AMAL: Contemporary Muslim in America, a panel of young Muslim Students and professionals
Fashionably late, as usual, I parked my car in front of the beautiful cathedral like church, thinking that this must be it. I look for the address for confirmation, instead finding a sign whose name informed me that I was at the wrong place. I looked around, knowing that I was in the vicinity, not noticing any other churches in the area, but another sign directly across the street grabbed my attention and I was pretty sure that I could make out “Unity Temple”, the place where I needed to be.
I crossed the street and there it was three simple words, rather a name that would have more impact on my perception of the nights events than anything else. Those three words, that name: Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple.
Last nights AMAL (American Muslims for Activism and Learning) event took place in Oak Park, IL. A town rich in architecture and it is also Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace. I had already been on a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio a few years back and I was wishing that I had taken more than 2 minutes to think about the significance of Oak Park. I quite possibly would have been better prepared.
Within the lines of this Frank Lloyd Wright building American Muslims for Activism and Learning would be making their presentation. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright had broken barriers for both religious and secular architecture with his cubical design of Unity Temple, AMAL and Unity Temple were breaking barriers of their own with inter-faith dialogue: Contemporary Muslims in America, a panel of young Muslim students and profesionals.
The security guard guided me to the hall where I could see my cousin already sitting on one of the dark benches and no matter how hard I tried to hush the chunky heel of my boots it became obvious that I was doing an awful job when she turned to notice me and smiled. I had already missed Tamim’s introduction and went back to my car for my Nikon before making any more commotion and ended up missing Jihad’s presentation as well. The AMAL group was made up of Tamim Chowdhury, Jihad Shoshara, Sarah Young, Muneer Aliuddin, Janaan Hashim, Kamran Riaz and Shireen Pishdadi.
Somehow, sitting within this masterpiece, examining the lines above, along the ceiling, I did manage to also listen to the presentations given by the AMAL group, although, I was really wishing that I had my little Sony hd video camera back from my sister-in-law and had I known that I was going to be in a Frank Lloyd Wright building, I would have lugged the Panasonic AG-100 out with me.
While I haven’t been to any inter-faith events since the birth of my first child, I was quickly reminded by the presentations of how this all went. There were the various equilibriums to uphold and general life experience varieties that would allcome together to form a painting of sorts, paint by numbers, but a painting, nevertheless. This is quite the typical way of organizing such events. It makes sense and it works in presenting a rich variety of experiences to persons who otherwise do not understand what it is like to be a Muslim in America. For me, it was too basic, I already know what these panelists go through. I have or have had many of the same experiences. I wondered though, in this day and age, post 9/11 if these presentations had any affect. I wondered if the audience learned anything new. Like Jenaan had mentioned in her presentation, post 9/11 she now knows what a Christian, Buddist, Hindu, Jew believes and follows. If Jenaan was moved by 9/11 to learn about these different religions, then were these presentations making much of an impact, did this audience already have this basic understanding of what it meant to be a Muslim? Perhaps I am over-thinking things.
The speeches had finished and it was time for Q & A and I have to admit, this is what I was most looking forward to. This would be where actual dialogue would come into play, this is where we could really learn about one another.
For a moment I thought no one was going to ask any questions and I had told myself that I would remain an observer at this event (can anyone believe that?). Lucky for me, or I should say, lucky for everyone else, the questions started. There were questions like “Could each of you tell us where you stand as a Muslim, moderate, traditional, progressive”. Ughhhh, you know that question we all hate to be asked, that question we all hate to answer. It almost doesn’t matter what we answer as someone else will call us something else. I hate the labels anyway, as did our panelists and when Tamim chose to answer with left of center, if I have to, the rest followed in synch. Well done.
Questions of modesty and head-cover were brought up and I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from butting in. Originally I was impressed as the panelist that took up the issue pointed out that their was discussion within the Muslim community in regards to this issue, he went on to say that men also had obligations towards modesty like lowering their gaze, but then to my horror proceeded with “while covering one’s hair is mandated for females in the Quran, it doesn’t mean that women who do not wear scarves are not Muslim.” I, as a Muslim woman that does not wear a veil or headscarf would have appreciated that the audience be given some information in regards to the verses that were quoted, information such as the word khimar being used rather than hijab and how khimar in general means cover and that word can also mean dress, so the verse can even translate cover your bosoms with your dress. Can anyone here believe that I managed to stay quiet? I’m sure after meeting me that the panel is a little surprised that I managed to keep quiet (I’ve already been debating within the list serve and everyone seemed to know who I was when I introduced myself). Thinking about this a little harder, I didn’t really stay quiet as I leaned over to my cousin placing my hand over my mouth and whispering how he left out where the whole controversy lies, why there is discussion taking place.
For the most part the audience was gentle. The most suspenseful question of the evening: How does it make you feel to have your religion associated with suicide bombers. Answered gracefully by Kamran and Shireen, both pointing out that the act itself is un-Islamic and the horrible circumstances that put people in positions to be desperate enough to commit such acts. Sarah followed up with explaining that her own research found that by far most terrorist acts were not committed by Muslims.
I was a little disappointed that no one really addressed some of the shortcomings of the Muslim community in discouraging such acts of terrorism and suicide bombings. Sure we here in the United States are as American as the rest of our neighbors and shouldn’t have to answer for those that we can’t even relate to, but within our homes and amongst ourselves we discuss those shortcomings. Confronting those problems that exist throughout the Islamic world is vital to inter-faith dialogue. It is vital to tackling Islamophobia within our respective communities and until we confront those problems we as Muslims will struggle within these dialogues.
In conclusion, the team of panelists from AMAL are an extremely talented group of young proffesionals and students who are full of promise. This group of individuals is out there, not just keyboard heros, but they are out there being pro-active within their communities, reaching out. AMAL delivers the message that Muslim Americans are just as much American and just as affected by terrorism as any other American and when all is said and done, maybe that message can’t be over-stated.