Sometimes Our People Can Overreact UnnecessarilyӔ: An interview with ISNA Secretary General Sayyid M. Syeed
We are publishing this interview with love and respect for the work that our many sincere and well-meaning sisters and brothers in groups like ISNA are doing. While sincerity of the heart is laudable, accountability is also important for individuals in positions of leadership, in organizations that claim to represent the Muslim community during these adverse times.Ed.
By Ahmed Nassef
Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed is secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). I had a chance to speak with Dr. Syeed in the wake of the recent controversy over ISNAגs hosting this week of the annual conference of the National Temperance and Prohibition Council (NTPC), a group associated with extremist views on immigration and foreign policy. MWU! issued a WakeUp CallӔ campaign last week to protest ISNA decision to partner with the NTPC.
Dr. Syeed started the conversation by quoting an old verse that went something like, How can a sleeping man awaken another sleeping man?Ӕ But we agreed that if someone snored loud enough, hed certainly be able to wake others up.
MWU!: Have any of the plans changed for the National Temperance and Prohibition Conference happening this week at ISNA headquarters?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Everything is as it is. We want to make sure they understand who we are. Here in the US, there was a major experiment about prohibition. It was a realityҗalcohol was banned officiallyMuslims should know about its successes and failures. Here we are 10 million Muslims told by our Prophet, Thou shall not drink, sell, produce itחour community is defined by our relationship to alcohol.
These are very old people. We thought it was a kind gestureletting these old people know that our community is interested. We do not endorse what they stand for beyond their opposition to alcohol.
MWU!: So why was the meeting notice removed from the ISNA website a few days ago?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Sometimes our people can overreact unnecessarily. We found that if we have to spend time explaining, we will not be able to do our business.
MWU!: Why did ISNA decide to join the NTPC last year?
Sayyid M. Syeed: We did not really join. We are not an official member.
MWU!: But they claim that ISNA is a member and is even a member of a committee putting together a video on Prohibition for the group.
Sayyid M. Syeed: They have misunderstood. I donגt know exactly what we told them. In this situation, we tell them we will help them and so on. It does not mean were a member.
MWU!: Looking back at it, did ISNA do a good job in its ғdue diligence regarding the groupԒs background? If you had to do it all over again, would you still do it?
Sayyid M. Syeed: This is a very small thing in our daily attempt to wake up Muslims. In this country, the land of alliances, when you have something common with someone, you try to build on that commonality. It does not mean we endorse their lifestyle. It is possible we may make mistakes, but in this case, the fact that we can create this kind of interaction is important. This is one of hundreds of organizations with whom we are involved.
MWU!: Do you favor a ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the US?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Yes, I favor a ban. But it should come voluntarily and spontaneously from the people themselves.
MWU!: Is ISNA committed to the separation of religion and state in the US?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Yes, this is how the country has succeeded, leaving zealots out of power.
MWU!: So soon after the huge controversy over President Bushs appointment of Daniel Pipes to the US Institute for Peace, ISNA is now participating in the InstituteҒs upcoming conference on Islam. Isnt that a contradiction?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Our major role in this country is to utilize every opportunity that helps us promote a better understanding on Islam.
MWU!: Some people have criticized ISNA for politically ғgetting in bed with anything that moves as long as the potential partner does not openly advocate gay rights. Where does ISNA draw the line in terms of its political alliances?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Maybe homosexuality is one. May be that is the one. There may be other issues. We just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.
MWU!: How much money does ISNA receive from the Saudi government or Saudi citizens with close ties to the royal family?
Sayyid M. Syeed: None. Zero.
MWU!: Does ISNA receive money from the Saudi-based Muslim World League?
Sayyid M. Syeed: May be in the past when it was considered a legitimate and respectable institution. Now, many of [these types of organizations] have been reluctant to support ISNA. The Salafi influence in them is very powerful, and ISNA was seen as too moderate. We have evolved very slowly and gradually. Earlier, we were the Muslim Students Association of the US and Canada, and our members were students from everywhere. Some went back and were in good positions in their country, and they were helpful. But in the 90Ԓs unfortunately, this Salafi movement was getting stronger, so they established their own groups.
MWU!: As far as you know, is ISNA currently under investigation by the US government?
Sayyid M. Syeed: There was a hearing in the Senate, and recently, they have asked the IRS to collect information about us. We are happy that this will help us to show what kind of professionalism we have in the organization. This is exactly what we preach—transparency.
There has been a strange reaction among fringe extremist groups who think our growth is not in the interest of their vision for America. So there have been efforts to defame ISNA. When Chaplain Yee was arrestedthere was so much media about ISNA since we are the endorsers of military chaplains. But the allegation is baseless. We make sure that the chaplains have a grasp of spirituality and of other religionsחthey are spiritual guides for Muslims and for people of other religions.
MWU!: Although ISNA gets involved with groups like the NTPC, it has been unwilling to engage with many Progressive Muslim scholars. Why are people like Omid Safi, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Amina Wadud, and many others not allowed or invited to speak at ISNA conferences and not given prominent say in the organization?
Sayyid M. Syeed: That is not true. The Muslim community is so diverse, and we have attempted to relate Islam to the American setting. It has been a big struggle. We have Ingrid Mattson. She is a woman and has a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. Before our convention, we issue an appeal for suggestions and to send abstracts. We get so manyit is quite a nightmare.
MWU!: But certainly you donגt ask Siraj Wahhaj to submit an abstract before you invite him to speak, do you?
Sayyid M. Syeed: No.
MWU!: So can you make a commitment that you personally will reach out to progressive academics like the people I mentioned earlier to participate in the next convention?
Sayyid M. Syeed: You dont have to set conditions for us. Some people demand that we have Daniel Pipes there. You donҒt have to test our commitment.
MWU!: Are you willing to host a progressive Muslim conference that MWU! helps put together at the ISNA headquarters, just as you are hosting the upcoming NTPC meeting?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Ill have to see. It depends on several things such as availability on weekends and the kind of theme.
MWU!: Are you prepared to require that all ISNA member mosques allow women equal access to mosques?
Sayyid M. Syeed: Definitely. Allah has blessed me with this obligation, since I have three daughters. Ingrid Mattson on our board is a statement to all. We have to make that clear.
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reprinted in TAM with permission of MWU Editor