By Ras H. Siddiqui
United Muslims of America (www.umanet.org) popularly known as UMA held its 33rd Annual Event at Chandni Restaurant in San Francisco Bay Area City of Newark, California on Sunday, April 20th under the theme of “Join the Movement for Political Awakening of American Muslims” an idea which the organization has been emphasizing since its 1982 inception. UMA’s objective include harmony, justice and peace for all Americans regardless of race, color or religion and we observed this fact as people of various races and religions were in attendance at this meeting of minds. This gathering featured a formidable panel discussion and keynotes by US Congressman Eric Swalwell and State Senator Ellen Corbett, plus amongst others, speeches by Candidate Cheryl Sudduth running for US Congress from California’s 11th District, Dr. Farooq Hasan a Fulbright Scholar at ACMU Georgetown and last but not least UMA President Syed Rifat Mahmood.
The afternoon started off with a fine Chandni Restaurant lunch. The formalities began with Sabahat Ashraf calling on UMA Interfaith Alliance President Iftekhar Hai who proceeded with the customary recitation from the Holy Quran. Syed Rifat Mahmood next came on stage with his words of welcome as event host and current leader of the UMA organization, a responsibility that has been given to him once again after almost 20 years. Mahmood next invited Dr. Ejaz Naqvi who introduced the Interfaith Panel.
The four panelists included Dr. Naqvi, MD Author of “The Quran: With or Against the Bible” plus Dr. Hamid Rezapour-President and Founder of the Islamic Scholarship Fund, the Reverend Will McGarvey- Executive Director Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County and Rabbi Michael Lerner-Chair of The Network of Spiritual Progressives and Editor of Tkkun Magazine. The topic of discussion for the panel was “Islamophobia” and each member shared their pragmatic, imaginative and often witty views on the subject.
The panelists had a great deal to add on the troubling subject. “Silence is not an option,” said Dr. Naqvi and added that there is a great deal of misinformation out there that sparks the rise of Islamophobia. Rabbi Lerner looked at Islamophobia from the perspective of a Jew who has experienced discrimination. He likened the Muslim community experience to other groups that have been oppressed in this country and suggested that we need to get involved and think strategically. Rev. McGarvey added that this country has not always been great at welcoming immigrants and that there is some racism tied to this. Mentioned was the television show, “Little Mosque on the Prairie” which plays a positive role in opposing stereotyping. Dr. Rezapour said that the Muslim community needs to advocate on behalf of all communities not just themselves. He also took the opportunity to praise the recent movie Jinn which contributes to interfaith understanding in its storyline.
Congressman Eric Swalwell had a busy schedule for the day and was scheduled to visit a Masjid soon after his speech here so he kept his delivery relatively short. In his keynote touched on parts of the world where the US relationship with Islamic countries appears to be showing some promise. The three trouble spots for US foreign policy which he highlighted were the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and Afghanistan. He had recently had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank. He also visited Afghanistan and the UAE. He said that there has been steady progress in three areas as opposed to ten years ago. First, ten years ago in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre we were coming out of the intifada but today there is more hope for peace even though it is not going to be easy. He said that the lack of violence in that area recently has been very encouraging. Secondly, he said that after over 30 years the leadership of the US and Iran were talking to each other and that it remained very important that Iran not attain nuclear weapons. And last but not least the recent (relatively) trouble free elections in Afghanistan and a peaceful transfer of power there today is certainly a big improvement from ten years ago and a first in Afghanistan’s history.
State Senator Ellen Corbett brought us back to local politics, and why Muslims need to be active within it. She said that the Muslims have been contributors to the success of this region and thanked bay area members of the faith for their community involvement. She said that everyone in America can participate in its dream and that everyone has the right to freely worship here. She added that If you see that something is not right you need to do something about it and for that, participation in the change process is essential.
US Congressional candidate Cheryl Sudduth who is one of two Muslim women (Anila Ali is running for State Assembly) running for office in California had some interesting observations to share. We will return to her at the conclusion of this report. Dr. Farooq Hasan also spoke.
UMA President Syed Rifat Mahmood in his speech focused on three areas that need our attention which UMA will be pursuing:
1) Preparing a Database of Muslim voters
2) To educate young Muslims on the American political system and train them to run for political office and
3) To develop a team of businessmen, scholars and activists to interact and consult with Washington power centers regarding both domestic and international affairs.
To conclude let us return to Sister Cheryl Sudduth and her observations. “Why are we so afraid to step out?” she asked. “Why do we get discriminated against?” The reason that she gave caught this writer’s attention. “If you are not seated at the table, you are either on the menu or someone (else) is ordering for you,” she said. And that is an observation that just about every community can learn from!