Big Tent Islam in America

Emel Magazine, October 2007, Issue 37.

Since 1963, the Islamic Society of North America’s annual jamboree has grown to become Muslim America’s largest convention. In September 2007 it attracted some 40,000 Muslims to a large conference facility in Rosemount, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Now in its 44th year, the conference has, in the last few years, become more inclusive. Sufis, Salafis, Ikhwanis, Shi’ites, liberals and reformers all share the stage to debate and define a common future direction for their communities.

The discourse is moving away from an umma-centred identity politics towards a familiar American story of emancipation, consciously modelled on the civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King Jr. For a community now under suspicion and facing discriminatory laws and a hostile press, it has the confidence to stake its claim by appealing to America’s founding values of equality and justice as enshrined in the Constitution. One new figure to articulate this very clearly is Eboo (Ebrahim) Patel, whose organisation, Interfaith Youth Core, has helped many believers — of different traditions – to rediscover their faith through the service of humanity, the theme of ISNA’s convention this year.

Unlike in Britain, political access in America is difficult. At ISNA, some prominent Democrats like Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean and Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, encouraged Muslims to join party politics. At the same time, several government agencies had recruitment stands in the huge bazaar that had hundreds of stalls. A stroke of black humour saw Hizb-ut Tahrir sympathisers placed next to the FBI. Another significant step was the commitment by ISNA and the Union of Reform Judaism, America’s largest synagogue network, to pair up mosques and synagogues locally around the country to increase mutual understanding and co-operation. ISNA’s outreach comes in the context where it was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a federal case against a prominent Texas-based Muslim charity. Naming and shaming without proof, seen also with a Muslim watchlist numbering some 160,000 at present, has become an occupational hazard for America’s Muslims.

Alongside the worthy activism, this is also a huge family event. Labour Day weekend is the prime time for dispersed families to get together, and many American Muslims do this through ISNA. In a country where one’s home town might only have two or three Muslim families, many parents bring their children here to look for potential spouses. There is the official marriage bureau — allegedly for the “squares” — and then there is the informal weekend scene at the parallel Muslim Student Association conference at the neighbouring Hyatt Hotel. Cue the jokes about a lack of hayat at the Hyatt.

On Saturday and Sunday nights, the MSA Conference becomes “Club MSA”. In previous years ISNA tried to do more to police this, but it has taken a pragmatic attitude recently, reasoning that at least this space will encourage Muslims to marry within their own community. Some of the young people I talked to were similarly pragmatic, saying that such get-togethers made sense in their dispersed community. The MSAs have embraced hip hop culture as a way for young people to express their concerns and issues around being faithful American Muslims in a way that makes sense to them. A slam poetry and acapella beatbox session was done with real wit, insight and style – a sign of claiming the genre and reinventing it in Islamic terms.

“Desi” American Muslims are mostly wealthy professionals, and the ISNA conference is a huge business opportunity, with some of best clothes shopping to be had outside of Dubai and Karachi, and the widest selection of English language Islamic literature to be found anywhere. So there is a shopping and social side to ISNA that has become institutionalised. Where you find the mosque you always find the bazaar. Yet there are also innovative community projects like the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), based in Chicago, that besides providing a free clinic service, has been able attract up to 10,000 locals to its “Takin’ It to the Streets” festival, which mixes socially conscious hip-hop with clear messages from leading imams like Zaid Shakir.

Despite all the pressures on them, American Muslims and their political and religious leaders seem optimistic and focused. One major challenge that remains unsolved is ISNA’s failure to attract the large African-American community, numbering some two million, to any significant degree. Overcoming this lies as much with issues of class as it does with intra-Muslim prejudice, but it is a divide that American Muslim leaders seem determined to address. The big tent of American Islam seems in rude health but has to grow further still.

Yahya Birt is Director of City Circle and blogs at

Reproduced courtesy of Emel Magazine, 2007.