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Parvez Sharma Headshot

America's Imam and His Problematic Mosque: A Muslim Viewpoint

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I had always been taught to believe in the homogeneity of the pious. But a year after September 11, as I snuck into a Thursday afternoon zikr at the Masjid al-Farah twelve blocks from the still smoldering Ground Zero, I was not so sure. It was Ramadan and the tradition of breaking of the fast, the iftar was going to happen after the zikr, or Sufi chanting.

Looking around, I felt this was hippie for the Muslims. It was like the Muslim Woodstock or Burning Man. Clearly the congregants would prefer granola bars to kebabs. They wore all manner of what my neighborhood mosque in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, would consider un-Islamic clothes. Men and women were together. It was beautiful and affirming and yet strangely foreign. "Only in America," I thought, "can I enter here as a gay and Muslim man," and yet I felt no sense of connection with the place. It was strangely new-agey. In the center sat the tall Sheikha Fariha Friedrich, a gaunt Caucasian woman in all white, who was the first female leader of this order (the Nur Ashki Jerrahi) in 300 years. It was time for iftar and all manner of micro-greens and broccoli came out. Used to dates, greasy kebabs and butter-layered rotis for this kind of meal, I fled.

A few weeks later, I visited the Manhattan apartment of one Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. I was a spiritual orphan launching on a journey of trying to document homophobia within Islam and I was looking for a home. Imam Faisal was dapper and articulate and spoke in carefully calibrated soundbites. His wife, Daisy, a lovely host, was also, it seemed to me at that time, getting ready for prime-time television. Throughout the zikr I could not shake off the feeling of being part of a project that would present Sufi Islam as a credible alternative to the mindless violence of the Sunni/Wahabis who had killed three thousand people at what was by now already called Ground Zero. I did not know how much at that time if America could be fooled into thinking that Sufis had any credibility with orthodox Muslims. Traditionally they had been the bastard children of Islam. Everyone in the room spoke in hushed whispers of an Islam that was a religion of peace. I was still not at that time sure of this line (I was able to refine and reach my own conclusions after seven years of study and travel to Muslim communities around the world, but this was way before that).

Sure enough, in a few months, whenever there was a PBS special on Islam--and there were many--Imam Rauf would be paraded about as the face of moderate Islam. He was not the only one jumping on the Islamic bandwagon. Islam was hot and sexy and later the success of my own film on homosexuality and Islam, A Jihad for Love benefited from that very sexiness.

Over the years I heard still unconfirmed rumors and whispers of a vicious power struggle that had raged within this Sufi order between the Sheikha Fariha and the Imam Feisal, who had been a regular prayer-leader there since 1983. It was widely believed that the Sheikha emerged victorious and that Feisal Rauf was thus trying to build his own following, which he clearly did.

Knowing Islam as intimately as I do, I have always found it extremely difficult to paint this complex religion of more than a billion followers with broad brushstrokes.

Even after a decade of living here, I still feel relatively fresh-off-the-boat in this country and, to me, seven years in New York make me a new New Yorker. Many of the mosques I have experienced, in more than twelve Islamic nations around the world, do not manufacture pithy sound bites about peace. I have often had to sit through deranged diatribes against women and minorities. And yet I love mosques, for the spiritual sustenance they have always given me.

On the other hand, most of the Muslims I have encountered in my own family and elsewhere are just ordinary folk, not really following fatwas and diktats issued by Islam's self-appointed ruling elites, be they the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or the predominant Deobandi School of Islam of the Indian sub-continent (and, ironically, the school of Islam that the Taliban comes from). Most Muslims seem to be just ordinary people trying to get by in life and hoping for better futures for their children.

I have also lived in America for ten years as an out and proud Muslim. I have faced "Islamophobia" only twice. Once was in Washington, DC, when a group of white boys in a speeding SUV yelled "Fucking Arab" at me. I realized, unshaven as I was and wearing my favorite and trademark kaffiyeh (Yasser Arafat's distinctive Palestinian scarf), I could pass for Arab pretty easily. The kaffiyeh came to haunt me again in 2004 outside a synagogue on 14th Street in Manhattan, when a bearded, young, Jewish man called me "Palestinian Terrorist" and then thoughtfully added "Go back." I muttered "I am Indian" and ran.

The arguments against the xenophobia and the re-victimization of the "other," the continued demonization of all Muslims and the right wing's hysterical evisceration of what they think constitutes Islam continue to be made on cable television and pretty much everywhere else. Right-wing, anti-Muslim vitriol has been spilled everywhere and in this hot summer of election politics this "Mosque/Cultural Center" has clearly become a wedge issue and a potent one at that. So I don't need to add to the rhetoric emanating from the mostly White men of cable television, like the Keith Olbermanns of the world, as they tie themselves up in knots defending the Constitution and the unfortunate tendency of xenophobia, with righteous anger and pain at the level of discourse in America. I certainly don't need to add anything to the fears at Fox and Friends of a Muslim takeover of this deeply Christian nation.

Three weeks ago, in Delhi's old Muslim quarter around the Jama Masjid, I was shopping for my kaffiyehs. The controversy of the "Ground Zero mosque" had been raging on my Facebook messages, already with many asking me to come out and write against the "right-wing nuts". As the merchant and I bargained about whether the kaffiyeh should be a dollar or two, I asked the older gentleman selling me the scarves why he would want to sell them at inflated prices to me. "Because you come from 'Amreeka,'" he said. Clad in kurta pyjama, without a hint of an American accent (which I have tried and failed to cultivate) I was surprised he thought I was "Amreekan." "They can sense it," said my friend accompanying me, sotto voce. "It's about how you carry yourself now, that you have been away ten years." Clearly, my demeanor would give me away. I asked him what he thought of Obama. "Obama," he said with a smile that elongated his henna-dyed beard substantially, is a bhai, brother. I wondered if this was just the kind of sentiment I had encountered in Arab countries after 2008, when most discussion about Obama's positive Muslim cred would stop at his middle name, as if that was enough.

I must confess here that my middle name on Facebook since October 2008, when a particular voter with questionable hair-drying techniques spat out "He's an Arab!" at John Mc Cain, has been Hussein. I have proudly proclaimed to my Facebook friends that the moment I lose faith in him, the middle name will go. I haven't yet.

Fact is that any discussion of Obama's religious affiliations makes me deeply uncomfortable. I am profoundly proud of this president and have personally experienced how people in Muslim communities around the world treat my choice to continue living in America differently after his election.

But I also know the Islamic laws of patriarchy rather well. They have been used to disabuse me of my own Muslim identity, by so many fellow Muslims in the past. Obama, unlike me, was born to a Muslim father who may or may not have been religious. But for some who narrowly interpret Islam's laws of patriarchy, this means that at best he is a Muslim and at worst, a murtad, or apostate. Obama has made his preference for Jesus over Muhammad rather well-known, in which case I guess for the "right-wing nuts" in Islam, he would deserve the death penalty for abandoning the religion he was born into.

Meanwhile, in the mindless chatter of cable television news, mostly White men sit around these days throwing about poll numbers in which one in four Americans apparently think that their President is a Muslim. Occasionally the ones on the Left (read MSNBC) will parade a "Muslim" guest like Irshad Manji--to many moderate Muslims I know, she is a much reviled figure and an "Islamophobe" herself--who will speak in pithy soundbites, with usually American, Canadian or British accents, about a cultural universe they may know little about, having grown up Muslim in the first world. (And this I have always said-there is a huge difference between North American/ "accented"/ "first-world" Muslims and people like Usman, who you meet below or the kaffiyeh seller in Delhi).

Rarely do we hear from fresh-off-the-boat Muslim immigrants who do not have the invisibility of their accents, the types who populate the halal food carts that can be found on every corner of Manhattan now.

I spoke to one on Sixth Avenue. Usman is a rather handsome, young, Egyptian man whose audio system belts out Beiruti diva Fairouz's lyrics from his halal Food cart in this very commercial district, as he churns out lamb gyro platters. "I don't want this mosque," he says. "I have one in Queens. We pray in a basement and we are happy and left alone." He adds, "How can I go and pray in a place that will cause so much pain to so many people?"

Usman, I wish you were on cable television instead of Irshad Manji and all the other North American Muslims brought to air this political season.

Usman, I agree with you. It's simple, really.

I, a mosque-loving Muslim, am against this mosque. (And like many of you I detest Sarah Palin's rhetoric but at the same time have little patience for Keith Olbermann's theatrics on this issue.) This leaves me in a very uncomfortable (and probably not popular) middle.

Within the discipline of prayer and the sense of brotherhood and awe I have felt in mosques around the world, I have discovered whatever little spirituality I still possess. At the same time in America, I have also been vocal and critical about everything that ails modern Islam and have certainly had no time for the hateful rhetoric of the Rush Limbaughs of the world that paints all Muslims with the same terrorist-red brushstrokes.

I still remain undecided about whether post-September 11 rhetoric in America is just simply Islamophobic and whether this fundamentally is a Christian nation.

What I am certain about is this: I do know that the mostly tolerant fabric of the city, which is now my home, is being damaged, irrevocably perhaps, in this discussion.

Only in New York can I take the 1 train downtown and have a Rabbi with his Torah sitting close to a North African man clutching a pocket Quran with a scantily dressed Columbia University student reading Proust sandwiched in the middle of them. But this same New York is now divided around this rather expensive Cultural Center aka Mosque aka Culinary school, two blocks from Ground Zero.

In a nation that is notably short on history (compared to many of the Islamic civilizations that predate it), Ground Zero definitely is sacred ground. It is also a unique American space, where what seemed like hours after the attacks, T-shirts and models of the towers were to be found for gawking tourists, who eagerly posed for photographs amidst the destruction.

My father always says there is a time and a place. My mosque-loving Muslim self doesn't feel this is the time or the place.

I don't want to give the lunatic fringe of Islam (the Al-Qaedas and the Talibans) reason to gloat. I do not want America's mostly tolerant fabric destroyed by a structure so divisive that it will be hard for someone like to me even go there and pray during Ramadan.

I come from a nation where Hindu-Muslim "communal" riots have been part of life and where more than a thousand Muslims were massacred in their ghettos in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad by angry Hindu mobs in 2002. I wonder how the Muslims of those neighborhoods would react to a prime real estate Hindu temple being built in the vicinity of their ravaged homes and lives?

Truth is that the media-savvy Imam Rauf, of Cordoba Initiative fame, has come upon a public-relations gold mine. I have not met him for years and am sure he would not even remember me. But I wonder if becoming a nationally discussed and debated figure is such a bad thing for anybody. He could well become "America's Imam," just as a certain former mayor of New York has appointed himself America's spokesperson for all things 9/11.

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