By John Keilman and Jonathan Bullington, Chicago Tribune reporters
In what has become a near-annual ritual in the Chicago suburbs, a conference promoted by a fringe Islamic organization has drawn suspicion, complaints and ultimately a cancellation.
Hizb ut-Tahrir America, a group that advocates for countries to be ruled by Islamic law, had planned to hold its Khilafah Conference 2012 on Sunday at The Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows. But some conservatives, including former Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, stirred protest over the meeting, saying the group was promoting an anti-American agenda.
“This isn’t an issue about religious practice,” Bachmann said during a news conference Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Rosemont. “This is subversive speech. … We do not tolerate subversive speech that calls for the overthrow of the United States government.”
Some websites publicized The Meadows Club’s contact information, and owner Madan Kulkarni said his business was besieged by thousands of calls and emails. Ultimately, he said, the group agreed to hold its meeting elsewhere.
“They said, ‘If it’s causing that much of an inconvenience, we’ll think of other means,'” Kulkarni said.
Representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir America could not be reached for comment, but other Chicago-area Muslim groups described it as a nonviolent but philosophically extreme organization far beyond conventional Islamic thought.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said Hizb ut-Tahrir’s goal is to establish a multinational Islamic state. In past interviews with the Tribune, a Hizb ut-Tahrir America spokesman has said its focus is on majority-Muslim countries, but Sahloul said the group’s goals are not so clear.
What is clear, he said, is that the organization thrives on controversy.
“They love (it), because that will attract attention and more people to them,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re very marginalized within the Muslim communities.”
Leena Saleh of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Chicago branch said she regarded the group’s discussions as more of an intellectual exercise than a serious plan of action.
“I think they know that their views and philosophies are not embraced by the mainstream,” she said.
In 2009, a Muslim school in Bridgeview backed out of hosting the group’s conference, and dozens of protesters showed up when it switched the location to an Oak Lawn hotel. The next year, the Oak Brook Marriott canceled a meeting the organization had booked.
Hizb ut-Tahrir America managed to hold its conference at a different Oak Brook hotel last year, and police Chief James Kruger said there were no protests and no problems. In April, the group reserved the ballroom of The Meadows Club for its 2012 meeting.
Kulkarni said his banquet center had hosted many Islamic events with no troubles and thought Hizb ut-Tahrir America’s would be no different. But about two weeks ago, he said, the club started getting a deluge of calls and emails — some polite, some aggressive — from people across the United States and even Canada who said they were concerned about the group.
He said Rolling Meadows police told him the event would need security, and he decided that likely would be too expensive. (Police Chief David Scanlan could not be reached for comment.) Kulkarni talked it over with the conference organizers and they agreed to seek a different venue, retrieving their deposit Monday.
“I admire that organization, (because) they understood,” he said. “They could have been hostile toward us, but they were not. To a certain extent, if you look at their behavior, it shows that whatever their ideology, they were here to follow the law and they were concerned about their fellow people.”
The group’s website said it had found a new venue for the conference but would not announce it until closer to Sunday.