Almost every American-Muslim youth has been to the Islamic Society of North America's annual convention in Chicago which takes place on Labor Day weekend. The organization is one of the oldest Muslim groups in the US and its evolution affects the Muslims of this country. At one point in the early 1980's it was a battleground for religious conservatives from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Over the next few decades it underwent a slow change so that today it is headed by a white-convert woman named Ingrid, has placed numerous African-American Muslims in positions of power, and this year welcomed Howard Dean and Congressman Keith Ellison to its convention in Chicago.
Dean made quite an impression with Muslims at ISNA, and it marks the first time that a major political leader has made outreach to the convention, which usually brings together somewhere between 30-50,000 Muslims from around the country, most of them of voting age.
In a wonderful blog post by a Chicago blogger, the evolution of American Islam - the difference between older Muslims who were largely apathetic towards politics and the young "ISNA Deaniacs" -- is made clearly manifest. Samaha writes:
It was quite interesting watching these fidgety late teens and twenty-something year olds turning their heads, looking towards the door anxiously awaiting Howard Dean. This was it -- this right here, this vibrant young enthusiasm was what differentiated my generation from theirs. Not because they are Deaniacs, mind you, but because within these wide eyes you can see hope. You can see the innocence and yes the good naivety that none of us should ever have lost. You can see in their eyes the hidden solutions that they all carry to all of the problems of the world. You can see the simplicity of it all but somehow, somehow you just can't see far enough to be able to touch it or grasp it, to feel it again.
She goes on to describe the panel that ISNA had set up.
I should make note that ISNA itself insists that it is non-partisan and had invited republicans to this event but had no takers on the republican invitees -- so the panel before us consisted of democrats. ~Way to go republicans~
She is right, in 2000, Muslims bloc-voted for Bush on his promise that he would repeal the Secret Evidence Act. Since then not only have Republicans badly burned Muslims in most areas of legislation, but they have also failed to do outreach -- something Howard Dean's obviously picked up on. Dean then delivered his message:
What we needed was a party that looked like all of America he insisted. "This country was built on immigrants." "There are very few native Americans; everyone else is an immigrant." "Engaging all Americans is what Democrats try to do" and "it is no coincidence that Keith Ellison is a Democrat." Now, these were the words I thought we needed to hear.
Please feel free to read the entire post, which contains further analysis and insights.
There is a reason that Republicans do not outreach to ISNA. In a case involving a charity with alleged links to Hamas currently going on in Dallas, the complaint listed ISNA (along with 300 other Muslim figures and organizations) as "unindicted co-conspirators." Conservatives use ISNA's appearance on such a list to smear it as an enemy to America.
Reality is that the unindicted co-conspirator category has been part of American law for a very long time -- Richard Nixon was named as one, so was L. Ron Hubbard, and it was used in the Whitewater case. Not only that, but it is really a legal fiction, a way to get around traditional rules of evidence, and has no bearing on anyone's innocence or culpability. When asked to define an unindicted co-conspirator, a PBS legal expert replied as follows:
STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: The prosecutor is saying in essence in court -- and they haven't said it yet by the way -- but they apparently will -- that we believe this man was part of the criminal conspiracy, along with the people who are on trial. We haven't indicted him but the relevance of that for the purposes of the trial is that lets them get in more evidence about the unindicted co-conspirator's or the alleged unindicted co-conspirator's out-of-court statements than they otherwise could. It's a way around the hearsay rule.
MS. WARNER: Explain that just a little more. What do you mean?
MR. TAYLOR: For example, if they want to -- somebody, one of their witnesses, to talk about what Bruce Lindsey said to him, ordinarily that would be barred by the so-called hearsay rule. You can't talk -- you can't testify in a trial about what somebody else said out of court. That rule has a lot of exceptions. One of the exceptions is if the person who you're trying to quote, here Bruce Lindsey, is named by the prosecution as an unindicted co-conspirator, then you can talk about what he said out of court.
ISNA, with help from the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, has asked the Department of Justice to remove it from the list of co-conspirators.
There is really no reason for ISNA to be on this list. The fact of the matter is that the Department of Justice actually had a booth at the ISNA convention this year. So did the Department of Homeland Security -- in fact, in an amusing twist, see this picture where they sat right next to an organization which stupidly but peacefully agitates for an international caliphate and didn't make any arrests. A DOJ official calls ISNA "the big tent event of the year for the American Muslim community." The Washington Times, meanwhile, said that the DOJ was a co-sponsor of the ISNA convention. Does that mean that the DOJ should be an unindicted co-co-conspirator?
At the current time our legal system provides no way to take oneself off the unindicted co-conspirator list. And the National Association of Muslim Lawyers will be taking on a case of first impression.
Ultimately, ISNA will go on year after year, unindicted or not, showcasing the evolution of American-Islam. As an AltMuslim editorial describes it:
Conference attendees took the negative attention in stride, preferring to be inspired (perennial favorites Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir from the Zaytuna Institute drew standing-room-only crowds) or commercially satiated by the convention's 300+ bazaar vendors. Entertainment ranged from the ISNA-sanctioned show MC'ed by video blogger Baba Ali and featuring artists such as Kareem Salama and Dawud Wharnsby, to off-site (and non-endorsed) events such as the IMAN Community Café in southside Chicago with its "turntable dhikr" (remembrance of God) and hip-hop Muslim poetry, and the Muslim punk "Taqwapalooza" concert, held in a sweaty downtown residence complete with mosh pit. Hardly the Islamo-fascism some would have you expect.
With a hand in US government policy-making, an embrace of commercialism, and a nod to a still-developing American Muslim culture (and even counter-culture), ISNA is stretching hard to broaden its influence -- and largely succeeding. Unlike many Muslim gatherings around the world, the ISNA conference, as with the group itself, has grown to become a relatively non-judgemental affair. Only time will tell if the organization gets the same from its critics in return.
Muslims around the country thank Howard Dean for showing up.