I just wish we could we hear from fresh-off-the-boat Muslim immigrants, the types who populate the halal food carts that can be found on every corner of Manhattan now.
Recently I spoke to one on Sixth Avenue. Usman is a young, rather handsome Egyptian man whose audio system belts out Beiruti diva Fairouz's lyrics as he churns out lamb gyro platters for office workers in this very commercial district. "I don't want this mosque," he says, referring to the one proposed to be built at Ground Zero. "I have one in Queens. We pray in a basement and we are happy and left alone." He adds, "How can I go and pray in a place that will cause so much pain to so many people?"
Usman, I wish you were on cable television instead of the North American Muslim pundits brought to air this political season.
Usman, I agree with you. It's simple, really.
I, a mosque-loving Muslim, am against the Ground Zero mosque. Although I detest Sarah Palin's rhetoric on this issue, at the same time I have little patience for Keith Olbermann's theatrics. This leaves me—and, I suspect, many other Muslims— in a very uncomfortable (and probably not popular) middle.
Many of the mosques I have experienced, in more than 12 Islamic nations, do not manufacture pithy sound bites about peace. I have often had to sit through deranged diatribes against women and minorities. And yet I love mosques, for the spiritual sustenance they have always given me.
Within the discipline of prayer and the sense of brotherhood and awe I have felt in mosques around the world, I have discovered whatever little spirituality I still possess. At the same time in America, I have been loudly critical about everything that ails modern Islam and certainly had no time for the hateful words of the Rush Limbaugh types who paint all Muslims with the same terrorist-red brushstrokes.
I remain undecided about whether post-September 11 rhetoric in America is simply Islamophobic, and whether this is fundamentally a Christian nation.
What I am certain about is this: the mostly tolerant fabric of New York City, which is now my home, is being damaged, irrevocably perhaps, in this discussion.
Only in New York can I take the 1 train downtown and have a rabbi with his Torah sitting close to a North African man clutching a pocket Quran with a scantily dressed Columbia University student reading Proust sandwiched between them.
But this same New York is now divided around this rather expensive cultural center aka mosque aka culinary school, two blocks from Ground Zero.
In a nation that is notably short on history (compared to many of the Islamic civilizations that predate it), Ground Zero definitely is sacred ground. It is also a unique American space, where what seemed like hours after the attacks, T-shirts and models of the towers were on sale for gawking tourists, who eagerly posed for photographs amidst the smoke and rubble.
My father always says there is a time and a place for everything. My mosque-loving Muslim self doesn't feel this is the time or the place.
I don't want to give the lunatic fringe of Islam (the Al-Qaedas and the Talibans) reason to gloat. I do not want America's mostly tolerant fabric destroyed by a structure so divisive that it will be hard for someone like me—a gay Muslim immigrant, who still feels relatively fresh-off-the-boat even after a decade of living here—to even go there and pray during Ramadan.
I come from India, a nation where Hindu-Muslim "communal" riots have been part of life and where more than a thousand Muslims were massacred in their ghettos in the Ahmedabad, Gujarat, by angry Hindu mobs in 2002. I wonder how the Muslims of those neighborhoods would react to a prime real estate Hindu temple being built in the vicinity of their ravaged homes and lives?
A few weeks after 9/11, I visited the Manhattan apartment of one Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. I was a spiritual orphan launching on a journey of trying to document homophobia within Islam and I was looking for a home. The topic that night was whether Sufi Islam could be a credible alternative to the mindless violence of the Sunni/Wahabis who had killed 3,000 people. I did not know at that time if America could be fooled into thinking that Sufis had any credibility with orthodox Muslims. But everyone in the room spoke in hushed whispers of an Islam that was a religion of peace. Imam Faisal was dapper and articulate and spoke in carefully calibrated sound bites, like someone getting ready for prime-time television.
Sure enough, in a few months, whenever there was a PBS special on Islam — and there were many—Imam Rauf would be paraded about as the face of moderate Islam.
Now, nearly nine years later, the media-savvy Imam Rauf— the very same man behind the Islamic center — has come upon a public-relations gold mine. I have not met him for years and am sure he would not even remember me. But I wonder if becoming a nationally discussed and debated figure is such a bad thing for anybody. But just as a certain former mayor of New York has appointed himself America's spokesperson for all things 9/11, he could well become “America’s Imam.”
America is anxious for an imam who sounds like him, perhaps even for a mosque where a gay and Muslim man like me could feel a sense of connection and affirmation. I have been to such places, one just 12 blocks from Ground Zero. At that time, just like now, it was Ramadan and I was breaking the fast, after some Sufi chanting. Men and women prayed together. A Caucasian woman in white led the order. It was time for iftar and all manner of micro-greens and broccoli came out. Used to dates, greasy kebabs and butter-layered rotis for this kind of meal, I fled.
Parvez Sharma is a New York–based Muslim writer and the director of the award-winning film “A Jihad for Love.” A version of this piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.
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