ISNA conference draws hundreds of Muslims
Hundreds of Muslims are in Fort Lauderdale this weekend for an Islamic Society of North America conference.
BY JAWEED KALEEMjkaleem@MiamiHerald.com
As a sophomore at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Feras Ahmed doesn't get many opportunities to interact with other Muslims outside his family and a close circle of friends.
So when he heard that one of the largest Muslim organizations in the country was convening hundreds of Muslims from the eastern seaboard in South Florida this weekend, Ahmed joined his brother, mother, uncle and two cousins on a road trip to Fort Lauderdale.
``I'm here to try to get a sense of community, to get involved in what's going on with Muslims in America,'' the 20-year-old said.
He stood outside a booth selling Islamic books and DVDs at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center on Saturday as a diverse crowd of Muslim scholars, students and families mingled between panel discussions on subjects from Muslims and the media to youth empowerment and relationships.
Four months after a Gainesville pastor's threats to set off a bonfire of Qurans drew international attention to Florida, the Islamic Society of North America is holding a regional conference in South Florida for the first time, aiming to strengthen community ties and promote civic engagement among Muslims.
The organization, which draws 40,000 Muslims to its annual national convention in Chicago, is making a timely bet on South Florida, which has about 70,000 Muslim residents.
``There has been a lot of misunderstanding of Islam. We have got to get out there and show who we are,'' said Imam Mohamed Magid, the organization's president and a well-known figure in Islamic circles.
Magid was joined by representatives of South Florida's two dozen mosques and Muslims from across the state.
``We need to create a sense of community between ourselves and strengthen relationships with communities outside our own,'' he said.
The conference, which began Friday, has been host to conversations about Islamic higher education, empowering women, interfaith dialogue and Islam on the Internet, among other topics.
In a community where mosques and Muslim organizations are often divided along ethnic or geographical lines, the conference was notable for drawing a broad cross-section including Sunni and Shia Muslims and groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations and Islamic Circle of North America.
Booths sponsored by Muslim-oriented businesses offered head scarves, pilgrimage packages to Mecca, Islamic banking services and, in a South Florida twist, free Spanish Qurans.
``I think [ISNA] coming here says something about Muslims in this part of Florida, that we have grown to a point where we can support such a national organization,'' said Imam Shafayat Mohamed, who leads Darul Uloom mosque in Pembroke Pines and participated in a panel on interfaith relations.
``We're here to improve our image and join to make a positive contribution to society,'' said Asad Ba-Yunus, the conference chairman.
Ba-Yunus, a Miramar attorney, noted that Muslims in Florida have faced several hurdles in the past year including the abandoned Quran burning and fallout over a proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York City.
Those topics were among many discussed Saturday at a panel on Muslims and the media that included Antonio Fins, editorial page editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and Farooq Mitha, an occasional contributor to The Miami Herald's op-ed page.
``I think reactivism is one of the problems among Muslims,'' said Mitha.
``Something will happen in Kashmir or elsewhere and you will see Muslims protesting and writing letters,'' but the community will be ``back to normal a week later . . . We haven't done enough grass-roots organizing to get people engaged.''
A few hours later, Americans Against Hate held a protest outside the convention center. The small Broward organization accused ISNA of having ties to terrorists and of supporting Hamas, a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist group.
ISNA officials have denied such allegations, and the organization has formally denounced terrorism.
State Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, who was scheduled to speak on a panel titled ``How to Communicate with Public Officials'' withdrew shortly before the conference began after complaints from constituents. Porth said he would be ``happy to speak with Muslims'' at non-ISNA events.