Saturday, August 28, 2010

Visiting a Park of a Different Green: My Trip to the Proposed Site of the NYC Islamic Community Center

I took the E train down from Penn Station. It was a 14 minute ride. As each stop passed, I became a little more excited at what awaited. After what seemed like ages, the train announcer finally announced, “Last stop, World Trade Center.” Hearing those three words, “World Trade Center”, at the site felt so different than when I heard them thrown around on the news so often. I was in lower Manhattan, the zone that shook so many years ago. World. Trade. Center. 

I walked up the stairs and out of the subway system. I had to blink, squint, and adjust to the daylight. I spun around a little, looking for Park Place; instead, I found the gated walls encompassing the hallowed ground of the Twin Towers. I had visited the area a few times after 9/11, but each time had been as a non-New Yorker. But now I have lived in NY for three years. Seeing Ground Zero felt very different now, a scar on the skyline of a horrifying past.

I found Park Place easily enough, it was a complete 180 turnaround from Ground Zero. The road signs were labeled very clearly, letting me know which block would hold 51 Park Place, the site of the proposed Islamic Community Center. And so, I set off on my walk, anxious to see this controversial piece of property. I counted down the building numbers and closed in on 51; dodging cigarette smokers along the way.

And I walked past the place.

I nearly completely walked past the place had it not been for a few people holding signs and some others taking pictures. Otherwise, it is a completely nondescript, rundown eyesore.
I turned around to look at the building opposite Park51. There is an office building across the street, looks like a business version of a sweatshop. Park51 itself is very dilapidated. The paint is peeling, graffiti scattered on it, the “Burlington Coat Factory” logo is only visible due to the faded letters surrounded by dirt and grime. 

One lady held up a sign with my name on it. I asked her if she was my limo driver. No luck.  The sidewalk is chalked with “love thy neighbor”, “Learn the facts”, and “”.

This extremism is too much for me.

Speaking of extremists, half a block down there is an Amish Market. The Amish, man, they’re the extremists! 
Forced to wear hijab at an early age!
I stood in front of the Amish Market at the corner of Park and West Broadway. I turned a full 180 and saw Ground Zero. Three cranes are visible, like skeletons of Brontosaurs. But Brontosaurs were never real. They were actually the bodies of Apatosaurs combined with Camarasaur heads born of a rivalry between two paleontologists! HILARTACULAR! 

I walked two blocks to Ground Zero from the Amish Market. Along the way, I passed two halal carts. These two halal carts were way closer to Ground Zero than Park51. 

Have they no shame? 

Fruit Shakes?  More like 'Fruit Sheikhs'!
A man walked past me with a shirt saying “No Ground Zero mosque”. When I arrived at Ground Zero, sure enough, the man was correct! There was, indeed, no Ground Zero Mosque. But I did see a variety of other things. Century 21, a department store, has a big banner saying “Fall into Fashion at C21” which overlooked the entire Ground Zero. I found that majorly offensive, given that some of the victims plunged to their deaths on 9/11. There were numerous places to spend money and glutton oneself, but there were no spaces to just sit in silence and contemplate, reflect, or pray. A Christian nation and people committed gluttony mixed with sloth!  That was offensive! I saw a lady picking her nose at Ground Zero. That was offensive. A pimp stood next to me while I stood at an intersection. I was offended! 

Then I realized that everybody has the freedom to do whatever it was they were doing, from digging for gold to wearing some gold. All the things which offended me were entirely subjective, and had no roots which could be tied to justice.  It reminded me of a law in Pakistan that says, "If you insult the honor of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him), you will be put to death."  Insult according to whom?  Is there a person who can turn emotions into facts and judges accordingly?  One would have to ask the person to see if he was offended and in this immediate example, the prophet Muhammad passed away over 1400 years ago.  Too bad he didn't leave behind any teachings that could help in this matter and show that blasphemy is not punishable by the death penalty.

Oh wait.  He did.

You can't deprive people of their life based on something subjective.  (The word "life" can be interchanged with any other human right)  Why?
Because the fact is that there are four types of people:  those who are over-sensitive, those who are sensitive, those who are under-sensitive, and my father.  But even THOSE categories are subjective!  We cannot act on them to set any standard aimed at one group of people because this does not mete out equal justice for it has no basis in fact and cannot break down into elements which can be applied to all.
I walked the two and a half blocks back to Park51 with this in mind. 

There were about 12-15 supporters out front.  3 or 4 were Muslim.
But all were definitely supporters of American values.
A lady approached me and asked if I was a journalist. I replied, “Kind of.” She asked if I was religious. I said, “Yes.” She asked if I was Muslim. I said, “Yes.” She then asked if I knew the story of Lazarus and his supposed resurrection.  She did not care if I did not believe it, just if I knew it.  I said, “Yes.” She then said, “For all the Christians that oppose this building, they need to become firm in their faith. The resurrection will happen no matter where the mosque is located.” Although she pretty much told me that she believed I was going to Hell, I agreed with her logic.
I proceeded inside and was greeted by a tall, strong, African-American brother. He asked, “Can I help you?” I responded, “Assalamo Alaikum,” (peace be upon you) and extended my hand. He took it and responded with a hearty, “Walaikum salam warahmatullah wabarakatahu.” (peace be upon you and the mercy and blessings of Allah). I said, “I just want to check out the mosque.” He replied, “It is right down over there, just take off your shoes.” So I took off my shoes and went into the prayer area. There were a number of pillars in the prayer area. Other than that, the room was totally empty of any object (except for a few Qurans on a shelf, a prayer mat, and numerous carpets in rows) and had bare walls. Perfect.  I could not even tell I was in New York City. I could not even hear the hustle of the NYC rush hour. I prayed my late afternoon prayer and offered a prayer for whatever is best (what a subjective prayer). I left the area with another hearty exchange of “salaams” with the doorman.
I left Park51. A non-Muslim man was standing outside in support of the center. When he saw me enter the outdoors, he offered me the biggest, most genuine smile.  
I had never seen somebody so genuinely happy to see another exercising his freedom of religion.  It was comforting amidst the rat race that surrounded us.
...then I ran to the subway because, hey, it's New York and I had a train to catch.


Qasim Rashid said...

Great perspective. Enjoyed every bit of it. I hope your words don't fall on deaf ears.

Asif Jamil said...

Very entertaining, but also very insightful observations. (I saw what you did there with the two "gold" references. Hehehe.)

It's good to see that there are many in this American society who still hold the values of freedom of religion close to them, even when they don't follow that same religion... I asked myself if I would have done the same.

nusrat said...

FANTASTIC post. Worthy of being in major media. Great job. Thank you so much for such a wonderful perspective.

Maudood A. Bhatti said...

Good job! Keep up the good work!

A. Rahim Hubbs said...

Very thoughtful and insightful piece. I felt like I was on the streets of NYC with you.

Tariq said...

definitely very entertaining, and I agree with your opinion!

Mahmood Ahmad said...

Best piece I have read on this whole stupid thing...which, sadly, is saying alot (I may be an enyclopedia of Park 51-related stuff on the web)