The Changing Face Of Park 51by Sabine Heinlein
On a recent, sweltering morning, Hanadi Doleh sped out onto the sidewalk to take a close look at the scratchiti that had appeared overnight on the storefront window of Park 51, the controversial Islamic community center in Downtown Manhattan. “That’s effed up!” the 27-year-old program coordinator declared. When I asked what the scratchiti said, Doleh waved me off, coolly. “It’s nothing. Just a tag.” She quickly proceeded to show me to the women’s restroom. Fixing her striped headscarf in the mirror, she prepared for a group of African–American and Jewish teenagers from the nonprofit Operation Understanding who were scheduled to visit the community center this morning. Her colleague, 23-year-old Rashid Dar, Park 51’s first director of programs, was to talk to the 17-year-olds about Islam and Muslim–Americans. Then the visiting group planned to attend a sermon by the popular Muslim American comedian Azhar Usman in the adjacent prayer space.
Hanadi Doleh and Rashid Dar are the new face of Park 51. They are proud and devout Muslim Americans who came of age in the aftermath of 9/11. Coming from a generation used to constant criticism and attacks, their reaction to the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy is “to run with it” (as Doleh put it). Dar said, “The most significant part of our history was the rather large controversy. People are now looking to Park 51 in particular because of the controversy. We are embracing this instead of moving past it.” Lamenting that the story of Muslims in America has been told by anyone but the Muslims themselves, Dar and Doleh are determined to take charge of their own narrative. “We are trying to be the Muslim voice, speaking about Islam to the broader American public,” Dar said. “If we don’t do it, somebody else will.”
Park 51 has been in urgent need of a public-opinion overhaul ever since it was dubbed “the Ground Zero Mosque” by right-wing propagandists two years ago, sending political ripples across the country. On its website the organization envisions itself as a sanctuary, celebrating “the best qualities” of Muslim faith, a haven of art, health, and spirituality. Dar and Doleh both likened its future to the Y.M.C.A. and the J.C.C., the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. Located several blocks north of Ground Zero, Park 51 shares space with its sister organization Prayer Space. It does not currently have an Imam in residency, one of the requirements to qualify as a mosque. What it does have, though, is lots of white, empty space—a blank canvas for two kids in their 20s to fill with their vision.
Since the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, the nonprofit has tried out a number of re-branding strategies, but none of them seemed to work. It offered bread making, capoeira, and calligraphy classes and exhibited Danny Goldfield’s photographic portraits of New York City children from countries all over the world. The classes were barely attended, and while the show got much positive attention—who doesn’t love hundreds of tiny international faces?—it was also beside the point. The pressing question that had begun to manifest itself was: How could Park 51 remain true to itself without igniting the anger of Christians and Jews who deemed an Islamic institution close to One World Trade Center (a.k.a. the Freedom Tower) insensitive? How could it win over (or at least assuage) the millions of tourists who are expected to visit the memorial in the coming years?
“Park 51 stuck its arms in a lot of different things—and these things were kind of random,” Dar told me when we sat down to talk in the big empty conference room that doubles as exhibition and workshop space. A recent college graduate with little job experience, Dar moved to the city from Kenosha, Wisconsin two months ago to take on his new position. While he admits that New York is wearing him thin, his enthusiasm for Park 51’s new mission is palpable. Each day he receives heaps of emails from schools and colleges requesting tours of “the Ground Zero Mosque.” Random tourists pop into the community center to see with their own eyes what “the Ground Zero Mosque” is all about. “People are looking to us specifically to fill this gap,” Dar said, bemoaning America’s large void when it comes to Islam and Muslim life.
With its relatively short history in the U.S., the Muslim community has much catching-up to do. Large waves of Muslim immigrants didn’t arrive until after President Lyndon Johnson changed the country’s racist immigration policies in 1965. (The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted the admittance of Southern and Eastern Europeans, mainly Jews fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia, and prohibited immigration of Middle Easterners and Asians.) Dar’s parents came from Pakistan as a direct result of Johnson’s policy changes. As is often the case, the first generation of immigrants is too busy orienting itself; it is up to the second and third generations to fight the battles.
At 11:30 a.m. on a hot summer morning, two dozen Jewish and African–American teenagers filed into a large, empty conference space. Their visit to Park 51 was part of Operation Understanding’s three-week, summer travel program to historical and cultural sites that are meaningful to their communities. Dar was wearing a starched white shirt and a pink tie. His gray dress pants seemed awkwardly tight and uncomfortable. He glanced nervously at his smartphone, calculating how much time he had until the prayer service next door would begin. Today’s was a special service, not only because of comedian Usman. It was the day of the Jumu’ah, the Friday prayer. The person who attends this prayer and remains quiet is said to be forgiven for the sins committed during the preceding week. Besides, Dar added, someone was to convert today. “We Muslims get very excited when someone converts to Islam,” he explained to the teenagers.
When I met with Dar two days before, he had emphasized the importance of tailoring each tour according to the needs of the visiting organization, but now he seemed utterly stiff and nervous. “This is your opportunity to ask whatever you want. You cannot offend us,” he said to the kids. “If you know anything about the controversy—that was the worst that could happen.” Instantly, a boy raised his hand. He said that his father was Muslim and that he wanted to get some questions answered about Jihad. His classmate wanted to know how U.S. government policies affect Muslims in America. Another student asked whether Muslims from different countries share the same community in the U.S. How do Muslims perceive Jews and Christians? What was it like to grow up Muslim in America? The students were extraordinarily bright, engaged, and articulate. Dar jotted their questions down on the board and then admonished them not to interrupt while he spoke, saying he’d get to their questions later.
For the next two hours Dar talked about the history of Islam and its prophets; he recounted ancient Muslim parables and repeatedly emphasized that there is only one God and that this God is the creator of everything. (“He is the God of dry erase markers and of pink ties.”) He asked, “Are non-Muslims doomed?” and answered his question with “You have an excuse before God. No one wants to put words in God’s mouth.”
It is abundantly clear that Dar is educated and eloquent, but his speech sounded rehearsed, monotonous, and didn’t touch on any of the students’s questions. It wasn’t “tailored” as he had promised and hardly reflected the Muslim-American experience after 9/11. One of the kids in the front was falling asleep, and I noticed that the girl next to me had written “so fucking tired” in her notebook. It occurred to me that the students’s questions addressed some of the most important issues facing Muslims in post-9/11 America—and that Dar had blown it. I remembered him telling me that he was raised “in a bubble.” Growing up in Wisconsin most of his friends had been Christians. He wasn’t even raised in a particularly devout Muslim family. It wasn’t until he went to college that he was really confronted with Muslim issues. If Dar’s story taught me anything about Muslims in America it was that his life had been that of a “normal” Midwestern kid until he came to New York two months ago.
Once Dar was done, it was Doleh’s turn. Doleh was born and raised in New York and has a masters in international relations from Brooklyn College. Her short speech summed up all the ignorance, fear, prejudice, and hate that was inflicted on American Muslims post 9/11. Her experience, in combination with her innate resilience, made her who she is today. “I am very proud to be a Muslim American, female, Palestinian New Yorker,” she said. “I walk with my head high. My experiences have led me to where I am.”
I shuddered as Doleh talked to this group of privileged students. The emotional response her stories evoked left the most lasting impression. The Islamic high school she attended was closed for two months after 9/11. For the remainder of the school year the students were escorted there by police because people spit and threw pork chops at them. “I was hearing people whisper about me on the subway,” Doleh told me. “‘I bet she doesn’t even speak English. She probably got married when she was 14.’ I’m just not an uneducated person,” she added. Surprisingly, when I expressed being upset hearing about her experience, Doleh was quick to defend her fellow citizens. “It was a very emotional time for Americans. Especially New Yorkers.”
Her experiences have led Doleh to work for the Jerusalem Community Advocacy Network, a Palestinian civil rights organization, Al-Awda, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and the U.S. Palestinian Community Network. “I have always been a person that’s been able to take adversity and run with it—make it my own and be strengthened from it,” Doleh said. When she went canvassing for Park 51 in Downtown Manhattan she told people who insulted her and her community, “We have a saying in Arabic. ‘Not all your fingers are the same size.’ At the end of the conversation some people had changed their minds about Muslims.”
After I left Park 51 that Friday I thought about its two young, new faces. Dar’s knowledge of Islam and Doleh’s experiences after 9/11 are central to the story of Muslims in America. As they stood, however, experience and knowledge appeared disjointed, accidental and utterly uncoordinated. Dar, who grew up “in a bubble,” was well-read and passionate about Islam but also bookish and inflexible. He didn’t know how to apply his vast knowledge or how to draw people in. His mission and zeal overshadowed the audience’s needs. Doleh, on the other hand, related her post-9/11 experiences in a passionate and lively manner. Her hands-on approach to cross-cultural education had proven itself successful and her stories will stick with her audience for years to come; and yet she was given too little room to expand. One might hope that, for the sake of Park 51 (and the public), Doleh and Dar find a way to connect their divergent experiences and their ways of teaching Americans about Islam. The next time a group visits Park 51 to learn about Muslim faith and its American history Dar and Doleh should remain true to their motto and “just run with it” as they have plenty of vivid material to fall back on.