TAMPA - Muslims from throughout the Southeast gathered here Saturday to discuss, among other topics, challenges and opportunities faced by young Americans of Islamic faith. The conference, the second such meeting in the past two years, was sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America and took place at the Sheraton Tampa East Hotel in eastern Hillsborough County. A segment of the proceedings focused on self-perceptions of Muslim children and teens. "This program was important to strengthen their identity and make them proud of who they are," said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida.
Muslim-American young people in the United States have been bullied and otherwise assaulted for practicing their religion or simply for identifying themselves as Muslim, said Shibly, who moderated the session, "Muslim in the Mirror: Your Identity in the Community." Shibly said he has spoken with many Muslim adolescents and teenagers about the difficulty of hearing hurtful words and dealing with violent attacks. The aim of Saturday's workshop was to help young Muslims understand their identity and find a place in society. "We are trying to break the false narrative expressed by anti-Muslim extremists," Shibly said after the session. He and guest speakers Moutasem Atiya of Baltimore and Jenan Kurdi of Tampa offered the more than 30 participants - children, teens, parents and other adults - suggested ways to build character, strengthen self-esteem and be proud Muslims. Atiya described himself as "a comic book geek" when he was a child. He said his appreciation of superheroes Batman and Superman helped him grow in his Muslim faith. "If I didn't have Batman and Superman in my life, I would not have recognized the messenger of God," said Atiya, a father of three. He said the fictional superheroes "live" by three principles he admires: morality, sacrifice and making the right choices. "Clark Kent had morals; he had a defining line of morality," Atiya said. "You have to live it (life) with morality." Kurdi, a 2002 University of South Florida graduate with a bachelor's degree in biology education and mathematics, stressed the importance of being accountable as Muslims and learning to live by God's laws. She spoke about the gifts God left for his people: sincerity or purity of intentions, maturity of belief, seeking his help in all cases, and accepting his destiny in all matters. "Each one of us are responsible," Kurdi said. "You just have to get up and do it. ... You have to take that first step for yourself." The conference brought together Muslims from Southeastern states, with many of them Tampa Bay area residents. The Islamic Society of North America's national convention will be in September in Washington D.C., said the organization's executive director, Ahmed M. Elhattab. The annual convention has alternated between Washington and Chicago. Other cities - Elhattab mentioned Orlando and Detroit - have shown interest in hosting the event. Shibly said he hopes the success of the Tampa conference in the past two years will enhance the area's chance of holding the national convention here. [email protected] (813) 259-7413