By Dilshad D. Ali
November 2, 2002
New York City enjoys numerous monikers, one of the best being “City of Diversity”. Adding to the diversity, Muslim contributions to the city’s distinct social, cultural and political lives are now growing more than ever, as highlighted by a diverse panel discussion in late January at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
But more than being a discussion of how Muslims have influenced and been influenced by New York society, the program, part of the museum’s “Living in America” series, became a forum for the personal stories of four different Muslims coupled with a film and mini-lecture on the basics of Islam.
Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, field director of Columbia University’s Muslim Communities in New York City project and moderator of the discussion, asked audience members to ponder the meaning of “E Pluribus Unum” – “from many, one” – as they watched a film and listened to the panelists’ stories. “Our contributions as Muslims in diversity affect the one face of this city,” he said.
The 20-minute film, produced by Abdul Malik Mujahid, served as a 411 on Islam, highlighting the Five Pillars, tracing the religion’s evolution around the world and presenting interviews with various experts and scholars. One excerpt that seemed to strike audience members deeply, involved a hadith (saying of the Prophet Mohammad) quoted by American Muslim scholar Hamza Yousuf: “Those who do not show mercy are not shown mercy.”
Audience members then posed a series of questions, often delving into the issue of women’s rights in Islam. One person, noting how Muslim women seem to have more rights than women in other religions, asked how the misconception that they are less than equal evolved.
Debbie Almontaser, an educator with the New York City Board of Education, noted that many countries have taken Islamic teachings and twisted them to meet their own needs. “It all goes back to politics and governments,” she said, adding that all societies of the world have individuals who invade the rights of others.
Almontaser, a native of Yemen, spoke of her evolving faith and how the diversity of New York allowed her to become a better Muslim. Her family first assimilated into the mainly Caucasian community of Buffalo, New York, where she moved as a three-year-old. “I never acknowledge that I was Arab or Muslim,” she said.
But when she married and moved to New York, it was a culture shock. “New York City was the melting pot,” she said. One day Almontaser saw three African-American women in hijab walking down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. “I was amazed at their poise, their presence. They were proud they were Muslim!” Almontaser began wearing hijab soon after.
Her students have grown accustomed to her modest garb, she said, and were excited to see photos of immigrants in head coverings when she took a class to visit Ellis Island. “My students kept saying, ‘Debbie, Debbie, they’re all Muslims too!’ I had to explain that the immigrants weren’t all Muslims, but that back then we all shared a modesty in dress.”
Panelist Aisha Al-Adawiya, the director of Women in Islam and a Chicago native, shared Almontaser’s enthusiasm for the openness of New York’s society. “[This city] is the microcosm of the world, and the diversity of Muslims alone is really quite awesome,” she said.
Another panelist, Zaheer Uddin, executive director for the Center for American Muslim Research & Information, offered a list of facts and figures highlighting Muslim contributions to the city. Of the 1,600 mosques in America, 100 are in New York City, he said.
Uddin spoke of Muslims from all walks of life – business, politics, sports, the armed forces and entertainment. “You may not even realize these people are Muslims,” said Uddin. “You may pass them on the street and never know. That’s how wonderfully we’ve all grown to live together and work together.”
“American Muslims have to reach out and share Islam,” he added. “Islam is the fastest growing religion, but one with the most misconceptions. This can be changed with a continuous struggle.”
Al-Adawiya added to Uddin’s statement, saying, “New Yorkers are poised to address [the misconceptions] more than any other city’s population because of its very diversity.”
Raymond Rodriguez-Romero, a Latino Muslim who converted to Islam more than 20 years ago and is now a city council representative, also echoed Uddin’s message, saying that to be a Muslim means to have good, decent attributes, including civic pride and a commitment to truth. “If you distinguish truth from error,” he said, “you are responsible to follow what is right.”
New Yorkers are renowned for that very search for truth, he added, “They don’t kid around. You can’t bull New Yorkers. We scrutinize everything.” Romero said that in that way alone, Muslim New Yorkers have helped foster the city’s frank and open atmosphere.