Monday, January 5, 2015

Journey to ICNA-MAS Conference, Chicago

On December 24, 2014, a charter bus left from the Roxbury mosque (ISBCC) in Boston, taking a full load of passengers to Chicago for the ICNA-MAS convention. Regardless of my opinion about ICNA-MAS, I decided to go to this convention for social reasons. The journey there turned out to be a beautiful experience. 

While slightly less Arab than the ISNA crowd, the ICNA culture is also promoting and living a sort of Islam-lite that is embodied by the average Coke-drinking, designer fashion label-wearing, corporate employee type of Muslim. I have to admit harboring quiet outrage regarding the cowardice of the MAS Boston in 2013 after the police killed Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and nobody would accept his body for burial. Even if he were a criminal, what Islamic law forbids burial of a criminal? Only Allah knows if he is destined for heaven or hell. Who are we to refuse to bury a Muslim brother who prayed five times a day. Finally, after many days of Muslims refusing responsibility, a Christian church in another state had to step in to accept Tamerlan’s dead body.

Nevertheless, I kept quiet and swallowed my shock at the sight of women in hijab buying their kids McDonald’s burgers and joined 54 other Muslims on this grueling, 21 hour journey. 

About half the bus was filled with high school boys from the Islamic school in Malden, Massachusetts plus their teacher. About a third were university students both male and female, and the rest were families or older adults traveling alone. 

The trip began with a dua and Quran recitation by a blind sheikh, Yusuf Al-Arabi from Morocco, who had a beautiful voice. This was followed by a lecture about how life itself is a journey to Allah. After that, the group organizer and director of MAS Boston, Dr. Loay Assaf passed a microphone around so that each passenger could introduce themselves. There were so many different nationalities of passengers - Egyptian, Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Sudanese, Somali, Ethiopian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Swiss - it was almost like a mini-Hajj.

Imam Walid, who works as a prison chaplain in Rhode Island, spoke about Malcolm X’s life, and how the Nation of Islam emerged as a movement to empower black people against racism. He described how the movement made a natural progression into Islam. It’s not that the mosques such as Masjid al-Quran in Boston, which used to represent NOI and is now promoting Sunni Islam, were trying to create a separate Black Islam. The youth were encouraged to read the autobiography of Malcolm X in order to understand the struggles of the early US Muslims.

There were a few more short inspirational speeches and Mahmoud Elhashash sang some Nasheed with an exquisite voice. 

When it was time to pray, the group assembled inside a New York food service rest stop for salat. That was something I had never seen before! An non-Muslim father was seen pointing and explaining to his son what the Muslims were doing (not sure if his explanation was positive or negative). 
Sleep was next to impossible in the full-to-capacity, overheated bus, but everyone did the best they could. In the morning, there was another Quranic recitation, which was very moving, especially with the sun coming up over the beautiful Ohio farmland. 

I had some interesting conversation with a couple sisters that made me feel comforted and understood. One of them had gone to school with Tarek Mehanna, and we discussed political prisoner issues. All in all, it was a healing experience overall to be in an Islamic group atmosphere. It helped me to re-center myself and my intentions.

The ICNA-MAS convention began Friday, December 26. The opening speaker was Dr. Tariq Ramadan. 

Ramadan had refused to speak at the ISNA convention last August, stating that many Muslim leaders “are obsessed with being accepted, at sitting at the table of power in order to talk (or rather to listen) and to be tolerated.” I am not sure why he believes that ICNA is better, but he agreed to speak at ICNA-MAS over the weekend. 

Mauri Saalakhan, Sister Aafia's most vocal supporter in the US, told New Trend:

"In brief, while none of the national organizations have done what they're capable of doing for Aafia, ICNA has the best track record for doing something, while ISNA has the worst track record for doing NOTHING. I expect, and hope, that Dr. Ramadan will feel free to speak his conscience at the ICNA-MAS Convention, inshallah.

Ramadan’s first lecture began by imploring the Muslims to “resist consumer society” and “come back to a deep way of dealing with yourself.” He said that American Muslims have a great responsibility towards their country and their world.

“People don’t want to discuss sensitive issues. But you can’t only apologize for what is done in the name of Islam. You must do things for Islam. You have to be struggling against racism. If only black people are demonstrating and you are not joining them to speak about what is right, then maybe prison is better for you. The Prophet Yusuf spent time in jail. There are people in the US in prison, who are innocent. On the Day of Judgement, they will be experiencing the greatest freedom but maybe you will be in the jail of hell.” 

“Most of you,” he dared us, “are not courageous enough to do what Musa did with Pharaoh.” 

Ramadan said, “I am fed up with people coming up to me after the speech telling me it was so ‘powerful.’ There is no reform without freedom, and there is no freedom without courage.”
He ended his speech by saying, “Don’t be little Obamas.”  

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