Islamic Conferences – Politics or Faith?

As far as Islamic conferences go these days – whether ISNA, ICNA, Journey of Faith (JoF), and even RIS – the Global Peace and Unity (GPU) gathering in London (Oct. 23-24), was a success; assuming of course that success can be measured on the basis of a head count. Evidence that Muslims from across the UK and Europe flocked to the GPU in substantial numbers is a clear indication that they deemed irrelevant Prime Minister David Cameron’s opinion that the conference organizer, Islam Channel, facilitates violent extremism in the UK. Reduced to a footnote, unfortunately, is the fact that citizens of that country could afford the luxury of ignoring their PM’s opinion. Had the government of any predominant Muslim country censured a religious conference it would be inconceivable for it to ever take place. Modern day Islamic conferences follow one of two convention models: the evangelical or the political. Anyone who accessed GPU via live streaming video like I did would have witnessed something akin to a political rally decked out with religious paraphernalia, a wide variety of Muslim televangelists and an MC that was too darn perfect for the task.

Moazzem Begg

Regardless of who was speaking or what the message was, the MC egged on the crowd as they shouted pro-Palestinian slogans, waved flags, neon light swords and what appeared to be large gloves with something written on it. If a speaker was slow making his way to the stage, the MC filled the down time with annoying announcements, countless ‘takbirs’ accompanied by loud shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’, all meant to keep the restless and often times unruly crowd engaged. It was a bizarre spectacle.

One speaker succinctly identified “solutions” to the malaise afflicting the Ummah. Muslim women, he warned, need to observe the hijab and music should be banned from Islamic circles. Zain Bikha’s performance was appropriately timed to follow his act. The audience soaked up both presentations with glee and applause.

Another speaker suggested that because a person could walk safely on the streets of Damascus at 2 am, while the same cannot be said of the cities of Europe and North America, is proof that Islamic law provides a better option to western decadence. The audience missed the absurdity of the comparison and obliviously cheered on.

Yet another speaker reeled off five scientific arguments to prove the divinity of the Quran. The Prophet of Islam could not have known this and since science can’t be wrong, he reasoned, the Quran must be the Word of God. The mob cheered inappropriately. Jeering would have been the right thing to do.

The tone changed dramatically when Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri and Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad were introduced. Anyone vaguely familiar with either scholar is well aware that they have courageously denounced the idiocy that passes for religious doctrine in the thin circles of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Dr. Tahir’s fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing is a no ‘ifs’-and-‘buts’ condemnation of religious heresy in our age. Since GPU and Islam Channel are not his ‘cuppa tea’ what then was he doing at their event?

Surprisingly, Dr. Tahir asked the audience for 30 minutes of their time signaling that his presentation was not going to be a four-hour epic performance. Alone at the podium, no disciples fussing over his seating arrangements, he stormed out of the gates from the get go. His message was eloquently articulate and as usual, extremely loud, leaving no doubt where the majority of Sunni Muslims stand on the issue of Jihad, violence, extremism, radicalism, suicide bombing and terrorism. There was none of the usual qualifiers particularly blaming Western foreign policy for bad tafsir and sharh. Vengeance, hate, and extremism, he pointed out, are the diseases of our age and the sooner Muslims expunge these malignant cancers from their souls, the quicker the healing.

At the risk of sounding redundant let me say I have an allergic reaction to conferences whether Muslim in character or not. I don’t believe they will or have ever accomplished anything. That’s not to say the vendors at GPU’s bazaar who paid £900 for the privilege of selling a few trinkets and some colorful hijabs didn’t recover their cost and then some. The food vendors too may have turned a handsome profit leaving behind a heap of garbage and some messy restrooms for low paying unionized workers to clean up.

Muslim conferences are the biggest public innovation (bid’a) of our age and I am amazed that the Salafis are so dazzled by them. Conferences call people to a venue that is not a mosque to listen to speakers who become the center of gravity for a few days. In the last 30 years of conferences in North America we’ve managed to produce a class of scholars who hop from one conference to another spouting the same old cliché-riddled incoherent speeches. Don’t get me wrong! There are some gems in this group.

I am not ashamed to say that my personal favorite going back to the early 1990’s has been and still is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. That’s because he stands apart for never repeating a lecture twice except for those early years when he was determined to lead a ‘smash your television revolution’ armed with Jerry Mander and Robert Bly. That was a long time ago. To this day he remains original and engaging because he respects people who he believes deserve a hearty lecture in return for the money they paid to get in.

Today, organizers of Muslim conferences are looking to spice things up by forging a lineup of celebrity speakers and performers on the lofty ideal of ‘Unity’ when all they’re doing is pandering to an already divided community. Deobandis, Berelwis, Salafis, Wahabis, Sufis, and the Shia may momentarily shed their allegiances to attend a conference but that can hardly be considered ‘Unity.’ As for the vast majority of young people, there is no distinction between Shaykh Hamza and Yasir Al-Qadi or Dr. Umar Faruq ‘Abd-Allah and Yusuf Estes or between Imam Zaid Shakir and Khalid Yasin or between Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri and Dr. Zakir Naik. The distinction is blatant: some speakers have knowledge while others know a few things. Conferences are a costly experiment aimed at dumbing down knowledge for the masses. The consequence is that every idiot armed with a hadith can come off as if he knows something.

In a few months thousands of Canadian and American Muslims will trade in their virgin eggnogs to attend the RIS conference where they will get 8-10 lectures in Arabic, a language spoken by a small fraction of those in attendance. There will be no speeches in Urdu, a language understood by the vast majority of those in attendance. The theme of the conference is not the role of mosques or the sacred message of the Quran, the two themes that have been making headlines all year on account of Faisal Abdur Rauf’s controversial Park 51 project and Rev. Terry Jones Quran burning aspirations.  Rather, the theme will be the Ten Commandments and something about developing a roadmap.

But people will come, as they did at the GPU, to cheer and applaud and take some time to scour the landscape for a future spouse. I pray they find what they come looking for.