“America the Great”: Reflections of a Park51 Insider
Janan Delgado is a former Park51 program coordinator and is currently pursuing a PhD in Islamic Studies from Harvard University.
The message written on the dollar bill, which had been carefully folded and placed in the mosque donation box, read: “Has anyone noticed how all of America’s problems are caused by moslems (sic), mosques and illegal aliens? Let’s get rid of all three.”
I held the bill in my hands for a moment, took a deep breath and handed it to my blond, blue-eyed colleague Jack. “Here,” I said to him. “You take this one to the office. I don’t want to hold on to it.” Jack read the message, rolled up his eyes and suggested we tear it up. “No,” I said in a tired but firm voice. “The money we collect here for the mosque is a sacred trust, we’ll take it back to the office as it is.”
It was March 2011 then. Seven months had passed since the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy had made national and international headlines. The storm had abated, yet if anything, there were far bigger questions now for Park51 — questions tied to the America that had produced this dream and its nightmares, the questions I cared about. And there was no sign of any answers in sight.
I arrived to New York in the summer of 2008. As an Ecuadorian native who had just spent six years in Egypt, my image of America was complicated. I had a clear grasp of America’s foreign policy and its mixed effect on Middle Eastern and South American countries. At the same time, I had first-hand experience with the best values of this nation through my education at an American institution. With the support of American teachers, mentors and friends, I had earned a scholarship to pursue graduate work at New York University. By the time I graduated in 2010, America continued to reward my hard work ethic, and I had my eyes on the top PhD programs in Islamic studies nationwide. I was living my own American Dream.
When I joined the Park51 team as program coordinator shortly after graduation, I learned of another American Dream. Like many American youths, my new boss Sharif El-Gamal had had an unruly adolescence, but later in his life he would find peace and a sense of purpose in Islam. He had climbed up the social and financial ladder through hard work, stubborn persistence and savvy, going from waiting tables at restaurants to owning and developing buildings in the toughest real state market in the world. Happily married, and the proud father of two adorable daughters, Sharif now seemed in the right place in his career and life to launch a project as ambitious as Park51. Upon coming to know him, I quickly understood that just as I believed that a top PhD program was entirely achievable for a young Hispanic Muslim woman, he never doubted that his dream of building the first ever Islamic community center in Manhattan was achievable for him as a successful Muslim businessman. Was this not America, the land where big dreams became true?
As months went by, the dissonance between the hard tests Park51 was being put through and the America that Sharif and many others still believed in became obvious to everyone, and it became a favorite question of both supporters and opponent alike. Opponents asked, had this man no idea of the terrible offense this was to the families of the 9/11 victims and to America at large? (The voice of the 9/11 families was co-opted by the opposition, while in reality it was a diverse group with mixed opinions on the project. And the opponents’ “America,” of course, excluded American Muslims.)
Even empathetic observers asked, what America did Sharif and and his closest associates have in mind when planning this project? Was it a pre-9/11 America? And if so, why? What forces had sheltered him from seeing the America most Muslims and visibly-different minorities in this country knew fully well?
These were complex questions. While I, too, had wondered whether Sharif had really not expected this to happen, I truly came to believe that he did not, as he often repeated. On one occasion I had to fly with Sharif to a conference in Chicago, and as we approached the security checks at the airport, it suddenly occurred to me that he had no idea about what was about to happen, and that I needed to give him a heads-up. “Sharif, you do know that I will be ‘randomly selected’ for a security check, that my headscarf will be tapped down, and that this is going to be slightly humiliating, right?” Sharif looked confused. “No,” he said. “Nothing like it has ever happened to me. May Allah give strength and patience to all the hijab-wearing women of the world.”
It later occurred to me that the reason why the opposition was so angry at Sharif was precisely because he didn’t feel he needed to act like a second-class citizen. With blue eyes, red/blond hair, and white complexion, Sharif was often mistaken for a Jew. Besides his looks, his wealth and success had also sheltered him from the discrimination most Muslims in the street knew well. Everywhere he went, Sharif was treated as a rich, successful white male. Could he be faulted for believing that being a Muslim did not make any difference, and that he could build his community center and mosque wherever he found an attractive piece of real estate?
Our project was the object of a lot of hate (although 85 percent of it probably came from three people), but we were also provided with a strong support network and unexpected allies. Some of our neighbors came together to stand behind the right of Muslim Americans to build their houses of worship where we pleased. Jews, Christians and people of all faiths, or no faith, sent letters of support, attended interfaith events we organized and voiced their wishes for our center to be built. Local residents and people working in the area came down during weekdays — after work hours or during lunch breaks — knocked on our doors and walked in to figure out what the whole controversy was about. “This is it?!” they’d asked shocked. “A community center and Muslim prayer space?! Oh my God, outsiders just don’t get New York!”
Sometime later in the year, an unexpected invitation to speak at a Japanese American commemoration of their World War II internment gave me a desperately needed moment to breath, reflect and find some peace. I knew very little about Japanese American history, but that afternoon I learned from elderly men and women how their “we don’t want you here” had come in the shape of eviction from their homes. I learned how they had worn their best clothes the morning they were taken to the camps and shown up punctually at the time they were summoned to the buses. And I learned how they had kept their heads up as they were taken away, in a quiet display of dignity. “You people stay strong,” an old lady told me with a smile. “More people than you know support you and pray for you,” she said. She walked me to the front of the church, where we lit candles and shared a moment of silence. I was grateful for the connection.
For my hosts that afternoon there were not two Americas. There was only one, America the great that had welcomed them, given them a better life, then mistreated them and years later apologized and granted reparations. They had forgiven, but they did not wish to forget. “So that we remember to stand up for others when America forgets,” explained another lady to me with a warm smile and knowing nod.
After the event, I called a friend. I needed to talk. Speaking about the location of Park51 she asked me, “Janan, do you think there can be barakah (blessings) on a mosque that causes pain to someone? …To anyone?” A devout Muslim, she was genuinely concerned. “Are you suggesting that we move?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she said. But it has caused pain to the families of the 9/11 victims. Why not just move it?”
The concern my friend voiced was one I had heard before from other Muslims. The American Muslim community had had robust debates on this issue, many of these happening during the holy month of Ramadan, a month usually reserved for peace, prayer, silence and contemplation. I had deeply engaged with these debates too, and while the day-to-day tasks and duties I had to perform as part of my work at Park51 was time consuming and stressful, it was these deeper questions that robbed me of sleep at night.
“I don’t think there is an easy answer to any of this.” I replied to my friend on the phone. “But I wonder whether the desire to avoid or assuage pain is what should guide our decisions right now. Aren’t injustice and normalized discrimination worse than pain? And is this building the cause of pain, or is ignorance and misunderstanding the cause of pain? Why is our community, nine years later, still associated with 9/11? Is there a nationwide conversation still waiting to be held?”
I was deeply saddened by the pain that had been caused on 9/11, nine years later and in all the years in between. I also wished the 9/11 families hadn’t suffered, and Muslims and Arabs who continued to be treated with suspicion, and “Muslim-looking” Sikhs who were also the object of attacks and discrimination post-9/11, and Afghans and Iraqis in their countries, and the families of American soldiers, and … the list went on. What place did we, the infamous “Ground Zero Mosque,” occupy in this messy nine-year old puzzle?
On April 14, 2011, confused, perplexed and exhausted, I accepted a PhD offer from Harvard University and said my farewells at Park51. One of my dreams had become true, but my notions of dreams, America, and the place of my community in it would never be the same. Now, as I sip coffee at a cafe in Cambridge, Mass., watching happy tourists snap pictures of John Harvard and the beautiful green yards, I know I continue to yearn for the answers to the bigger questions, the ones that, even after Park51 has officially opened its doors this month, have not been answered yet.