Muslims feel growing hostility as 9/11 anniversary approaches and ‘Ground Zero mosque’ is built
The scent of incense fills the room as the faithful gather quietly for afternoon prayers, their hands turned toward the ceiling, their shoes lined along the back wall.
“We didn’t experience that before 9/11.”
The day Islamic terrorists brought down the World Trade Center changed life in many ways – some dramatic, others subtle – for the city’s 600,000 Muslims.
Either way, NYPD crime stats show the change was almost instantaneous.
Between Jan. 1, 2001, and Sept. 10, 2001, police reported zero bias incidents against Muslims. In the 112 days after the twin towers toppled, there were 96, nearly one a day.
Things slowly returned to normal, with zero incidents reported in 2004 – although many Muslims felt a growing sense of unease.
Their fears were confirmed last year when a national furor erupted over the Park St. mosque. Bias attacks on Muslim New Yorkers tripled from the year prior, up from six to 19.
The assaults included a cab fare who slashed his driver with a knife after asking if the man was a Muslim.
“The most subtle change is the tone of that question: ‘Where are you from?’” says Desai, whose membership of 15,000 is about half Muslim.
“It’s almost kind of implying, ‘Why are you not an American?’ There’s a questioning of loyalty now in the tone.”
A taxi union survey done last year indicated 55% of city cabbies were told to “go back to your country” or targeted with ethnic slurs in the previous 12 months.
Nationally, a Pew Research Center poll released last month found 43% of Muslim Americans reported experiencing harassment in the last year.
Aziz’s assertion about anti-mosque sentiment was backed by a 35-page NYCLU report citing nine recent instances statewide – including public opposition to planned mosques in Sheepshead Bay and Staten Island.
Abed Ayoub, who came to lower Manhattan for the ninth anniversary memorial last September, arrived to find the feud over the Ground Zero mosque in full roar.
The Michigan native said he also found an undefinable tension in the heated air.
“I don’t want to say hatred,” says Ayoub, legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “But people looking as if I was different. Very upsetting.
“Here I am, born and raised in Detroit – it really caught me off guard.”
The head developer of the controversial 51Park Community Center, Sharif El-Gamal, says he never felt singled out because of his religion despite all the vitriol surrounding the project.
“Nobody bothers me at all,” he says. “I walk around, and there’s never any problem.”
Yet many other Muslims are reluctant to speak, fearful of drawing the attention of law enforcement. They suspect their mosques are bugged, and their ranks singled out for surveillance.
The mosque made the headlines when jailed would-be terrorist Najibullah Zazi prayed there during a 2009 New York visit. One of its former imams was revealed as an FBI informant – who also double-crossed the feds by alerting Zazi that he was under surveillance.
Back at 51 Park, Aziz gets ready to start his prayers. He hopes for the best as the 10th anniversary approaches, although his optimism is tempered.
“People are not completely friendly like they were before,” he says. “After 9/11, kids going to school were experiencing discrimination from other students. And from a minority of teachers.”
He pauses to consider a question: Whose kids?
“My kids,” he replies.