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

Daisy was 16 when she entered Jericho High School as a senior in 1974. “I was the only foreign student. I was the only Muslim student. And it was a mostly Jewish school,” she says. “I was a complete misfit.” Her clothes were all wrong, her braids were ­unfashionable—and she changed them both very fast. She dropped the name Farhat and used Daisy, which had been her nickname back in India. “I noticed right away that I had to change my ways. I had to get accepted,” she says, laughing at the memory. “There was no way I was going to be a misfit.” The Americanization of Daisy had begun. She went on to college at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus and to graduate school at the New York School of Design in Manhattan. She became an interior architect. Her first big project was helping design the Islamic Center of Long Island, now one of the New York area’s most prominent mosques, which her uncle, Faroque Khan, cofounded. “My carpet that I designed for that mosque? It’s still there,” she says proudly, adding that she encouraged the female worshippers to demand that their prayer space be moved “out of the basement and on the same floor as the men.”

Khan went on to design restaurants and nightclubs and in 1987 began working for what was then Shearson Lehman, designing their brokerage offices around the country. “She was just always very spot-on in the way that she related with people of all different types,” says her former boss, Ann Nicholas. “She had vast communication skills.” At Shearson, Khan had an office on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center, with a breathtaking view; a huge salary; and a 70-hour workweek. She traveled constantly. Today she says, “I learned everything about America. Name any city, and I can tell you what state it’s in.”

In 1988, what Khan has called a “very, very dark” stage of her life began. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses had just been published, triggering riots and book burnings in several Muslim countries. Death threats were made against the author, and a fatwa calling for his assassination was issued; eventually he went into hiding. “I was moving around in intellectual circles. I loved books. I was very troubled by that. It upset everything internally, everything I believed in,” Khan says. “I didn’t know how to deal with that. There were no blogs, no chat groups. There were very few Muslims that I engaged with. It was a very lonely existence.” None of her colleagues in New York knew she was a Muslim: “If you were working in an office in those days, you didn’t discuss politics and religion.”

It was a crisis of identity for which there seemed to be no easy resolution. “I had to make a choice: Am I going to be associated with this thing [Islam] or disassociated? It was easier to just abandon my religion, to leave the whole faith thing. But there was something constantly calling.” Desperate for answers, Khan stopped into the Masjid al-Farah mosque in Tribeca one day during her lunch break. The imam was Feisal Abdul Rauf, 10 years her senior. The Kuwaiti-born son of a prominent Egyptian cleric, Rauf studied physics at Columbia University and then became a Sufi, shedding his father’s conservative Islam for a more spiritual, liberal form of the religion.

First Published January 18, 2011

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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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