“Out of every crisis comes an opportunity,” said Muslim women’s rights activist Daisy Khan at More’s latest “Noisemaker” lunch in Manhattan, on March 29. Khan, who was profiled in More’s February issue, spoke about the recent uprisings in the Middle East, her work to empower Muslim women and young people—whom she considers a vast, untapped resource for change—and changes in her vision for the Islamic center she and her husband hope to build in Lower Manhattan.
Khan credited the women of Egypt for inspiring the protests there and for the revolution’s relatively peaceful outcome. “It was the young men first [who took to the streets], then the wives and children,” she said. “It was more peaceful then. It’s hard to shoot at families.”
“Extremism is unIslamic,” said Khan, who strives to “balance faith with modernity” through her work as executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the founder of WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality) and of the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow.
Separation of church and state is “the Muslim world’s unfinished business,” said Khan, adding that the U.S. model—which honors religious freedom but doesn’t “dispense with religion” altogether—strikes just the right balance. Her husband, the imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and other scholars are working on a definition of the ideal Islamic-inspired democracy, she said, adding that “Egypt would be the perfect place to start.”
But to be a model for other Islamic countries, the new government of Egypt needs to be one in which women have a place at the table, Khan stressed.
“Take it slow and do it right,” she urged. “Egypt cannot fail.”
Taking it slow now appears to be Khan's strategy, as well. Since the summer of 2010 Khan has been alternately praised and villified as the public face of an Islamic community center she and her husband hoped to build on a site two blocks north of ground zero.
The couple has had to “refocus” as a result of the controversy so that their programs to promote moderate Islam and empowerment for Muslim women and youth wouldn’t suffer as a result of “all that hurt,” Khan said. Last January the site’s developer, Sharif el-Gamal, announced that the imam’s role in the project would be drastically reduced, and that Khan was no longer a spokesperson or fundraiser for the proposed center.
But Khan, who has been seeking input from 9/11 families, said “every option is on the table.” Including a new center, separate from the one that still may rise on el-Gamal’s site.
“Anything’s possible,” Khan said. “There are too many moving parts to say where it’s going”—or with whom. “But I can say we’ve expanded the center’s mission and purpose . . . it’s [no longer] just a community center where we come together to break bread.” And the center will “have very strong women’s participation,” she added. “That, I can guarantee.”
“Maybe we don’t need a swimming pool,” Khan added, proposing instead a conflict resolution center and a map tracking the progress of the women’s issues in the Muslim world. “Our vision is expanding. The current site may be too small.”
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