A Note on “The Other” Conference

Several months ago I moved to Chicago from Atlanta for work. Prior to moving, my idea of Chicago was largely framed by my family’s regular attendance of the Annual Muslim Convention hosted by the community of Imam Warith Deen (WD) Muhammad during Labor Day weekend. Because the history of these conferences were firmly ingrained I created an imagination of Chicago’s native Muslim population, particularly the African American Muslim population as parallel to Atlanta–visible Muslim leadership, active civic engagement, and a navigable social landscape. This is an ongoing fallacy of mine. This constant comparison of urban Muslim and/or African American life to that of Atlanta. It is, as always, inherently unfair because I mean let’s face it, what city could possibly be better for African Americans and Muslims alike than Atlanta? (says the Atlantan in exile)

Naturally, Chicago did not meet my expectations but served up a beneficial alternative. The masjid scene, as I find it, is less penetrable, a bit scattered, but serves it’s primary purpose as a worship space, albeit at times behind a partition for some of us. What is intriguing, however, is the fringe, “third space.” I’ve been able to partake in a number of circles such as the Ta’leef Collective, Muslim Women’s Alliance, IMAN, private halaqa groups, and the list can go on. These spaces, primarily composed of a younger generation of Muslims allows for greater racial, ethnic, and theological diversity giving shape to a new profile of “Muslim community.”

Is there still room for and unique benefit to conferences that are particular to African American Muslims? Or has/can this platform been successfully integrated into the larger framework of ISNA?

In line with this idea of the “third space” is the “conference.” Annual Muslim conferences surface as a collectively agreed upon space for the converging of ideas, people, and perhaps more importantly the establishment of leadership and legitimacy in spiritual and civic matters. I don’t think we’ve always thought of conferences in this way but as third spaces continue to grow and gain importance local leadership seems less relevant, conferences help provide an array of legitimate leadership possibilities.

This year, we were back at Labor Day weekend and my family was in town visiting. Prior to their scheduled visit I had made loose plans to attend the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference with my roommate. We were excited to attend, probably moreso for the opportunity to scope out potentials than the actual conference. I mean. Because we’re 25 and single. Aside from our thirstyness, ISNA was particularly interesting this year with Tariq Ramadan’s letter opting out of this year’s conference and the thoughtful responses of Sherman Jackson, Omar Suleiman and ISNA. In the midst of the potential of all that ISNA could be I forgot about “that other conference.” The conference that had at once meant everything had now dissipated into “the other.” I was disappointed in myself. My attraction to the popular.

It would be inappropriate and inaccurate for me to speak to the details of the two conferences as I did not attend either fully but I do want to give attention to this shift. In inhabiting the cool “third space,” what are we stripped of?

On Friday, we went for Jum’ah and a new memory was created. There were no youth running the hallways being pushed into workshops; no “salaaikum sista” brothas tryna holla; and the vendor’s bazaar remains but occupying a much smaller scale. These elements, of course, can be found at other conferences. But what seems more difficult to recreate and begs the question, is there still room for and unique benefit to conferences that are particular to African American Muslims? Or has/can this platform been successfully integrated into the larger framework of ISNA? I would argue yes to the first. There is always room and need for both. The particular and the universal (in this case speaking of the “universal” as Muslims in North America). To the second, I think ISNA has been making positive moves towards integration of African American Muslims and Muslims of color in general but because of conference structure this only allows for topical examinations.

I intend to explore these questions of “conference-ing” further. Feel free to comment and look out for the next post.

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