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The white building in the middle is Masjid al Farha

There is this little mosque on West Broadway, in lower Manhattan, in the neighborhood called Tribeca. This is not a purpose-built mosque but a nondescript, two-story building like any other on the street. Walking by, you wouldn’t know if this was a mosque — the entrance door always shut, no clutter of shoes at the doorstep, and no haphazardly parked taxis and cars outside at prayer time. Only the signage at the door, in small print, tells you that the place is Masjid al Farah.

The mosque was established in 1990. Years later, two bars opened on the same street, one on each side of the mosque. The City laws prohibit setting up bars and restaurants within 200 feet of schools or places of worship. All such establishments are required to file an affidavit declaring that they are not in violation of the rule. A violation can result in the cancellation of the license of the establishment.

Even though the mosque could, legally, object to the opening of the bars next door, it did not and continued tending to its flock quietly, right through 9/11 and afterward. However, the city woke up to the 200-feet rule when a third bar opened on the street, a little removed from the mosque. The mosque did not object but some residents did. Fearing noise and possible rowdyism at night, they complained to the city against the opening of yet another bar. To reinforce their case, they pointed to the presence of a place of worship — the mosque — and the bars violating the 200-feet rule.

The city immediately served notices to the offending establishments. The case came to the Community Board 1, an elected body that looks after the civic matters of lower Manhattan where all such cases are first decided. The bar owners pleaded not guilty because, they said, they had been doing business all these years and were unaware of the presence of the mosque. They were probably right because even I, living close by, didn’t know about the presence of a mosque until I read the story in a community weekly, The Tribeca Trib, which first broke the news of the city taking notice of the violation.

The position taken by the mosque, however, surprised everyone. Its representative said they didn’t want people to lose business because of them, that they had no objection to the nearby bars and had never had a problem with them, and that the mosque would remain neutral in the dispute. “We don’t dictate other people’s behavior,’ the mosque spokesman named Ali said, “we believe in non-judging and tolerance.” (A message that mosques in Pakistan could use.)

Barely four days after the failed Times Square bombing, on May 1, 2010, a Muslim organization called Cordoba Initiative presented an ambitious plan to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center on a site acquired by them some time back, just two blocks away from “Ground Zero”. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a co-founder of the Initiative, said: “We need to evolve from being immigrant Muslims in America to being American Muslims.”

The proposal was doomed, some speculated, because the families of the victims of 9/11 had strongly objected to the project, and the Times Square bombing incident had rekindled the fears about Muslim extremism. But this time, it was the Community Board that surprised everyone. It accepted the proposal unanimously with enthusiastic applause, the committee chairman declaring after the presentation: “Everything I’ve seen [in the proposal], I like very much. I think it’s going to be a wonderful asset to the community.”

Tolerance can be contagious!

The article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 16, 2010
Some of the information in the article is based on what was reported in The Tribeca Trib, a community weekly

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