Finding Friends in Unlikely Places

Finding Friends in Unlikely Places: My 9/11 10th Anniversary Experience

On the night of September 11, 2001, I received a phone call from a friend regarding the World Trade Center attacks of that morning. He wondered whether I had encountered any anti-Muslim hostility in response to the attacks, which were perpetrated by Al-Qaeda extremists. I had not and, at the time, the idea of being lumped with terrorists seemed preposterous. Today, however, American Muslims commonly report being targets of such suspicion and enmity. To explore this Muslim experience of difference, I traveled to New York City for the 9/11 10th anniversary. Once in lower Manhattan, I set out to discover the events, people, ideas and emotions surrounding Ground Zero that day.

Along my journey, I meandered by St. Paul’s Chapel, its fence laced in white ribbons tied by mourners, and the soft sounds of a choir breaking through its doors. “Amazing Grace…” the choir sang, as an intensity of love and sorrow crept through the thick, despondent crowd. I strolled toward Park51, the planned community center in lower Manhattan, infamously dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.” In contrast to St. Paul’s, Park51 was a dead zone blocked off by the NYPD. A row of police officers stood in front of the barricades, presumably to ensure that the center would not become a target of Islamophobia on a day of emotions running high. It was a bleak reminder of the opposition still faced by the center and its diverse community of visitors and worshippers. What struck me especially was several policemen’s confusion when I asked them for directions to “Park51.” They appeared completely vacant, having no idea what I was referring to. “You know, the cultural center and prayer space?” I elaborated, but to no avail. Reluctantly, I resorted to asking for “The mosque…” which instantly resonated with them and resulted in swift directions to Park51.

Although it has been made abundantly clear [1,2] that Park51 is not primarily a mosque, and is not located on the World Trade Center site (“Ground Zero”), the libelous title of “Ground Zero Mosque” has sadly stuck (along with lesser labels, like “Mega-Mosque” and “Victory Mosque”, the latter accusing Park51 of being a deliberate symbol of “jihadist” victory over Ground Zero). The nickname was introduced in May 2010 by conservative bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer of the group “Stop the Islamization of America”, who began an aggressive campaign against the proposed center. What followed was an onslaught of media attention focusing on both Park51 and, much to Geller and Spencer’s delight, their anti-Islam group as well.

Unsurprisingly, Geller and Spencer were hosting a rally to commemorate the 9/11 10th anniversary by denouncing Islam in America. The rally was located just a few blocks from Park51, and boasted only a thin crowd of supporters. Amid Geller’s overzealous speech, a girl parading a “Mohammed was a Terrorist” sign, and large banners condemning jihad and other “Islamizations”, a conversation happened upon me. It was with another rally-goer, who introduced himself first as a fellow academic, and later as a Jew and a citizen of Israel. He wanted to talk to me about Islam and Muslims. I was immediately taken aback by the skewed generalizations and downright falsehoods he espoused, completely in line with conservative Geller-Spencer crowds: that Islam is a religion of explicit violence, that Muslims actively pray for the death and destruction of infidels, that most major crises in the world involve Muslims, and so on. [One wonders what I expected to find at a rally entitled “Stop the Islamization of America”, if not glaring and painful misrepresentations of Muslims. Nevertheless, it proved overwhelming to hear such prejudices in person, and to feel it incumbent upon myself to somehow set all the misconceptions straight. But I digress…]

Like Geller and Spencer, my new acquaintance seemed very anti-Park51 and, since he had never paid the center a visit, I described the facilities to him. It was clear from my description that Park51 is a far cry from the large, well-established, golden-domed exaggeration pictured on Geller’s “No Victory Mosque” banner. I also told my new acquaintance what the PrayerSpace (operated separately from Park51) means to me: a place that has nothing to do with 9/11 and where I worship in peace; where the weekly khutbahs advocate moderate ideologies, applicable to everyday American life; where I am never torn in two by those who measure my love for America against my love for Islam, and vice versa. In the PrayerSpace, I am both Muslim enough and American enough.

We conversed for hours, until “God Bless America” blared to wrap up the rally. Much of what we said strayed from the sterile tone of academic and political discourse, and ventured into heartfelt exchanges of personal experience. There were points in our conversation during which he, being Jewish, acknowledged a strong kinship to the Muslim experience of outsiderhood and exclusion in America. In fact, we shared eerily similar stories of prejudice – “We are both the other”, he said. In time, I found that he was skeptical of Muslims and Islam largely due to news reports permeating Western media. I asked if he had any Muslim friends – surely, having and knowing them would dispel stereotypical perceptions of Islamic boogiemen (3). When he indicated that he had never really known a Muslim, I invited him to know me. He didn’t respond. Nevertheless, I felt him to be an exceedingly sympathetic and kind individual. In addition to having a gentle demeanor, he was genuinely open to dialogue that challenged his preconceived notions. Just as I may have somewhat shaken his unfavorable views of Muslims, he disrupted my own perceptions of Geller-Spencer type crowds (and several other conservative crowds) as a necessarily narrow-minded, inarticulate, fear mongering flock of sheep. Our interaction reminded me that bridges can be built in the most unexpected places.

As time flew, we grew tired from vacillating between heated argument and quiet conversation. 6:30 pm rolled around, and I had to make my way to a 9/11 tribute concert. Just as I hurried to find a cab, my acquaintance (who had so far refused to tell me his name) said, “Just one more thing… can we be friends?” It felt wonderful. Although I know full well that our encounter did not miraculously erase all my friend’s suspicions of Islam and Muslims, our exchanges nevertheless offer hope for understanding and put a smile on my face. Geller’s “Stop the Islamization of America” rally was designed to conjure a fear of Muslims through outlandish and exaggerated depictions of them and their practices. I went into it expecting to find friction and foes, and emerged instead with a friend. So, to those of us that often wrestle with fear and prejudice in this post-9/11 era, I say: here’s to keeping open minds and hearts, and to building bridges, anywhere and everywhere possible.

1) Hossain, A. (2010) “The Ground Zero “Mosque” is not a Mosque” The Huffington Post.

2) Marbella, J. (2010) “When a ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Really is Neither” The Baltimore Sun.

3) Pew Research Center (2010) “Muslims Widely Seen as Facing Discrimination”

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