At Park51, Praying for an End to the “Ground Zero Mosque” Hatred

The real hate we should all fear is the one that smears a peaceful Muslim congregation and incites violence around the country.

By Hena Ashraf Aug 31, 2010

I attend Park51 regularly. The space is so inconspicuous that, when I first went there, I mistakenly walked right past it. Not until I saw building number 53 did I realize I had passed lower Manhattan’s infamous Islamic center. When I entered and joined the congregation, on the third day of Ramadan this year, I felt bewildered to be in a place that much of the country is debating about.

Soon after the call to prayer, those surreal feelings washed away, thankfully, as I focused on my prayers and felt at peace. The tranquility did not last, however. After 11 p.m., once the congregation was done with the nightly Ramadan prayers, we received an announcement that broadcast news trucks were waiting outside. It was a rude awakening. After all, Park51 is (currently) just a house of worship. It is like so many other mosques in the city–just a humble, bare space, with carpets. This is what so many people are arguing about, I thought? This is what the media is focused so relentlessly upon? Why is this mosque receiving so much attention, when there are already hundreds like it in America?

But I already knew the answers: Because some rightwing pundits and politicians have pushed forth the very fear-inspired hate that they have attributed to this house of worship, and to Muslims everywhere. Worse, some of their followers are willing to act violently based upon that hate.

After that first night at Park51, I continued to attend the evening Ramadan prayers, called tarawih. For the next few nights, news photographers and cameramen were a constant presence, persistently taking pictures of our quiet prayers, from angles all around the room. Each time I have seen press inside, it has seemed ludicrous. Around the globe, Muslims stand in formation, recite verses from the Quran and prostrate. Somehow, at Park51, that is breaking news.

Nevertheless, I quite enjoy the community vibe at Park51; it feels as if all of the stress and negative attention has drawn people together more tightly. The congregation is young and diverse. After my first night of tarawih there, many of us trekked up to Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street to eat. Again, I was struck by the absurdity of the country’s obsession with our community. After all, there we were eating dessert on the streets of New York, happily jostled together with the Village’s mishmash of people–just like any other New Yorkers. Except we had hate groups such as Stop the Islamization of America treating all Muslims as one monolithic, backward group and tarring Park51 as a breeding ground for terrorists.

I suspect this Ramadan felt as strange for Muslims around the country as it did for me– especially those of us in New York City. It feels as if the oppressive scrutiny we have faced since 9/11 has intensified as never before. Throughout this month, especially during Ramadan, I have had numerous conversations with fellow Muslims about the controversy, and have read countless articles and opinion pieces about Park51. It’s inescapable. And it has made me feel more rejected, frustrated and sad than perhaps any time since September 2001, to see such disdain against Muslims.

Perhaps this is because my own local community is being targeted and because, as a woman who wears hijab, I have experienced firsthand so much anti-Muslim hatred in New York this summer. Local elected officials from the mayor to the Manhattan borough president have stood up and declared that Muslims have the right to religious freedom. But it’s maddening that such an argument even needs to be made.

I point my finger of blame firmly at the corporate, mass media. I remember in early May when I first heard about the Park51 development, then called the Cordoba House. I felt excited and told others about it. How wonderful it would be to have a mosque inside a broader community center for not only lower Manhattan’s Muslims but also for the local residents and surrounding communities. But then, a few weeks later, the media began to echo the racist and xenophobic cry of the fringe, adopting the language of people such as Pamela Geller and naming the institution the "Ground Zero mosque."

I believe however, that the ignition point for the hysteria was the Anti-Defamation League’s statement of its position on our right to worship. The group acknowledged that bigotry against Muslims is wrong, but stated that the planned center would cause the families of 9/11 victims "more pain." Such a statement is itself bigoted against the Muslim community, since it shoves collective guilt onto all Muslims for the September 11 attacks.

The 24-hour news cycle went into its frenzied state–and it hasn’t stopped yet. Cable news networks have given far-right groups and politicians a platform to toss repeated slurs and lies about Park51, turning the entire "debate" into a few intolerant soundbites and furthering the liars’ intent to turn more of the public against Muslims. On and on they went about the "Ground Zero mosque"–all while ignoring the massive humanitarian crisis taking place in Pakistan.

Predictably, the backlash against Park51 spread to other parts of the country, with mosques in numerous states facing protests and hate speech, such as a protester outside of a mosque in Bridgeport, Conn., shouting "Murderers!" to small Muslim children. Last week in New York, Ahmed Sharif, a Bangladeshi taxi driver and father of four, was stabbed multiple times by a 21-year-old police say struck out of hate. It should be noted that as a taxi driver, Sharif is already a member of one of the most marginalized groups in New York City. When I heard about the stabbing, I thought, this is how it starts (again). It starts by attacking the most vulnerable.

The very next night, a man entered a mosque in Queens and urinated, while shouting slurs such as "Terrorists!" during tarawih. Over the weekend, the new site of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was attacked by arson. Who is it, exactly, in America today that is intolerant against others? It is not Muslims; it is those who do not want us and our institutions present. That is the hate we should all counter, whether it be near Ground Zero or anywhere else.

The developers behind the Park51 project have the right to build the center they envision. The demagogue politicians and hate groups, and the media that give them microphones, cannot stop the project from going forward. Muslims have been present in lower Manhattan for several decades. And for many months now, Muslims have been going to a building numbered 45-51 on Park Place. We will continue to go, despite all the hatred and racism. I will continue to go, and I will continue to pray that the discrimination will end soon.