By Mike McPhate
In the fear-laden days after 9/11, someone hurled a bottle at the stained-glass façade of the Al-Farah mosque in Tribeca—but the glass didn’t crack. That was the worst of it. Fears of anti-Muslim reprisals against the mosque, just 12 blocks from Ground Zero, never materialized, say congregants. If anything, ties with non-Muslims grew stronger.
While suspicion and bloodshed between Muslims and non-Muslims in some European countries only grew after 9/11, the tiny Al-Farah mosque, offers an unlikely portrait of harmony near the site of the tragedy.
“People have been extremely sensitive, extremely respectful,” said long-time member Naz Ahmed. The Bangladeshi immigrant was invited to give several talks about Islam in the city after 9/11.
“It was a very pleasant surprise for me,” said Ahmed. “I expected a very difficult job ahead of me. But I made more alliances and more friends.”
Al-Farah, meaning divine ease, was founded in 1981 by the Turkish Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak. In the mid-1980’s it moved from SoHo to a slim white building with green trim on West Broadway, tucked between a tavern and an upscale French bistro.
The 175-member mosque caters to Sufis, members of a mystical branch of Islam that seeks to capture glimpses of the divine, often through music, dance and meditation.
Unlike the fiery sermons of some fundamentalist mosques, at Al-Farah there is no talk of politics, members say. Women pray in the same space as men. Non-Muslims are invited and welcomed.
The mosque’s Imam, or spiritual leader, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has called the American system of government, with its principles of tolerance, a paragon of Islamic ideals. Even if he complains that the country sometimes falls short of those values.
“Freedom of religion is something we actually cherish as Americans,” said Daisy Khan, the Imam’s wife. “Some of us are so patriotic we have gone into the armed forces.”
After 9/11, Al-Farah leaders sought to assure other New Yorkers that neither its members, nor most U.S. Muslims, share the extremist ideology that led to the toppling of the World Trade Center. The mosque invited religious leaders to come speak and it dispatched its own emissaries to synagogues, churches, and schools.
“We didn’t refuse any invitation,” said Khan. “Even an hour and a half drive to a small 40-person congregation church, we didn’t refuse it.”
Still, acts of bigotry against the city’s 500,000-plus population of Muslims have remained steady in the five years since 9/11, say civil rights leaders. The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations registered 156 civil rights complaints across the state in 2005, most of them job-related. Women wearing veils were spat upon in the subway; men faced hate speech when praying in the workplace.
Immediately after the terror attacks someone called Imam Feisal’s father and told him to “go home,” said Khan. “I think people randomly wanted to call and make slurs and say something horrible to a Muslim. So you know that people were angry. But we explained that we too were angry.”
The tension soon dissipated, say Al-Farah leaders, and they never faced the same friction between Muslims and non-Muslims that in recent years has plagued countries like Spain, France, and England, where police say British-born Muslims recently devised a bomb plot.
Some credit the openness of this city’s residents. “New York’s probably the most tolerant city in the world,” said Masud Tariq-Towe, who leads opening prayers at Al-Farah on Fridays.
Gisela Webb, a religion professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey attributed good inter-faith relations to a progressive trend among U.S. Muslims, like those at Al-Farah.
Virtually all U.S. Muslims have rejected the violent ideology of Al Qaeda, she said.
Imam Feisal, who was born in Egypt, describes in his recent book “What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West” how New York shaped his beliefs. Arriving to the city in 1965, he writes, “I beheld the Statue of Liberty and wondered what America had in store for me. Little did I realize then that I was to discover the riches of my faith tradition in this land. Like many immigrants from Muslim lands, I discovered my Islam in America.”