Dinu Ahmed and Hena Ashraf: Facing and Fighting Discrimination
The controversy over Park51 has reached a fever pitch. Opinions and concerns from around the country have been expressed, with many falsehoods and stereotypes being propagated along the way. We feel that the voices of Muslim women are lacking in this debate, especially the voices of Muslim women who go to Park51, and as such, we have chosen to express our views on the matter.
We have been astonished at how a local community project has suddenly become the focal point of political campaigning, and is now the basis for hate crimes against Muslims. We think it is important to understand the concerns and motives of the community in question, prior to assigning accusations of cultural insensitivity, because we believe that cultural sensitivity should be mutual.
As former residents, students, and employees in Lower Manhattan, we find that the demand for prayer space in this neighborhood is very high. What many around the country do not know is that a local mosque in the area has been renting warehouse space every Friday for some time, simply to accommodate the overflow of worshippers. Due to the high local demand, Park 51 would provide much-needed space and services for the Muslim community in Lower Manhattan and in New York City. The fact that this is a complete interfaith and intercultural community center open to all is an additional benefit that would be an asset to multiple communities here in New York. The center should be built, not only on the grounds of religious freedom, but because the community in this area is in need of a such a space.
Lower Manhattan is the neighborhood where I was born and raised, where I went to school, and where my community had rooted itself for the greater part of a century. As a young student at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks north, I experienced the shock of watching the towers crumble before my classroom window and being evacuated from the area. I had family and community members working at the World Trade Center and in the immediate vicinity. My high school was converted into a triage center, and so we were relocated. When I returned, I continued to deal with the trauma of loss in my community, with the fumes and debris in the air an ever-constant reminder of what we as a country had experienced. With public transportation knocked out that day, I remember sobbing and feeling terrified by the possibility of still being in danger, wondering if anything else was going to fall, if it was all over, and if everyone I knew would make it home safe. In the midst of a steady sea of people heading north, with the swirl of emotions in my head, I also encountered my first taste of being targeted as a Muslim American. I was 14.
Even before I could begin to process bearing witness to this tragedy, my peers and I, as young teenagers, had already begun to experience accusations of perpetrating the very event that had scarred us. Such notions were highly illogical, xenophobic and racist. Every New Yorker knew someone who was directly affected; there were countless Muslims who were killed whose lives have not been honored justly. It is beyond unfair to even contemplate that Muslim Americans reeling from the calamity could be responsible for what happened; indeed, it is immoral. Let us re-emphasize: we were shocked, scarred, and grieving from our own losses on this day, and spoke out loudly against this gross distortion of our faith tradition.
In Michigan, I lived amongst a very large Arab-American population, with a third of the students in my high school being of Arab descent. Immediately after September 11 and in the following years, the surrounding Muslim and Arab communities were fearful of being targeted and harassed by federal, state, and local authorities, and for good reason — this was happening to many families in and around Dearborn, Michigan. As a teenaged Muslim woman in America, I became highly aware in a very abrupt manner of the poisonous political environment seeping across the country that transformed many Americans overnight into the latest demographic threat. This perceived threat, which continues today, included both people visibly presenting as Muslims as well as ambiguously brown-skinned people mistaken for Muslims. As time went on and the War on Terror expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, and with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, and racial and religious profiling, I have certainly felt very cornered growing up as a Muslim over the past nine years in this country.
Fast-forward to this past summer in New York City. At different places and across various boroughs in New York, Dinu and I have experienced much Islamophobia. Never have I received as much consistent harassment in one place during one length of time as I have this summer in New York, from a shopkeeper asking in May if I was a suicide bomber, to a man shouting furiously at Dinu and me, “Where’s Osama?!” (incidentally on July 4). Those are just a couple of the hateful incidents that have occurred to us as women who wear hijab — our list also includes times when we were physically and verbally threatened. The unnecessary controversy and debate around Park51 has come to a boiling point with hate crimes against Muslims; just last week in New York, a cab driver was stabbed for being Muslim, and a man entered a mosque in Queens during the Ramadan nightly prayers, yelled at the congregation and urinated in the house of worship. Over the weekend, the site of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was attacked by arson. And then later this week, a shotgun was fired outside of a mosque in Carlton, New York by teens shouting slurs, who also drove their car up against a worshipper. The very next day, a Sikh man working at a 7-11 in Seattle, Washington was mistaken for Muslim and assaulted.
We have to wonder what has led people to commit such racist and hateful crimes. With our critical and unwavering eyes on the mass corporate media, we believe the coverage thus far has been highly irresponsible and biased in its depiction of Park51, starting with calling the center “the Ground Zero Mosque.” The media needs to be held accountable to present objective, fair, and analytical coverage, rather than merely creating spectacle and allowing for hate groups to present their propaganda without critique. Moreover, politicians who have harnessed the media to design racist and xenophobic campaigns have been especially irresponsible, and are not only distracting Americans from real issues that affect our daily lives but also ramping up the hate discourse and actions against Muslims across the country.
We are Muslim women who live in New York and who believe in the linkage of all struggles. What we are experiencing at the present time is not new. Many communities in this country have struggled, and continue to struggle, against hate, biases, and stereotypes. We are in solidarity with them and understand that Muslim Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim, Arab, or South Asian, are just the latest groups in recent decades to experience such vilification. This Ramadan, we pray that New York and the larger American society will be as inclusive and welcoming as it is claimed to be, and strive to achieve liberty and justice for all communities.