Arab American News
October 6, 1995 | Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It was undoubtedly the largest rally in American Muslim history,” says Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya about the recent Bosnia march in New York. Al-Adawiya is director of Women in Islam, one of many local organizations involved in the Sept. 16 effort. Outraged by continued Western inaction over ongoing atrocities in Bosnia, these Americans came together at New York’s Dag Hammersjkold Plaza outside the UN to condemn the world body “for its hypocrisy and betrayal of Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere in the world.”
Nationwide, the event was put together by Bosnia Task Force USA. It drew up to 18,000 demonstrators from across the USA and from Canada, twice the number who gathered at a similar rally in Washington two years ago.
Specifically, the rally called on the UN to lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims. Placards and marchers’ shouts were reinforced by Muslims notables who addressed the large afternoon crowd. There were lads and their schoolfriends from Long Island’s Islamic Center, busloads from Detroit and Chicago, and several planes chartered from Dallas, Texas. They included Bosnians, Anglo and African Americans, Asian and Arab immigrants.
“If the UN reads their charter they will have to recognize that what is happening is genocide,” said President of Islamic Circle of North America and rally coordinator, Abdul Malik Mujahid. “I don’t call it a war; the UN does but they are wrong. Why does the UN not recognize this as genocide?” Mujahid noted how the UN hid information about concentration camps and he adds, “They still didn’t hear the Bosnians.”
With several U.S. Congressional leaders and Senators supporting a lifting of the arms embargo, Mujahid and others are urging the UN and NATO to listen to the U.S. Congress. “All UN efforts of 3 years failed to stop the genocide,” he repeated.
The rally happened within days of NATO strikes on Serb positions and announcements by Washington that a peace treaty may be at hand, so the demonstrators seemed to be at odds with the U.S. resolve to check Serb advances. But this did not thwart participants’ calls for the lifting of the embargo. As Mujahid insisted, “There has been a genocide and on that basis the embargo must be lifted. Another bill to arm Bosnians will be before Congress soon,” he noted.
A large Dallas contingent joined the New York march and one of them was activist Victoria Watkinson. With her husband she publishes the Bosnian Ljiljan newsletter which is sent across the country to keep people and media informed about Bosnia.
“The proposed UN solution of a 49:51 split is simply unjust,” she said. “It gives war criminals 49% of the land.” On the question of arms embargo she and others argued that “if Bosnian Muslims can defend themselves there would be no need for America to become involved. Bosnians have manpower and the will to defend themselves and win,” she said. Her impression is that the US public is uniformed about the embargo.
She also felt that until recently, media coverage was weak. “Had more information come out sooner about the rapes, executions, and torture, people would have been more aware,” she said; “The situation would have not reached its present point. Media bias is less a matter of incorrect information and more a question of priority. Too often,” Watkinson said, “the critical news is not given the front page attention it warrants.”
Among the major African American Muslims who addressed the crowd was former civil rights leader, H. Rapp Brown, who is now Imam Jamil al-Amin and heads an Atlanta ulamma. He offered the large attentive crowd encouragement in terms of Muslim historical precedent quoting the letter that the Prophet wrote to Hiraculus, the Byzantine leader.
In contrast to al-Amin’s words, Imam al-Amin Abdul Latif, head of the Majlis Sura of New York, used contemporary language. “Do we know why we are here?” he called to the crowd. Speaking in a style more familiar to us from Black Christian preachers, Abdul Latif assured listeners, “Because you came here today, you don’t have to be ashamed; you are doing what you can according to your ability to show solidarity with Muslims and with our Bosnian brothers and sisters. Inshallah, one day we will be strong enough that we don’t have to come here to demonstrate, sing, and march; there will come a day we will be as we were years ago, and we are going to follow the commandments of Allah and his Messenger! One day!
“It is no shame to be weak, but shame to stay weak,” he continued. “As long as we recognize our condition now and make a commitment to change it and get better, Allah will bless us. So every Muslim can pray and ask Allah, and make Dua.” Abdul Latif invoked the Islamic ideal that Muslims must “protect ourselves, our lives and property; Allah demands it,” he continued. “A person that dies defending property and blood Allah promises to go to jannah (heaven).”
The rally was not widely reported in mainstream U.S. papers or TV. Some marchers were disappointed not to see more TV media follow their 5th Avenue route. But Program Moderator Imam Siraj Wahaj, who is one of New York’s most widely sought Muslim speakers, said: “We are used to this. We have a long history of media not talking about what we are doing. What this will do is push Muslims to create our own media to speak for us; instead of changing it around, we will do it ourselves. They are actually doing us a favor, to make us aware of this.”
This has already begun, as reported by ICNA’s New York director, Sheik Obeid. He noted that their satellite feed of the rally was picked up in Singapore, Azerbaijan, Turkmanistan, South Africa and other nations across the globe.
Many non-Muslim Americans would doubtless support the day’s platform. But they were barely present. With Adzan before the march got underway and Muslim invocations throughout, the march was unequivocally a Muslim event. Abdul Malik Mujahid agreed: “Muslims feel we have been isolated; if victims are Muslims, it seems it’s all right.” He and others present like Aisha. Al-Adawiya saw this Muslim initiative as positive: “I’m gratified at turnout,” she said. “It is a wonderful expression of Muslim unity, coming to the defense of our own, a beginning.
“A communal pain is being manifest and shared here. So,” she said, “I see today as an opportunity to talk to many Muslims and to mobilize for the next activity that needs to follow this demonstration.”
Suad, a seventeen year old student from Brooklyn, is as angry as others about Serb aggression and feels it is connected to anti-Muslim bias. “What Serb are doing is against Muslims and the reluctance of NATO, the U.N., the U.S. and other nations to act is partially because they see Islam as a threat and they want to stop that threat.” “It’s about time,” she continued, “that our voices were heard and people understand what we are trying to say; we’re going to let people know that Muslims should not be dying and we are going to stop it. The UN was supposed to insure that killings ended but they failed… If we let them know that what is being done is bad, maybe they will move. If they don’t move, we will.” The young African American continued, “Basically the rally means that Muslims as a community have something to say and have gotten together to say it; we have to let people know we are not separated; if we fight, we fight together and if we want to do something together we can. We show that Muslims are not apathetic and not violent; we are here in America and will demand that we be treated as any world citizen.”