Monday, September 13, 2010

9/11 anniversary: New York Muslims insist that they are American too

New York City woke up yesterday to a 9/11 anniversary like no other. Blue skies hummed with the buzz of helicopters as police conducted a major operation to patrol two rival midday protests about Park51, the planned Islamic centre close to Ground Zero. The noise of the aircraft mingled with the sound of church bells ringing across Manhattan, marking the exact time that the first plane struck the World Trade Centre.

Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Qur'ans outside his church, the Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, had arrived in the city overnight. Supposedly seeking a meeting with backers of the so-called "Ground Zero mosque", he told NBC's Today Show, "We have decided to cancel the burning. We will definitely not burn the Qur'an."

The protesters against the Islamic centre later gathered to hear the right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who has spearheaded the drive against the project, as well as a host of Republican politicians.

Meanwhile the march in support of Park51, proclaiming the virtues of religious tolerance, wound its way from near City Hall to close to Ground Zero itself. The duelling demonstrations were in stark contrast to the official remembrance ceremony where relatives of the dead talked solemnly about the lives lost.

It was an acrimonious climax to a troubling week, especially for New York's Muslim population. Mohammad al-Naqeb, a 35-year-old Yemeni immigrant who has spent 10 years in America, said he had never before felt like such an outsider in his adopted country.

Standing in an electronics store in the Brooklyn suburb of Bay Ridge, Naqeb said he was worried for his own safety and that of his children. "I feel scared. Everybody feels scared. For the future of my children and grandchildren, I think they should move it."

For Naqeb, who works as a newspaper sales rep, the solution is for New York's Muslim community to accept that the Park51 project – the official name of the planned Islamic centre – must be elsewhere. Even though Naqeb believes it is unfair and prejudiced that his religious community should be singled out for such treatment, he thinks it is for the best. It is a piece of classic immigrant thinking: get your head down, keep quiet, ignore the insults and they will not send you back. "They should move it. For my family's sake. I want them to have a future here in this country," he repeated.

The Park51 project has triggered a huge wave of protest by those claiming it desecrates the memory of those who died on 9/11. Republican politicians, and many Democrats too, have asked for Park51 to be moved. They have claimed its backers, including a moderate imam who does international outreach work for the State Department, have terrorist ties and are closet radicals.

Newt Gingrich, a leading conservative Republican, has compared Muslims to Nazis. The threat to burn Qur'ans in Florida is just the most extreme of growing anti-Muslim sentiment. Other extremist pastors, in Kansas, Wyoming and Tennessee, have now come up with similar plans. Across the US have come reports of attacks on Muslim targets and the FBI is investigating crimes in four different states that range from windows being smashed at an Islamic centre in California to a fire being set at one in Texas. In New York a man is being prosecuted on a charge of trying to stab to death a Muslim taxi driver.

In New York, the Muslim community is at least 600,000 strong, including black Americans, immigrants from West Africa, Pakistan and Asia – Malaysians, Indonesians, Kazakhs, Turks and Palestinians. There are areas in downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan that have have been home to Syrian and Lebanese Muslims for more than 100 years. Yet now this particular ingredient in New York's famous melting pot feels that it is under attack.

"It makes me feel a little unsafe," said lawyer Safia Hussein, who lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She was born in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River, but New York suddenly feels a different kind of place, especially for someone like her who wears a Muslim headscarf. "There has not been this level of antagonism since right after 9/11," she said.

Bay Ridge's main street looks like a healthy, bustling slice of American life in Brooklyn. The shops that line its Fifth Avenue – about a half-hour ride on the Metro from downtown Manhattan – include Greek delis, a German schnitzel restaurant, Irish pubs and Chinese takeaways.

But among the crowds of shoppers are a large number of women wearing headscarves. Many of the businesses have signs in Arabic advertising parties to mark the end of Ramadan. A burst of loud Middle Eastern music blasts from a passing car stereo. For Bay Ridge is not just another suburb; it is the heart of Arab-American New York and thus one of the largest Muslim neighbourhoods in the city. It is this suburb where Muslims have become most settled and, now, where they feel most safe in a current time of trouble.

"In Bay Ridge, it feels fine," said Linda Sarsour, a native Muslim Brooklynite whose parents came originally from Palestine. "But once we leave the neighbourhood, that is when people feel afraid." In Bay Ridge there is safety in numbers for Muslims, Sarsour says, but she is shocked that suddenly her idea of her home city has become so narrow. After all, she was born and raised in Brooklyn. But now, according to a recent poll, some 63% of her fellow New Yorkers think that Park51 should not be built. She does not hide her feelings about it. "I feel betrayed and disappointed. I almost feel like I don't know anyone any more in this city. Do people look at me as a New Yorker? I am having an identity crisis. Do I have to prove myself to them?" she said.

Sarsour, in common with many Muslims born in America rather than coming in as immigrants, has reacted to the issue by standing up for Park51. "There are enough second and third generation Muslims here in New York who were born here and think: they are just not going to put up with this crap," said Peter Awn of Columbia University, an expert on New York's Muslim community. Many of these younger New York Muslims believe that moving Park51 from its current planned and entirely legal site would set a dangerous precedent. If Park51 were moved, how far would be far enough? What other Muslim projects would then be seen as a threat? "If we move it, where else would be deemed unsuitable for a mosque? Would we have to take it off Manhattan? Where would we draw a line?" asked Safia Hussein.

One man who knows exactly where he draws the line is Mohammad Abdullah. "This is my country. This is the United States of America. It is legal, it is lawful and they should build it right where they want to build it," he said. Abdullah is a black American, born into the Islamic faith of his parents, he has a long beard and flowing Islamic robes. "Islam is not foreign to this country," he said. "There is nothing un-Islamic about this country. We share the same sense of moral appropriateness and justice."

Mohammad al-Naqeb cannot agree. He feels his community is being made a scapegoat and his long-cherished hopes of a new start in a new world, full of greater opportunities than his old homeland, is turning slowly into a nightmare. "Before I came here I thought America was a dream come true. Now it feels like America is not America any more," he said.


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