always been two sides to this vision of America. Even today there are those who are welcoming of immigrants and those who want to exclude them. There are those who wore hoods and those who put the Statue of Liberty in the harbor [which]…welcomes those who come," said Zogby, chair of both the Democratic Party's ethnic and resolutions committees.

As a second generation immigrant from Lebanon, Zogby said: "These two visions of America co-exist. And we can deny neither one. Because if we deny the evil side, the Bull Conner side, or the Joe McCarthy side or the side that represents the dark side of America, we always then are vulnerable to that hatred resurfacing and coming back at us."

"It is a part of who we are," he said. "But if we deny the Lady in the Harbor, if we deny Martin Luther King, if we deny the openness and goodness of America, we become too cynical and we become paralyzed and incapable of fighting for what we know is the ultimate outcome…good triumphs in America because the Constitution wins and the American people are at their core a good people."

Founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Zogby said: "America didn't know you at 9/11…. Nineteen people defined Arabs and Islam for most Americans who had no clue who you were and who we are and what we are about."

He said that "those who hate us" defined Arab-Americans and Muslims through "the discussion on the airwaves."

"We were not institutionally prepared to fight that fight then. But those questions still exist. And answers still need to be given. And you are preparing yourselves to give those answers," said Zogby, whose brother John Zogby is president of Zogby International, an organization which has tracked public opinion since 1984.

"False answers don't stand up against the truth. They only stand up when no truth is provided," said Zogby. "What you are doing is defeating the bigotry…. By defining the community and the faith you are defeating bigotry, but not only that you are making America better."

"We become transformed when we become Americans. Islam becomes an American religion…. As you do, you make America better. You transform America," said Zogby, who has a doctorate in Islamic studies from Temple University.

The recurring theme of finding acceptance in American society was voiced in the convention's opening session when Ingrid Mattson, ISNA's president, said that the founders of her organization wanted to preserve their heritage, but that today's leaders want to engage fully American and Christian societies.

ISNA was observing its 45th annual convention.

She said that American Muslims must address the negative attitudes toward Islam—attitudes about women and the lack of transparency.

Mattson noted that American Muslims were the most diverse Muslim community on earth.

During the convention's session on Muslim-Christian interfaith relations with presentations and a panel discussion, Sayyid Syeed, ISNA's national interfaith director, said that American Muslims supported the freedom on religion and women's rights, noting that ISNA had elected a woman as its president.

He drew a distinction between what the Qur'an actually teaches and the cultural practices of some Muslim-majority countries. Syeed said that women were prohibited from driving cars in Saudi Arabia, although the Qur'an has no prohibitions against women driving.

Syeed noted in a private Baptist-Muslim taskforce meeting that American Muslims have had problems with some Middle Eastern countries.

Baptist taskforce participants include Erica Wimber Avena, interim minister of First Baptist Church in New Haven, Conn.; Stan Hastey, minister for mission and ecumenism for the Alliance of Baptists; Mark Heim, professor of Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School; Roy Medley, general secretary for American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.; Hopeton Scott, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Conn.; Gregory Jackson, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack, N.J.; Robert Sellers, professor of mission ministry, Hardin-Simmons University; and Daniel Vestal, coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Some 20 Muslims participated, including Syeed; Omer Bin Abdullah, editor of ISNA's Horizon magazine; Azhar Azeez, president of Islamic Association of Carrolton, Texas; Sami Catovic, member of ISNA's executive council; Yusuf Kavakci, scholar-in-residence at the Islamic Association of North Texas; Irfan Ahmad Khan, director of the Association for Quranic Understanding; Mohamed Magid, imam of All Dulles Area Muslim Society; and Mohamed Elsanousi, ISNA's interfaith communications and community outreach director.

Mattson characterized the Baptist participation in the convention as an "act of great generosity."

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Previous articles:

BWA to Discuss Open Letter from Muslim Leaders to Christian Leaders

Global Baptists Voice Fear, Call for Positive Dialogue with Muslim Religious Leaders

Goodwill Baptists Share Common Future with Goodwill Muslims

Baptist Theologians Reflect on Mosque-Building Boom in Germany

Some Baptists Must Build Trust with Muslims When Other Baptists Speak Ill of Islam

Islamic Society of North America Invites Baptist Speakers to National Meeting

A Baptist Statement at the Islamic Society of North America Convention

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