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…