Finding Allah at Ground Zero A New Manhattan Mosque Hopes to Heal

By in New York

Part 2: 'The Hand of the Divine'


The history of this five-story building at 45 Park Place is closely tied to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, the landing gear of one of the planes which hit the towers crashed through the roof and through two sales floors. The store wasn't open yet, so nobody was hurt. Still, Burlington Coat Factory moved out. The building, built in 1923, has been empty ever since.

The owners, heirs of the New York Pomerantz family, finally sold it in July of this year for the ridiculously low sum of $4.85 million. It was bought by the real estate company Soho Properties, run by Muslims. One of the investors was Imam Feisal, who was looking to expand his congregation downtown to offer a prayer opportunity for those who work in the Financial District and only have a short lunch break.

A Larger Vision

This then morphed into a larger vision. Imam Feisal now plans to turn the building into a complete Islamic cultural center, including a mosque, a museum, "merchandising options," and room for seminars to reconcile religions, to counteract the backlash against Muslims in general and "to extend a hand," as his wife Daisy Khan says.

"It was almost obvious that something like this had to arise from the ashes of 9/11," says Khan. "In some way, this has the hand of the divine written over it. It's almost as if God wanted to be involved."

New York has the most diverse Muslim community in the world, after Mecca. While in other parts of the Western world Muslims have struggled with stereotyped prejudices and anti-Muslim since 9/11, here the harassment died down relatively quickly. New Yorkers, after all, are familiar with their Muslim compatriots -- they're part of what makes this city tick. "We're bankers, cab drivers, street vendors," says Khan.

Strengthening Ties

The project has found support from the city. "We as New York Muslims have as much of a commitment to rebuilding New York as anybody," the mayor's director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, Fatima Shama, who is Muslim herself, told the New York Times. Lynn Rasic, a spokeswoman for the 9/11 Memorial, said, "the idea of a cultural center that strengthens ties between Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds is positive."

Imam Feisal, who was born in Egypt, is well-known here for his moderate voice. He has preached tolerance and freedom of religion, criticized fanatism and bigotry, and is even accepted by Jewish communities. "He subscribes to my credo," Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the leader of the Park East Synagogue, told the Times. "Live and let live."

The building on Park Place still isn't much more than a shell. From the outside, one would never know that, behind the graffiti-sprayed iron shutters, Muslims are praying to Allah. Streaks of rust run down the facade. The paint is peeling off. The crooked company logo of the Burlington Coat Factory still dangles over the entryway. A sign advertises, "Retail space for lease."

Inside, in the fluorescent-lit prayer room with its bare walls, dust collects everywhere. Yet the space quickly fills with believers -- young and old, Arabs, Asians, Indians, African-Americans. They come in blue jeans or nice suits, in woolen coats or puffy winter jackets. Some look like they work on Wall Street. Some look poor.

A Model Community

"It is great to have this option," says a doorman who made his way across Ground Zero from the World Financial Center. "This way I don't miss my Friday prayer."

"We're going to be a model community of excellence," says Sharif El-Gamal, the young-looking chairman and chief executive of Soho Properties, who came for the prayer. "This space could be a symbol that what happened on Sept. 11 is not associated with Muslims in general."

This day's prayer is led by Imam Faiz Khan, a physician from Long Island, who is filling in for the traveling Imam Feisal. "This has such wonderful potential," he marvels. "New York can be a place of healing."

In his sermon Khan talks about forgiveness and redemption and the dangers of religious fanatism. He warns of the "contamination" brought on by "sabotage, pride, vanity, egotism" and other character shortcomings. "There is no such thing as fighting over religion," he says. "We have respect for all creation," including "Jews, Christians and Muslims."

After about 40 minutes they finish. The men and women exit and immediately blend in to the streetscape of Manhattan. The shelf with the shoes empties. Just 100 yards away, construction cranes rattle. From the hole that is Ground Zero gigantic steel beams have begun to rise -- the first floors of the new World Trade Center.

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