On Labor Day weekend, I spent four days hanging out with 15,000 Muslims at the Islamic Society of North America’s 49th annual convention in Washington, D.C. As one of the few non-Muslims in attendance, I was able to eavesdrop on hundreds of conversations swirling around me, take in several talks by prominent Muslims and attend author Karen Armstrong’s address to the big donors to ISNA. I wish all America could have listened in on these startling and revealing declarations of faith from the North American Muslim front. I am sure most Americans would have been shocked by the content of the discourse at ISNA.
Shocked, because what Muslims say to each other when they are hanging out together is so radically ordinary.
Let’s start with the theme of the convention: “One Nation Under God: Striving for the Common Good.” How radical is that? There was a strong emphasis in workshops and speeches on how American Muslims can integrate the commandments of the Quran to better serve the poor, the oppressed, those in need within the Muslim community, and in cooperation with interfaith groups to help all people regardless of faith.
Finding common ground to further the common good as faithful citizens was a recurring theme throughout the Labor Day weekend gathering.
The Sanctity of All Creation
I dropped into a talk by best-selling author-scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr on moral values from an Islamic perspective. Nasr made a passionate plea to his Muslim audience that they remember that the Quran speaks of the sanctity of all creation and not just the human world. Nasr spoke of how most contemporary thought — especially social and economic theories — places humans at the center of creation.
He contrasted this with the Quran’s creation-based theology, arguing that it is critical for Muslims to advocate for green solutions, especially while environmental degradation is being advanced in the name of human comfort and economic greed. He exhorted Muslims to be more active in protecting the earth in the spirit of Islamic values.
Controversial Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan seemed to be everywhere during the convention. He spoke at least seven times on major stages and in smaller rooms on panels. Ramadan had been banned from entering the United States in 2004, when he had been offered a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Citing the U.S. Patriot Act, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revoked his U.S. visa. His offense? Making a donation to two Muslim charities that had tenuous ties to Hamas. After a U.S. Federal Appeals Court sided with Ramadan, his ban was lifted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010.
At ISNA he spoke on the themes of his newest book, Islam and the Arab Awakening, on the fragile rise of democratic institutions in the Arab world and the role Islam will play in this unfolding process. He also spoke passionately to young Muslims one night, urging that Muslim women continue to assert themselves as leaders within the American Muslim community.
One of my favorite moments came watching Ramadan sign books after one of his panel talks. The two young boys, no older than 13, asked the scholar to sign his weighty, Oxford University Press tome. I could not catch the details of the conversation, but Ramadan spent extra time with these young Muslims, listening to their stories and questions and not rushing to sign the book and move on to the next buyer. His care and concern and focus on these teenagers was heartfelt and a joy to see.
Embedded with the Muslims
But more than the headliners, I was most interested in the rank and file Muslims attending the convention. I had a booth where I was selling books for my publishing house, White Cloud Press. For four days I witnessed a steady parade of Muslims, from infants to octogenarians, many who stopped for a few moments to talk about books and religion or just to talk about their hopes and aspirations.
There were great conversations with twenty something Muslims about marriage and how ISNA is a great meeting place for a young Muslim to meet a prospective spouse. Like Jewish and Christian conferences and conventions, at ISNA opportunities are created for young, singles to find their future mate. Journalist Obaid Siddiqui told me that besides the banquet there is always a big open area where singles can mingle to “see and be seen” at the hotel next to the convention center.
As I was flying home thinking about my four days “embedded” with American Muslims, what kept coming back to me was the very distinct vibe given off by the majority of Muslims I met and observed. The vibe can best be summed up by the Arabic word adab, which translates a range of English terms: Good manners, etiquette, refinement and morals.
As I mixed with Muslims I was inevitably met with incredible kindness and concern for my well-being, and I watched how this adab was taking place all around me. I was not just getting special treatment for being the guest. If I might generalize, Muslims manifest a simple yet profound sense of decorum displayed in their conversations and interactions that is sincere and very moving. They care for the needs of others.
In a very tangible way, these Muslims practice the Golden Rule found in all faith traditions, to do unto others as you would have done to yourself.
The Beauty of Adab
This is all the more impressive when considering the seemingly endless rants against, and outright violence directed at, American Muslims. American Muslims, and especially American Muslim women, are often stuck in an impossible lose-lose situation. Tea Party militants accuse all Muslim men of hating women and abusing Muslim women as a matter of faith. Then the Tea Bag Taliban folk turn around and accuse prominent American Muslim women, women who have achieved positions of influence in American society (Huma Abedin, Samar Ali, and Linda Sarsour, for example) of being Muslim terrorists.
Attacks on American Muslims remains a troubling constant in our lives today. Firebombing and defacing of mosques are frequent and hate crimes against Muslims, and those mistaken for Muslims like the Sikhs, are surging.
In August there was a surge in violence toward Muslims with eight attacks taking place in 11 days, including the mass killing at the Wisconsin Sikh Gurdwara (temple), a firebomb attack on a Muslim home, an attempted bombing of a mosque during prayers in Lombard, Illinois, a burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, and assorted attacks and vandalism in Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and California.
Just a week ago, another mosque was burned in what was deemed by police to be an act of arson at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.
Through all of this, the American Muslim community’s response has been to work with law enforcement and to redouble efforts to educate Americans about their faith. In doing so, they have shown us that adab is an effective nonviolent way to confront hatred and violence. Adab is more than just making nice and giving up your seat on the metro. If you are an American Muslim, it means standing firm and facing hatred with dignity and forbearance and always being ready to make peace.
One of the most profound examples of the practice of Islamic values and especially of adab is the reaction of American Muslim men, women, and children in Orange County, California, when confronted with an angry mob screaming their hate in the name of their Christian faith. The scene was this: Orange County Muslims were holding a fundraiser for homeless relief efforts, not just for Muslims, but for the general community. The video of what went down is sickening at one level and beautiful at another.
It is difficult to stomach the hate speech in the name of God and country. But the beautiful thing to watch is the Muslims response. Walking through the hatemongers, the Muslims never flinch, they do not stop in entering the hall in order to do their Islamic duty of helping out their non-Muslim neighbors, and they never strike back or even argue with the Tea Party belligerents. They walk with purpose and dignity through the verbal bile directed their way: Their faith strong and their adab in full display.
Steven Scholl is publisher of White Cloud Press and a writer on religion and culture. He did graduate studies in Islamic thought, lived for a year in Cairo, Egypt, and leads tours to the Middle East through his company Imagine Adventures.