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Washington, DC Hosts 2nd International Islamic Unity Conference

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Speakers from around the globe gathered at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC Aug. 7-9 to discuss Muslim issues at the 2nd International Islamic Unity Conference. Under the auspices of the Islamic Supreme Council of America and its founder, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, religious and political leaders alike gathered to address concerns facing the Islamic community and to condemn the oppression of Muslims worldwide.

In the opening session, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) addressed the lack of understanding of Islam in the United States. As he criticized the “unfair, ignorant image [of Muslims] presented in the media,” McDermott urged audience members to contact their governmental representatives to express their concerns. He emphasized that the United States is neither a Christian nor Jewish nor Muslim nation, but rather a nation where people of all faiths can live together in religious freedom.

The conference expressed distress toward the atrocities committed against Muslims in Kosovo. In a panel on “The Balkan Crisis,” Dr. Rexhep Boja, Grand Mufti of Kosovo, pleaded for the international community to recognize Kosovo’s right to freedom. He noted that the 1989 collapse of Yugoslavia marked the beginning of the current crisis in Kosovo. After revoking the autonomy status previously enjoyed by Kosovo province, Serbian forces in Kosovo have closed schools, factories, and hospitals, denying members of the Albanian ethnic majority (which comprises 90 percent of Kosovo’s population) needed services.

In the same panel, Shaykh Sulejman Rexhepi, Grand Mufti of Macedonia, expressed concern that the crisis in Kosovo may spread to Macedonia, which has a large Albanian ethnic minority, and other nearby states. He implored the United States to denounce Serbian aggression and crimes committed by the Serbian army. The panel’s moderator, Bosnian Ambassador-at-Large Nedzib Sacirbey, ended the discussion with a general plea for peace and justice.

Muslims involved in the process of U.S. policymaking gathered for a panel entitled “How to Create Public Policy.” Arshi Siddiqui, legislative aide to Congressman Xavier Becerra, stressed that Muslim Americans should not only form relationships with congressmen, but with congressional staff members as well.

Khalil Munir, executive director of Telecommunication Advocacy Projects who worked on Capitol Hill for 12 years, asserted that “policy is affected by ideology.” Each member of Congress possesses core values which influence decision making, and it is important for constituents to be aware of their representatives’ views. Munir supported coalitions as an important factor in policymaking. “You can definitely affect public policy, but it is a slow, painstaking process,” he concluded.

Religious leaders and scholars addressed “Islam—The Fastest Growing Religion in the West.” Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, asked rhetorically, “Why is Islam spreading so fast in the West?” He reasoned that Islam presents a simple message which “offers an alternative to the modern world.” Shaykh Hisham Kabbani added that freedom in the United States allows Islam to grow.

Richard H. Curtiss, executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, participated in a panel on “Forming Constructive and Resourceful Relationships with the Media.” Mr. Curtiss expressed regret at the suspicion much of the U.S. media display toward Islam. According to Curtiss, U.S. media outlets are “deathly afraid” of saying anything offensive to Israel, thus angering advertisers, readers and viewers. This fear explains their reluctance to report positively on Islamic developments.

Curtiss encouraged Muslims to take an active role with the media. By taking the initiative to form positive relationships with the local media in American communities, Muslims can help educate the public.

Curtiss recommended that Muslims play an active political role as well. He suggested that members of local Islamic centers join forces to invite political candidates to “get-acquainted meetings” to express Islamic concerns, and that individual Muslim groups invite politicians to speak at Islamic events. This should help Muslims in major Islamic centers like Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, New York City, northern New Jersey, Detroit and Chicago to agree on recommendations for bloc endorsements of candidates in cases where one candidate clearly is preferable to rivals in terms of Islamic concerns. Such endorsements can be decisive in any of the metropolitan centers mentioned, Curtiss said.

The 2nd International Islamic Unity Conference, whose roots are in the Sufi tradition of Islam, addressed a variety of social, educational, and religious issues facing the Muslim community as a whole. American and international religious figures, politicians and scholars convened in large numbers to educate and to offer their insights. From the crisis in the Balkans to media stereotypes, the speakers generally suggested that the Muslim community take a proactive and positive role to denounce injustice and to dispel ignorance toward Islam.

Published in: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1998, page 107