When the doors to the Islamic Center of Long Island opened for the first time two decades ago, there were only three people inside the basement praying toward Mecca and welcoming the solitude it offered.
The unimpressive turnout prompted Dr. Faroque Khan, a co-founder of the mosque, to ask himself, “What are we doing here?” Little did he know what would become of the then-three bedroom house sitting atop a sizable plot on bustling Brush Hollow Road, which was purchased for $149,000 in 1984.
Now hundreds attend Friday prayers, and as word of the mosque continues to spread, more and more worshippers decide to make the spiritual journey to Westbury. The ICLI underwent its first expansion in the early 1990s, which cost about $2 million. A second renovation is nearing its end, and the price tag has ballooned to $4 million.
These are good times for the Islamic Center of Long Island, a vibrant, respected religious space that has earnestly focused on community outreach. The ICLI also showed itself to be a progressive religious center when in January it appointed Dr. Isma Chaudhry as its president, making her the first female president of the mosque in its history.
If members of the community are looking for a moderate voice of Islam, they need look no further than the ICLI. But in the minds of the mosque’s leaders, much work remains.
This weekend, the ICLI will yet again embrace its community-first attitude when it launches the Interfaith Institute of Islamic Center of Long Island, which will endeavor to educate the community about all faiths, not just Islam. Its goal is to foster a better understanding of the dozen different faiths being practiced on this Island. The institute includes an impressive board of trustees made up of men and women from different backgrounds and faiths, including representation from the Diocese of Rockville Centre and leaders in higher education. The interfaith institute is perhaps the only such organization in the region, if not the country, operated under the auspices of an Islamic Center, says Khan.
“I need to understand better the tenets of other faiths,” he says. “Similarly the other faiths need to understand and learn about who we are, particularly in the present environment where the loudest voices are the most crazy voices. We need to bring that voice of reason, sanity into the conversation.”
One of the institute’s main goals is to reach out to educators and their students—in local school districts and universities—to better educate them on Islam, a religion that most people learn about through uninformed talking heads on television and cable news. The religion, local leaders say, has been hijacked by extremists to justify bloodletting and territorial acquisitions. Such high-profile slaughters perpetrated by terror groups often prompt condemnation by the ICLI, but their voice isn’t always heard because mainstream media fail to report the institute’s denunciations, says Khan, the former chair of medicine at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.
The group already has plans to work with school districts in Westbury, Hicksville, Herricks and Jericho to promote interfaith initiatives through conferences, seminars, essay contests and student visits, he says.
Sitting inside the Jericho home he and his wife purchased in 1971, Khan recalls how Islam was thrust into the public conscience on Sept. 11, 2001—a horrible introduction.
He’s not surprised that 14 years after the terror attacks that many Americans don’t have a better understanding of his religion. It takes time, he says. He’s patient. And despite increased Islamophobia in the media and public spaces, he has unbridled confidence that Muslims will one day no longer be looked upon as the “others.”
“It’s been a slow, evolutionary process,” Khan tells the Press.
With the introduction of its interfaith institute, the ICLI is essentially coming full circle. The idea of the mosque began when Khan and other newcomers to LI realized that not only did their children’s schools lack the basic understanding of Islam, but so did their children, who were minorities in their respective classrooms.
That became clear three decades ago when Khan’s then-10-year-old daughter asked: “Dad, why can’t I have a Christmas tree?”
The Khans and about 10 other families, made up of mostly physicians, got together and began contemplating how a suburban mosque would serve a burgeoning Muslim community. In the meantime, meetings were held in a nursery school in Hempstead. The Quaker Foundation-operated Advent Church in Westbury provided a comfortable place for children to learn from other parents about the teachings of Islam. Eventually the ICLI’s founders discovered the property on Brush Hollow Road, but they instantly hit a roadblock.
The families were operating on a shoestring budget—with about $14,000 in the bank. The high-price tag notwithstanding, the families pooled their resources together and raised enough money to purchase the property. Its growth has been dramatic. Its latest remodel has been a massive undertaking. The installation of Chaudhry as president was a watershed moment. It’s evolution continues.
On Sunday, religious leaders and interfaith activists will gather at the Islamic Center of Long Island for the official launch of the Interfaith Institute. They’ll discuss plans to interact with schools and to lobby local universities to develop a formal course on interfaith dialogue.
The backdrop will be a massively expanding mosque. Construction crews first broke ground in August 2013. The renovated mosque will include more classrooms to support the growing number of Muslim families moving into the Long Island community, as well as a recreation area and interfaith center.
The Interfaith Institute has already received letters of support from such elected officials as Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and New York State Comptroller Tom D’Napoli.
Prominent religious leaders are also throwing their support behind the Interfaith Institute.
“Since my arrival on Long Island in 2001, I have been inspired by the willingness of the Muslim community, among others, to work together,” Bishop William Murphy wrote in a letter to Chaudhry, which has been included in a 35-page handbook detailing the institute’s goals and wishes. “This institute is certainly the fruit of those sentiments, and I applaud its inception and wish its Board of Trustees every success.”
Among the members of the board is Rev. Tom Goodhue, executive director of Long Island Council of Churches. He’s been involved in inter-religious activities with the ICLI for more than a decade.
“They’ve always been great at a sort of dialogue at a kind of a street level,” he tells the Press.
“It’s great the Muslims are tackling this,” Goodhue adds, “because they still face a lot of misunderstanding and suspicion, and they need to do things somewhat differently to come up with a way to interact with other faith communities.”
Goodhue hopes the institute will “further inter-religious dialogue and understanding” on Long Island.
Chaudhry, the ICLI’s new president, has been at the forefront of interfaith efforts. Her relationship with the ICLI began as a volunteer. Like Khan, the realization that education is necessary to foster understanding came when she realized her children were among only six Muslims kids enrolled in the private school. She created a curriculum and proceeded to educate the school’s staff on Muslim traditions and culture. Soon, other schools inquired about her services.
While combating Islamophobia and anti-semitism is one of her stated goals for the institute, Chaudhry hopes to simply unite communities and “build a healthy society.”
“People are afraid of what Islam is,” she adds.
The ICLI has a long history of coordinating initiatives with other faiths.
More than 20 year ago, it partnered with Catholics to produce 20 half-hour segments on Telecare called “Our Muslim Neighbors.”
In 2001, the ICLI and Temple Beth El in Great Neck collaborated on an event dubbed “American Muslims and Jews in Dialogue,” which the ICLI credits with spurring illuminating conversations about the two prominent religions.
And more than once the mosque has worked alongside the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove to promote interfaith harmony. One such event at HMTC highlighted the bravery of Muslims in Albania during World War II.
Albania, according to Steven Markowitz, chairman of HMTC, was allied with Germany during the war [following its invasion and occupation by Italy and Germany, respectively], but became the only European country to boast that it had more Jews after the war than it had prior to the conflict.
The Albanian people “protected their Jews and welcomed Jews from other countries,” says Markowitz. “These people were all Muslims who did this.”
Markowitz is not on the board of the Interfaith Institute but he wrote a letter of support.
HMTC promotes people they call “upstanders”—the brave souls who stood up for the marginalized, especially during the Holocaust. Inside HMTC is a photo of a young Muslim man rescuing Jewish boys at a subway in New York City.
“If there was ever a more perfect example of how people can stand up for each other and truly be ‘upstanders,’ that was it,” he says.
On Sunday, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, intellectuals, educators and a bevy of other supporters will stand united as they launch the ICLI’s latest—and perhaps most ambitious—project yet.
Their announcement comes amid continued turmoil in the Middle East. The so-called Islamic State continues to wreak havoc in Syria and Iraq; Libya is essentially a fallen state; Egypt’s fledgling democracy continues to crumble; proxy wars between US and Russia and Iran and Saudi Arabia are pushing the region into further chaos; and the Syrian refugee crisis has only underscored how the West is unfit, or simply unwilling, to welcome people fleeing war zones.
But despite the turmoil there’s hope here.
Just last month, Pope Francis stood at Ground Zero and held an interfaith prayer with dozens of religious leaders. Khan was in attendance. He left impressed.
Francis’ message of “love your neighbor,” says Khan, is one the ICLI and other faiths on LI have preached for years.
Yet pleas for solidarity are often muffled by the bloodshed, making it difficult for voices like Khan’s to reach the mainstream.
“Violence,” Khan laments, “gets more attention than peace-building and outreach.”
He says the tide is changing. Leafing through “Story of a Mosque in America,” a book he wrote and published in 1991, Khan recalls a time not tool long ago when Jews were marginalized in America. He finds hope in how they eventually found acceptance and prominence in society.
Khan understands that the fight for prosperity will perhaps never end, but future generations will be better off if organizations like the Interfaith Institute succeed in its mission.
“The hope is that these young people, down the road, will understand the community better and will be better neighbors,” Khan says. “I want to make it a better place for my children and grandkids, simple as that.”