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At large Muslim American convention, a mix of frustration, hope

Conventiongoers visit the bazaar on June 30, 2017, at the 54th Islamic Society of North America Convention at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

ROSEMONT, Ill. (RNS) It had been a difficult Ramadan for many Muslims, ending the week before the Islamic Society of North America Convention started.

  • In Portland, Ore., two men were killed and a third was injured when they were stabbed standing up to a man reportedly yelling anti-Muslim slurs on a train.
  • In London, a man rammed a van into a group of worshippers outside a mosque in London.
  • In suburban Washington, D.C., teenager Nabra Hassanen was beaten to death after attending late-night prayers.

And some provisions of President Trump’s travel ban, revived by the Supreme Court, had just taken effect the day before the convention began.

All were on the minds of organizers and Muslim leaders welcoming people to the 54th ISNA Convention, which runs through July 3.

“It left many feeling alone and saddened,” said Asra Ali, co-chair of the ISNA Convention Steering Committee. “More than any other year, I really hope this convention is one that especially brings us all together to feel that sense of unity and belonging.”

Several thousand people are expected to attend the ISNA Convention over the Fourth of July weekend at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center outside of Chicago.

ISNA is the largest and oldest Islamic umbrella organization in North America, and its annual convention, which began Friday (June 30), is one of the largest Muslim gatherings in the United States. The convention aims to give Muslims and guests of other faiths opportunities to network, exchange ideas and hear from well-known speakers, according to organizers.

In their welcome addresses, many leaders of national Muslim organizations noted the challenges Muslim Americans face: Islamophobia, hate crimes and divisive political rhetoric.

But they also pointed out reasons for optimism.

“Embracing people is also at a rise. Activism is at a rise, as well,” said Mazen Mokhtar, executive director of the Muslim American Society.”That is a message of hope. It is an opportunity for those who wish to make a change to make that change.”

ISNA President Azhar Azeez speaks June 30, 2017, at the 54th Islamic Society of North America Convention at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

ISNA President Azhar Azeez pointed to the number of Americans of all faiths who turned out at airports to protest Trump’s first executive order and to the Women’s March demonstrations around the country.

Among the non-Muslims at the convention was the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who announced Friday to applause: “Should there ever be a Muslim registry in this country, I humbly request the honor to be the first to sign up.”

Convention speakers included activists, scholars and religious leaders, including Linda Sarsour — one of the organizers of the Women’s March, who was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people — and Abdulrahman Mohamed El-Sayed, a candidate in the Michigan governor’s race.

Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March, speaks on a panel of newsmakers on June 30, 2017, at the 54th Islamic Society of North America Convention at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

But the convention also included events such as a basketball tournament, film festival and bazaar with more than 500 vendors selling everything from modest fashions and halal cosmetics to cuddly dolls reciting Quran passages.

Fatima Islam, a 16-year-old from Houston, said Friday she was feeling expectant and hopeful.

She was looking forward to gathering with family, volunteering with Muslim Youth of North America, reciting poetry at an open mic and snapping photos for her blog about empowering Muslim women.

“It’s been like a family tradition in which we’d come here every year all together,” she said.

“There’s usually about 30 of my family members, she said. “We rented a huge RV.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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