Islam has long history downtown: Why the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ belongs in lower Manhattan

By Edward E. Curtis, The New York Daily News, Friday, July 23, 2010

Rick Lazio, the gubernatorial candidate from Suffolk County, doesn’t like it. Sarah Palin, though not exactly a New Yorker, has resoundingly “refudiated” it. More importantly, plenty of ordinary citizens vocally oppose the establishment of a Muslim community center and mosque near the World Trade Center site.

But no matter how offensive their presence may be to some people, Muslims have always been a part of lower Manhattan’s past. In fact, Islam in New York began near Ground Zero. From an historical perspective, there could hardly be a better place for a mosque.

One of the first Arab-American enclaves in New York City was located on Washington St. in lower Manhattan – the very area in which the World Trade Center was later built. Founded by Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims from Ottoman Syria in the 1880s, it was called Little Syria.

The heart of Little Syria was full of outdoor cafes where non-Arab visitors sometimes gawked at men smoking hookahs and trading gossip about the Ottoman Empire. In a 1903 article, the New York Times called the neighborhood “quaint,” noting the “uniform politeness” of its inhabitants.

Lower Manhattan is also the final resting place of Muslims and other Africans, often slaves, who were forcibly resettled in New York when it was still New Amsterdam. The African Burial Ground, discovered in 1991, is six blocks away from the proposed Muslim community center. Scholars continue to debate the religious identity of the hundreds buried there, but the fact that some of the dead wore shrouds and were interred with strings of blue beads, frequently used as Islamic talismans, suggests Muslim were among the enslaved people who helped build Manhattan into a bustling city.

Of course, this history of Islam in lower Manhattan means little to the families of 9/11 victims who are protesting the proposed center. Far more troubling than their protest is how readily some political groups have used this issue to advance their own anti-Muslim agendas. Comments by Lazio and Palin are mere drops in an ocean of right-wing vitriol. In one outright lie, the Web site of the National Republican Trust has declared that the organizers of the mosque “intend to erect a shrine to the 9/11 terrorists.”

Rhetoric that treats Muslim-Americans like hostile foreigners fundamentally – and intentionally – skews the story of New York and its Muslim community.

For most of American history, Muslims have come to New York seeking freedom and opportunity – like every other group of immigrants. In 1847, for example, sailor and slave Mahommah Baquaqua escaped from the Brazilian ship Lembranca, docked in Manhattan. He went on to co-write one of most important African-American memoirs of the 1800s. “The Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua” poignantly describes the moment when, confined to a cell in the bow of his ship, Baquaqua broke down the door, bowed to his master’s wife, and ran away. Once on the docks, he managed to utter the only English word he knew: “free.” What could be more quintessentially American than that?

Muslims in New York have also embraced the city’s belief in freedom of religion. In 1893, John Lant, a white convert to Islam, performed what was celebrated as the city’s first public adhan, or call to prayer, from a third-floor window in Union Square. “The melodious call of the Muezzin,” the Times deemed it.

Today, more than half a million Muslims live in New York City, including 10% of all public school children. According to one informed estimate, there are roughly 1,000 Muslim officers in the NYPD.

Their historical birthplace is near Ground Zero. Trying to prevent them from building a community center there denies their stake not only in New York’s history but in its future, too.