Following its annual convention in early September, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was denounced by furious Islamists who pointed to an assortment of missteps and concluded that the organization was ignorant about Islam and collaborating with the U.S. efforts to surveil Muslims.
While still undeniably Islamist, ISNA has struggled to find its ideological footing in the past few years and, as a result, appears to not only have lost domestic support but is now mocked by Islamists and leftist activists inside and outside the United States who accuse the organization of deviating from the faith and of not taking a hard enough line against the U.S. government. The attacks seem to confirm that the organization is on the downward slope, as it struggles to connect with its own members while maintaining its legitimacy in the eyes of Islamists that use their faith to exert control over Muslim communities.
Oddly enough, ISNA’s most high-profile mistake involved an ostensibly well-meaning attempt to to recognize Jacob Bender’s years of service to the American Muslim community and to CAIR. Bender led CAIR-Philadelphia’s chapter for 20 years. The award he received is intended to reward non-Muslims (Bender is Jewish). However, this Abu Talib award was named after Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s uncle who refused to convert to Islam, died a non-Muslim and, according to Islamists, must have therefore been sent to hell. The issue, from the Islamists’ perspectives, was the name of the award rather than its recipient.
ISNA’s tweet documenting Bender receiving the award was shared nearly 100 times and every single comment was negative. One commentator asked ISNA “what the heck is wrong with you sellout deviants.” Another declared that “ISNA should rename you guys to the Ignorant Society of North America for your lack of all things Islamic education related.” Well-known Islamist imam Abdelrahman Murphy stated that “this move (along with many others) displays complete disconnect from knowledge of Islam.”
Muslims outside the U.S. chimed in. One warned that “this cringe and deviation would be the ultimate pit of all maldivians ‘Islamist’ NGOs as well.” ISNA was even criticized by imams in South Africa where Fakhruddin Owaisi, the Chairman of the Sunni Ulama Council in Cape Town, explained the situation to his followers and concluded that the name of the award “was really distasteful, if not quite disrespectful.”
Islamists also condemned an award given to Iranian academic Hossein Nasr for his “distinguished scholarship and outstanding service to the community.” The Haram Police, an Islamist commentator on Twitter with nearly 20,000 followers, said that “Sayyid Hossein Nasr is a Shi’a perennialist” and yet has “been hosted at these big ‘Sunni’ mega-conferences for years.”
(According to perennialism, human beings “at all times and of all places have recognized the reality of one unique principle and received guidance from it.” Since this view does not assert Islamist superiority, it was bound to be denounced.) Indeed, one tweet asked: “Why don’t ulema [Islamic scholars] boycott this stuff, or at least criticize and offer pushback?” Others opined that Nasr’s work constituted “heresy” and that “ISNA and most American scholarship functions to corrupt Islam.”
Others were outraged by the presence of a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recruitment booth at the convention. Sana Saeed, a producer at the Qatari-regime tied news outlet AJ+, declared that ISNA’s willingness to host the CBP and to maintain relationships with outside groups such as the American Jewish Committee is more than a “disconnect from the knowledge” of Islam, but “a perversion of it.” Heraa, a popular Islamist commentator with 40K Twitter followers, pointed to the booth as evidence that Muslim “organizations are still trapped in state surveillance and moderate Muslim politics.”
Islamists also criticized a booth promoting the writings of Pakistani intellectual Javed Ghamidi at the conference. Ghamidi has been condemned by Islamists for positions that they consider too liberal. Hardline Islamist Daniel Haqiqatjou shared a picture of the Ghamidi booth and described it as “Ghamidi deviance.” Haqiqatjou also reminded his followers that ISNA had had an Ahmadi booth at a previous session. (Ahmadis are a South Asian Muslim minority sect that is persecuted by Islamists who consider them to be out of the fold of Islam.)
Haqiqatjou explained that ISNA does “a good job of making sure that if an imam speaks, he shares the stage with at least one or two reformists, deviants, or feminists.” He concluded that ISNA and its speakers “promote a version of Islam that is pro-lgbt, pro-feminist, pro-democrat” rather than “actual Islam.” Sharing pictures of the ISNA event, a Twitter commentator agreed: “If you didn’t know why people like Haqiqatjou are so hostile against these types, now you do.”
ISNA was also caught up in deeper disagreements as several influential activists, who used to be regular attendees, boycotted the event. Leading activists such as Zahra Billoo and Hatem Bazian refused to attend, ostensibly because of ISNA’s past partnership with the American Jewish Committee. Billoo explained that “we cannot tolerate our brothers and sisters giving cover to those who seek to, and do, harm us.” But the boycott appeared to be mostly related to ISNA internal divisions regarding its relations with the Turkish regime.
This cascade of criticism reveals that ISNA is an untenable situation, caught between its attempts to seem progressive, perhaps in the hope of having more political influence, and the expectation that it should remain Islamist. ISNA’s membership is dwindling and the number of attendees at the convention was far from the reported peak of 50,000 a decade ago.
Indeed, AJ+’s Sana Saeed found it “wild” “that people are still going to ISNA in 2022.”One of ISNA’s hardline Islamist detractors, referring to the latest convention, concluded that “ISNA and other liberalist organizations are currently writing their own epitaph and will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
It appears ISNA’s leaders face a choice between meeting the needs of rank-and-file Muslims or caving into the demands of Islamists intent on instrumentalizing their faith to control their coreligionists.
Martha Lee is the research fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.