August 29, 2014 at 8:42 am

Detroit welcomes national Muslim convention

Workers at Cobo Center prepare for the Islamic Society of North America's 51st annual convention. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

This weekend, Idrees Copeland said he is excited about extending his ties to Islam.

At a time when extremist acts abroad are sparking tensions nationwide and negative perceptions persist, “it’s important for Muslims to come together and put forth a positive image and show … we are peaceful,” Copeland said.

The U-Haul plant worker, 35, of Detroitis one of up to 20,000 expected to attend the Islamic Society of North America’s 51st annual convention, which kicks off Friday at Cobo Center.

“If we could get this type of image, I believe that it will play a big role in giving an accurate image of what Muslims are and what we stand for.”

In Detroit for the first time, the convention features sessions on topics such as using culture to transmit the religion’s values between generations. Led by what is touted as the largest and oldest Islamic umbrella organization in North America, the gathering’s theme — “GenerationsRise: Elevating Muslim American Culture” — dovetails with the group’s mission to improve perceptions of Muslims and their faith.

As part of the convention, Copeland plans to help prep a vacant home on the city’s west side for restoration — a collaborative project aimed at rejuvenating the neighborhood which also happens to fulfill another pillar of his faith: charity or community service.

But heavy on the minds of many will be heightened tensions abroad.

Saeed Khan, a professor of Near East studies at Wayne State University who is presenting lectures at the convention, said while the issues involving Muslims worldwide will be “unavoidable,” they are only part of what issues they want to tackle.

“These issues are only part of the issues affecting the daily lives of Muslims,” he said, adding that “Islamophobia,” maintaining the Muslim culture among young people and the upcoming general elections across the country are some of the topics that will be discussed at the convention. “The American political and culture landscape are part of the continuum (in the lives of Muslims in America),” said Khan.

Imam Steve Elturk of the Islamic Organization of North America mosque in Warren said what is happening in the Middle East “affects all of us here,” but that the convention will focus on what is happening in Muslim communities in the United States.

The convention’s focus on education, outreach, as well as bridging divides is “a great way for us to show the depth of the American Muslim community” and change attitudes, said Dr. Muzammil Ahmed, chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, which oversaw the planning.

“I think there’s really an imperative among the community to break that perception through our actions to show that not only can we be trusted, we bring good things to the community,” he said.

Elturk said the conference is also an opportunity to show how Muslims in Metro Detroit live peacefully despite sectarian differences. “Despite the sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, we are able to maintain unity here,” he said.

Coordinators insist that while safety concerns remain, the measures for this convention are not vastly different from previous ones, which has been hosted in cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

A contracted security team and volunteers are monitoring all aspects of the event as well as working with local authorities, said Zafar Razzacki, co-chair of marketing, arts and culture experiences with ISNA’s steering committee. “We really are paying very close attention to this matter.”

Organizers have spent more than two years preparing for the latest convention, he said. Detroit was selected as the current site for several reasons, including its amenities and rich history with the region’s large concentration of Muslims, Razzacki said. “Detroit has come through some difficult times. This is a time for rebirth and rediscovery of what the city is about. … Muslims play a role in that.”

To that end, some convention participants are headed straight to the streets.

On Saturday, a group is expected to prepare a home for upgrades and tend an urban garden on the west side as part of a community service project. They’re working with Dream of Detroit, a Muslim-led initiative that aims to boost marginalized neighborhoods, and ProjectHug, an urban gardening initiative of the HUDA clinic, in an area anchored by a mosque and community center.

The next day, visitors to the bazaar of more than 500 booths at Cobo can opt to help assemble humanitarian kits full of donated items the Dearborn-based nonprofit Zaman International distributes locally and internationally, said Sumreen Ahmad, who chaired the ISNA convention planning steering committee’s community services group.

Those efforts highlight the importance of service — which “is fundamental to the faith itself and humanity in general,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”

The assembly officially opens Friday afternoon with a welcome address from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; State Rep. Rashida Tlaib; and others.

On Saturday, former United States President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter is the keynote speaker for the community service recognition luncheon and heads “a call to action” on religious communities mobilizing against discrimination and violence directed toward girls and women worldwide, organizers said.

The convention also features a slew of activities, including a health fair; blood drive; film festival; plus educational sessions on everything from interfaith work to strengthening mosques and living halal, according to the schedule.

Another highlight: Sunday’s 5K walk/run along the Detroit riverfront.

The estimated 500 participants in the event — coordinated largely by Muslim women — aim to promote healthy living, break down barriers and “show the positive attributes of Islam,” said Dr. Jabeen Hamzavi, an internist from Northville involved with the planning. “What you see sometimes in the mainstream is the negativity and the hatred … but that’s not what moderate Islam is.”

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