Southtown Star: Islamic gathering strikes a nerve in the Southland

Reacting to a controversial Islamic group’s meeting in their back yard, protesters clad in red, white and blue decried Sunday’s meeting by the group Hizb-ut Tahrir at Oak Lawn’s Hilton hotel.

Organizers and speakers at the daylong conference spoke of capitalism’s evils and called on Muslims to return to the Caliphate, a strict rule of Islamic law in which one leader is elected to preside over all the world’s Muslims.

Oak Lawn police reported a calm day outside the conference, save for a few people being peacefully escorted from the conference inside. Attendees made up a crowd of 500 during the conference, and at their peak outside, there were 50 to 75 protesters.

After the conference drew to a close, message boards, newspaper Web sites lit up in reaction.

“Shocking!” wrote one online commenter at “They use the freedom of speech to speak against freedom and equality!”

“These are terrorists,” said another.

This attention has frustrated some who say the group’s extreme agenda has not made life easier for more mainstream Muslims who call this Chicago region home.

The group has roots 50 years ago in Jerusalem, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relation’s Chicago chapter.

“They’re not secretive; they’re not underground. To me that should be a cause for comfort rather than fear,” Rehab said. “They’re coming from a very ideological, very stringent perspective that I don’t think represents logic or the views of the majority of Muslims.”

A very sensitive subject

Yet the Muslim community at large, he said, is very aware of how conferences such that of Hizb-ut Tahrir play out in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

“It’s falling on sensitive eyes and ears,” Rehab said. “Because of Sept. 11 and (Osama) bin Laden and their animosity, people process that philosophy from that lens.”

But still, Hizb-ut Tahrir has been labeled by foreign affairs essayist Zeyno Baran as a “conveyor belt for terrorists.”

Mainstream Muslim organizations call its American organization a fringe group; it’s decried as anti-Semitic by local Jewish groups.

Junaid Afeef, the executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said his group supported the free speech protesters took advantage of Sunday.

But he criticized what he has become accustomed to – a “negative broad brush stroke” some paint with when talking about the Muslim community.

“These are all things I want the right to do if there’s an issue that I think merits it,” he said of the protest. “Those who felt inclined to be very Islamophobic in their reaction didn’t find it necessary to distinguish between a particular group — and the Muslim community that exists in the greater metropolitan Chicago area. I’m continually disappointed in the lack of openness and the lack of insight and the bigotry that still exists in our community towards Muslims.”

Outraged protesters vowed to boycott Hilton hotels because the Oak Lawn Hilton hosted the Sunday event. Calls to the hotel for comment were not returned Monday.

Not worth focusing on

The group doesn’t align with what Islam requires of Muslims in their every day lives – addressing social justice problems by creating solutions, Afeef said. Its notion of a dominant world Muslim leader is “very far-fetched,” he said.

“They don’t have a real methodology for creating social justice in the world,” Afeef said. “When they can’t even articulate meaningful explanation of how they intend to do that, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to spend our time focusing on them and that’s why we don’t. We just leave it at that.”

The loud response this conference stirred up just makes the purpose of groups like Rehab’sand Afeef’s more focused, they said.

“Our daily work is our best response to these philosophies,” Rehab said. “Our work is about political and social enfranchisement of Muslims – knowing their rights and their obligations under our Constitution that we all share regardless of background and faith.”

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