Imam's message finds home
Imam's message finds home
Thousands of Muslims gather in Rosemont, seeking answers to their greatest challenge: integrating with post-Sept. 11 America
By Geneive Abdo
Tribune religion reporter
September 6, 2004
Sheik Hamza Yusuf defies the common stereotypes of an Islamic cleric: A Muslim convert with a neatly manicured light brown goatee, starched white shirt and fancy trousers, he stepped out of a taxi this weekend, at first without much fanfare, at a gathering of thousands of his followers.
But by early afternoon, he had sold hundreds of copies of his latest book, "Purification of the Heart," inside a chaotic bazaar at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. Even after he left, the book kept selling as latecomers dropped by, disappointed that they had missed the chance to see their favorite imam.
For many attending the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America this weekend, Yusuf provides answers to their greatest challenge: living as a Muslim in post-Sept. 11 America.
"I listen to his tapes and read his books because he appeals to our needs and who we are in America," said Amenah Ibrahim, 26. "He is not like the imams from Jordan or other parts of the Middle East who can't relate to American Muslims."
Yusuf is considered an antidote to traditional clerics cloaked in long robes and known for their stern warnings that Western life is incompatible with the teachings of the Koran.
"What I try to do is look at the Koran holistically," Yusuf said before arriving at the conference hall.
"I had a teacher who told me once that every group that goes astray takes the Koran piecemeal. They take from it what they like, and then they don't take those things that either restrict meanings or particularize them," said the cleric from the San Francisco Bay area, who became a Muslim in 1977 and attended Islamic schools in the Middle East and North Africa.
Yusuf said the danger facing Islam lies in some clerics who find in the Koran an absolutist reading of the faith, one that gives Muslims a "black and white, good versus evil" interpretation.
"That is the danger in the Koran, the Bible and many holy texts," he said.
As they gathered at the 41st convention of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Islamic organization in North America, tens of thousands of Muslims participated in panel discussions on how to remain true to Islamic principles while becoming integrated with American life. In the center of the massive convention hall, they were urged to register to vote in the presidential election.
In small discussion groups, the youths learned how to persuade universities to establish Islamic centers on campuses, and young women learned how to explain to non-Muslims why wearing headscarves is important in Islam.
They were also reminded of the rift between Islam and the West by who was absent from the convention. Tariq Ramadan, a renowned Islamic scholar who lives in Switzerland, was scheduled to give a key address at the convention. But Ramadan, who was appointed to teach at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., beginning two weeks ago, was suddenly informed last month that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had revoked a visa he had been granted last winter. No specific explanation for his ban from the United States has been given.
"A very prestigious and influential Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan, is not with us today," said Rami Nashashbi, a social activist in Chicago, as he integrated the ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th Century intellectual famous for his writings on American democracy, with a speech about the need for Muslims to become socially active in their communities.
During discussions throughout the conference, Muslims said the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, awakened them to the need to establish a well-defined Islamic identity in the United States. Tired of inaccurate labels placed on them, Muslims said they believe it is time to explain their faith to Americans in the workplace, on college campuses and in the media.
"Muslims get a bad rap for what is happening," Fiaz Ahmed, 31, said as he read a book by Yusuf inside the bazaar, where everything from Islamic dolls to Egyptian boxes made of mother-of-pearl were sold. "Terrorism has now become synonymous with Islam. If we have a few bad apples, you shouldn't blame the whole religion."
At a simultaneous gathering near the main convention organized by the Muslim Students Associations, which have 2,000 chapters on college campuses, young men and women talked about ways to create an Islamic community at universities. Usman Khan, a student at Tufts University near Boston, said Muslim students there worked with the school administration for three years to expand the Islamic center. Now, there is a library, an office and a lounge, where Muslim students explain their faith to non-Muslims.
"There is so much misinformation about Islam out there," Khan said. "And non-Muslims who want to learn about us don't know where to go. It is important for us to educate non-Muslims because the more non-Muslims are aware of Islamic values and traditions, the easier it will be for Muslims to integrate into American society."
Addressing the convention Saturday evening, Yusuf gave the crowd a pep talk.
"Don't be afraid to be Muslim. We want to reject what is happening in the Muslim world in the name of our religion," he said to widespread applause.
Taking what has become a common question posed about the Islamic world, "Can Islam embrace democracy?" Yusuf turned it on its head:
"The real question is, can democracy embrace Islam?"
Copyright � 2004, Chicago Tribune