Khan’s arguments have won her many supporters, including retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg; and numerous 9/11 survivors who have embraced her message of tolerance and healing. Leaning against the wall of her conference room are several large poster boards, crammed with signatures from some 8,000 sympathizers, that have been delivered by representatives of the Quaker Friends Committee on National Legislation. But she has equally passionate detractors—among them the Anti-Defamation League’s director, Abraham Foxman; politicians such as Senator John McCain; and scores of 9/11 survivors. As Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son in the attack, told Khan during a recent PBS debate about the center, “It’s too painful. It’s too soon. I’m still trying to find the remains of my son.” Other survivors have been harsher, calling the planned center “an insult” and “intentionally provocative.”
Khan has handled even her sharpest critics calmly—for the most part. “So far I haven’t really seen her rattled,” says her good friend Ann Nicholas, who was Khan’s boss in the design department at Shearson Lehman. But everyone has a breaking point, and Khan seemed close to reaching hers on Amanpour’s show when the Somali-born writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fierce critic of Islam who is living under police protection, lashed out at Khan for presenting herself as a victim.
“Stop calling me that!” Khan snapped. “You’re the one running with all the bodyguards.” It was a stunning reaction, this swipe at a woman who fled an arranged marriage and her homeland and whose filmmaking partner, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated by a Muslim extremist after the release of their movie about the abuse of women in Islamic societies. But the exchange offered a window into the complexity of Daisy Khan, because today it is not just the Islamic center that polarizes people; it is Khan herself. Admired for her courage, vision and sheer savvy—her ability, as one New York real estate investor notes with a laugh, “to take a $4.5 million building, wrap it in the American flag and get the whole country involved”—she is also criticized for her tin ear, for what some perceive as her tendency toward self-promotion and solipsistic righteousness, or as Thane Rosenbaum, director of Fordham University Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture and Society, puts it, “a one-way track on victimhood, a one-way track on sensitivity, a one-way track on tolerance.”
The criticisms sting. “Have you looked into my heart?” Khan challenged Peter Gadiel, whose son died in the World Trade Center, when he suggested in the “Holy War” debate that Khan’s claim that she was a moderate Muslim might be a lie. “Have you cut my chest and looked into my heart to see what my intention is?” And she’s still smarting over a barb by a Muslim fundamentalist who mocked her on the same program for not wearing a veil.
“He said, ‘And this woman here, she’s not even covering herself,’ ” she recalls. “That was a big, big stab at me. He was saying, ‘You are not even a Muslim.’” Because she does not veil herself except when praying—believing that public veiling for women is a matter of personal choice and not required by the Koran—it’s a remark she took very personally. But for Daisy Khan, a woman who has taken a long and sometimes painful journey to find not only her faith and her mission but also her identity, the fight is a very personal one. Perhaps more so than she realizes. Almost certainly more than she lets on.