Over Labor Day weekend, I attended the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) 59th annual convention on the outskirts of Chicago. The relatively low turnout surprised me. Islamists founded ISNA in the 1980s, and in recent years it was considered the largest Muslim organization in the United States, with its annual conventions drawing up to 50,000 attendees. This year less than a quarter of that number attended.
I arrived early on Friday at the start of the convention and explored the convention halls as vendors finished setting up their booths.
Women in hijabs and men in sharp suits greeted me warmly, “As-salamu alaykum,” — “Peace be upon you.” And a man distributing Qurans handed me a free copy. Most of the women attending wore hijabs. Some wore niqabs, and some wore no head covering at all.
At least half the convention attendees seemed under the age of 40 – young couples, many with young children – eager for clear, Islamic guidance. Over the weekend, they asked about abortion, “LGBT” issues, modesty, and education. In sum, they were looking for guidance on how to deal with American secularism. Most of these folks appeared to be middle- and upper-class Muslims looking to make their way in American society without abandoning their faith.
Speakers at the convention responded to this eagerness by stressing the importance of cultivating the “Muslim identity.” But despite declaring its importance, they failed to offer a clear message of what that looks like. Overall, speakers offered a nebulous message, at least on the moral front.
At one point, Indiana State Senator Fady Qaddoura, a Democrat, urged listeners to, “Be authentic. Know where you stand morally.” He complained of a moral decline in America, but never defined morality, maybe because to do so would put him at odds with some of his supporters on the left.
Based off the questions asked by the young mothers and fathers in the audience, attendees wanted something more than evasions in response.
For example, attendees asked about sexual identity issues at multiple sessions, but speakers mostly shied away from giving direct answers. When the issue came up during a session on education, Habeeb Quadri, an educator who chairs Muslim Youth of North America, took a pass, declaring, “We have to invest in scholars who are comfortable discussing these issues.”
Magda Elkadi Saleh, Vice President of ISNA, noted “We are not judging students. Our job is to teach them.”
“I believe what the Quran says,” added Jimmy Jones, a religion professor at Manhatanville College. Jones, who converted to Islam in the late 1970s, failed to elaborate what he meant by the Quran’s position. In a session offered by the Fiqh Council of North America, one of the speakers said of the “gay community” that: “We hate their actions, but not them.”
ISNA’s position on abortion seemed equally ambiguous. The Fiqh Council forbid abortion but then made multiple allowances for it, “within 30 days,” or some say, “within 120 days,” and, “if there is a defect in the fetus,” then allow abortion. The broad definitions seemed to easily accommodate both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” stances.
Rania Awaad, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, spoke to a “sisters only” session about life as a Muslim woman. She told the young women of the history of Islamic scholarship and encouraged them to get an ijazah, a license in various fields of study in the Islamic tradition of learning. She also reminded them that Allah “commands” the wearing of hijab, proposing they should throw hijab parties to make it fun. She told the young women, “Hijab grows onto you and you into hijab.” When you feel the burden of wearing a hijab, “Commiserate with fellow sisters.”
Not everyone was on board with this agenda. While most of the women in the audience wore hijabs, several of the female speakers did not.
Convention attendees seemed dissatisfied with the moral fluff.
Swaths of Twitter users complained about ISNA’s “interfaith” work in recognizing and awarding Jacob Bender. Bender, a Jew, is the former head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Philadelphia. ISNA awarded him the “Abu Talib Award” in an apparent effort to promote its “interfaith” image. The historical figure, Abu Talib, a close relative of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, is known for refusing to convert to Islam.
In response to Bender’s receipt of the award, Twitter users called ISNA’s actions “degenerated” and “chalked,” remarking that “these Interfaith activities […] only leads to corruption of Imaan [the faith].” Still others protested the presence of officials from Homeland Security at the convention, asking why ISNA had invited them.
ISNA’s leadership even fielded complaints during the General Assembly meeting at the convention about the lack of vision, poor attendance, and dwindling membership. One man commented, “Attendance here is not good,” and compared it to attendance at the ICNA conference. Others expressed concern over the future of ISNA. Pre-pandemic ISNA conventions attracted around 50,000 attendees, but not even a quarter of that number attended this year. And overall membership of ISNA has apparently declined substantially over the years.
ISNA’s president, Safaa Zarzour, reported that the organization has about 5,000 voting members. In response to the apparent membership crisis, Vice President Saleh announced she is stepping down from her role to focus specifically on recruitment.
Others at General Assembly asked, “Why do we never hear about the future? It would be good for our youth to hear about the future.” Still, others decried “lack of transparency” and “mismanagement” of masjids (mosques) across the country and begged ISNA to fill the leadership void and provide best practices. “Young people are leaving masjids because of these masjid issues,” they warned.
Some speakers acknowledged the Muslim community’s need for answers and urgently pressed for Islamic education at every level.
Speaker Jimmy Jones stressed the importance of Islamic colleges: “We can’t send kids off to colleges that teach against Islam,” and Habeeb Quadri called for building more seminaries.
A few speakers at the conference attempted to fill the void in ISNA’s lackluster vision, notably Zulfiqar Ali Shah, who directs the Fiqh Council.
In a surprising moment of fantasy, Shah suggested Americans do not teach the truth about the founding. He told listeners that evangelicals rewrote American history, erasing the Mohammedan influence on the Founding Fathers. He also criticized French President Emmanuel Macron as “ignorant” for not recognizing that the Enlightenment would not have happened without Islamic thought.
The Muslim community has many questions that ISNA merely danced around answering. ISNA’s brand of Islamism is seemingly no longer resonating with attendees looking for a credible way to practice their faith in American society.