There is this little mosque on West Broadway, in lower Manhattan, in the neighbourhood called Tribeca. This is not a purpose-built mosque but a nondescript, two-storey building with a simple but tidy facade, like any other apartment building on the street. Walking by you wouldn’t know if there was a mosque inside — no noise, no clutter of shoes at the doorstep and no haphazardly parked taxis and cars outside on Fridays. Only the signage at the door, in small print, tells you that the place is Masjid al Farah. The mosque was established in 1990. Years later, three bars opened on the same street, two on either side of the mosque and a third a little removed. The city laws require bars and restaurant owners to file an affidavit at the time of application for license, declaring that they are not in violation of the rule that prohibits setting up such establishments in close proximity – within 200 feet – to schools or places of worship. Violation of the rule can result in cancellation of licence.
Even though, legally, the mosque could object to the opening of the bars next door, it did not, and continued tending to its flock quietly, right through 9/11, and several years afterwards. The city woke up to the 200- feet rule when residents, annoyed at the opening of yet another bar on the street, complained. To reinforce their case against the bars, they also pointed to the presence of the mosque. The City immediately served notices to the offending establishments for revocation of their licences. The case came to the Community Board 1, an elected body that looks after civic matters of lower Manhattan, where all such cases are first decided. The bar owners pleaded not guilty on the grounds that they have been doing business all these years and were unaware of the presence of the mosque. They were probably right because even I, living quite close by, didn’t know about this mosque until I read the story in the The Tribeca Trib, a community weekly, which first broke the news.
The position taken by the mosque, however, surprised everyone. Its representative said they don’t want people to lose business because of them, that they have no objection to the nearby bars and have never had problems with them, and that the mosque would remain neutral in the dispute. “We don’t dictate other people’s behaviour,’ the mosque spokesman named Ali said, and added, “we believe in non-judging and tolerance.” (A message that mosques in Pakistan could use.)
Barely four days after the failed Times Square bombing, a Muslim organisation called Cordoba Initiative presented an ambitious plan to build a mosque and Islamic cultural centre on a site acquired by them some time back, just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre site. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a co-founder of the Initiative, said: “We need to evolve from being immigrant Muslims in America to being American Muslims.”
The proposal was doomed, some speculated because the families of the victims of 9/11 had strongly objected to the project, and the Times Square incident had rekindled the fears about Muslim extremism. But this time, it was the community board that surprised everyone. It accepted the proposal unanimously with enthusiastic applause, the committee chairman declaring after the presentation: “Everything I’ve seen [in the proposal], I like very much. I think it’s going to be a wonderful asset to the community.”
Tolerance can be contagious.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 16th, 2010.