by Janan Zaitoun
On 22-23 March 2014, The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) held a two-day regional convention at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The event throughout the day included: main sessions, parallel workshops, youth sessions, a sisters-only workshop, and a bazaar. The theme of the convention was “Prophet Muhammad: Mercy to Mankind”.
The previous eight annual national ICNA conventions were all held in Hartford, CT. This year, the 39th annual convention will take place in Baltimore, Maryland on Memorial Day weekend in May, 2014. Muslims from various New England states approached the ICNA board members and asked that a regional convention be held nearer to them in March.
“Last year, we were 18,000 at the [national] convention,” said Naeem Baig, president of ICNA. “Today [at the regional convention], we will have 2,500 to 3000 [attendees]”.
ICNA was established in 1968. The organization initially focused on educating its members about Islam and creating a supportive Muslim community in America. Along with its headquarters in Jamaica, Queens, New York, ICNA has 30 physical offices around the U.S.
In 1978, ICNA—Sisters Wing was established—an organization providing an environment in which Muslim women in America work together on Islamic projects. The latter organization then created Muslim Children of North America (MCNA)—an organization for children ages 5-15.
Upon entering the convention center, one could see registration booths that had been set up in the lobby for the attendees. On another side of the lobby, Islamic music could be heard. Tables had been set up near the source of the lively music. A volunteer, Aiza Zia from Pakistan and a student at Simmons College, stood in front of the table that said “Helping Hands for Relief and Development (HHRD)”. She was handing out brochures for HHRD, a global humanitarian relief and development organization responding to human suffering in emergency and disaster situations around the world.
When the attendees entered the main hall, four signs directed them where to go. The first two said “Sisters”, while the other two said “Brothers”. A long blue curtain in the middle segregated the two genders.
“The best day is the day you learn something that will help you get closer to Allah,” said Imam Yusuf Estes, a Texan and former preacher of Christianity, before stepping onto the stage in the main hall to give his talk called: The Prophet – His Message for Our Time. He explained: “In this conference, I am looking for that.”
Upstairs there were five other parallel workshops. Each room had three speakers and one main topic.
“The prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—was even merciful to those who opposed him,” said Palestinian American Muhammad Baajor in room 24 during his talk about Prophet Muhammad’s manners and dealings. “After he had been stoned by the people of Ta’ef, he made the famous prayer [for them to accept Islam]”.
During the first hour in room 25, the talk was about Muhammad: Dignified by the Divine, while in room 26 the talk covered Muhammad as a Political Activist. After prayer at 1:15 pm, the two other parallel sessions began. In room 27, a sister-only workshop dealt with issues Muslim women face in America. While in rooms 11,12, and 13 a Qur’anic competition took place.
Nadia Al-Jam, a Syrian living in Massachusetts, attended the conference with her husband. Al-Jam was in favor of the short 15-20 minute talks and the Q & A segment at the end given in the workshops. However, she criticized the absence of the Q & A segment at the end of the lectures given in the main hall.
For families, a bazaar and inflatable slides for children were set up. There were close to one hundred tables, each displaying cultural products from Muslim countries. Some sold raw honey, ethnic jewelry, clothing and colorful headscarves. Vendors explained to passers-by why their product was more unique.
Faten Ramadan, who was born in Lebanon but has been living in the U.S. for 39 years, advertised her first-of-its-kind no-pin headscarf “Fetoun”.
“It took me a year and a half to create this,” said Ramadan. “I sewed 27 pieces in this headscarf to get the comfort and design I wanted.”
Unlike all the other tables that were selling headscarves, Ramadan invited women to step into a ventilated changing-room tent, complete with chairs and mirrors. She had them remove their headscarves and then took different measurements of their heads. By referring to a chart she has been developing over the past three years, she then chose the correct sized headscarf for each woman.
At the conference, diverse ethnicities were obvious and several spoken languages were heard.
Toward the end of the first night, while standing behind the podium in the main hall, Baig said: “During last year’s national convention, we conducted a survey. We found out that there were 80 different ethnicities attending, and 44 different languages spoken.”