Not a mosque, and not at Ground Zero

I was working on a Muslim community center for downtown Manhattan. How did it become so distorted?

Published September 23, 2017 6:30PM (EDT)

Demonstration opposing the proposed Islamic community center near ground zero (AP/David Goldman)
Demonstration opposing the proposed Islamic community center near ground zero (AP/David Goldman)

Excerpted with permission from "Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman's Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim" by Sabeeha Rehman. Copyright 2017, Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

New York, 2010

Am I safe in here? Do they know I’m a Muslim? Can they tell by the look on my face that I’m one of them? Don’t look them in the eye.

I lowered my gaze and walked into the crowd, making my way through the meeting hall, up the aisle, through the rows of people waving posters saying, “No Mosque at Ground Zero.” I found my way to the back, out of sight of the protestors, and took a seat.

I am surrounded by hate.

Threading My Prayer Rug

I had been volunteering in the office of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. When one day the imam had described his vision of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan, I couldn’t fathom that I was in the moment of “history in the unmaking.”

A space for faith, fun and fitness, R&R, and interfaith gatherings! A place of our own—to meet and greet, to learn and share, to feast and celebrate, to swim and gym, with room for all faiths. Cool!

I was there when the Finance Committee of the Community Board reviewed the project. Sitting along the wall, I had watched Imam Feisal present the concept of the equivalent of a YMCA and 92nd Street Y. I was elated when the committee, giving their approval, asked, “How soon can you start?” I had noticed members of the press scribbling notes. I had stepped out onto Chambers Street, the majestic Municipal Building towering beyond; the evening was still bright, the spring air brushing my cheek, as I made my way to the number 6 subway train.

“There is bound to be an outcry,” said my husband, who had attended the meeting with me. The stop sign stopped me and I glanced up at him.

“Why would anyone object? Look at how supportive the committee was.” My husband and I had yearned for a community center for our children; it didn’t happen while they were growing up, but it was going to happen now.

I had gone home on a high; and the next morning my hopes were dashed. Having arrived early at the office, I picked up the phone on the first ring.

“This is WABC. We would like to interview the imam about his plans to build a mosque at Ground Zero.”

A what? At where? Where did that phrase come from? It’s not a mosque we are building, and it’s not at Ground Zero.

The phone rang again. “This is WCBS . . .”

I called the imam on his cell phone. “Are you on your way to the office? The major media networks are lined up to interview you. Just so you know, they are calling your proposed Islamic cultural center downtown ‘the mosque at Ground Zero.’”

That day, as I put on the hat of media scheduler, reporters of leading networks bumped into each other as they entered and exited. Watching them interview Imam Feisal, I knew that my husband had been right. A Sufi imam, dignified in demeanor, gentle in his expression, building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, and honored and acclaimed for his interfaith work, was now the focus of outrage—accused of insulting the memory of 9/11 victims and the most tragic violence against our country.

Why didn’t I see it coming? I was so close on the inside. I just answered my question.

It’s not a mosque, it is a community center, the imam explained to the interviewers over and over again.

It is not at Ground Zero, the imam said once more, and explained, once again, that this was to be a space open to all New Yorkers, a platform for multi-faith dialogue, a center guided by the universal values of all religions, a place of healing.

The real battle is between extremists and moderates on both sides

I took note of Imam Feisal’s mantra, “The battle is not between Islam and the West; the real battle is between the extremists and moderates on both sides.”

It didn’t matter. The phrase “mosque at Ground Zero” was too inflammatory to let go. It had too much potential to be put to rest as a mere community center. The opportunity was irresistible.

How did a unanimous approval last night turn into a poisonous inflammatory label this morning?

Months earlier, when the imam and Daisy Khan had run this by the civic, faith, and community leaders, the 9/11 families and 9/11 Memorial team, the mayor, and political leaders, no one had objected. After the imam had announced the project at an interfaith iftar in a church, the New York Times had run a front-page story on the project in December 2009. There had been no outcry then.

Why now?

It was the power of words: Mosque at Ground Zero.

Calls were made to community leaders and 9/11 families, trying to ease their anxiety.

Once they understand what this center stands for, any misgivings they may have should subside.

I am surrounded by hate

Of course, that didn’t happen. When I walked into the Community Board hearing, the place was packed with people holding placards with anti-Islam slogans that do not deserve mention. Taking my seat, I looked down across the room, spotting my husband and son in the speaker lineup. As the speakers took the mic, the room shuddered and shook with the sounds of hatred.

If they just listen—9/11 is not about Muslims vs. Ground Zero. Muslims also perished in 9/11. We are not trespassers—Ground Zero is sacred to us too; it is our tragedy too. If they just listen.

Testimonies against the project were amplified by cries of “Terrorists,” “Down with Sharia,” “Don’t insult the memory of 9/11”; testimonies supporting the project were drowned out by booing and hissing. I forgot to breathe. It seemed that the walls holding the roof would give way.

Don’t they see that we are not those people? Are we destined to carry the burden of their actions? This is not the America I know. Does America have two sides?

On the cold, hard bench, I felt warm tears on my cheek when a 9/11 family pleaded for tolerance; I said a prayer when clergymen from all faiths urged interfaith harmony; and I felt a surge of gratitude when politicians appealed for a place and a space for Muslims. I trembled when I heard voices calling, “We don’t want you here.” Islamophobia had reared its head, and I was witnessing humanity at its best, and at its worst.

Are they going to yell at me?

I cried when my son Asim spoke to the audience of his shock at seeing the smoke gushing out of the tower as he looked out from the window of his office building, of his flight up the streets, with the wall of soot chasing him, of his reaction when he turned to look back and could no longer see the tower, of the shouts of “Go back to where you came from” when he and the faithful walked out of the mosque on a Friday two days later. I recalled how hard I had prayed for his safety when I couldn’t reach him by phone, how terrified I was.

Put yourself in their shoes. How would I feel if the Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor took the shape of a Shinto shrine? It’s not the same, but that is how it has been spun. They have been misfed, misled, and now it’s too late to un-spin it.

Enraged by a speaker supporting the project, they stood up and, waving posters, started to shout the speaker down.

Should I duck?

The chairwoman issued a warning: those out of order will be escorted out. I saw the guards take their place behind the table where the board members were seated.


The community board voted; the project was approved. I watched the protestors leave. It wasn’t defeat I saw on their faces; it was determination.

What is going to happen now?

I walked down into the pit, where my husband and son were standing with the imam. I can’t say, “Congratulations, project was approved.” What is there to celebrate?

I was spent. We all had the “What now?” look on our faces.

I fought a surge of bitter taste. Too often we are asked, “Why aren’t the moderate Muslims speaking out?” The community center was to be a forum where American Muslims would stand side-by-side with men and women of peace, promoting religious tolerance. The extremists had drowned out the voices of the moderates.

Leaving the scene

Hate mail and hate calls paralyzed the office. Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal needed me, and I abandoned them. My father, who was suffering from leukemia, had taken a turn for the worse. I walked off the set and took the first flight out to Pakistan. Planning to stay for two weeks, I ended up staying for three months.

I was in Pakistan, nursing my dying father, when the uproar around the community center project, now dubbed Park51, reached hysterical heights. Swept away in doctor visits, arranging for blood donors, transporting blood bags for transfusion, monitoring medications, hospitalizations, visitors, I was barely in touch with the news. Then my mother took a fall, fractured her hipbone, and was immobilized. Park51 fell off my screen.

My brother in Pakistan brought me back to this world. “Have you heard the news about what’s happening in New York? Some Muslims have decided to build a mosque at Ground Zero. Why would they do something like that?”

Even Pakistanis have fallen for the rhetoric.

Picture the look on his face when I told him that his sister was one of those “some Muslims.”

Friends from my college days came to visit. Park51 must have hit an even higher high, because they brought it up. “Unnecessary provocation,” one of them said. There I go again, explaining the intent of the project.

My uncle advised me, “It would be wise if you built it someplace else.”

Death threats

After burying my father, I returned home to New York. The storm of Park51 had blown over, and I walked into the office to face the debris: ashes, soot, mud, and smoldering black smoke. The place was a fortress, buttressed by security. I walked into a new world trying to reconcile hate mail with warm and tender letters of support; trying to fathom how far one should go in standing by principle without taking the world down at the same time; how hard does one push in paving the way without causing a stampede; how does one amplify the voices of moderation without having those voices drowned out by the thunder of the extremists; and how do we carve a space for ourselves without stepping on the sentiments of our shared pain? Imam Feisal was not around—he had been advised to take the death threats seriously.

“You knew when to leave, and you knew when to come back,” Imam Feisal said to me when he returned. I chuckled.

Go where?

Were we naïve to have believed that there would be no outrage over a Muslim center four blocks from Ground Zero? What now? Should we back off, avoid the fallout, and move the center some place less controversial? Should we? A friend came to offer her condolences on my father’s passing. Commenting on Park51, she said, “If you agree to move the project to another location, you will be setting a precedent: “Push, and we shall move.” And move where?

“Ten blocks North?

“No, that’s not far enough. Go to the upper tip of Manhattan.

“Not Manhattan. Go to the outer boroughs.

“Not New York City. Go Upstate.

“Not in my state.

“Perhaps not in the US?”

Dream, but don’t get real.

The Fallout

The circuit breaker tripped right after the November elections. The crisis was over. Just like that. But it’s not over. We got burnt, and Muslim communities across the nation felt the heat. Park51 never got built as originally envisioned. A planned mosque in Staten Island never rose. Approvals for a mosque in Tennessee came under fire. Mosques were vandalized, hate crimes increased, there was a Qur’an burning by a pastor in Florida. . . .

And whereas the dream of a Muslim community center was not realized in bricks and mortar, we did build a community without walls, gathering in spaces offered to us by churches, synagogues, and community centers, and offering faith-based and interfaith -programs of learning, arts, culture, music, with room for people of all faiths and leanings. Come in . . . and welcome to America.

America, the nation that went through a soul-searching moment when anti-Muslim placards clashed with the red, white, and blue voices of compassion and tolerance, and when President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood up for what this nation stands for. We saw moderates of all faiths being galvanized to push back the forces of Islamophobia. Our comrades became our ambassadors, and we made friends.

I made my peace with the Islamophobes, acknowledging that we had not done enough to amplify the voices of moderation. Their vitriolic voices made me realize how much more work we had to do, and how much further we had to go to dispel the misconceptions about Muslims and to make ourselves known.

Will history report how so many were disenfranchised because of the acts of a few? Or will America change its course and make space for its Muslim citizens, so we can claim that we truly did overcome? Time and time again, our nation has exhibited resiliency in springing back, in pushing through the dark clouds and allowing sunshine to prevail, in letting the best in us outshine the worst. America, the nation I choose to make my home, will part the sea. In my home, I will feel at home.

And to think that when I first came to the United States as a Pakistani bride, I had no intention of making America my home. I had arrived with the belief that America was no place to raise a child Muslim. I had plans for my yet-to-be born children. I was coming for two years, and when my husband completed his medical residency, we were going back to Pakistan. That was forty-four years ago.

By Sabeeha Rehman

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