ICCNC: The concert at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) that featured music from the seven Muslim-majority countries attracted quite a bit of attention. The concert took place on March 25 in protest against Donald Trump’s executive order. Musicians from the seven Muslim-majority countries played 14 pieces of music for the public in a well-received performance. The audience was a mix of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, along with members of the City of Oakland’s administration who were pleasantly surprised by the songs and the performances. As luck would have it, there has been an increase in the number of requests from other organizations in America to put on the concert, including at St. Cyprian’s Church in San Francisco where this concert with again takes place on June 24th. We sat down with Payman Amiri, President of the ICCNC’s Board of Directors, to talk about the effects of the concert and what made it special.
Payman Amiri is one of the founders of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California ( ICCNC). He has lived in the Bay Area since 1977 and received his B.S. and M.S. in Biochemistry from SF State University and Ph.D. in Experimental Pathology (Molecular Medicine) from UCSF.
He has been working in the Biotech/Pharmaceutical industry since 1990, with at least 15 years of mid-level to executive management experience.
Payman has served the Muslim community of the Bay Area at various levels for the past 38 years and was a member of the Board of Trustees and Directors of ICCNC from 1995-2000.
Payman’s desire as a member of BOD is to conduct ICCNC’s duties and activities, emphasizing and practicing dedication, devotion, patience, tolerance, inclusivity, compassion, and forgiveness.
How did this concert come about?
Thanks are owed to the area’s progressive Iranian Muslims that have provided financial support to the ICCNC for the past 22 years so that, in times like the present when Muslims are confronted with difficult situations, this funding can achieve results and bear fruit and has the capacity, as a social force, to be able to bring Christians and Muslims and people of other faiths together to put forth a message of humanitarianism. In my opinion, this long-term financial support has yielded results in the past, but this year it has been to an even greater extent with what has happened in the wake of Trump’s executive order. The Center has shown the capabilities at its disposal to defend Muslims and their identity.
During the electoral season and especially with the election of Mr. Trump to the presidency and his first executive orders, religious and social organizations as well as Jews and Christians started getting in contact with us to participate in Friday Prayers as a way of showing their support for us.
As you are aware, most of the programming that takes place at ICCNC is either in Farsi or is intended for the Muslim public. Events in which others participate occur less frequently. Then Nabila Mango (musical director of the Aswat Ensemble), who had worked with us before, suggested a concert and we saw it as a great opportunity to bring together all the people and organizations that contacted us and showed their support for us for the purpose of putting on a concert.
This support for the Muslim community grew even stronger after Mr. Trump issued the two travel bans.
The reason that we chose to put on a concert is because music is the universal language and people of all backgrounds and languages can find a connection with it.
Another reason is that Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland got in contact with us. After Trump’s executive orders were issued, she contacted us and wanted to use her attendance at one of our events to send a message of support to Muslims living in the area. This was a great chance for us to invite a high-ranking official from the City of Oakland to both visits the Center and attend the concert.
Had you also given some thought to what kind of music to showcase?
One of the characteristics of the program as far as the music is that the music itself has a certain appeal to people who have an attachment to it. I believe that we can feel God’s presence and spirituality hidden in both the lyrics and the melodies. This music shows that it is to be played for all people, not just Muslims or Jews or Christians. Anyone with even a little bit of faith or even no faith at all still feels a spiritual connection in a part of their heart and can still become connected to the music and find spiritual pleasure in it.
One interesting thing that happened was that the Mayor had only planned to come for a half hour. Her coordinating secretary called me and said that Ms. Schaaf will come to the Center for a brief visit and a five or ten-minute speech and will watch a part of the performance. But when she arrived at her first visit to the Center she was struck by the building, which is one of Oakland’s historic monuments. She then delivered a brief speech and took a seat. I expected her to listen to one or two songs and then leave, but she stuck around, and when the program began with an Islamic prayer beautifully performed by one of the female musicians and a singer (a Muslim graduate student at the Juilliard School of Music) she was so impressed that not only did she remain for the duration of the concert but she also stayed after it ended to speak and take photos with other members of the audience.
Did you ask her why she stayed for so long?
When I thanked her for coming to the Center and attending the concert, she said, “I should be thanking you because this music helped me feel a sense of calm and I really needed to see something like this.” I think that the kind of music that was performed incorporates spirituality and listeners feel the presence of God in it, as these lines from Rumi attest:
The tune of singing and naghoor and tambour
Something remained of the naghoor
We all make up the world
And we have listened to these tones in heaven
And it was this same special quality that was able to reveal its spiritual side to the audience. I should also explain that we arranged to have the lyrics to all the pieces translated into English and projected onto a large display and so that the English translation of the original lyrics that were being sung were able to be followed by the audience, including the Mayor. This did a lot to help the audience understand the pieces that were being performed.
What kind of effect did the concert have?
In my opinion, this concert had three main results. The first was that after the Trump administration issued the executive orders and took anti-Islam positions, some Muslims in America were abjectly wondering why the American people have this opinion and feel this way about Muslims. The Mayor’s attendance throughout the concert and taking pictures with the public and especially with Muslims as well as the wonderful speech she gave, and Reverend Michael Yoshi’s defense of Muslims and calling them citizens just like anyone else and rebuking Muslim fear mongering in his speech, made the Muslims in attendance feel a sense of pride in Islam. It’s a valuable point to make that this was the effect and the outcome of the concert.
The second positive and important point worth mentioning was the attendance of a large number of Jews and Christians who were defending Islam as one of the Abrahamic faiths. Seeing this concert showed them Muslims are highly capable and can put some of their customs and rituals and art on display to be shared with others who can enthusiastically take part in them. Supporting Muslims isn’t only about help and commiseration, it’s about supporting them as citizens who are important and effective members of society in various intellectual and scientific and artistic fields. This point has been proven quite true of Iranians due to their broad presence in the sciences and in academia, especially in California. We have interfaith programming whose positive effects have been pointed out by our friends of other faiths. From this perspective, if our supporters from other faiths attended this event it wasn’t only to show their support for us, it was because they greatly enjoyed the spiritual feeling created by the music.
The third point I’d like to make is that an important local radio station recorded the show and it’s possible that it will be broadcast by the time this interview is published. The attention garnered by the concert shows not only that Muslims put on a great show but that it was of such high quality that a well-known radio station recorded it as a cultural and artistic event to be broadcast to all of their listeners. This means that we Muslims, like other people and parts of society, can talk about our influence and our achievements and show others.
These are a few of the social and individual benefits of this concert that I thought of and thought to share with you. In addition, I’d like to point out the speed with which the team put the event together and organized the bands and their rehearsals. They were able to overcome the amount of work involved and prepare this event in less than a month.
How did the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California help?
The Center used all the means at its disposal to put on the best concert possible. In addition to providing rehearsal space for the bands, the Center made available its 600 capacity hall for the performance and by means of our relatively extensive email list, we began sending out invitations. After only a few days it was announced that every single seat had been reserved. We invited the Mayor and a few other special guests and we made an effort to announce the event widely in the media across the whole Bay Area. Our accomplishments show that we achieved our primary goals. After the concert, we even received requests from other organizations in the area to put on the same concert in other locales.
How did your meeting with the Mayor come about?
The Mayor invited the directors of each Islamic organization to meet with her so she could listen to them. We responded to the invitation, though opposed by some of our friends and fellow Muslims who wanted to request support from the Mayor for themselves and their organizations. We told the Mayor that we, as representatives of one of the Muslim groups, don’t want any support. Farsi-language Muslims specifically want to help the City of Oakland reach its goals. We have met with success and that the reality is that the majority of Farsi-language Muslims are highly educated people who can help the Mayor with the work that the City has before it.
We aren’t asking for anything; our only request is that you attend our events every so often and say that you are also the Mayor of the Muslims who live here.
Was the Mayor aware that the ICCNC distributed over 1200 sleeping bags to the area’s homeless?
Actually, one reason that the Mayor became interested in the Center and invited us to meet with her was our program in which we distributed sleeping bags to the homeless. She became curious and wondered who this group was working to help the City. There was an article about it on our website and some large networks also covered it. The Mayor had read about it because afterward, we found out that the article had made a big impression on the council member that invited us and that both the council member and the Mayor had read it. In addition, the Mayor’s scheduling coordinator had attended another interfaith event that we were involved in. In that program, we partnered with the FoodBank to deliver baskets of food to needy people. We’ve been involved in this program for the past few years.
By: Abolhassan Mokhtabad