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Muslims' Ground Zero home

A decade ago, Daisy Khan found herself at the centre of the storm that broke in New York with the tragedy of September 11. Along with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, she is among the leading spokespeople for the American Muslim community. Over the last ten years this dynamic couple has worked tirelessly to heal the wounds inflicted that terrible day.

In this interview recorded in New York City for Eureka Street TV Khan speaks candidly about the effect of September 11, both on her personally and on the local Muslim community. She talks about changing perceptions of Muslims, and the controversy that flared with recent attempts by her organisation to open an Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero.

At the time of September 11, Imam Feisal led al-Farah Mosque at Tribeca in Lower Manhattan. He and Khan had founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), a leading organisation trying to help the largely migrant Muslim community integrate successfully into American society.

Imam Feisal was born in Kuwait and came to the US as a teenager. His father was an Islamic scholar who had been imam at several major mosques around the world. Khan was born into a devout Muslim family in Kashmir, India, and came to the US as a young adult to study architecture.

From the day the Twin Towers fell, their lives changed dramatically. Rather than working mainly with American Muslims, trying to foster an American Muslim identity, they began to focus on outreach to the broader community, meeting demands to speak, teach, and answer questions about Islam.

Shortly after September 11 Imam Feisal began the Cordoba Initiative, 'a multi-faith organisation whose objective is to heal the relationship between the Islamic world and America ... through civil dialogue, policy initiatives, education and cultural programs'. It takes its name from the city in medieval Muslim Spain where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed in relative peace.

While ASMA and the Cordoba Initiative have been universally lauded, a more recent project has provoked ire and controversy. In 2009 the couple spearheaded a consortium that announced it would establish an Islamic centre in Park Place near Ground Zero. It would be situated on the site of a building that had been damaged in the September 11 attacks. Initially they called it Cordoba House.

There were protests. Various polls consistently show that most Americans are against establishing any Muslim centre or mosque near Ground Zero. A group of victims' relatives issued a statement against it, saying the proposal is 'a gross insult to the memory of those who were killed'.

High profile Republican Senator Newt Gingrich said 'Cordoba House is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain, the capital of Muslim conquerors, who symbolised their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world's third largest mosque complex.'

The site has since been renamed more neutrally as Park51, referring to its address on Park Place.

Barack Obama spoke in support of the project: 'Muslims have the same rights to practice their religion as anyone else ... that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in Lower Manhattan.' The next day he backtracked though, clarifying that he was speaking about legal rights, not 'the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there'.

New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has consistently endorsed the project. 'The government should never, never be in the business of telling people how they should pray, or where they can pray,' Bloomberg said. 'We want to make sure that everybody from around the world feels comfortable coming here, living here and praying the way they want to pray.'

Some relatives of September 11 victims have supported it, too. Ted Olson, a senior member of the Bush administration, whose wife died in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, said 'we don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith'.

Khan is quietly confident the new centre will be built, and will be beneficial for the whole community; a place that will promote healing of the wounds of September 11. As yet no work has commenced on it.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.  

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Daisy Khan, 9/11, September 11, Islam, Muslim



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