HRC Ejected From Largest Muslim Convention In North America

"We hope that in reviewing their actions, the ISNA leadership will acknowledge their mistake," said HRC in a statement.

Two weeks ago, more than 15,000 attendees gathered in Chicago for the the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention. The largest Islamic umbrella organization in the United States, ISNA represents more than more than 2,500 mosques and community centers nationwide—speakers at the event included Sayyid Syeed, Zaid Shakir, and Linda Sarsour. There was also film screenings, a fashion show, and even a basketball tournament.

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But the mood was not all light: A representative for Muslims for Progressive Values reports he was ejected from the conference, along with a rep from HRC.

According to Frank Parmir of MPV-Columbus, he staffed a booth at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, along with HRC’s religion and faith program manager, Michael Toumayan.

MPV defines itself as a human rights group that “embodies and advocates for the traditional Qur’anic values of social justice and equality for all for the 21st century.” It has called on Muslim leaders to embrace the role of women and LGBT people in the faith.

On June 30, the first day of the convention, a man dressed in garb identified with the ultra-orthodox Salafi movement came by and allegedly stared lecturing Parmir and Toumayan on homosexuality. “To be a real Muslim, one must assert that homosexuality is a sin,” he reportedly told them.

Not long after, a group of men came over and indicated the booth’s presence was “upsetting” to other attendees. Among the group, Parmir says, was Basharat Saleem, ISNA Conventions, Conferences, and Special Projects Director.

“He wasn’t sure that they could allow us to stay because of some of the literature and some of the positions we were advocating,” Parmir told the American Specator. “They would have to think about it and get back to us.”

According to a statement by MPV, Basharat then asked that the HRC/MPV booth be shut down, given “that the convention was a religious, private, and family-oriented event.” Parmir and Toumayan were allegedly told “we don’t fit in,” and that MPV was required to send in our materials for review—a requirement Parmir says does not exist in the agreement he signed.

“It finally became clear that HRC was not the problem,” he said. “They were okay with HRC’s advocacy for gay rights. They were not okay with MPV’s advocacy that gays should find unrepentant inclusion with the Muslim community and that women should be given equality.”

MPV maintains it was told by ISNA spokesperson Farhan Syed that “ISNA took issue with MPV’s mission as antithetical to their beliefs, as well as HRC’s resources.” That included brochures addressing human rights violations out against women in Muslim-majority countries, as well as HRC’s “Coming Home to Islam and to Self” and “Coming Out as a Straight Supporter” booklets.

“We’re really sick and tired of the hypocrisy of [ISNA] claiming to be LGBT allies,” MPV founder Ani Zonneveld told the Spectator. “They’re only an ally when the camera is on.”

Several days later, MPV accused ISNA of hypocrisy.

ISNA’s mission states that it strives to be “an exemplary and unifying Islamic organization in North America that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large.” Precisely because of this vision, ISNA granting HRC a booth at the convention was seen by MPV as a step forward and an attempt to live up to its mission.

…In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando by a self-hating gay Muslim man indoctrinated with homophobic teachings, many ISNA member mosques claimed to be “supportive of LGBTQ rights.” This incident not only puts the spotlight on ISNA and its member mosques’ true policy toward LGBTQ Muslims but also their discriminatory and intolerant version of Islam as a whole.”

HRC confirmed the incident to NewNowNext, stating it was “disappointed” by the situation, but didn’t believe it was indicative of ISNA as a whole.

We were extremely disappointed by the decision made by some in ISNA leadership, particularly after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from attendees at the conference. We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community, including LGBTQ Muslims, in demanding equality, safety, and dignity for people of all faiths, sexual orientations, and gender identities.

In our experience working with a broad coalition of Muslim leaders and organizations, that action was not representative of the community’s work with LGBTQ people. We hope that in reviewing their actions, the ISNA leadership will acknowledge their mistake and hold firm to their commitment to inclusion, diversity, and solidarity.

In his opening remarks at the convention, ISNA president Azhar Azeez said one of the society’s chief goals is to unite people from across different faiths and backgrounds in the spirit of peace and understanding.

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“Our hope is to continue shaping a new narrative around what it means to be a mainstream Muslim.”

MPV is calling on ISNA to “acknowledge the absolute rights of women and LGBTQ Muslims and of the diversity of Muslims” and to adopt the group’s #ImamsforShe and #NoToHomophobia campaigns.

ISNA has not responded to requests for an interview.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery