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

In Rauf, Khan found the compromise—a way of practicing Islam that she could embrace, one that fit with her view of the world and of herself. Khan immediately “fell in love with his sermons,” and then with Rauf himself. When they married, in 1996, her friends were stunned. “We were like, ‘Daisy, you’re marrying an imam? Are you nuts?’ ” recalls Halima Mohidin Tiffany, a retired U.S. Army colonel who has known Khan since the first grade in Kashmir. She laughs. “But you know, love is love.” Rauf—a “gentle, almost ethereal man,” as Khan’s friend, the producer Abigail Disney,      puts it—was the introvert to her extrovert. He’d been married twice before, but they seemed a good match. Tiffany was enchanted by the wedding: a Sufi ceremony, with a Taj Mahal–shaped wedding cake and a whirling dervish dressed in white—“this gal,” Tiffany recalls, “who just spun and spun and did not fall. And Daisy got all of us out on the dance floor.”

Khan kept her day job—after Shearson she worked for the publishing company Primedia, where she oversaw the design of Seventeen magazine’s offices, and then later joined a telecommunications firm—but in her spare time threw herself into the role of cleric’s wife. She organized weddings and funerals. She also counseled Muslims, especially younger ones, on how to balance their lives as Americans with their religious traditions. “I made myself accessible to people who wanted to ask very tough questions about their faith,” she says. “I was the one they came to because I was nonjudgmental and because I had gone through the journey myself.”

In an effort to promote their vision of a more progressive form of Islam, in 1997 the couple established the nonprofit group that is now called the American Society for Muslim Advancement. Today Khan runs ASMA, which has a staff of 10 and an annual budget of about $1 million. But for many years, while she worked full time, it was her husband’s project. “I had no real leadership role,” she says. “I was just the imam’s wife.” It wasn’t until 9/11 that Khan emerged from her husband’s shadow and became an activist in her own right.

If not for that earlier, Rushdie-related phase of soul searching, Khan says, she isn’t sure how she would have gotten through the horror of 9/11. “Everything changed,” she says. Some people she knew abandoned their religion completely, as did Tiffany, whose cousin was on United Airlines Flight 175 with his wife and two-year-old daughter when it was flown into the south tower of the World Trade Center—and whose uncle Lee Hanson is today a vocal opponent of the community center Khan and her husband want to build. Meanwhile, Khan found herself in demand after 9/11 as calls asking her to speak about Islam “as a Muslim woman” came rolling in from churches, synagogues and organizations around the country.

“There was a lecture every night,” she says. “It was overwhelming, the kind of outreach we had to do because Americans were so confused. They wanted to know what Islam is and ‘Why do you hate us?’ ” Khan also oversaw a handful of interfaith art and performance projects in Manhattan, including the Cordoba Bread Fest, a gathering of Muslims, Jews and Christians at St. Bartholomew’s Church. “One imam wouldn’t come because one of the Christian women was going to do a liturgical dance,” she recalls, laughing. “He could not be convinced that it wasn’t a belly dance. But two days before the event, the woman tripped and broke her leg. So we called the imam and told him we decided the dance was not so important. We never told him she broke her leg.”

At first Khan was tapped because of her husband’s connections: After 9/11 he was enlisted by the State Department and the FBI to consult on Islamic issues. But she soon developed a reputation in her own right, giving interviews, lecturing at the Aspen Institute, traveling to the World Economic Forum.

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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