U.S. Muslims grapple with issues

GARRISON — Naturally, the diverse young American Muslims at this weekend’s Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow retreat could not agree on every issue facing their community.

Should Muslims seek to return to Islam as it was practiced 1,000 years ago? Is homosexuality halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden)? These and other debates raged on — though generally in calm, respectful tones — as more than 100 Muslims from across the country came together to attend a three-day conference sponsored by the Asma Society, a New York City-based Muslim nonprofit group espousing religious tolerance and cultural exchange.

Still, among all the topics stirring controversy, one issue clearly united the weekend’s participants — the pressing need for strong, widely-inclusive, moderate American Muslim leadership. That need is especially pressing now, they said, when the country’s Muslims face unprecedented prejudice, as well as previously unmatched interest from outsiders.

“If you open the newspaper, there’s a story about Muslims every day,” said Faisal Shah, 29, a medical student from West New York, N.J. “Whether we like it or not, we need to be leaders and we need American Muslims to fix problems both here (and abroad.)”

Coming together at the Garrison Institute, a center for social change perched along the Hudson River, the conference’s participants were mostly Muslim graduate students and professionals between 25 and 45 years old. The issues they grappled with yesterday were some of the deepest issues facing their community, and indeed, the world.

In one workshop, participants debated whether Islam and democracy are compatible, and whether an indigenous Muslim form of democracy exists. In another, young leaders discussed civil rights challenges confronting American Muslims, and in a third room, Indian-American journalist Asra Nomani described her recent struggle to have her mosque allow women to enter through the front door, instead of being relegated to a back entrance.

“We’ve come through a year of immense evolution,” Nomani said, but added, “I am still on trial in my mosque.”

Even sometimes taboo issues, including sexual assault in the Muslim community, and crises of faith among women who fear Islam has become “Hislam” or too male-dominated, were openly discussed both in a large “intrafaith” panel talk, and in more intimate small groups yesterday.

“We’re having some of these conversations almost for the first time,” said Sarah Eltantawy, one of the event’s organizers and a co-founder of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America. “Almost for the first time, we’re starting to iron out what our goals and issues are.”

Eltantawy said she hopes to repeat the event, which drew young Muslim doctors, imams, academics and social activists from as far away as California, Illinois and Georgia and from varied sects of Islam.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, another one of the conference’s organizers and Asma’s head, said he hoped young American Muslims would be able to see past intra-Muslim divisions such as the split between Shia and Sunni sects, which he called less an issue of “how you pray” than “an issue of political power.”

“How do we establish a platform on which we can embrace our diversity within the religion?” Rauf asked, as he urged tolerance not only for other Muslims but also for believers in other faiths. “We must respect every human being because they are the breath of God,” Rauf said.

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