Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why Park51 Needs Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan. And Irshad Manji and Parvez Sharma and El-Farouk Khaki

Like every Muslim in the world (with internet access) and a bit of extra time, I've been watching the daily drama surrounding Park51. In my case, I watch with more interest. Though I am not a spokesperson, Park51 is in my neighborhood and was an outgrowth from the overcrowded mosque I attend.

What is becoming increasingly obvious, apart from the fact that no one seems to really know the facts about the Park51 project, is that as a community, we are letting outsiders make decisions and pronouncements FOR us. We are reacting rather addressing our needs.

Whether you are for or against men and women worshipping together, for or against gay and lesbian rights, for or against playing and listening to music, for or against hijab; let's talk to each other.

I read an article somewhere about how to react when you see a parent being abusive to a child in a public place. If you start by chastising the parent, you've guaranteed the child an even worse time when you leave. The first step is to tell the parent you understand how difficult it is, that it's hard to be patient. Then you might tell the parent what a wonderful child they have, or something to help them to see the situation differently for a minute. Help them step away from a moment of frustration. The first step to change starts with building bridges, releasing tension. Even with someone you really disagree with.

As Muslims, we need to start listening to each other. We need to engage and explore, gently and respectfully, especially in the beginning; but definitely thoroughly.

Park51 was created based on love and inclusion. It is open to all people. Thus it is also the place to learn and start dialogue about Muslim identity. We are redefining our identities as American Muslims - and whether we agree or not - we need the points of view of all Muslims who are open to dialogue, from Hamza Yusuf and Reza Aslan,Irshad Manji, Parvez Sharma, El-Farouk Khaki and anyone else who wants to make peace with his or her faith.

But we also need all those thinkers (some brilliant) who have thrown up their arms and walked away. We need to take their questions and critiques seriously. While we may need to separate cultural and personal narratives from larger issues, we need to listen, not dismiss. We need Hirsi Ali, we need Wafa Sultan, We need Ibn Warraq and Salman Rushdie. Because for every writer who has walked away, there are hundreds of other people who have found themselves alienated in similar ways and deserve to be heard. We need Muslims who have never before found a place where they feel at home and accepted - no matter how they choose to practice.

We also need everyone else - Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahai, Agnostics, Atheists. As the Prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h.) is reported to have said, "There are as many paths to the divine as there are souls." We need a place where we can listen and discover our similarities and accept our differences. We may find crucial pieces that were missing in our own understanding of faith. The Dalai Lama has spoken beautifully and eloquently on Islam, so has Karen Armstrong and, of course, others.

We need to find a safe space to ask ourselves the hard questions - about female circumcision, about forced marriages, about poverty, literacy and violence, so much more - reach a real place for consensus on issues that harm people and lovingly agree to disagree in places where people can make choices.

Park51 has infused in its roots the interfaith work of Imam Feisal Rauf. But as an Muslim interfaith center, it cannot possibly allow itself to be circumscribed by any one man or woman. Even with people we admire, who seem beyond reproach - let's say, Gandhi or Mother Theresa - we often discover that they were humans after all, and as such subject to human foibles and caprices.

Park51 must be larger, more diverse and more committed to New York City and its values.

Park51's location is already forcing us to take so many sensitivities and viewpoints into account. We are in the unique position of having brought to the forefront so many different viewpoints on Muslims, on Islam, on our constitution and our freedoms, on our ways of worshipping and showing respect.

Ideally, we will become the crucible for Muslim thought in America and New York City's symbol of tolerance and harmony with all expressions of faith.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Satanic Verses... replay

Open on a scene of fist-pumping, screaming book-burners. Cut to a scene of screaming, sign-waving anti-Muslim protestors reciting the Lord's Prayer at a community board meeting or a pastor burning a Quran a day.

As someone who's been involved with the Park51 project from the beginning, I feel like I'm watching the same movie. (Deepak Chopra agrees in the Huff Post)

Some years ago, I interviewed Salman Rushdie for a magazine, just after the fatwah, before the hiding. When I read the onslaught of media about our project, it's down to the same thing Salman Rushdie told me, "No one's actually read the book."

Even my own mother said, "What?! It's not a mosque? It's not on ground zero? Why isn't anyone TELLING us this?"

Let me explain. I LIVE in lower Manhattan, about 12 blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Contrary to popular opinion, we are desperate for prayer space in the area. In our neighborhood, there is an increasingly large population of Muslims. Many of them work in the Financial district, but also on Canal street and in other local businesses.

Because the Muslim holy day is Friday, when most of them are at work in our area, our tiny storefront of a mosque spills over with people. They are lined up outside, crowding the sidewalk like an open call for a multicultural American Idol.

According to fire codes, our storefront mosque can only hold about 75 people. Thus, on Fridays, we had to schedule four or five prayer consecutive services in order to accommodate people. People who have to rush back to work have to pray on the sidewalk on pieces of cardboard. Mira Schor's My Whole Street is a Mosque explains how our whole neighborhood becomes instantly "hallowed ground."

Opposition suggests that there are other prayer areas in Manhattan, but they obviously have never tried to get from the lower Westside to the Upper eastside and back by lunch time. (You Muslims in the suburbs, especially the Canadian ones, clearly have NO idea.)

Some members of our congregation put together a plan to buy a nearby building to house the overflow. Obviously, Tribeca real estate is expensive and they bought an affordable but broken-down building that's sat empty for years, on a more or less deserted street. It was close, cheap and fulfilled our needs. It wasn't meant to be a symbol of anything.

In the fall of 2009, they started having regular Friday prayers and by the late fall, hundreds of people were coming. Because we LIVED in the neighborhood, it was a necessary service. It was one without symbolism – except when, from time to time during the Qutbah (sermon), we reflected on how lucky we were to be living in America. As for the charges against Imam Feisal, as someone who listened to his new-agey-self-searching qutbahs over the past 15 years, they were down to a word, spiritual and reassuringly apolitical. He never failed to remind us to be grateful for being American Muslims.

Now that the prayer room was operative, we all had a look at the space and realized it was much bigger than we needed - and, being Muslims, we all felt the right thing was to give something back to the neighborhood. Especially, a neighborhood that was made a wasteland by terrorists calling themselves Muslims.

We wanted to SHARE our space – our private property - with everyone.

We started brainstorming. One person dreamed of a gallery. Another, a playspace for kids. We envisioned cooking classes, performance spaces, classes for teenagers, a basketball court, a swimming pool (MY personal favorite), a wellness center. I wanted a Muslim prayer area that treated women equally, that was open to people of all sexual orientations, that was open to dialogue amongst Muslims of all beliefs, sects and practices - as well as other religions and atheists. We all wanted sustainable building materials and eco-friendly construction – maybe solar panels on the roof?

We got really excited about offering this gift to our community. We imagined the first-ever Muslim Y, with access for everyone. It would be something that we, as American Muslims, as New Yorkers, could really be proud of showing to our grandchildren.

Thus we made our first mistake. We introduced the idea at the community board meeting. All of a sudden, what we saw as a gift, an effort to enrich and heal, was taken (by some) as an assault on the people who had suffered on September 11.

Experience is not a qualifier in itself, but on September 11, 2001, I put my 6 and 4 year olds on the school bus. Then I watched the planes hit and wondered if I would ever see my daughters again. I sat on the steps on my building and comforted a sobbing neighbor whose husband was at Cantor on the top floor of the towers.

As the first tower collapsed, I ran through the crashing, the dust and crowds of screaming people, pushing my 1 1/2 year-old in a stroller. I went on a 13-hour trek with her and a friend to search for my older kids who had been evacuated from the U.N. school and then to bring them back home and give them something to eat.

I started out exhausted that day because the night before I'd come back from a week of looking after my ex-husband who had just suffered a brain hemorrhage. He was in the hospital in Stony Brook, Long Island.

Eventually, I escaped upstate for a few days. As we drove back into New York City, still in a panic, I called my youngest daughter's godmother, a Jewish friend who had lived with us for a while. She thought I shouldn’t come into the city until after Rosh Hashannah, just in case people found a reason for reprisals against Muslims.

We picked her up on our way back into the city and she rode back down with us in case we needed help. We were lucky the police let us through the barricades because we had a car full of groceries and air purifiers, hard hats, water bottles and gas masks to deliver to the workers down at ground zero. The hardware stores in the city were sold out and everything downtown was a ghost town.

I spent the next two months crying. I sobbed every time I ran into a friend or a neighbor who survived, who was alive and well, and we hugged each other in the street. I cried at funerals for friends and neighbors I lost. I cried as I walked my kids through the acrid air up to Soho to the school bus. I cried every time I put them on the bus and was seized by a panic that they might not come back. I cried every time I caught a glimpse of the news. Though like so many of us downtown, I stopped reading newspapers or watching tv. I’d already watched people jumping out of buildings in real life, I’d felt the incredible rush of wind and scrape of dust as the buildings collapsed. I lived near the burning wreckage for months.

But even while our tears were still wet, we felt the beginnings of the backlash. One evening, crossing Canal street at the police checkpoint, I was dressed in a sari for an Indian art event. A group of sandy-haired young men strode towards me and jeered, “We’re going to bomb you m--f---s right back to the stone age!” and spit on my sari, as the police just stood silently and watched. I was scared but I understood. America is physically isolated. They can't tell an Indian from an Afghan.

Then I was in the Tribeca Grand working on an ad campaign for unity when my super-trendy Sikh friend, Waris Singh Aluwalia, was pushed up against the sofa by some tipsy preppy guys standing at the bar. Not long afterwards, he was punched, too. All right, they can't tell a Sikh from an Afghan either.

Still, slowly but surely, life went back to normal. The burning cooled. The air cleared. The restaurants and shops hobbled open. People who were traumatized moved away. New people moved in (mostly financial industry types). There were babies and strollers and a Wholefoods. The playground got bigger. The school was packed.

And, as everyone knows, the best antidote to suffering and trauma, is the joy of life and moving forwards. For those of us who lived around the World Trade Center site, it became a nuisance as its construction continually halted traffic, blocked roads and made our cell phones go out. We still shopped at Century 21, had coffee in the park, walked over the windy pedestrian bridge to get to the movie theater on the other side.

The only people who still called it Ground Zero were tourists who came to look and buy postcards or baseball hats or snowglobes of the burning buildings. Or to take pictures of each other in front of the fence.

All of a sudden, the argument isn’t about reviving a deserted street in our neighborhood. It isn’t about all the jobs and services we will bring to the place where we live. It’s about a symbol.

The same symbol you can buy on t-shirts and postcards and posters.

Maybe the analogy's not the Satanic Verses, maybe it’s abortion rights. We all love children. Who doesn’t want to kiss rosy-cheeked babies?

But some of us feel the day-to-day life of the mother and her unborn child might be so difficult, that we have to agree to the pain of abortion. Some of us feel that human life – as a symbol – is so dear, that there is never any justification for taking it. Is it the prosaic or the poetic?

Is this a place where New Yorkers live? Or is it a symbol for all of America?

And if it’s a symbol – where does the No-Muslim-Zone end? No-Muslims three blocks’ away? No-Muslims four or five? Can they pray on cardboard on the sidewalk or is that an affront as well? What about Muslims living and working in the area? Should they be denied services because their religion was hijacked? Where does our presence stop causing offense? (A taxi driver will tell you, all the way up to 23rd Street, at least).

Should I and my Muslim neighbors leave lower Manhattan in deference to the hurt feelings of all Americans?

I can’t deny the anguish and suffering of people who lost loved ones on September 11. I remember that panic, that sense of being violated by the event itself. I live the trauma myself.

But isn’t the answer to the hole that pain creates, the pleasure of life and love? Isn’t the most effective way to heal through forgiveness and faith? That's what they tried to do with the Catholic Center for Prayer and Understanding near Auschwitz.

We want Park51 to be a sanctuary, a refuge, a place to restore yourself, body and soul – no matter what your age, religion, sect, race, gender, sexual orientation.

And the money for the project? We're working on it. But we want to make sure that every donation is above board. We are vetting every penny. None of us wants ties to people who might use their money to buy influence and destroy our dream.

So let me explain again. It is not a mosque. It is a nonsectarian community center and prayer space. There will be an interfaith meditation room and memorial to the people we lost in 9/11. It is not at ground zero. It is two very long dark blocks away.

It is a place where children of all faiths will play in the pool together. A place where teenagers of all faiths will perfect their basketball techniques. A place where everyone might learn how to cook and eat delicious foods from around the world. This where we can have a library with a reading room, a place for high-risk adults to learn to read or learn how to apply for jobs, for the elderly to have a meal and meet their friends.

Park51 is our gift to ALL New Yorkers. Especially those of us who live downtown and need every service it offers.

Let's not burn books. Let's take a deep breath and read them for the message of understanding they might bring.