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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 84-86

Muslim-American Activism

American Muslim Council Hosts Capitol Hill Iftar Dinner

The American Muslim Council hosted an Iftar (fast-breaking) dinner on Capitol Hill in the Cannon House Office Building on Jan. 4, 2000 for American Muslims in public life. American Muslims active in government or community affairs, and invited guests, gathered days before Eid-al-Fitr, one of the two most important holidays of the year for Muslims, celebrating the end of the month of daylight fasting during Ramadan. The dinner also celebrated the growing number of American Muslims in the U.S. government, including more than 20 Muslim staff for members of Congress, and the first Muslim U.S. ambassador, appointed in 1999.

The AMC handed out an informative press kit to journalists that explained the Muslim fast of Ramadan. AMC executive director Aly R. Abuzaakouk welcomed guests and described the advances made by Muslims in the U.S. He talked about the State Department’s recent travel warnings during Ramadan, Christmas and New Year that were careful to separate terrorist threats from Islam, only after repeated complaints and requests to de-link the issue of terrorism from faith.

“For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of spiritual renewal, the most sacred month of the year,” he said. “Terrorism has no place in Islam or any religion.” He also relayed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s assurances that the State Department would try to hire more American Muslims.

American Muslims honored at the dinner included special trade adviser to the secretary of agriculture, Dr. Islam Siddiqui, who noted that “Muslims in this country can experience our religion a lot more freely than in a lot of so-called Muslim countries.” He also said that it was the duty of Muslims to improve the image of Islam in the United States and to correct misinformation.

Jameel W. Johnson, an African-American convert to Islam and chief of staff in the office of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), talked about the importance of defending civil rights. He said Muslims in the government can use their moral code and beliefs to help America become a better society. Howard University Professor Dr. Sulaymen Nyang described a study he and Dr. Zahid Bukhari are working on to examine “U.S. Muslims in the American Public Square.” He will look at the Muslim experience from taxi drivers to space scientists. He said he also hopes to prepare a directory of Muslim organizations, a “Who’s Who” for Muslims to “make Muslims part of the map and help them find their way in American society.”

—Delinda C. Hanley

Muslim Youth Camps of America

The Muslim Youth Camping Association (MYCA) has been created to help provide a rich education and culturally supportive camping experience for youth in the United States and abroad, according to president Bill Aossey of the Midamar Corporation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Noting that Iowa has ample resources and wide-open spaces, Aossey announced that a former Girl Scout camp on the nearby Coralville Reservoir has been purchased and given the name “Camp Heritage” to emphasize the importance for Muslim children of understanding their roots.

Projections are to serve 120 children per month or as many as 1,500 children per year. The 106-acre Camp Heritage will be a residence camp providing a supportive, multicultural environment for campers. Plans include the building of 10 cabins, a classroom building, a main lodge, two equipment buildings, and 12 tent platforms.

The MYCA organization eventually would like to see a network of similar camps throughout the United States and abroad. Chairman Manzoor Ali notes that the title MYCA was deliberately chosen in view of the success and recognition of the long-established YMCA. “Hopefully, people will one day have the same appreciation for MYCA,” he said.

An initial fund-raising banquet was held in Cedar Rapids on Aug. 7. For further information, contact Manzoor Ali, MYCA, 1921 51st St. NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 62402; phone: (319) 378-9462; e-mail: <[email protected]>.

—Fred Strickert

IAP Attracts 2,000 to Chicago Convention

Nearly 2,000 persons attended the third annual convention of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), held over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Chicago. Speakers elaborated on the convention’s theme, “A Century of Empowerment,” by describing the roles that Muslims must play in order to achieve justice for themselves, for Palestine, and for Muslims worldwide.

Dr. Issa Nakhleh, a distinguished Palestinian Christian historian and author of The Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, made an emotional appeal to the audience. “Muslims, where are you?” he demanded. “You must stand up and act for the sake of Palestine.”

Rod Driver, a former state legislator, told the inspiring story of how he used his candidacy in a Rhode Island congressional race to inform the American public on the mistreatment of Palestinians by Israel.

In a session on the role of the media in the U.S., executive editor Richard Curtiss of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs urged American Muslims to establish personal contacts with the editors of the mainstream media in their communities and to express to them their views and concerns as a community.

Dr. Agha Saeed of the University of California at Hayward, head of the American Muslim Alliance and chairman of the American Muslim Political Coordination Council, spoke of how Zionists exploit the media in order to influence public opinion. “We must combat these efforts of Zionists by getting Muslims to work in the media and point out the truth about Muslims to the editors of newspapers and television stations,” Dr. Saeed said.

After the conference, attendees expressed their satisfaction. “The speakers were great. I learned a lot of things that I never knew before,” said Rayhana Sumar of Toronto, Canada. “I never knew that Muslims in America were so oppressed, like Muhammad Salah and Mazen Al Najjar. The IAP did a great service by holding this conference.”

The closing session included a fund-raising drive that brought in more than $100,000 in pledges and donations. Following the fund-raising, the audience was treated to a performance by members of the Nujoom dance troupe.

The young men performed the traditional Arab folklore dance, the debka, while Nujoom musicians sang heart-pumping Islamic songs. After the dance performance, children performed a skit portraying the determination of the young generation of Palestinians to liberate Palestine.

The main attraction, however, was a play about a futuristic debate between two candidates running in an election for Caliph. The comedy kept the audience roaring with laughter, and the actors even fielded questions from the audience.

One candidate was an army general running on a conservative platform, while the other was a provincial governor running on a very liberal platform. In the end, the general won the election via a hand count from the audience, but his victory turned out to be only a dream. He was awakened by a policeman who found him sleeping on a bench in an airport. As he was being hauled away to jail, the actor pleaded with the audience to turn his dream of a united Ummah (Islamic nation) into a reality.

On a less happy note, it was learned that one of the scheduled speakers at the convention, Dr. Abdul Sattar Qassem, was denied permission to leave Palestine and arrested by the Palestinian Authority. Dr. Qassem, a professor of political science at An-Najah University in Nablus, was one of 11 Palestinian intellectuals arrested for signing a petition urging the public to combat “tyranny, corruption, and deceit” in the Palestinian Authority.

Dr. Qassem, author of many books and a critic of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, was the target of an assassination plot in 1995, and also was arrested on more than one occasion by Israel for his activities during the intifada. His latest book, The Path to Defeat, heavily criticizes the Palestinian Authority and the current peace process, insisting that there will be no Palestine to be liberated if the PA continues to concede Palestinian rights to the Israelis.

Raeed N. Tayeh

Iftar Dinner Teaches School Officials

The Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, MD in the suburbs of Washington, DC, invited educators from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to an Iftar dinner Dec. 16 to acquaint them with the requirements placed upon their Muslim students during the Islamic month of Ramadan, which started on Dec. 9, 1999.

Students gave an informative presentation about what fasting from dawn to dusk during their holy month means to them. At the program, conducted in the course of a traditional end-of-the-day fast-breaking meal, the community also gave awards to honor MCPS officials who had worked to further understanding of the Muslims in the school system. There was also a question-and-answer period and a tour of the prayer hall.

Parent services assistant Samira Hussein, who helped coordinate the Iftar dinner, discussed the great strides the MCPS has made in recent years. A whirlwind of energy, Hussein recently became a Montgomery County employee who is now paid to conduct sensitivity training classes for teachers, a service she began as a volunteer. Hussein is also a frequent speaker in school social studies classrooms in many jurisdictions, to which she brings Palestinian dresses and scarves for students to try on. Sometimes they sit on the floor and do arts and crafts as she tells them about her Palestinian homeland. She has been invited to speak at Orthodox Jewish schools in the area. She is also involved in a variety of activities to promote appreciation of ethnic diversity.

Another favorite project for Samira Hussein is decorating a window in Montgomery County’s regional Rockville Library with handicrafts and books to celebrate the month of Ramadan. She plans to do the same with artwork from Arab Americans and Muslim Americans for the County Executive Building in the month of April, which will soon be designated Arab-American Heritage Month in Montgomery County.

One of the Muslim community awards went to Dr. Richard Wilson, county coordinator of secondary social studies. In accepting his award Dr. Wilson explained why Hussein’s community activism is making Montgomery County a friendlier place to live for Arab and Muslim Americans. He recalled a visitor to a local middle school asking a principal why a group of students was heading to the library and the basketball court instead of the cafeteria for lunch. The principal proudly explained, “Those are our Ramadan kids who are fasting this month.” Wilson pointed out that a couple of years ago those children would have been sitting in the cafeteria having to watch their friends eat and too embarrassed to ask to be excused. Now some kids even go into an empty classroom for prayers during the day. Wilson said that when a school system is made aware of cultural diversity by community activists, it can help its students and teachers make school a sensitive and caring environment.

—Delinda C. Hanley