"Osama Bin Laden is Dead: Justice Has Been Served," reads the headline of a press release on the Islamic Center of Long Island's website.
In fact, many of the press releases on the site for the Westbury mosque relate to terrorism: denouncing those behind it and applauding when its perpetrators are caught. A section of one release reads: “Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives. There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism.”
Ten years after 9/11, Arab-American and Muslim communities on Long Island are growing rapidly. Interfaith events are the norm and local Muslims say Long Island’s diverse nature makes it easy to assimilate. But — and it’s a strong but — the challenge remains for those who practice Islam: make sure the actions of 19 hijackers do not tar an entire religion of an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide.
“The average American on the street is a good person, means well, thinks well,” says Faroque Khan, who sits on the board of trustees at the ICLI, which recently received approval for a $4 million expansion project. “However, what is projected by individuals or by organizations or politicians creates a level of understandable anxiety among people who don’t have contact with Muslims.”
At Masjid Noor in Huntington, Mamoon Iqbal, a member of the mosque's management committee, says there has been growth in the number of people attending services and events every month. Besides an incident last year where someone threw a jar of nails at the mosque, Iqbal says there have been few instances of prejudice in the community.
“We have a very cordial relationship with our neighbors,” says Iqbal, later adding: “Other than that [speaking of the incident last year], the only problem we have with the community is municipal-type problems [such as parking]. If there was a store there, they would have the same problems.”
Iqbal is “as American as apple pie,” as he puts it. The 32-year-old was born and raised in New York by parents of Pakistani origin. He played intramural football at Half Hollow Hills High School East, where he was named a National Merit Scholar and graduated in the top five percent of his class. Today, Iqbal is a dentist in Queens and lives in Dix Hills with his wife and two daughters.
Iqbal says he has not personally experienced any prejudice because he is a practicing Muslim, but he knows the feelings still exist out there.
“The onus has to be on the Muslims to portray the true meaning of the religion and the way that has been taught to us by God and the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad,” he says. “This is an onus on us and it is our job to educate the entire population as to who we are, what we are.”
Asked if Muslims on Long Island worry about another 9/11-type attack and what that could mean for all the efforts to beat back prejudice against Islam, Iqbal is defiant: those hijackers weren’t Muslims. They were terrorists.
“You can’t control the actions of somebody,” he says, adding of prejudice: “Our job is to just keep slogging at it. Do the best we can. We cannot apologize for someone else’s actions, someone else’s ignorance, we cannot be pinned because that’s not us. That’s not who we are.”
A higher bar to overcome
The large growth in Long Island’s Muslim population can be attributed to a national trend among immigrants, according to Larry Levy, executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
“Immigrants are moving directly from their home country to the suburbs,” Levy says, “and bypassing the cities that generations ago immigrants used to stop in.”
Although Muslims come from numerous countries with a variety of cultures and different languages, Long Island’s Islamic population has united.
“It’s not automatic that Muslims here are going to come together,” Levy explains, “but on Long Island, they have in a way that’s helped give them a sense of security, made sure that their children learn the religion even as they begin to assimilate and it’s given them a visibility in a positive way.”
When the Islamic Center of Long Island proposed its 19,000 square foot expansion—complete with 13 classrooms, a library and preschool—it brought protests from neighbors over pretty general concerns that included parking, traffic and noise.
Levy praised mosque officials and the community, including Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro, for eventually overcoming those objections to allow the project to move forward. But while expansion projects, religious institutions included, are often met with neighborhood objections, Levy says the shadow of 9/11 and the prejudice it brought with it still remain.
“There seems to be more of an energy behind protests that meet Muslim centers,” Levy says. “Clearly Muslims have a higher bar to overcome than people in other religious institutions in terms of gaining general acceptance and it’s no doubt based on fear and anger and misunderstanding.”
A hopeful future
A decade after the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, Muslims on Long Island continue to grow and prosper, and are ever hopeful of a future where the words 9/11 and Islam aren’t tied so closely together.
“I’m not too bogged down on 9/11,” says Kahn, who refers to America as “the best country in the world.” “I want to do good and show what the goodness is.”
Iqbal will have that same message for his daughters if they ever experience prejudice because of the religion they practice.
“I would explain to them, listen, there are some people who don’t understand and this is just the nature of where we live right now,” Iqbal says.
“Ignorance is a shadow that can only be lit by knowledge,” he says of what he will impart on his children. “It’s your job to put forth and be an ambassador…you win them over with good behavior.”