PLAINFIELD, Ind. -- As one of the nation's largest U.S. Muslim groups begins its annual meeting in the Chicago area, its leader is working to contain forces both inside and outside the community that would steer it away from the American mainstream.
Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said efforts to help Muslims gain broader acceptance will be a focus at the four-day gathering, which started yesterday and was expected to draw about 40,000 Muslims from across the country.
Worldwide, Muslims have been under renewed pressure to distance themselves from extremists after a summer of deadly terrorist attacks in Britain and Egypt and insurgent assaults on civilians and coalition troops in Iraq. The Islamic Society, based in Plainfield, has joined other Muslims in repeatedly denouncing terrorism, yet suspicion of the community persists.
Syeed compared the plight of American Muslims to that of other immigrant religious groups, including Jews and Roman Catholics, who faced discrimination when they arrived in the United States.
"On day one, they were not accepted as equals, but they had to struggle and they had to redefine themselves, and ultimately they were able to redefine the society itself so that it became a further label to say that America is Judeo-Christian," Syeed said. "It was a great achievement."
Syeed, a native of Kashmir who is a U.S. citizen, asked President Bush to show his support for the community by attending the convention. Syeed said it would send "a powerful message to the Muslim world and the world at large that America's fight is not against Islam."
The Bush administration will be represented by presidential adviser Karen Hughes, recently confirmed as Bush's chief ambassador to the Muslim world.
Gaining recognition as mainstream has been a constant struggle for the Islamic Society, an umbrella organization of largely immigrant groups and mosques in the United States and Canada.
The organization came under suspicion after the Oklahoma City bombing until Timothy McVeigh's arrest. It voluntarily left a coalition of religious groups opposed to gay marriage last year after conservatives raised allegations that the society was linked to Muslim extremists. Syeed denied the claim. The Senate Finance Committee, in an investigation of terrorist financing, sought the tax records of the society and other Muslim nonprofit groups. Syeed said his group had nothing to hide.
His group tried to underscore its opposition to radical interpretations of Islam by helping organize American Muslim scholars to issue a religious edict, or fatwa, condemning terrorism in July. The convention will continue that conversation, by discussing the fatwa and asking attendees to sign a pledge against extremism.
"We have never been in this fatwa business," Syeed said. "It dispels some misunderstanding. We should do whatever it takes."
The Islamic Society also is working to root out puritanical religious practices within the community. It is working with mosques to make sure that their imams, or prayer leaders, are fully acclimated to the American Muslim community and that women are given leadership positions. Scholar Ingrid Mattson of Hartford Seminary is a vice president.
"We expect that they must have lived here quite some years and fully orient themselves to what is expected of them here," Syeed said. "So an imam coming from Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, naturally would be out of place here."
ISNA also led development of an 18-page booklet designed to make mosques more female-friendly. A 2000 study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that about two-thirds of mosques segregated women behind a partition or in another room during community prayers.
The initiative has met "some pockets of resistance," Syeed acknowledged, because the millions of Muslims in America come from many different countries, including some where women have fewer rights than men.
"Some of them have changed their position and understanding of these issues. Some have not," said Syeed, but he contended that the Prophet Muhammad encouraged full participation of women in religious life.
Progressive American Muslims want greater reform and have pressured the Islamic Society to support even greater roles for women and make other changes as they reinterpret Islam for modern conditions.
But Syeed said progressives will have more influence if they tread delicately.
"We don't want to redefine Islam as an American Islam and thereby lose the credibility and remove the authenticity and orthodoxy," he said.
Syeed said the Bush administration can help keep American Muslims in the mainstream by repealing parts of the USA Patriot Act, which gives the government broad new powers to fight terrorism. Many Muslims say it unfairly targets their community.
The Bush administration has defended the law as critical to national security, but Syeed contends it could breed extremism, like that found in the Muslim underclass in Britain.
"We have to guard against that mentality. We should not allow such a mentality to grow and find a fertile ground," Syeed said. "The Muslims ultimately are going to be an authentic part of the American mainstream, but we have to be careful that we don't trample over certain sensibilities that unnecessarily alienate them."