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Daisy Khan

Muslim activist guest speaker at Boise State's Frank Church Conference


When she was a young girl, growing up in Kashmir, India, Daisy Khan wanted to be an architect. Little did she know that her skills as a designer and builder would be necessary to become one of the most important voices for 21st century Muslims. She needed to build cultural bridges between the Muslim community and general public through dialogues in faith and identity. And she needed to have a strong personal foundation to endure scores of debates--some vitriolic--when her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, announced his plans for a multi-ethnic community center two blocks from Ground Zero. Opponents quickly called his center a mega-mosque, creating a fervent debate over religious tolerance.

Executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Khan will be one of the featured speakers at the 2011 Frank Church Conference, Thursday, Oct. 27, at Boise State.

When did you first come to the United States?

There was a tradition in my family of pursuing higher education, even if you had to go as far as the West. My grandfather and father both studied in the United States. I studied at C.W. Post College and the New York School of Design in Manhattan.

I went on to begin a career in architectural design for several large corporations. During one of those jobs, I worked on the 106th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. That was 1987.

Our building experienced a blackout once. I have distinct memories of what it was like to escape from that building. It took us two hours to climb down, as we watched firefighters going up the stairs. I had a visceral experience of fear. When 9/11 happened, I felt I had been transported back.

9/11 certainly changed you personally but how did it change you professionally?

By the time 9/11 happened, I was married to an imam whose mosque was only 12 blocks away from Ground Zero. We were in Colorado, and I remember watching images of our city and neighborhood being attacked. I remember being transported back to my earlier experiences of fear and helplessness. I told my husband that our lives had changed forever.

Eventually, as many Americans were curious about Islam, we started doing more outreach and lecturing. There was one particular lady in a church who was asking me about Muslim women, saying they were treated as second-class citizens. I argued that they weren't. That forced me to look inside of myself and do some self-reflection.

Are there predominant falsehoods about Muslim women?

The predominant myth is that all Muslim women are oppressed. I'm not saying that the state of Muslim women is not dismal. What I am saying is that Muslim women have made tremendous advances. Muslim societies have produced five women heads of state. People need to support that and empower women who are on the front line of creating change.

Many of us have seen you on numerous Sunday morning network news programs. I'm curious what you think of how Western media covers Islam in America.

Western media generally covers religion in a very skewed fashion. Christians complain that they're not treated fairly by the media. Jews complain about the same thing. Every religion does. Unfortunately much of the media coverage has no nuance. Religion is seen as something fearful. The actions of a few often end up defining an entire faith. The reality is very different. The same thing applies to Muslims. There is too much emphasis on the few that are terrorists. The majority of Muslims are law-abiding citizens, contributing to the daily American fabric.

I've heard you speak about something called a jihad against violence. What is that?

It's an effort by Muslim women who don't want to be on the sidelines anymore. We no longer just focus on women's issues. The bigger threat to women, to Muslim communities and to entire nations is violent extremism--extremism which not only distorts our faith and tears apart our societies but has significant impact against women, children and the elderly. We are now going to wage our own peace, a jihad against violence. This is our way of creating a counter-momentum against extremism.

Do you believe there is ever any justification for extremism?

Not according to our scripture. Our scripture continually calls for the middle ground. Extremism on both sides is wrong. We are trying to use our faith to justify nonviolence against those who have distorted or hijacked our faith.

This time last year, there was a fair amount of debate in this nation surrounding your husband's plans for a building near Ground Zero.

First of all, our proposal was not for a mosque. That was a falsehood promoted by a certain group of people who were fanning the fear of Islam in America.

Just to be clear, what would that project include?

It was to be a multi-faith community center. It didn't even have a Muslim name. We called it Cordoba House. It harkened back to a time when there were 800 years of peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain. Our building was meant to be a multifaith community center to cater to all religions. We weren't just choosing a site near Ground Zero. It was just in our neighborhood. It was meant to be similar to a YMCA or Jewish community center. Yes, people in the neighborhood needed a worship space for Muslims, but that would have been only 10 percent of the center, occupying one floor. Then it got misconstrued as a mega-mosque. We later discovered in a report called Fear, Inc. from the American Center for Progress that the opposition to the center was extremely well-funded and their modus operandi was to keep the fear of Islam alive in our country. So while we were planning a community center, we found ourselves becoming a wedge issue among some politicians who were running for election last November.

Where does the project stand right now?

The building has opened to the public. There are prayers going on. But the proposed center is still a work in progress. It will probably take years to complete.

Do you believe that we have yet to have a full conversation about the effects of 9/11 on our nation's psyche?

No, I don't. We went to war right away. We have been militarily engaged in three Muslim nations ever since.

Are you a citizen of the United States?

Yes. I became a citizen in the 1980s.

Can I ask what your citizenship means to you?

I remember when I took my oath. My uncle, who was my guardian in this country, called me. He said, "From now on, you can't say 'them.' You have to say 'we.' From now on, you're an American, and you have to take responsibility for this country." It was a great lesson for me. For years, I said that the terrorists had hijacked my religion. And last year, during the debate over the planned community center, part of me also felt that somebody was trying to wrestle my country away from me by saying I wasn't equal in their eyes, that I didn't have the right to establish a center wherever I wanted. My fight was not only for my religion but also for my country. I really love and believe what this country stands for.