Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2003, pages 72-74

Muslim-American Activism

Ottoman Art in Nashville

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN is hosting "Empire of the Sultans: Ottoman Art from the Khalili Collection." The exhibition, which is sponsored by SunTrust and runs through Aug. 10, features over 200 works of art—including calligraphy, ceramics, carpets and textiles—originating from the Ottoman Empire. The pieces demonstrate the originality of Ottoman artistic expression and its relationship to Ottoman political, religious, and social life.

Programs scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit include lectures by the curator, gallery discussions, lectures on Islam, and film screenings. According to Michael Christiano, education programs manager at the Frist Center, it is hoped that the diversity of programs "will help people understand the arts presented in this particular exhibition and try to foster a better understanding of the culture and society that helped contribute to its production."

As part of the exhibition's educational component, on June 21 the Frist Center hosted the Nashville premiere of "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," which documents how the life and message of the Prophet Muhammad continue to guide Muslims around the world. The film, which pays special attention to American Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, was aired nationally on PBS last December to an estimated audience of between six and nine million people. It was well received in North America both for its ability to present Islam's diversity and for its well-researched information on the Prophet's life.

A large Nashville audience enjoyed the two-hour film, which was followed by a panel discussion on interfaith dialogue. Co-producer Alexander Kronemer participated in the discussion. The program's genesis, he said, was in 1998, when he and partner Michael Wolf noticed that a report on the hajj had caught the attention of American audiences. The filmmakers decided that, given the significant levels of interest in Islam and the Prophet, a documentary on his life and impact would make a good educational program.

The making of the film was a challenge, Kronemer continued. "We did not want it to be a story of battles and wars," he noted. "We wanted to spend time on what really was crucial from the historical point of view. It wasn't the battles that the Prophet won, but the fact that he was able to establish a new society. He completely revolutionized the way people thought: it wasn't just issues about God, it was issues about how people looked at one another."

Kronemer pointed out that "even the notion of individuality did not exist in that part of the world. His notion that people are responsible for their own actions, and [ideas on] the status of women were all revolutionary at that time."

Although the film was being edited prior to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the makers of "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" had to make changes to the film, since they were telling their story through the eyes of American Muslims. "When Sept. 11 happened," Kronemer recalled, "we realized that we had to spend time on Jihad. It became relevant."

"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" was funded largely by American Muslims, and has been picked up by an Egyptian television station, another pan-Arab station, and some European stations. It is scheduled for international broadcast by National Geographic International in September. At that point, teachers who wish to use the film as an educational resource can download it for free at <www.theislamproject.org>.

—Rajaa Abu-Jabr

ICNA Revisits Issues of Race, Justice, Religion

The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) hosted its 28th annual convention in Philadelphia from Friday, July 4 to Sunday, July 6. While many conference sessions focused on social and religious themes, several panels addressed important political issues such as civil liberties and the ongoing persecution of the Muslim-American community. Religious and secular leaders alike spoke about the dire need for Muslim Americans to become both politically active and more involved in spreading awareness of growing injustices.

Imam W. Mahdi Bray, national political director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, gave a powerful speech calling on all Muslim Americans to take a stand against political oppression and to vocalize their opinions. He will continue "driving while black and flying while Muslim," Bray stated, urging the audience to "hold on, for justice will prevail."

Other speakers addressed their concerns over the PATRIOT Act, a bill passed by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks that has been criticized for impinging upon civil liberties. Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) co-director Nihad Awad described the bill as "unpatriotic and uncommon...It legitimizes the use of 'secret evidence,' which is unconstitutional."

William Baker, president of Christians and Muslims for Peace, also discussed the PATRIOT Act, which he denounced as "racist, prejudicial" and inherently unpatriotic, because it deprives individuals of constitutionally guaranteed liberties and protections. Like other of the day's speakers, Baker urged the audience to exercise their First Amendment rights: "you don't only have the right to speak [freely] in this country," he stated, "you have an obligation." Commenting on the problematic nature of U.S. global militarism, Baker noted that, distressingly, America's former policy of responding to attacks has been replaced with a policy of preemptive strikes around the globe.

Leading a later panel on security and civil liberties was attorney Norman Siegal of the American Civil Liberties Union. After reviewing the details of PATRIOT Act I, which Siegal said is used to justify the imprisonment of thousands of immigrants and the deportation of many others, he gave an astonishing account of how the pending PATRIOT Act II would affect America's Muslim and Middle Eastern communities.

According to Siegal, the new bill legitimizes military tribunals for civilian detainees and, in many cases, defendants even could be barred from being present at their own trials. In closing, Siegal urged the audience to speak out, warning that "we lose freedoms not in a bang, but incrementally, quietly, overnight."

Although the speakers may not have held a common religious belief, they all brought an urgent message, calling on Muslim Americans to take action and prevent the line between security and liberty from being further blurred.

—Paola Rizzuto and Arezo Yazd

Scholars Discuss Muslims in the United States

The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC hosted a June 18 conference entitled "Muslims in the United States: Demography, Beliefs, Institutions." Addressing the intricacies of topics such as "Demographics and Identity," "Political Participation," "Institutions," and "Muslim Americans in the World," speakers emphasized the importance of forming a common Muslim-American political and cultural identity. Opening the conference was Dr. Agha Saeed, professor of political science and sociology at the University of California in Berkeley, who discussed the direction in which Muslim political identity is moving. The political sophistication of Muslims has developed rapidly, Saeed noted, as evidenced by their increasing mobilization and influence as a voting bloc.

Keynote speaker Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, pointed out that an American Muslim identity, completely separate from that of Muslims in the East, is already forming. Focusing his talk on academics, Nasr argued that, in order to make a substantial impact on the West, American Islamic intellectualism must regain credibility in the East. An intellectual balance between the ideals of Muslims in the West and the values of those in the East, he explained, ultimately would allow American Muslims to flourish as an intellectually prolific society, reminiscent of Spain during Moorish control.

Turning to the question of cultural identity, Ihsan Bagby, University of Kentucky professor of Islamic studies, discussed the responsiveness of American mosques to the cultural values of their congregations. Discussing the difference between immigrant and African-American mosques, he argued that it would be increasingly necessary for immigrant mosques to adapt to the needs of future generations of American Muslims by adopting certain practices of African-American mosques, such as professional leadership and a strong sense of belonging to a congregation.

Finally, in an interesting conclusion to the program, Islamic studies professor Amina Wadud of Virginia Commonwealth University discussed the formation of a Muslim women's identity. Muslim women need to take advantage of American institutions and the Constitution in order to reformulate identities for themselves as women, and not just as Muslim women, she argued, because shariah law as interpreted in the past "has been patriarchal." Until women learn to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the American legal system and formulate new identities as American women, Wadud said, they will continue to live under patriarchal oppression.

Other speakers of the day included Dr. Sherman Jackson of the University of Michigan, Depaul University's Aminah McCloud, and Osman Bakar of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The general sentiment among the speakers was that, as the issue of identity formation among American Muslims continues to be addressed, the role of Muslims in American society will increase in significance.

—Nilofer Umar

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