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Muslim convention ponders interactions with American culture

Much of the conversation at the Muslim Public Affairs Council's annual conference was about the need for a more nuanced discourse within the Muslim community.

December 19, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

Sitting before an audience of hundreds of Muslims at the annual conference of the Muslim Public Affairs Council on Saturday, Edina Lekovic raised her microphone and began asking pointed questions about where American Muslims have stumbled in reaching out to the broader American culture.

"Where have we gone wrong?" she asked. "What could we have done better?"

There was a brief silence from the six panelists in the ballroom at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, so Lekovic, the council's director of policy and programming, prompted her panel: "Who wants to start?"

"Nobody," said panelist Maher Hathout, a retired cardiologist who is a senior advisor to the council.

But finally panelists, who included imams, a comedian, a professor and a journalist, launched into a wide-ranging conversation about the need for more open discussion within the Muslim community and with outsiders about topics such as women's roles, sexuality and the role of clergy.

"It's easier to build mosques than to build minds in the mosque," said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

Hathout added that he would like Muslims to consider how accepting they are of American culture and values.

The one-day conference, put on by the council — a political advocacy organization based in Los Angeles and Washington — was billed as a candid discussion about the United States and the global Muslim community.

More than 1,000 people attended, and much of the conversation was about the need for a more nuanced discourse within the Muslim community.

Lekovic said the event was an attempt to do that, with a format designed to spark discussion among panelists on the stage, people in the audience and viewers across the world who could tune in online and via C-SPAN.

"We wanted to treat it like a town hall," Lekovic said. There were two panels, one on "the state of our union" and the second "dealing with the state of the umma," or global Muslim community.

This was the 10th annual event. Over the years, it has evolved from a one-directional setup, with speakers talking to an audience, to a more open format.

It has also expanded to include more varied speakers. Two years ago the keynote speaker was Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, who had just been tapped to give the invocation at President Obama's inauguration. That year's conference also featured singer Melissa Etheridge.

This year, speakers included Angela Oh, executive director of the Western Justice Center Foundation, a Pasadena group that promotes peaceful resolution of conflicts, and Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. of NorthWood Church near Dallas.

Azhar Usman, a popular Muslim comedian and actor, said he attended because he wanted to hear discussion about the perplexing issues facing the community. He said he was disappointed there weren't more sectors of his community represented onstage.

"I think we need to have more vibrant and divergent points of view if these conferences are to realize their full potential," he said.

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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