An Eloquent Face of Islam
DAISY KHAN had never seen so many Jews in her life. The year was 1974, and Ms. Khan, an awkward, artistic 16-year-old who had just emigrated from India to the suburban Long Island enclave of Jericho, N.Y., was attending her first day of school in America.
It was not going well.
Her fellow students giggled at the newcomer with the dark skin, exotic accent and unfamiliar religion. Few Muslims, it seemed, had ever attended the mostly Jewish Jericho High School. When a teacher asked her to stand and introduce herself, the questions came fast: Did she ride a camel? Did she ride an elephant?
“It was very strange when you are 16 years old and you have to explain your religion to an entire class,” Ms. Khan, now 52, recalled recently in the Upper West Side offices of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, her nonprofit group. “But that’s where my first activism began. I realized that actually I was a spokesperson for Islam.”
It is a role she now inhabits on a far larger scale. Since the summer, Ms. Khan, a former architectural designer, has emerged as an eloquent and indefatigable public face of the maelstrom surrounding Park51, the Islamic community center and mosque that she and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, are trying to build two blocks north of ground zero.
A modern Muslim who prefers high fashion to the hijab, Ms. Khan has become a lightning rod for the anger of right-wing bloggers and commentators who consider the Islamic center an affront to the victims of Sept. 11, or worse.
Despite her message of inclusion, Ms. Khan has been accused by critics of being an extremist in a moderate’s garb, hiding a conservative Islamic agenda behind a friendly, modern face. “Daisy Khan can say what she wants,” L. Brent Bozell III, the founder of the conservative Media Research Center, said on Fox News last month. “This is what you expect from a radical like her.”
Some Muslims, too, have criticized Ms. Khan and her husband, saying they represent an elite subset of American Islam that was naïve about the anger its plans might generate.
But as the project became daily grist for news talk shows and a flash point in the midterm elections, Ms. Khan has transformed herself from an obscure leader in the nonprofit world into a fierce spokeswoman, passionately defending the project and, inevitably, finding herself cast as the voice of moderate Islam.
She parries with news anchors like Christiane Amanpour, on the ABC News program “This Week,” and was even asked to intervene when a pastor threatened a Koran burning in Florida this past Sept. 11.
“We Muslims are really fed up of having to be defined by the actions of the extremists," Ms. Khan told Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, in one of her first talk-show appearances last December. “We are law-abiding citizens. We are faithful people. We are very good Americans. And we need to project a different message of Islam, one of tolerance, love and the kind of commonalities we have with different faith communities.”
Fame for being a spiritual leader may seem an unlikely development for a woman who, in her early life, abandoned her faith, sickened by images of violence that many Americans now associate with Islam. And it was certainly not the role she had planned.
Born into an affluent family in Kashmir, Ms. Khan was trained from the start to prepare for a professional career. She absorbed tales of the United States from her grandfather Ghulam Hassan Khan, who studied civil engineering at Harvard during the 1920s. Her father, Nazir Khan, a former soccer player, urged her to train for the Olympics.
At 16, she left for the United States to pursue an education in art and design, professions then considered off limits to women in Kashmir. She arrived on Long Island, living with an aunt and uncle, Arfa and Faroque Khan, doctors who later helped found the Islamic Center of Long Island, one of the region’s prominent mosques.
Jericho, her new home, “was so Jewish that there was not a single Christmas tree,” she recalled. Peter Madoff, brother of Bernard, lived nearby; Ms. Khan once hopped a ride into Manhattan on his seaplane. She learned pop culture while baby sitting for neighbors: “I got to see America through the lens of what bedtime stories do people read, what television do kids watch.”
She tried to assimilate into school, dropping her given name, Farhat, in favor of Daisy. A talent for field hockey won friends, and — this being the 1970s — she picked up a guitar and deemed herself a flower child. “If I had lived in the States I probably would have been in Woodstock,” she laughed.
After high school, she took humanities classes at Long Island University and earned a degree from the New York School of Design. Then, in her early 20s, she decamped to Manhattan and embraced the professional life, pulling 80-hour weeks as an architectural designer. Meanwhile, she lived on the Upper West Side, and would meet other young Muslim professionals for brunch at Zabar’s or Barney Greengrass.
India seemed far away.
Her workaholic lifestyle left little room for religion, although it occasionally intruded. At business meetings in places like Texas and Colorado, people would ask quizzically about her faith.
Yet unbeknownst to friends, she was wrestling with Islam, a struggle brought on, in part, by the rise of an Iranian theocracy that suppressed women’s rights.
After some soul-searching, she decided to abandon Islam because, she said, “it was too painful to always defend the actions of people that I couldn’t relate to.” But the choice left her adrift. By her mid-30s, she was an upwardly mobile Manhattanite with a high-paying design job, yet she felt unfulfilled.
In 1987, Ms. Khan began work as a project manager at Shearson Lehman Brothers on the top floor of the World Trade Center. On lunch breaks, she would walk by Masjid al-Farah, a mosque on West Broadway in TriBeCa, where one day she stopped in and met Mr. Abdul Rauf, the imam. He preached a liberal, mellower type of Islam, with an emphasis on meditation and inclusiveness. She began sneaking away from work for Friday afternoon prayers.
Here was a place where, Ms. Khan believed, she could reconcile her American identity with her religious heritage. This imam did not ask her to don the hijab or lose her Americanized name. He encouraged her to speak about women taking an active role in Islam. The two became close, and a courtship ensued. They married in 1996. Friends describe the couple as equal but complementary partners. “He is the thinker; she is the doer,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer who directs a think tank on immigration issues at New York University Law School, and a longtime friend who grew up with Ms. Khan in Kashmir.
She became interested in helping other Muslims, especially younger professionals like herself, balance their modern lives with tradition. In 1997, she and the imam opened a nonprofit to help promote a more progressive Islam, which was later renamed the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
She gained a reputation as a bridge builder. In January 2002, the group held an exhibition of works by Muslim artists to commemorate Sept. 11. A “bread-fest” in 2003 at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue brought together dozens of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders. A 2006 conference in Copenhagen culminated in a face-to-face meeting between conservative Muslim leaders and Flemming Rose, the Danish newspaper editor who published the cartoons depicting Muhammad that set off a worldwide controversy.
“This is the internal Muslim conversation that we almost never get to have,” said John S. Bennett, a former vice president of the Aspen Institute and a collaborator on many multifaith projects with Ms. Khan. “The Muslim world does not have many opportunities to continue this kind of dialogue.”
The couple’s reputation grew. Ms. Khan quit her corporate job to focus on nonprofit work, and the couple appeared more frequently on television specials about a new brand of moderate Islam. Ms. Khan was asked to join an advisory panel on education for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
The idea of an Islamic center, modeled after the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, had been a goal of the couple’s since the late 1990s. Ms. Khan was aggressive and tenacious in her fund-raising, at one point mailing prewritten letters of support to friends and asking for a signature.
But she and her husband did not anticipate the enormous controversy that would ensue, she said. Or the personal stress. The proposal has brought death threats; these days, she barely sees her husband and has had trouble sleeping. “There are some days I am afraid to turn on the TV,” she said.
Joyce Dubensky, who has worked with the couple as head of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, said that Ms. Khan was “visibly shaken” when she saw her at a function earlier this year.
“She said, ‘Joyce, I can’t believe what they’re saying, and that they’re coming after us,’ ” Ms. Dubensky recalled. “ ‘If we can’t build an interfaith community center, who can?’ ”
Asked about the recent stress, Ms. Khan, a loquacious speaker, paused and stared into the distance. Then her smile and upbeat tone returned. “I believe this affliction, even though it has taken a personal toll on us, is going to result in something better for all of us.”
Last year, months before the mosque controversy began, Jericho High School inducted Ms. Khan into its alumni hall of fame. At the event, she reunited with Ira Greene, the social studies teacher who had first asked the awkward Kashmiri teenager to share her heritage with a class of strangers.
“She was a great kid, a terrific student,” Mr. Greene said on the telephone from Brooklyn, where he now practices law. “I think she had a sense of what she was going to do from that day, that she was going to be more of a public person than a private person.”