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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
N American Muslims debate role in society
By Ian Brimacombe
BBC News, Chicago

The sessions at the Islamic Society of North America's annual convention had a little something for everyone. Some people came to ask questions about Islamic banking, others wanted tips on Muslim dating.

Ingrid Mattson
Ingrid Mattson is the first woman to head Isna
It was billed as the biggest gathering of Muslims in North America, and tens of thousands of delegates turned up to the three-day event, which was held over the weekend near Chicago.

"It's been opportunity for us to fulfil some of our aspirations as Muslims and learn some new things that are going on with our religion," said Abdul Fatai Adisa, a delegate from Merrillville, Indiana.

Many of the sessions touched on issues related to women in Islam and in American society. On the eve of the convention, Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian convert to Islam, was elected as Isna's new president, making her the first woman to hold the role.

"The election has huge symbolic importance," said Edina Lekovic, a delegate based in Los Angeles with the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

"It opens doors for communities who would otherwise not consider having women in leadership positions and I think it sends an important message to those more conservative elements within the American Muslim community.

"It's a signal to the establishment."

Focus on the media

On the first day of the convention, Ms Mattson held a news conference in which she criticised President George W Bush's use of the term "Islamic fascism" when describing the enemy in the "war on terror".

We don't value the idea of communicating properly
Firas Ahmad
Islamica magazine
"This is a term that had very bad resonance in the Muslim majority world and makes us feel uncomfortable," she said. "We're hoping there can be some adjustment to this language."

It was not just the politicians who came under scrutiny.

The criticism of the way in which Muslims are portrayed in the American media was also an important theme at the convention.

"Media Islam is the result of a one-sided understanding of Islam that is represented to us in a solitary, cliched and vicious way," said former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in a keynote speech.

And some delegates agreed.

"I think the media portrayal of the crises around the world, many of which are dominated by Muslims, usually tends to accentuate the negative," said Dr Hesham Hassaballa, a Chicago-based columnist and author.

"If it bleeds, it leads. And so, a Muslim woman holding a candle praying for peace is not as newsworthy as a Muslim driving a truck bomb into a building."

'Sheer curiosity'

Dr Hassaballa also said that as the five-year anniversary of the 11 September attacks approached, Muslims in the US had to grapple more than ever with campaigns of misinformation against them.

"There are websites and pundits and commentators which disseminate misinformation about Islam, and they're becoming very sophisticated and very savvy and they give an air of credibility that they don't deserve," he said.

Mohammad Khatami was Iranian president from 1997 to 2005
Khatami's visit has upset Jewish groups and some lawmakers
But Firas Ahmad, senior editor with the Islamic magazine, Islamica, said the Muslim community also needed do better at selling itself to the US public.

"We don't value the idea of communicating properly," he said.

"We have stories to tell that can connect with mainstream Americans. If they knew them, we'd become a little more human instead of the dehumanising effect of terrorism.

"We need to tell our story in a way that is compelling and only when we do that will these perceptions of the Muslim communities be diminished and a more accurate portrayal be available."

But not everyone was downbeat.

Ann Siddique from Albany, New York, had a more optimistic take on things. The 25-year-old converted to Islam a few years ago after becoming interested in the religion.

"The main things I get from non-Muslim people are questions," she said.

"Just sheer curiosity, and so it's fortunate that a lot of people want to learn and are willing to ask questions - and seek the truth."

Iran's Khatami condemns US policy
03 Sep 06 |  Americas
Bush's language angers US Muslims
12 Aug 06 |  Americas
Protests against Khatami US visa
31 Aug 06 |  Middle East

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