By Josh Weiner
October 21, 2013
The Islamic Council of New England hosted its 28th annual conference in the Cabot Intercultural Centre yesterday.
The event featured presentations by several public speakers who addressed pertinent issues facing the Muslim communities within contemporary American society.
Maha Mian, president of the Muslim Students Association of Tufts (MSAT), said that while the conference had in the past been held at many nearby institutions such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this was the first year that the conference was located at Tufts. Mian added that the conference was an ideal forum to host discussion and debate on topics of Islam, and she was pleased that the event was successful following several months of preparation.
“We’ve never held anything to this extent before,” Mian, a senior, said. “We’re really glad that we were able to pull it together.”
The conference was divided into several thematic panels. The final keynote panel of the day was titled “Assimilation, Isolation or Integration?” and analyzed ways that American Muslims can become more accepted and included throughout the nation.
Hussein Dayib, the panel moderator, emphasized the importance of retaining religious and cultural identity even while striving to achieve this goal of acceptance.
“We have to find a way we can relate to the American culture so that Islam is seen as part of it,” Dayib said. “There’s a difference between integration and assimilation. Losing your identity is not what we are here for as Muslims.”
Kiarash Jahed, a physician at the University of Louisville Hospital, began the panel by addressing the Muslim people’s long history of dealing with isolation and Islamophobia. Jahed expressed that the Islamic experience ought to be perceived as a “normal” American lifestyle. He outlined ways in which this could be achieved, such as by encouraging Islamic Americans to turn out to vote, improving relationships with the Muslim convert community, being patriotic while not nationalistic and producing indigenous learning institutions around the country.
“We have to be contributors to culture, not just consumers of goods,” Jahed said. “The Quran says, ‘that which benefits people stays in the earth.’ We have a lot which we do for ourselves, but we should also be asking what are we doing for America, for the broader society.”
Susan Akram, professor of law at Boston University, spoke next about the consequences of American laws that have singled out Muslims in a discriminatory fashion.
“I’m speaking from the perspective of a lawyer who’s been representing Islamic immigrants for 30 years,” she said. “The bottom line is that we do not have very optimistic news.”
Citing reports by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Akram addressed a wide range of anti-Islamic activities throughout America. These include unwarranted discrimination based on appearance as well as infiltration and surveillance of mosques and Muslim community centers.
She said that many Muslims have continued to be prosecuted as terrorists when they pose no actual threat, a trend that has harmed and antagonized America’s Islamic communities.
“Terorrism is not a Muslim phenomenon,” Akram said. “[Understanding this] is meaningful if we are going to have successful Muslim integration in the United States.”
Imam Talal Eid, the Muslim chaplain at Brandeis University, spoke about the general standing of the Islamic community within the United States. He said that American Muslims are among the most highly-educated and most prosperous in the world and serve their country with a sense of honor and duty.
Eid expressed his concern that contemporary Muslims oftentimes disregard the importance of religious faith and are being forced to assimilate within American society in ways that are contrarary to Islamic values.
“Many young Muslims are running away from their religion, and I don’t want to see that,” he said. “We don’t want to give up our religion, but we need to learn how to integrate in this society without hurting [ourselves] or hurting [our] religion.”
Eid urged his peers to embrace their identities both as Muslims and as Americans.
“We are American citizens,” he said. “We have [the same] rights as anyone else, and we should not be discouraged of talking of ourselves as Muslims.”
The final speaker of the panel was Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of the Boston Cultural Center. He addressed the positive impact that Muslims can have on American society, saying that Islamic tradition inherently aims to improve and enhance Muslims’ surroundings.
“Islam did not come to destroy any given culture, but it came to polish those cultures,” Webb said. “We are polishers wherever we go. We recognize things that aren’t very good and we try to polish them, to make them a profit.”
Webb outlined potential ways of increasing appeal of the Muslim religion amongst the new generation. He said this could be achieved, in part, by promoting the teaching of Islam as a more desirable profession.
“We need to start paying scholars,” he said. “We should pay our imams. If it is not a viable career option, it will attract flies. But if it is a viable career option, it will attract the best and the brightest.
Manasvini Baba, a senior who attended the event, felt that the issues presented during the panel were critical to analyze and debate.
“In the context of the United States, where you have lots of different identities and groups, I think the question of integration and assimilation is really interesting to explore,” she said.