Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2001, page 82
Muslim Leaders Hold State Department Sit-In
Leaders of American-Muslim organizations, together representing a constituency of seven million, staged a sit-in in front of the State Department on June 5 to protest the use of U.S. tax dollars for funding Israeli military aggression against Palestinian civilians.
Six leaders linked arms and sat cross-legged on the road facing the State Department. “This act of civil disobedience is a symbolic gesture. As U.S. citizens, we say, ”˜Enough is enough!’” said Mahdi Bray, president of the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations. “We will no longer tolerate the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to support the carnage in Palestine, as Israel moves closer and closer to becoming an apartheid state.”
The organizations included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council (AMC), American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), and the Muslim American Society (MAS), as well as representatives of major area mosques. The date chosen marked the 34th anniversary of Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Demonstrators also protested the displacement of 800,000 Palestinians, and the destruction of over 400 villages.
The gathering was significant, as it represents the first in a series of efforts by American-Muslim leaders to fight for a voice in the new administration’s foreign policy. The event began with a press conference, including several moving statements from each of the leaders present. “We are compelled to carry out this act of civil disobedience to protest our administration’s unjust policies against Palestinian Muslims and Christians,” said Khalid Turaani, executive director of AMJ. “We must impose a level of responsibility on Israel consistent with the billions of U.S. taxpayer-funded dollars we provide them.”
All leaders expressed grave disappointment with the direction of United States policy in the Middle East, pointing out that a genuine reassessment was necessary unless the U.S. wished to be isolated both morally and politically.
The speakers asked for a cessation in the flow of aid and weapons to Israel, pointing out that the U.S. Arms Export Control Act only allows defense articles and services to be sold or leased to friendly countries for internal security purposes. They deplored the use of $5.5 billion in taxpayers’ money each year to support the “Israeli war machine,” which, according to a CAIR report, routinely follows a policy of “forced expulsions, home demolitions, land confiscations, discrimination...torture, and ethnic segregation.” Further, they called on the Israeli government to end its brutal occupation of Palestinian land, cease further expansion, and allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. Until now, four million refugees have been granted the right to return by the United Nations, but not by Israel. Aly Abuzaakouk, executive director of the AMC, noted the irony when he said, “Israelis believe they have the right to return to a land after 3,000 years, but they refuse the same right to those alive today.”
The leadership expressed their support for Palestinian resistance to oppression. “Our preference is peaceful negotiation,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, “but if the peace process is flawed, then resistance is necessary.” He noted the discrepancy in the U.S. government’s and media’s glorification of resistance in Tiannamen Square, and its harsh reaction to the Palestinian people’s struggle against Israeli soldiers and armed settlers.
On the domestic front, Awad warned President George W. Bush that “the Muslim community is watching.” In the recent presidential elections, American Muslims for the first time formed a significant voting bloc, as almost 80 percent of the seven million-strong community voted for George Bush. President Bush was endorsed in the hope that his administration would review Washington’s uncritical support of Israeli policies. Instead, the Bush administration has continued to advocate Israeli interests and disregard the domestic voice of opposition.
“The Muslims cannot be taken for granted by Bush,” stressed Awad. “We are not in a Catholic marriage with the new administration...the ”˜Jeffords factor’ is affecting our community [as well].”
Awad noted that President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have since taking office Jan. 21 repeatedly ignored American-Muslim leaders’ requests to meet with the new administration. Shaker El Sayed, secretary-general of the MAS in Virginia, pointed out that U.S. national interests are not served by allying itself with 3 million people and alienating millions more. He drew reporters’ attention to two nearby boxes, in which 40,000 signatures were collected in just two weeks from the MAS constituency protesting the Bush administration’s policy stance. Sayed also chastised the media for being manipulated by Israeli interests. “It is time that the media start to take on a greater role as the guardians of democracy and justice,” he told reporters.
After the press conference, six of the leaders sat together on the road, blocking traffic and declaring their willingness to be taken into custody. “We are risking arrest just to drive the message home,” said Awad, while Bray declared that either the U.S. must stop squandering taxpayers’ money or “we will fill up America’s jails.” CAIR’s attorney, Martin McMahon, was present to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. An Irishman who believes that the Israeli aggression in Palestine is akin to the English role in Ireland, McMahon has been a legal counsel to Muslim organizations for a number of years.
Police refused to arrest the protesters, who declared that this is the first of many such acts. Bray announced the venue of the next protest, across from the White House on June 8, and welcomed the participation of Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.
Major Survey of American Mosques Released
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a major study of Islam in America on April 26 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The report, called “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” is the result of in-depth interviews with randomly chosen representatives from 1,209 American mosques. The study of the U.S. Muslim community indicates that the number of mosques grew by 25 percent in the past seven years. CAIR executive director Nihad Awad told reporters that mosques are becoming dynamic centers for social and political mobilization.
“The Mosque in America” is part of a larger study of American congregations called “Faith Communities Today” coordinated by Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religious Research. Muslim organizations sponsoring the report included CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
“The overall message is that Muslims are going to be a player on the American scene,” said Ihsan Bagby, an international studies professor at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, and the study’s lead researcher. “Their presence is not going away. It is going to continue to become stronger and more vocal.”
Community leaders agree that Muslims should be more involved in the political process. According to the survey, 89 percent of mosque leaders believe that Muslims should be more involved in the political process.
The study also shows the Muslim faith is racially diverse: the average mosque is 33 percent South Asian, 30 percent African American and 25 percent Arab, according to the study. There is a significant population of Indian, Pakistani, Bengali and African-American Muslims, as well as Caucasian American converts.
Victor Begg, who founded the local Muslim Citizens Grass Roots Political Committee, said the group wasn’t fully united when it endorsed George W. Bush for president last year. Nationally, about 72 percent of Muslims voted for Bush. However, African-American Muslims generally voted for Al Gore, and some Muslims voted for Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent. But Begg said the group is going to continue to organize and is already preparing for the next election. “I can only say that we are going to do better four years from now.”
Awad added that Muslims are having a positive impact on American society. “Muslims believe that by involvement with the larger society, they can do service to America,” he said, citing last year’s American Muslim voter registration drive and increased turnout by Muslim voters.
Look for new voices in schools, workplaces and voting booths, says David Roozen of the Hartford Seminary: “Increasingly, they are going to be claiming a place in the public square. They still see themselves as an ”˜out’ group rather than a ”˜core’ group in American life right now, but that is going to change as they move into positions where they can assert their heritage.”
It’s a red-white-and-blue pattern in American history as each immigrant group has developed a congregational, organizational life different from their home countries, Roozen remarked. Their houses of worship are “more than just houses of prayer, but they are centers for a whole range of fellowship and community programs, just as the German Lutherans, the Irish and Italian Catholic and the Dutch Reform congregations had centuries before.”
Some of the survey’s other interesting results:
”¢ On average, there are more than 1,625 Muslims associated in some way with the religious life of each mosque. The average attendance at Friday prayer is 292 worshippers. Some 2 million American Muslims are associated with a mosque.
”¢ Report findings support conservative estimates of a total American Muslim population of 7 million.
”¢ The number of participants at more than 75 percent of mosques has increased during the past five years. Growth is witnessed across the board, but suburban mosques have experienced the greatest increases.
”¢ Conversion rates are steady. On average nearly 30 percent of mosque participants are converts. The average mosque has 16 conversions per year.
”¢ Mosques are relatively young: 30 percent of all mosques were established in the 1990s and 32 percent were founded in the 1980s.
”¢ Four-fifths of mosques are located in a metropolitan area, most often a city neighborhood.
”¢ Almost 70 percent of mosques provide some type of assistance for the needy.
”¢ More than 20 percent of mosques have a full-time school.
—Delinda C. Hanley
Project MAPS: Muslims in the Public Square
Georgetown University hosted the first full-day Muslim-American leadership conference on May 9 to promote the exchange of ideas between Muslim groups. Some of the leaders summarized what they had discussed. American Muslim Alliance director Dr. Agha Saeed talked about the need for Muslim leaders to get together regularly to share information and minimize disagreements. After presenting a post-election strategy earlier in the day, he talked with leaders about some of the mistakes that were made in the historic Muslim bloc vote in the 2000 elections. He promised to rectify inadequacies and build on the community’s strengths.
Now that the elections are finally over, Muslims are working on many fronts. They are seeking appointment of qualified Muslim Americans, working to rectify U.S. laws like those allowing secret evidence and profiling, and continuing the civil rights struggle. Muslims also are teaming up with other groups to work on campaign finance reform. Building on the success of the bloc vote, Muslim already are working on the 2002 elections. They will continue to take a critical look at President George W. Bush's record to decide if the valuable Muslim vote will be used to make him a one- or a two-term president.
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) executive director Nihad Awad talked about organizing Muslims electronically, on the Internet, as well as spiritually. By sending action alerts and supporting each other, Muslims can have a real impact on domestic and international issues.
Eric Vickers discussed the importance of Muslim women, who are highly educated, having more positions of leadership in the Muslim community. American Muslim women deserve to participate fully.
Dr. Muzammil Siddiqui (Islamic Society of North America), Dr. Zulfigar Ali Shah and Dr. Muhammad Yunus (Islamic Circle of North America), Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid (MANA), Dr. Souhail Ghannouchi and Sheikh Shaker Elsayed (Muslim Americn Society), Salam al-Marayati (Muslim Public Affairs Council), Aly Abuzaakouk and Dr. Yahya Mussa Basha (American Muslim Council), Abdalla Idris Ali (Universal Foundation), Altaf Husain (Muslim Students Association of U.S. and Canada), Imam Hassan Qazwini (Islamic Center of America), Imam Fadhel Al Sahlani (Al-Khoi Foundation), Imam Asim A. Rashid (Imam Jamil al-Amin Community), Khalid Turaani (American Muslims for Jerusalem), and Imam Yahya Hendi (Georgetown University) gave brief remarks.
Dr. Zahid Bukhari (Project Muslims in American Public Square or MAPS) and Howard University’s Dr. Sulayman Nyang talked about the MAPS project to define Muslims in America. Nyang is optimistic that American Muslims will have an important moral influence in America, so that America becomes more just for all. Every American has come from another place, Nyang concluded. Muslim leaders no longer talk about the “myth of return.” America is home and Muslims are here to stay.
—Delinda C. Hanley
IAP Media Dinner Reaches Out To Mainstream Press
In an effort to reach out to the mainstream media, on May 15, the 53rd anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe, the Detroit chapters of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) co-hosted a special media dinner. All local media representatives were invited to the event, which had as its theme, “Reporting on Issues Related to the Middle East: The Other Side of the Story.” The purpose of the gathering was to educate the media on occurences taking place in Palestine from a perspective rarely presented in the mainstream press.
CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, spoke about the media’s responsibility to provide more accurate coverage of the sufferings of the Palestinian people, and of the U.S. government’s responsibility to protect Palestinians from daily Israeli aggression.
After the dinner, various speakers each addressed a specific component of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 10-minute segments. This was followed by a panel of experts who answered questions from the media representatives. Topics covered included, “Intifada and Current Palestinian Issues” by Raeed Tayeh, “The Refugee Question” by Mai Saikali, “The U.S. Role in Establishing Peace” by Lamis Andoni, and the “Role of the Media” by Dr. Nabeel Ibrahim.
Media representatives were also presented with information kits containing lists of organizations in the community, contact people, resource centers, Web sites and background material in order to assist them in future reporting on Palestine.
In total, 23 media representatives attended from 12 non-Arab, non-Islamic media organizations, including WHYZ Channel 7, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, Dearborn Times Herald and WWJ-950 Radio. In addition, all local Arab and Muslim media organizations were present. In total, nearly 100 community leaders from more than 30 Arab and Muslim organizations attended and interacted with the media representatives. This highly successful get-together is but a first step in the attempt to reach out to the media and foster good relations.
Hebrew University Professor Discusses Shariah
On May 17, the Middle East Institute hosted a talk by Dr. Aharon Layish, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Professor Layish discussed the historical origins of shariah, a body of law containing diverse religious codes and ethical interpretations regulating various aspects of a Muslim’s life.
Although developed originally by independent religious scholars, Dr. Layish said, during times of colonization shariah became gradually influenced by foreign legal codes that contradicted the spirit of Islamic doctrines. Further, during post-independence times, many Muslim countries attempted to establish unified legal systems by codifying shariah into a centralized body of law. Once legal systems became codified, Dr. Layish asserted, they lost more Islamic traits.
The codified shariah proved resilient to change despite developing needs of Muslim societies. Efforts by religious scholars such as Mohamed Abduh represented the most significant modernist attempts at legal reform through opening the door of ijtihad, a reformist reinterpretation of the shariah. Dr. Layish explained that for the most part, however, shariah-based legal systems remained unchanged.
Dr. Layish concluded that shariah-based legal systems in various Muslim countries face the challenge of choosing between secularization of shariah on one hand, or reforming shariah on the other to adapt to developing social needs.
Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA) Established
On April 22, 18 Muslim leaders met at the Philadelphia Masjid in Pennsylvania to establish a new national organization called the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA). MANA’s purpose is “to pursue an agenda that reflects the points of view and experiences of the indigenous Muslims of North America and addresses their needs and aspirations.”
Imam Siraj Wahhaj, the elected leader of MANA, commented that “MANA is open to all Muslims, but the focus of the Alliance is on the issues and problems that indigenous Muslims deal with in America, and by indigenous, we mean all Muslims raised here in America.”
Six organizing meetings were held in 2000 to lay the foundations of the Alliance—drafting a mission statement, charter and action plan. MANA was officially formed on Jan. 27, 2001 at an historic meeting of the new organization’s founding Majlis ash-Shura (consultative council). At that time, Imam Siraj Wahhaj was elected the leader of the new organization and Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid (Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, NY) was elected as his deputy.
—Delinda C. Hanley
MPAC Hosts White House Office and National Interfaith Leaders
On May 4, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) hosted a discussion between John DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and an interfaith group of national religious leaders. Since the establishment of the office, the religious community has heard proponents offer promises of governmental/religious cooperation and partnership for the public good, and opponents warn of religious-based discrimination and proselytizing. Early on, in fact, the Rev. Jerry Falwell made known his view that Muslim groups should not be eligible to receive funding at all. Hoping to further constructive dialogue on this critical issue, MPAC brought religious leaders representing Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh and other congregations together with DiIulio and other Office staff for a frank discussion about the initiative.
MPAC political director Mahdi Bray, who moderated the session, began by noting that “religiosity is important to all of us. We can all agree to that and that’s why we’re here.”
Rev. Mark Scott, associate director of the Office, announced that another meeting of the same groups should take place in the White House.
After opening remarks by Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA), Office director DiIulio explained the president’s vision of the faith-based and community initiative. He spoke of small congregations in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods working diligently to address problems of poverty, illiteracy and drug addiction. These groups, he said, are “making bricks without straw,” motivated only by faith and receiving no support, whether public or private.
MPAC national director Hassan Ibrahim stressed the importance of America’s faithful working to heal societal ills. “Houses of worship must maintain a connection with the community around them,” he noted, “so that they are not only full of people, but full of compassion.”
According to DiIulio, the president’s initiative is recognition of the fact that the hard work of grassroots faith-based groups must be supported and encouraged. “Government can’t be replaced by charity,” DiIulio asserted, “but we should welcome them as partners, not as rivals.”
Religious leaders raised numerous serious concerns regarding the initiative. In addition to the potential for religious-based discrimination, questions were asked about the separation of church and state, the need for faith-based organizations to receive training in how to apply for and manage federal funds, the dangers of entangling government bureaucracy and religious affairs, and the loss of religious voices that are critical of government policy. DiIulio allowed that concerns exist, but stressed the need for government and the faith-based community to learn to work together as partners.
In closing remarks, MPAC executive director Salam al-Marayati noted the importance of keeping this dialogue open. He stressed, however, that trust needs to be established between government and religious groups. “We need to know what the details are,” he said, “and if the details will allow for discrimination, then we have a problem.”
Al-Marayati called Reverend Falwell’s statement “a bell of bigotry ringing so loudly in this country.” This bigotry, he asserted, has not yet been addressed, but must be in order to allay the concerns of American Muslims and other religious minorities.
He closed with the reminder that the motivating factor in religion is to serve God and that the way to serve God is to serve his Creation. This is a unifying theme found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Whether a partnership can be developed that will allow people of these faiths to work with the government in support of that goal remains to be seen.