Having never been involved with the Islamic Society of North America before joining as the Secretary General in 2014, I am interested in the history of the organization I head and the direction it is heading in. Here is what I have learned.
On April 22, 1964 the late Dr. Ahmad Sakr, then secretary of the year-old Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada (MSA) wrote a letter to the members of MSA, about 200 in number. He reminded them that Eid al Adha was around the corner and wrote: “If you do not have an Islamic center in your city, pray in the basement of someone’s home. If there are not enough Muslims in your area, go to a nearby town to pray.” That was then. Now, thousands of Muslims pray on the Eid at perhaps a thousand places in this vast land. How did we get from then to now?
A small group of student visionaries who founded the ‘mother MSA’ in 1963 crisscrossed North America, seeking out and mobilizing Muslim students on university campuses until they had established campus chapters in most of the major colleges in the United States and Canada. Through frequent visits, publications, and numerous regional conferences, and the annual convention, the MSA prospered. So did the graduating students, who settled into jobs and began to raise families.
By mid-seventies MSA had fostered the founding of professional societies of scholars and practitioners in medicine, in social sciences and in science an engineering, established Islamic Teaching Center to train imams and distribute Islamic literature, and organized North American Trust (NAIT) to hold in trust local mosque properties and manage MSA’s funds and services such as the Islamic Book Service, the leading sources of Islamic publications at that time.
As local Muslim communities grew in numbers and strength, time had come in the late seventies to restructure the Muslim presence in North America. After much deliberation, consultation and planning, community leaders decided that MSA should evolve in two directions – a new organization that will act as an umbrella and eventually as a national association with its focus on off-campus community development, and a student organization that will focus on the important work needed on American college campuses. In 1983, twenty years after the founders first met to lay the foundations of their historic undertaking, a duly elected Majlis ash Shura of Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) met to initiate the new phase and face of Islamic activism in North America. After a few organizational hiccups, the MSA (now better known as MSA National) has become an effective organization on college campuses across the land.
From the start, ISNA’s leadership recognized the new challenges that confronted them: education for the children of a growing community, training for the leadership of emerging mosques and other community institutions, fostering relationships with other faith-based and civic segments of the society at large. At the same time, ISNA would need to weave together a network of local community organizations into an effective representative group that would play its legitimate role in American society.
Bringing together Muslims across the land to educate, motivate and inspire them became ISNA’s highest priority. The annual convention continued to grow as the Muslim event of the year in North America, bringing together tens of thousands of Muslims from around the continent with literally hundreds of prominent scholars and activists.
But the convention was and remains more than a mere gathering; it is the culmination of ISNA’s efforts and accomplishments during the year past, and represents the depth and breadth of ISNA’s role and responsibilities in developing a vibrant Muslim presence across the continent. Regional conferences enable ISNA to bring its message and its services closer to local issues and concerns, further strengthening Muslim identity and presence.
ISNA’s volunteer elected leaders and its full-time professional staff team up to accomplish a busy agenda.
Meaningful relationships with other faith communities, with governments at all levels and with civic society are the hallmark of ISNA’s outreach and engagement with fellow citizens. ISNA’s Washington, D.C. office actively fosters strong relationships with U.S. congressional staff and federal government officials, serves as an outreach resource to the American Muslim community and helps ISNA promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims to the nation’s political and faith leaders. ISNA partners with numerous faith-based and policy groups, such as the inter-faith Shoulder to Shoulder project, to establish a platform to advocate for social justice for all. Such efforts allow ISNA to promote a better understanding of Islam’s place in the multi-faith public sphere.
ISNA’s award-winning premier bi-monthly Muslim magazine Islamic Horizons links the Muslim community through reporting and writing on issues of concern and interest, and offers American society at large a window into who Muslims are and what they stand for. A weekly e-newsletter and periodical news articles, press releases and news briefs augment this effort.
Education at all levels has been among ISNA’s highest priorities. ISNA supports children’s education by bringing together teachers, administrators and board members at highly successful annual educations forums in Chicago and in California. Its affiliate, the Council of Islamic Schools in North America, helps Islamic schools attain accreditation and professional excellence. Similarly, the annual masjid forum offers learning and coordinating opportunities to masjid leadership.
The Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), a long-standing program of ISNA, helps young Muslims improve their Islamic knowledge, deepen their Islamic commitment and develop their leadership potential through hands-on governance and operation of MYNA. This program of youth development is supplemented with several regional youth camps as well as parenting workshops for families to help them nurture the next generation of confident young Muslims, and build harmony within the home.
Through the generosity of donors, ISNA offers scholarships in certain critical fields of study for young American Muslims, helping develop the community’s future scholars and professionals.
Now at the cusp of its 54th year, the Islamic society of North is a venerable organization that has well deserved its reputation as the largest and most effective representative of Muslims in this land. With its leadership consistently elected through open elections, ISNA prides itself on the stability, transparency, and inclusiveness it has enjoyed since its seeds were sown in the womb of the ‘mother MSA’.
As for my personal involvement and inspiration, I am involved in this line of work because I am concerned about my kids, my wife and the larger community. I want all Muslims to love Allah, practice Islam and have a sense of community. I don’t see that happening everywhere and that’s a problem. If my generation does not step up and address these problems then who will? Working with ISNA is a way that I have found to address these issues.
Hazem Bata, Secretary General of ISNA, is a lawyer and activist. He holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from West Virginia University School of Law and a Master of Laws (LL.M) from Washington University in Saint Louis. He practiced law in Florida and was a partner in Bata & Associates, P.A. working in real estate development and business law. Prior to joining ISNA, he served as Operations Manager for Bank of America where he managed the Mortgage Resolution Team (MRT).