ROSEMONT, Ill. – The largest annual gathering of American Muslims opened Friday amid a debate over how best to make their voices heard in the presidential election and build relations with other faiths.
More than 30,000 people were expected to attend the meeting, which is organized by the Islamic Society of North America (search), an umbrella association representing Muslim groups and mosques nationwide.
The conference is the third for the Islamic Society since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and organizers planned to address many of the problems that have plagued the community since the suicide hijackings.
Presentations will be made on defending Islam against prejudice, creating ties with leaders of other faiths and preserving Muslims' civil rights during the domestic war on terrorism.
However, a heavy emphasis will be made on encouraging Muslims to vote Nov. 2. Voter registration booths will be set up and American Muslims who have been elected to public office will discuss their campaigns.
As recently as the 2000 election, some Muslim immigrants debated whether their religion even allowed them to participate in democratic elections. American Muslim leaders say those questions are no longer being raised, and they are working for high voter turnout in their communities.
"We are this nation," said Kareem Irfan, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (search).
Muslims have sizable populations in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Florida and hope this will help them gain visibility in the tight presidential race.
Already, they have been pleased with their representation at the Republican and Democratic conventions, according to Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society (search). Muslims gave invocations or benedictions at both events.
In 2000, major Muslim organizations made their first collective endorsement of a presidential candidate, backing George W. Bush. However, many Muslim leaders said they came to regret that decision after Sept. 11.
They said the broad new powers the federal government gained through the USA Patriot Act have made all Muslims suspects. The Bush administration has defended the law as critical for national security.
On interfaith relations, Syeed said his organization has made gains, working with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches, which represents mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches.
Syeed noted that many mosques have been so successful in reaching out to those of other faiths that non-Muslims sometimes outnumber Muslims at Friday prayers.
"We are proud that in this society, in spite of the fact there were tremendous provocations ... the dominant spirit has been the spirit of understanding," he said.