Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why are you boycotting ISNA?

Several people have emailed me privately to ask me why I’m boycotting the annual ISNA convention. Before I give you my reasons let me start off by saying the word “boycott” sounds a little strong. Yet when I think about my reasons for not attending anymore they’re beyond simply being “tired of it.” My reasons are pointed and purposeful. They’re both political and personal. Shall we begin?

Reason #1: Relevancy to my life

I’ve attended the ISNA convention three years in a row. Apart from one workshop about Africa or African-Americans, there was nothing else that spoke to my reality as a Black Muslim. Most of the workshops focused on American Muslim life from the perspective of immigrant Muslims or second generation immigrant Muslims- namely Desis. A central question that has run through each workshop and main lecture was “How do I develop an identity as an American and as a Muslim?” Another question was, “How do I navigate through the larger American society and culture?” As an African-American Muslim (and more pointedly as a ‘Jamerican Muslim’) I already know how to do those things. I don’t see any conflict between being Black and being a Muslim. And I certainly don’t have any questions about where I fit in American society. Furthermore, I am not seeking American (read: White, non-Muslim) approval or acceptance. Year after year it’s the same rhetoric and the same problems being discussed.

Reason #2: The Incident

I stepped into the conference room for the main lecture hoping to find a seat close to the front of the room. If I remember correctly, Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir and a host of other well-known speakers were about to begin. I found a row with a bag resting on the aisle seat and a bag leaned against a chair about five seats down. I was delighted to see that no one had claimed the seats in the middle. I dropped my bags on the chair and went to the back of the room to get a drink of water. When I returned to my seat I saw a 30-something year old Pakistani woman rifling through my bags! I flew over to her just in time to hear her ask, “Whose bags are these?” I looked her squarely in the face and said “Mine.” I took my bag from her hands and sat down. I couldn’t believe what happened next. She approached me with her hand on her hip, a scowl on her face and yelled, “These seats are taken!” Though I was shocked by her tone (and the fact that she felt comfortable standing over me, scolding me like I was her child), I calmly looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t see anyone sitting here.” By that time a crowd was starting to gather. I told myself to stay calm because the last thing I wanted to do was cause a scene at an Islamic conference. The woman, still scowling with her hand on her hip said, “I put a bag over there [pointing to the aisle seat] and a bag over there [pointing to the bag five seats down] to mark the seats. I saved these for my family. They’re taken!” I could feel the anger rise from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. I wanted to snatch her by her scrawny neck and mop the floor with her. I took a deep breath and looked at the people gathered around us. If I told this woman off, would they say I started it? If I refused to move would I be thrown out of the conference by security? Would I be “that Black woman” who caused a scene at ISNA? Furthermore, what would be the appropriate thing to do at this juncture? I decided it wasn’t worth it. I grabbed by bags and found a seat in the back of the room. The last thing I saw before I left was the woman’s triumphant smile…

Reason #3: The Rudeness:

Apart from the aforementioned incident, I was appalled by the number of people that would answer their cell phones, have conversations, or get up and walk around during the middle of a lecture. How rude! It happened in every single lecture I attended. At one point during the main lecture Imam Zaid actually asked people to turn off their cell phones and to show the speakers some respect. At times I had to strain to hear the lecture.

People would often bump into me without so much of an “excuse me.”

Before salah people would save places for their friends or family members who hadn’t arrived yet.

Then there was the whole shuttle situation. Oh boy! I, along with many other people, stayed at a hotel that was some miles away from the convention center. We had to rely on a shuttle to take us back and forth. (It was very inconvenient). When the last lecture of the evening concluded people would cut in line or push each other in order to get on the shuttle. One man actually tried to save four seats for his family members who were nowhere in sight, leaving the rest of us (including a pregnant sister) to stand. By then my patience had run low and I’d already been through “the incident.” I asked him, “Do you really expect everyone to stand while we wait for people who aren’t even here yet?” I sat down and refused to move. Eventually the pregnant sister sat down next to me. Just as we were about to take off the man’s wife and three kids came running up to the shuttle. I put on my headphones and looked out the window. I was not moving.

Reason #4: What about us?

Last year I watched as ISNA welcomed a Shi’a imam and talked about how we need to build an alliance between the Sunnis and Shi'as. Everyone was hopeful and cheering. I don’t have any problem with Shi’as. I haven’t had much contact with them and seldom think about them apart from the news headlines or the occasional non-Muslim who asks me the difference. The immigrant-African-American divide seemed far more significant to me than the Sunni-Shi’a division. As ISNA celebrated its representation of the Muslim community and the achievements of MYNA and the MSA, a question kept running through my mind, “What about the fact that the largest American Muslim movement to date, was holding a separate conference on the other side of town?” Why wasn’t anyone acknowledging that division? I didn’t need to be a Statistics major or an ISNA board member to notice that the African-American attendance to the annual convention was dwindling. (There were fewer African-Americans at last year’s convention than the year before and even fewer than the first time I attended).

As the excitement swirled around me I realized it was time for me to hang it up. Why was I wasting my time and money? Apart from the bazaar I wasn’t getting much out of it anyway. Maybe I was on the wrong side of town…


Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

Salaam sister,
Your observations of the ISNA conference are in line with the experiences of so many other people I know. I volunteered at an ISNA conference when it was held in St. Louis one year. I hated the conference. The only thing I liked was that I met Imam Jamil el-Amin there. I worked the security detail so I got to see a lot and I wasn't pleased with the themes or the lack of friendliness among people. The lectures were a joke because folks treated the event like it was prom or a high school reunion. Its funny that you posted this because I'm going to be making a 'horrible' suggestion on my blog very shortly. I'm so sick of people pretending.

Samira said...

Wow, wow, wow! I don't blame you sis. We need to put together a conference for Muslim women of the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora. Wouldn't that be fly? Hmmn. I think I'm serious about that! We should talk. Could you imagine the type of specific workshops we could have? Everything from hair-care to what it means to be a working wife (which many of us are) to relationships between non-Muslim family members...The thought is exciting me right now. Secondly, we have academics like Aminah McCloud and Jamilah Karim. Wow.

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis:

The people's behavior reminds me of what it's like at Eid time at our masjid. All throughout the year, we are about 20 people. At Eid time, they come out of the woodwork. And they bring the behaviors you wrote about with them.

MANA had a conference about the state of African-American Muslims. I believe they are having more.

Sis Samira: it would be beautiful to have a Muslim women (in general) convention.

Abdur-Rahman Muhammad said...

As Salaamu Alaikum Sister,

Yeah, but let the immigration officials come knocking on her door and the conversation changes to "my sister, we Muslims must stick together and help one another from the big, bad government". I'm so sick of the racism and hypocrisy!
Excellent commentary as usual. One of the most articulate and courages voices in the blog-o-sphere. I concur completely with your observations and I have no intention to let this flagrant disrespect go unanswered, especially in MY OWN COUNTRY.

kameelah said...

i've been lurking :) so i finally want to drop a line. wonderful blog. you are making a lot of sense here. what you discuss is basically how i feel about events and the ummah at my university. i have this nagging feeling of isolation in a room full of people who i expect to feel close to but for whom i only feel contempt and quite honestly anger. there was just the MSA West conference which i did not attend for all the reasons you've mentioned in your post.

and lol @ abdur rahman--this is very true. i find it a bit entertaining how muslims who chose to opt out of their 'people of color' status to assume whiteness and pass with privilege suddenly want to cry injustice and assert a monopoly on suffering, discrimination and racism. it is always good to remind some muslims that racism and discrimination existed prior to 9/11. however, because these injustices did not directly affect them they were the least bit interested.

today is the day malcolm x was assassinated in 1965 and a turkish brother who i must give props to sent out an email calling out some of the muslims in the community on their exclusion of african american muslims and of course the email went unanswered. i sent a supportive response and received another email which completely evaded the issue at hand.

hey samira and saffiyah--let's not sleep on this...a conference for muslim women of afro-atlantic diaspora needs to happen and i'd be more than happy to put in the time to make it happen. let's all chat?

Anonymous said...

I didn't know ISNA had gotten this bad. I haven't been to ISNA since I was a little girl and since ISNA has been moved to my newly relocated hometown of Columbus, OH this year, I was excited to attend. I'm aware of the issues of racism within our communities from my experiences in NY, SC, and now OH, however I must say that as a fair-skinned black American sister born and raised Muslim, I have been given an unfair advantage over my darker skinned sisters. I was naively favored above others because of my fair skin and often wondered why I was the only black person invited to personal gatherings. Once I wanted to extend one of my invitations to a darker skinned sister to tag along and I was told that she had to many kids (3)to attend (a private party at someone's house), only to get there and find several other kids running around. To provide the sister with the benefit of the doubt, maybe she had already accepted more children than she had wished to allow, but the feeling of unfairness was still there. I'd like to think that we can get beyond color. I have so many races in my blood that I cannot "hate" on anyone, but I can hate individual attitudes. I am worried about the future treatment of my fair-skinned, "good hair" girls and wonder what world they will find themselves in. I am all for having assisting with a convention for us. If anyone wants to contact me for organization I have excellent skills I can offer.

Jamerican Muslimah said...

Charles, I'm anxious to hear your "horrible" suggestion.

samira, I'd love to have that kind of conference. I think you might be on to something...

safiyyah, I attended the MANA conference and I absolutely loved it! Finally the issues relevant to my life were discussed. I plan to attend it again, insha'allah.

abdur-rahman, you are so right. If you remember, before 9/11 there was a lot of discussion about the racial profiling of Black men. It wasn't until Arabs and SE Asians were being profiled that the immigrant community deemed it a "Muslim issue."

kameelah, It's sad when you go to an Islamic conference and are subjected to ill treatment. What happened to the concept of ummah? Aren't we all "just Muslim"?

anonymous, I'm sorry but I'm not going to make excuses for anyone. If they're racist, they're racist. I can't tell you what to do but if you continue to accept invitations and inclusion in certain circles based on your fair-skin (to the exclusion of others) how will things ever change? You are in a unique position to challenge their racist attitudes. And really, how important is their acceptance anyway? As Abdur-Rahman stated, this is my country. I don't need the acceptance of Arabs, Desis or anyone else.

Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

The 'Horrible' suggestion? I posted the beginning of it on my blog in tribute to Nell Carter but we need to take a real break from the crap. I recently dug up an interview with the Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar where he attempted to address some of the questions and concerns of American Muslims. The shaykh was more than a little frustrated with the fact that American Muslims were still tussling with identity and hadn't started applying our own minds to understanding the religion in ways that were conducive to the way we live. In a few words, he was like, "what the hell are you guys waiting on"? He actually said scholars over here in the US weren't putting in enough effort to develop American Islamic identity and lifestyle. After you check out my suggestion you may want to get your hands on a small piece called "Islam and the Cultural Imperative" by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah. It is a PDF file on the Nawawi Foundation's site. Here is an interesting fact about Al-Azhar versus the University of Madina; most of the American graduates of Al-Azhar return to the US (and they are few) but many of the graduates of U of M don't return and end up out in left field with bad minds.

Safia said...


I'm second generation, but for me at least, I'd vote for number one as well. I've gone to ISNA a few times, but I've never taken anything from the lectures that I could really apply to my own life or that address my own concerns. I don't know if its the set up, or some of the speakers, but it's always struck me as kind of the same old thing year after year. I think maybe it's a lack of focus. The topics are too broad, speakers go off on tangents all the time and are ill prepared, etc.

I'm glad that so many people enjoyed the MANA conference. Just from reading about it on a few blogs, it sounds like it was a big success.

muslimahlocs said...

as salaamu alaikum sister.
i too had that "been there, done that, won't be doing it again" feeling the last time that i attended . the first time i went i was wearing those "just-so-happy-to-be-around-muslims" glasses that i have since retired. but i have also been to the other conference across town and did not feel at home there either as a non-"warithdeener".
a conference for sisters of african descent would be long overdue. i would definately be willing to devote some time to the effort, insha Allah.

Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

Salaam sister, I posted this response to your question about MANA. Maybe others can come up with more.

Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

Sorry link didn't show:

Sister Seeking said...

Salaam'Alakim Jamerican Muslim:

I respect your honesty, and sincerity. You can't change what you don't acknowledge.

What you have described is one reason I will not allow my daughter to attend a Muslim school.

If they treat adults like this, I couldn't imagine, how our children would be treated in our absence.


Sister Seeking

abdussabour said...

I have experienced the same problems at the ISNA conferences that I attended (admittedly few) that you reported. The few good lectures were placed in small halls instead of the cavernous hall where the Opening/Closing ceremonies were held. I would still continue to go for the bazaar, but that's about it. People, both Muslims and Kaffirs, treated the Prophet and the Sahaba rudely. It isn't going to change until the End.