Park51 Controversy Leads to Political Engagement by Muslim New Yorkers

The Muslim Day Parade in New York City - Photo: Mohsin Zaheer

The Muslim Day Parade, on September 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo: Mohsin Zaheer)

This is the first in a two part series. Click here to read part two.

Listen to Mohsin Zaheer discuss this issue on WNYC Radio:

NEW YORK−For the past 25 years, New York’s Muslim American community has marched on Madison Avenue in the annual Muslim Day Parade. But this year’s event, which was held on September 26, was markedly different from those of previous years−both in terms of the number of people participating and their level of excitement.

The parade ‘s official theme was ‘In Honor of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him),’  but the issue of Park51 – the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan–dominated the event.  Here were a couple thousand Muslim Americans that gathered to demonstrate their unity and call upon each other to confront the challenge of ‘Islamophobia in America’ by uniting on one platform.

“And the platform is Islam,” said Dr. Shafi Bezar, chairman of the parade.  Another speaker, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization, said there was no way the controversy around Park 51 would push Muslims out of America. “Muslims were in U.S. for the last hundred of years, are here, will remain here, and are going nowhere,” he said.

Watch an audio slideshow of the NYC Muslim Day Parade:

The backlash against Park51 became a major election issue, first for those who criticize the project as being insensitive to the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and now for those who hold it up as an example of religious freedom in the U.S.  The political debate is an unintended byproduct of the project, which developers say is meant to “promote dialogue, harmony and respect amongst all people, regardless of race, faith, gender or cultural background.”

When asked if the unity among Muslim Americans on the issue of Park51 could somehow translate into their participation in the U.S. election process, Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who envisioned the project, and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), said, “We’ve got nothing to do with politics.”

It may not have been Khan’s intention for Park51 to be political, but the reality is that American politics is absorbed with this controversial issue.

A number of Muslim Americans already go to the humble prayer space at Park51 to worship.  Madina, 27, an Afghan American, and Abdul Basit Rafi, 40, a Pakistani American, both work at Wall Street firms and say the site is the closest place for them to offer their prayers.

But Park51 has become more than a house of worship for Madina. She said the anti-Islamic rhetoric that came out of the Park51 debate, “would be a motivating factor for me to go and cast my vote on November 2.”

Mr. Rafi, who does not have the right to vote, agreed, saying Muslim Americans should be more engaged in the U.S. political process. Much of the Muslim immigrant community had previously had minimal involvement.

As the midterm election approaches, different methods and tactics are being used by Pakistani, Arab and Muslim American organizations and individuals to engage their communities, many of which have have been motivated by the anti-Islam fervor generated by Park51.

A recent e-mail from the Pakistani American Democratic Club to community members contained a warning about the consequences of not voting on November 2:

Congressman Peter King (R-NY) and Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino will assume the leadership positions of power. They have a record of politics of hate and fear against all minorities, policies of warmongers like Bush/Cheney, Karl Rove, Bill O’ Reilly, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh will be implemented by the Republican majority, immigration reforms will be in grave danger as the Republicans are against the Bill.”

The letter ended with a plea, “Please forward this e-mail to all your friends till it reaches to all six million Muslim Americans.”

But Imam Charles Bilal, the sole Muslim American candidate running for City Council, was less optimistic.  He says he knows why Rep. Peter King can talk negatively against Muslims. “Peter King says bad things about Muslims because he knows Muslims don’t go vote and that’s why he doesn’t care about them,” Bilal said.

Bilal’s difficulties fundraising in the Muslim community are a reminder of the long road ahead to becoming a powerful force in New York politics.  Despite the active participation and heated discussion among those who attend a recent candidate’s night in Brooklyn sponsored by the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), there were lots of empty seats.

Despite the challenges ahead, the Muslim American leadership is optimistic and united (at least on some issues). Park51 may have spurred political involvement in the fall of 2010, but leaders hope it won’t end on November 2.

In the view of Dr. Shafi Bezar,“if the Muslim Americans really want to achieve their objectives, then this is not the way that you wake up at the eleventh hour just before the elections,” he cautioned.

Feet in 2 Worlds coverage of the New York election season is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

AboutMohsin Zaheer
Mohsin Zaheer is a Pakistani-American journalist and editor based in New York whose work spans two decades. He won the New York Community Media Alliance’s Ippies Award in 2009 and has been the beneficiary of numerous Pakistani-American awards. Zaheer joined Daily Khabrain, Lahore (the Urdu-language newspaper with the largest circulation in Pakistan) in 1989 as staff reporter, eventually becoming the Deputy Editor of Reporting. Zaheer moved to the U.S. in 1999 and joined the staff of Sada-e-Pakistan, an Urdu-language weekly, as Editor and set a new trend for Pakistani-American media by reporting on local issues and activities taking place in the U.S. He covered the 9/11 attacks, wide raging issues within the Pakistani-American community in a post 9/11 era, and the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Zaheer also launched the Pakistani American community's first online newspaper in 1996, “The Pakistani Newspaper” (, and continues to contribute news stories and columns to Daily Khabrain, Lahore. Zaheer earned his Master degree in Political Science and History from the University of Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan.