Mosque's Daisy Khan Not Backing Down

Daisy Khan has been hailed as a healer, a link between moderate Islam and the West, and a force for equality for Muslim women. But since she and her husband proposed building an Islamic center near ground zero, Khan has been under siege.

By Suzanna Andrews
Photograph: Martin Schoeller

More news on Daisy Khan: Daisy Khan on Muslim Women, Egpyt's Future and Her New Vision for the "Ground Zero Mosque"

Until last summer, Daisy Khan’s life was a study in compromise. As a teenage immigrant from India, she unbraided her hair and donned bell-bottoms to fit in at her Long Island, New York, high school. As a successful corporate interior architect, she translated her creative vision into designs acceptable to her more conservative clients. As an imam’s wife, she counseled young Muslim couples on how to balance Islamic traditions with American customs. Later, as an advocate for Muslim women’s rights, she sought to reconcile feminism with the Koran. And as a self-described bridge builder between Islam and the West, she sought to forge alliances and eradicate fear. But now, at 52, Daisy Khan is shocked—some say naively so—to find herself in the middle of a raging national controversy surrounding a Muslim community center and prayer space that she and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, want to build two blocks north of where the twin towers fell. Opponents have asked the couple to stop the project or at least move it elsewhere. But on this point, Khan insists there can be no negotiation and no concession. The compromiser is refusing to budge. The question is, why?

It is early November, and a warm afternoon light bathes the conference room of Khan’s offices on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Filled with books and photographs, the space is cozy, a sanctuary from what she refers to as “six months of an onslaught” since the couple’s plans to turn a shabby, four-story building worth about $4.5 million into a 15-story, $100 million complex first exploded in the headlines in May. Nothing, Khan says, prepared her for the vehemence of the reaction: the death threats, the vicious blog posts, the public statements from opponents darkly questioning the couple’s motives, some even suggesting that they are a front for radical Islamists bent on imposing Sharia law on U.S. soil. These days she hesitates before turning on the TV or getting on the Internet. “I mean, like, I’m scared to see some of the stuff that’s out there,” she says.

Since that initial media eruption, the center has become the focus of a blazing national debate over the nature of Islam and its role in America, and Khan has become the project’s public face, appearing on CNN, Fox, This Week with Christiane Amanpour. Usually dressed casually—pants, jacket, T- or man-tailored shirt, her lustrous brown hair worn loose to her shoulders or clipped into a messy bun—she looks like everyone’s friendly neighbor. In a soft voice, her pronunciation melodiously tinged with the English accent she picked up as a child in India, Khan passionately defends the project that has been her long-standing dream. At stake, she says, is nothing less important than the First Amendment right to religious freedom and the bedrock American principle of tolerance. As she said on Amanpour’s debate “Holy War: Should Americans Fear Islam?” last October, “I am now fighting for American values.” And, she suggested, for America’s security as well. The center, she said, would be a bulwark against Islamic terrorists, “amplifying the voices of moderate Muslims” and creating “a countermomentum against extremism so that another 9/11 does not ever happen again.”

First Published January 18, 2011

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Comments

Donna Cavanagh06.21.2011

This was an excellent article. I am from NYC, and I think maybe the center will shed light on the peaceful aspects of religions. Maybe it might de-demonize Islam. Let it be a healing place and not a place of hate. I admire greatly this woman.

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