After 9/11, An East Village Mosque Reaches Out to Its Neighbors

For much of America’s Muslim community, the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed their relationship with the rest of American society – for the worse.  Broad government surveillance and discriminatory law enforcement policies, combined with an increased suspicion of Muslims by the general public, left many feeling that daily worship had suddenly become synonymous with terrorism. But a decade on, Imam Abu Sufian tells a different narrative.

The Imam, a 35-year old American of Bangladeshi origin, sat on fading jade-colored carpet upstairs at Madina Masjid – the redbrick mosque with an unobtrusive turquoise minaret on the corner of First Avenue and 11th Street. Speaking softly and holding a worn, leather-bound copy of the Koran in his hands, he wanted to highlight positive developments in the mosque’s relationship with East Villagers in the ten years since the terror attacks.  “I would actually say that since 9/11, we have had a greater relationship with the local community than we did before,” he said. “Everyone realized that we needed to get to know each other better.”

That realization has led the Imam and other East Village religious leaders – including those from Catholic, Jewish, Anglican and Buddhist faiths – to meet together twice a month. Initially, Imam Abu Sufian saw the meetings as a way to educate others about Islam – a need that was clearly evident in a 2009 Gallup poll showing that almost two-thirds of Americans knew “nothing” or “very little” about Islam. But in fact, the Imam discovered a two-way education process.

“Our Muslim community is more informed than before 9/11,” he said. “We have been learning more about American history.”

mosque5Rebecca Hamilton

Like Imam Abu Sufian, the founders of Madina Masjid were from Bangladesh, and the mosque still has a core Bangledeshi community. However Muslims representing more than 50 different nationalities now belong to the mosque, and many are first-generation Americans. The Imam says they have begun to see that their hardships are “not just about the Muslim community, but [are] the story of the history of all immigrants to America. Learning about the challenges that the Catholics, for example, faced.  It has been helpful.”

Madina Masjid suffers chronic overcrowding. During the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, there is literally not enough space for everyone who comes to pray, so the city cordons off a section of 11th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A to accommodate the overflow. One recent Friday during Ramadan, Mohamed Rahma, one of the many taxi drivers who attend the mosque, came over to speak to me after completing his prayers on a piece of tarpaulin laid out on the street.

Mr. Rahma said East Villagers became more curious to learn about Islam after 9/11. And he supported the Imam’s position that they need to educate those who have questions. “Once they understand, their misperceptions go away and they become more tolerant of us.”  Speaking of his experiences since 9/11, Mr. Rahma said “98% of people in this city are very nice,” and added how much he “appreciated the gift the police gave to us of closing this road on Friday during Ramadan.”

These sanguine sentiments notwithstanding, it hasn’t been easy for the mosque, according to a non-Muslim neighbor. Anthony Miracle, a heavily tattooed Vietnam veteran with a construction business in the East Village, sat on the sidewalk watching the Friday prayers as he ate lunch from a nearby food truck. He explained the problems that arose after 9/11 when the mosque began raising funds for the families of the victims. Mr. Miracle said that a group of teenagers came and started hassling members of the mosque, adding that he and his co-workers went over and told them to go away. “We knew the mosque wasn’t involved with anything,” he said. “One of their guys was downtown when it happened. He could have been killed. You know they’re dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with.”

The unspoken word in the sentence was terrorism. The association drawn between Islam and violent extremism in the aftermath of 9/11 is one of the toughest for members of the mosque to deal with. Farah Lakhani, an associate at Deutsche Bank who prays at Madina Masjid, said she never faced any discrimination growing up as a Muslim in America. But after 9/11, people “stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists.”

The question of terrorism is the most common one that Imam Abu Sufian receives during his Open House days, which he started five years ago as part of his initiative to educate the local community about the mosque. “Yes,” he laughed gently, with a sense of resignation. “When visitors come their first question is almost always about terrorism.”

mosque7Rebecca Hamilton Aaidh Lakhani, 2. His mother, Farah Lakhani, says she is “fearless” about her son growing up as a Muslim in America.

Much like the Imam, Mrs. Lakhani feels that things have improved with the local community over the decade since the terrorist attack. “I feel people are now learning who we really are and with great respect have distinguished that all Muslims are not the same,” she said. Mrs. Lakhani acknowledges it will not be possible to change everyone’s mind, but that “all we can do is love them back as our Prophet Muhammad did with people who disliked him and hurt him in many ways.”

It’s a message that Imam Abu Sufian broadcast to his community at their Eid ul Fitr event to mark the end Ramadan last month. Dressed in hand-embroidered clothing from his native Bangladesh, the Imam stood at a lectern in front of a graffiti-walled backdrop at the East Village Community High School playground.  The Imam’s voice crackled through the portable sound system.

“We don’t talk to [non-Muslim Americans] about who we are, and then we complain they don’t know us? Well that’s our fault. We have to talk to them,” he said. “If you just blame others [for poor relations], it’s not going to work. Those days are over. Please, open yourselves up. Stop blaming others and look at yourself.”

From the back of the playground, in an area cordoned off for women, Mrs. Lakhani chased after her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Aaidh, who was intent on exploring the length and breadth of the area. Aaidh, dressed in the new clothes that children are traditionally given for Eid ul-Fitr, eventually returned to his mother with an impish smile.  Asked if she has any concerns for her young son growing up as a Muslim in America, Mrs. Lakhani said, “My husband and I will do our best to teach Aaidh how to be a kind loving Muslim who helps others and society, as Islam and our parents have taught us.”