Brook­lyn’s Mus­lims make his­tory

Albany Times Union - - FAITH & VALUES - By Aysha Khan Re­li­gion News Ser­vice

Za­heer Ali has been liv­ing and work­ing in Brook­lyn as a Mus­lim for over a decade.

This past year, in cre­at­ing an archive of lo­cal Mus­lim voices, he’s learned a lot about the lives of the di­verse com­mu­ni­ties who call the New York City bor­ough their home.

As the Brook­lyn His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s oral his­to­rian, Ali launched its year­long flag­ship project, Mus­lims in Brook­lyn.

“Brook­lyn is a gath­er­ing place for Mus­lims from all over the world,” Ali said. “This project re­in­forced the mul­ti­di­men­sion­al­ity of these com­mu­ni­ties, that we should not col­lapse or f lat­ten the ex­pe­ri­ences of Mus­lims.”

Fifty in­ter­views, rang­ing from 90 min­utes to three hours, will be col­lected in a per­ma­nent, search­able archive paired with ed­u­ca­tional and arts pro­grams.

The par­tic­i­pants are from a va­ri­ety of eth­nic back­grounds — African Amer­i­can, Ye­meni, Pales­tinian, Moroc­can, Kash­miri, Bangladeshi, Tatar, Haitian and Puerto Ri­can — and 18 Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hoods. They range in age from 24 to 74, from un­ob­ser­vant to con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim and ev­ery­thing in be­tween, and are en­trepreneurs, com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers, cler­ics, med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, home­mak­ers, busi­ness own­ers, la­bor­ers, ed­u­ca­tors, mu­si­cians and artists.

Among them are “Mus­lim Cool” au­thor Su’ad Ab­dul-khabeer, Bangladeshi Fem­i­nist Col­lec­tive found­ing mem­ber Sha­hana Hanif, 9/11 first re­spon­der Stacey Sal­imah-bell and Asad Dan­dia, a Columbia Univer­sity grad­u­ate stu­dent who was a plain­tiff in the 2013 class-ac­tion suit against New York Po­lice Depart­ment sur­veil­lance.

An es­ti­mated 22 per­cent of Amer­ica’s total Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion lives in New York City, in ev­ery bor­ough. Brook­lyn is home to the most mosques — nearly 100 — and one of the coun­try’s old­est. The Brook­lyn Mus­lim Mosque was es­tab­lished in the Wil­liams­burg neigh­bor­hood by a com­mu­nity of Eastern Euro­pean Mus­lims, who in 1907 founded the Lithua­nian Tatar so­ci­ety — later called the Amer­i­can Mo­hammedan So­ci­ety.

The State Street Mosque, based in Brook­lyn Heights, was founded in 1939 by Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and his wife, Sayedah Khadi­jah Faisal. Now known as the Is­lamic Mis­sion of Amer­ica, it was a spir­i­tual nur­tur­ing ground for African-amer­i­can Sunni Mus­lims, as well as for many im­mi­grants ar­riv­ing in the mid- to late 20th cen­tury, Ali ex­plained.

Brook­lyn also boasts Masjid Ab­dul Muhsi Khal­i­fah, one of the mosques that Mal­colm X founded while part of the Na­tion of Is­lam, in Bed­ford­stuyvesant. Mus­lim mu­si­cians like rap­per Mos Def have played key roles push­ing the bound­aries of art.

In July, the In­sti­tute for So­cial Pol­icy and Un­der­stand­ing pub­lished the sec­ond edi­tion of its Mus­lims for Amer­i­can Progress im­pact re­port, quan­ti­fy­ing Mus­lims’ con­tri­bu­tions to New York City and pair­ing the statis­tics with per­sonal nar­ra­tives from some 80 of New York’s most prom­i­nent Mus­lim voices.

ISPU mea­sured Mus­lims’ con­tri­bu­tions to life in New York in ev­ery­thing from civics to medicine to phi­lan­thropy to ed­u­ca­tion. Two years ago, about 770,000 Mus­lims resided in New York City, 9 per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion, and 12 per­cent of all phar­ma­cists, 9 per­cent of all doc­tors, 11 per­cent of en­gi­neers, 40 per­cent of taxi driv­ers and 57 per­cent of street food ven­dors.

Ali’s team worked with com­mu­ni­ties to choose the in­ter­vie­wees to help cap­ture three ideas: that Mus­lims have a long his­tory in the U.S., in New York and in Brook­lyn; that Mus­lims rep­re­sent mul­ti­ple eth­nic­i­ties and na­tion­al­i­ties; and that they have shaped Brook­lyn as much as Brook­lyn has shaped them.

For Ali, the anx­i­eties of the political mo­ment made the project feel more crit­i­cal than ever.

He cited the ugly rhetoric about Mus­lims, pol­icy-based and leg­isla­tive at­tacks on Mus­lims and a rise in an­timus­lim bias in­ci­dents. Af­ter the Supreme Court ruled in fa­vor of the White House’s travel ban, the Brook­lyn His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s pres­i­dent pub­lished a state­ment un­der­scor­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s com­mit­ment to high­light­ing the sto­ries and con­tri­bu­tions of lo­cal Mus­lims.

The in­ter­views re­veal a re­silience that’s in­spir­ing, Ali said, but the “in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions” within the oral his­to­ries also “chal­lenge Mus­lim ex­cep­tion­al­ism” by ex­pos­ing the vi­brancy and mun­dane­ness of Mus­lims’ lives.

“We see that Mus­lims are cer­tainly very con­cerned by Is­lam­o­pho­bia, but they don’t de­fine them­selves by it,” he said. Oral his­tory as a medium for the project al­lows com­mu­ni­ties to doc­u­ment their ex­pe­ri­ences in their own voices, giv­ing them the space to speak freely with­out be­ing cut and framed by ed­i­tors and cu­ra­tors.

The project kicked off with a free pub­lic lis­ten­ing party on Thurs­day at the Brook­lyn His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s of­fice in Brook­lyn Heights.

Photo by Diane Duggan

Left to right, Has­san Ben Jaa­far of the mu­si­cal group In­nov Gnawa, Liz H. Strong and Karim Ababou record an oral his­tory in­ter­view about Ben Jaa­far’s mu­sic and his life for the Mus­lims In Brook­lyn project.

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