“She is swimming against the tide here, trying to change everyone’s perception,” says Halima Tiffany. Her gentle style, friends say, is simply a reflection of Khan’s fundamentally hopeful view of the world. What her critics call her arrogance and tin ear is, according to friends, just a dazzling confidence—that her view of the world is the correct one and that everyone will eventually come around to seeing things as she does.
That rosy outcome was certainly what she expected for the community center. It was a project she and her husband had dreamed of for years. They were inspired by the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with its classes, athletic facilities and meeting spaces open to people of all faiths, because, Khan says, “we knew the evolution of all religions included creating institutions that intersect with the public.” When a real estate developer who worshipped in her husband’s mosque in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood bought the run-down building on Park Place, near ground zero, in June 2009—because the congregation needed more prayer space—Khan jumped at the chance. The architect in her immediately saw the opportunity the space would provide for a theater, classrooms, galleries, a swimming pool. The public relations woman—and perhaps the romantic—in her immediately saw the proximity to the World Trade Center site as a symbol of “much-needed healing,” a chance to show that American Muslims shared the country’s grief and were also part of the recovery, helping to revitalize the neighborhood. Khan did virtually no advance research or community organizing. She didn’t imagine that anyone would object.
If that sounds incredibly naive now, she says the big mistake was going public too soon, “not getting our board lined up, the people who would be able to speak on our behalf.” In Khan’s telling, the opposition came from a hard core of virulently anti-Islamic activists. And to a certain extent that is true. The first frenzy of protest was whipped up by two bloggers—Pam Geller and Robert Spencer—who head an organization called Stop Islamization of America. They hit the television shows and organized protests. In May a contentious community-board meeting resulted in a vote in favor of the project, but in the weeks and months after that, Geller and Spencer’s heated rhetoric helped define the debate in its extremes—good versus evil, religious tolerance versus bigotry, First Amendment rights versus the rights of those in pain. In the middle, however, were a considerable number of opponents and undecideds who were not so extreme. Among them were many Muslims, including Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire, who has supported ASMA financially but who objects to the center, not only because the 9/11 “wound” is still healing but also because he feels that a mosque should not be built in a neighborhood that also houses bars and a strip club. And there were many Americans wrestling with legitimate concerns about Islamic extremism and how to balance rights to free expression in a democracy with emotional sensitivities. All questions that Daisy Khan herself had wrestled with.
In 2005 a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad unflatteringly and linked Islam with terrorism. Muslims around the world rioted, and more than 130 people were killed. Khan struggled. “As an artist, I believe in complete freedom of creative expression,” she says. As an American, she believed in freedom of the press. But as the head of a Muslim organization, she agonized about what public position to take. In the end, she decided that publishing the cartoons was wrong. “Freedom of expression comes with social responsibility,” she says, explaining her stance against the cartoons. “There are some things we don’t do. We don’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. So is it wise to do what we are doing? Does one have to provoke?”