When Dr. Faroque Khan announced the expansion of the Islamic Center of Long Island on a sun-splashed day last summer, he told the assembled crowd of politicians, police officials and members of the public that the ICLI is “putting down a marker and establishing our roots in Nassau County as a very vibrant, progressive Muslim community.”
That forward-looking thinking didn’t end there.
On Jan. 1, 2015, Isma Chaudhry, a mother-of-two from Manhasset, will become the ICLI’s first female president, a largely administrative position, but one that is symbolic in many ways. When she replaces the current president Eric Hamza Byas, Chaudhry will be the 13th president to lead the ICLI since 1982.
The change in leadership atop the mosque and community center in Westbury comes as the ICLI is undergoing that much-needed $4 million expansion to support the growing number of Muslim American families moving into the area, and to bolster an institution sensitive to the needs of the community and committed to building deeper ties with interfaith groups throughout the Island. (In fact, the Long Island Council of Churches will be honoring Khan and the ICLI this week for the center’s work in the community.)
Chaudhry’s appointment, a three-year term, also comes as Muslims have once again been unwittingly thrust into the spotlight due to the hate-filled atrocities of groups such as the so-called Islamic State and others who say they are acting in the name of God—actions that the ICLI and other Muslim leaders on LI continue to condemn.
Chaudhry, sitting down in her office last week amid the booming and buzzing of hulking construction equipment outside, said she’s “honored” by the appointment, but also admitted to a few nerves.
“I’m very proud of the community who has supported me, I’m very proud of my family for supporting me,” she told the Press. “It is a lot of responsibility…it’s unique in itself that there’s going to be a woman president of a mosque, and I do respect the faith that the community [and] the members of the Islamic Center have put, and I’m very grateful for that trust.
“There will be challenges like with any leadership position,” she continued. “I’m not somebody who would not look for guidance, I’m not somebody who would not go and ask questions and look for answers…I’m nervous, of course, but inshallah (God willing) God will make it easy.”
Chaudhry was born in Pakistan and spent some time in England before moving to Long Island, where she has raised two children, a daughter, currently a junior in college and a son who is a year away from graduating high school.
In fact, Chaudhry was offered the same position several years ago but graciously declined because her children were still young.
Things are different now.
Chaudhry is affable and articulate. She displays emotion when discussing some of the negativity facing the Muslim community, but fills with pride when running down the list of the Islamic Center’s accomplishments.
She first got her start at the ICLI as a volunteer, bringing pizza to children and making sure they were behaving, “so nobody sees crying kids,” she said.
Then, when her children began attending a private school, Chaudhry reached out to help them better understand her culture. There were only six Muslim students in that school, including her own, she said.
Soon after, public schools started calling her. She would put together programs for teachers to help them better understand cultural and religious practices. Then colleges began inviting her to speak at interfaith panels.
“Things were very limited because of a limitation about music in Islam or limitation about a lot of activities,” she explained.
Chaudhry would ask herself: “How would I make it interesting for my own kids and still stay in that boundary of what is permissible?”
“Since it was a challenge for me, I could identify that it was a challenge on almost every Muslim family who were in that same situation with younger kids,” she continued. “And for the families who not to their fault were non-Muslims and had no idea about how Muslims basically lived, except for what was [fed] to them through media. And media bias is not something which is new or something which we have not known. We know how media can influence in so many detrimental ways without realizing the effect of that kind of propaganda. So, that was basically how I got involved with interfaith work.”
When she fully takes on the role of president, Chaudhry said she will make sure the ICLI expansion, which could go on for two or three more years, runs smoothly. She also wants to continue her interfaith efforts.
Although her resume with the ICLI boasts a list of accomplishments, Chaudhry is most proud of the annual interfaith Iftar dinner (the evening meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan). Next year will be the thirteenth such event.
“There’s no political agenda, there’s no religious agenda,” she said of the feast, which attracts leaders from nearly all religious denominations on LI. “It’s just kind of getting together and respecting each others’ faith and breaking the bread together.”
After dinner, they invite everyone—Muslims, Christians and Jewish leaders—to cite different prayers.
“Everybody gets to hear prayer which is different to their tradition, which, again, it’s all about harmony and respect and understanding, not just tolerance,” she added. “I just do not like the word tolerance; intellectually that word does not fit what we want to achieve.
“I want us to go beyond tolerance.”