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Being Muslim in New York

Years after the trauma of Sept. 11, New York never stops changing. In 2015 NYC had 285 mosques and about 600 000 Muslims, mostly born outside U.S. borders.

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Years after the trauma of Sept. 11, New York never stops changing. In 2015 285 mosques and about 600 000 Muslims, mostly born outside U.S. borders.

by Jennifer Schwarz, published in France on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11:

"How to raise our children to become Muslims? By a supreme effort to continuously monitor their lives, especially when they go to public school. Remember! Today we do not know who is our neighbor.  Be very careful! [...] The whole world is watching what we do is an incredible opportunity. We have the opportunity to invite the world to a better way of life, to show them that we are the best people in the world. "

This sermon, delivered in the Masjid At-Taqwa on a shopping street in Brooklyn, shows quite clearly the paradoxes of American Islam of the early twenty-first century. Islam as the bearer of universal values is said to be in line with those advocated by the U.S. Constitution, but it often appears hostile and domineering vis-à-vis a culture it considers decadent.


From Manhattan to Little Odessa

There is no doubt, however, that the daily life of American Muslims is disproportionately easier than that of French Muslims, who are caught between the development of their faith and a respect for a strong secular culture. The United States, even with the secular nature of its republic and the strict separation of church and state, does not condemn religion.

Some French people are indignant to hear that an evangelical pastor in Manhattan showed a complete disregard for interreligious dialogue, because the “visions of God among the different religions are irreconcilable” and that “Christianity alone possesses the truth.” So, French people who visit New York are surprised to see the legendary street vendors on New York City offering hot dogs with only halal meat, girls wearing headscarves to school, and then crossing to Brighton Beach, also known as Little Odessa, or to the district of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn with the feeling of a visit to a Polish ghetto of the nineteenth century ... Nearly 220 years later, across in Europe, atheism won the minds, but 90% of Americans still believe in God, 70 % of them say they pray daily or once a week and be members of a religion. And it seems there is no end in sight.


A body in mourning

"New York is at a turning point in its religious history,” says Tony Carnes, editor of the website A Journey through NYC religions ( “This is the result of open borders dating back to the immigration laws of 1965. We have not seen this amount of religious change since the late nineteenth century. At that time, many Jews and Christians immigrated and formed many new religious organizations. The same thing is happening today in many different denominations. The younger generation is becoming more religious, and this trait has also increased since September 11.”

The city experienced a highly symbolic event, unimaginable in France, and a small armed force to clear Islamphobic banners from around a dilapidated building in the neighborhood of Tribeca: the startup of a project, renowned throughout the world even before its construction , as a Muslim cultural center - with a mosque - facing Ground Zero.

Pamela Geller, whom the British newspaper The Independent - without fear of ridicule - dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America,” is one of the vocal leaders of the protest. “Why,” she asks, “build a mega-mosque in a building partially destroyed by the terrorist attack of September 11? Why did you first call it the ‘Cordoba project’ in memory of the Caliphate of Cordoba and the Muslim conquest of Spain?”

This controversy raises a crucial question: what face will the City of New York will give to the world, ten years after September 11? That of a community capable of being self-critical and setting an example of religious tolerance? Will it instead exhibit a body in mourning and the building of sanctuaries that seem like they belong to a drama school?

Until September 11, 2001, Pamela Geller was a “winner.” She did not think about freedom; she took it for granted. She loved her job, her city, fashion, music. She loved life. “My mentality was post-historical, the good had won, the story was over.” Now she is worried and seems to lead the battle to defend a certain idea of “good” inseparable from liberalism and capitalism and rails against a dangerous enemy that seems hard to define: “Muslims who believe in the supremacy of Islam,” she said, “have an agenda. While many Muslims come here to escape Sharia law, they want to impose it in the secular space. These groups want to overthrow Western civilization. We must say no!”

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Islam is regarded with suspicion

Despite a climate generally very quiet in the five boroughs of New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island), September 11 prompted a number of Americans to embrace a more tormented vision of the world, to fear for their safety and to increase their distrust of Islam. A survey published in Time magazine in August 2010 revealed that 46% of Americans believe that Islam, more than any other religion, is likely to encourage violence against those who do not share that faith.

For their part, many Muslims needed to point the finger an imaginary enemy who was pulling the strings of discord: the Jews. They were openly accused of “loving much money too much,” ‘getting rich off the talent and hard work of others.” “The Jews” are accused of being behind the “conspiracy of September 11.” This crazy old song, which resurrects the concept of “clash of civilizations,” provides a simple analytical framework that is all the more tempting as the certainties of the twentieth century have largely been swept away. God is partly overshadowed in Europe, America is not invincible, and the technological revolution dives into an empty space, like the chaos that seems to be at Ground Zero.

The image of the world that the city wishes to embrace is that New York never stops changing. Two-thirds of its inhabitants are immigrants from the first and second generation. It has about 600,000 Muslims, mostly born outside U.S. borders, and 180 mosques, almost twice as much as ten years ago. It changes at such a fast pace that no one is able to say that it will be in twenty years. And in the Muslim intellectual circles, one begins to hear dreams: “We do not yet fully form part of the community, but our history shows that we can do that, "says Feisal Abdul Rauf, a charming spiritual ambassador of Islam and one of the first supporters of the mosque project at Ground Zero, renamed a more neutral “Park 51.”

“Islam in Egypt took five hundred years to take hold. Muslims in Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Indonesia are all different. As for Pakistan, formed only sixty years ago, and yet all these people feel very Muslim.” Does Feisal Abdul Rauf Imam imagine an America ruled by Sharia law consistent with the U.S. Constitution?


Towards a “Muslim nation”?

As a man who has traveled the world, Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, tries to reconcile the two worlds that are still struggling to live together: Islam and the West. He says 65% of Muslims who are not born in the United States are beyond the logic of balkanization; they are distancing themselves from their culture of origin - Senegal, Indonesia, India, Turkish, Albanian, Egyptian, Arabic, Bangladesh, West Africa or East, South Asia - to become culturally American. “It takes an average of three generations,” he predicts.

However, the working classes, in Brooklyn, the Bronx or Harlem, hope for a radical change in American society. Painting in broad strokes, Walter J. Edwards says, “Inshallah, America will soon become a Muslim nation! The world will become Muslim! The whole world is born Muslim, but he does not know yet” Like many black Americans who have chosen to reject their identity as a slave, the property developer has adopted the name of Abdur-Rauf Aka Nasiridin at the time of his conversion. These men and women (about one quarter of American Muslims), whose ancestors were born in the United States, have little in common with the new wave of immigrants from the last forty years.


The renaissance of black Muslims

Idris Conry is a pastry chef from Bedford Avenue, a commercial neighborhood of Brooklyn.  He raised six children in another Brooklyn neighborhood before buying a house nearby.  With the exception of the eldest, all his children, girls and boys, have remained faithful to Islam. Idris had broken the chain of religious faith in his family in 1976, the bicentenary of the independence of the United States. 1976 was the first year of the death of his father and his conversion to the religion of his mother's new boyfriend. “I am of American culture,” he says, “but I have ghosts in my veins. African Americans were slaves and they did not draw any compensation. My grandmother was depressed, my brother is depressed ... Oppression kills the hope, which is worse than the crime. She gave us a sense of despair. Islam has helped me to be reborn.”


The impossibility of social mobility

After the abolition of slavery, when African Americans left the cotton fields of the South, they still hoped that Northern whites would be more welcoming. It was not the case. Many of the African Americans, like Malcolm X, then discovered - or rediscovered - Islam.

Halima Toure was very young at a time when skin color was still an impassable barrier to upward mobility. She donned the Islamic veil, which gives the appearance of a nun. “As a black, if I had not Islam, I would be cynical, Islam has saved me from cynicism .”


The legacy of the Nation of Islam

For others, Islam allowed men to become “respectable. “Doctor” Walli Sharif was born in Harlem in a Christian family. A former bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, he was, in 1957, an active member of the political and religious organization “Nation of Islam.” His past as “Black Muslim” who rubbed elbows with Malcolm X gives him a natural authority. “Elijah Muhammad [the leader of Nation of Islam until 1975] and Malcolm X have taught our people how to live a dignified life,” Sharif says. “Nation of Islam has cleaned us up, we were polite. We needed this type of training to tell us. I found people strong, disciplined, which did not allow their women to behave in any untoward way.” He said he had never experienced such tremendous support within the church, which he blames for his lack of order.

Abdualeem Muhammad Shah, his friend and brother in Islam, filled in more details about his rejection of Christian culture: “We have more and more converts, and this will continue. People like to be disciplined, respected rights. This is what Islam offers. As black Americans, we were cut off from our past, we received no information, I do not know where my ancestors were from. As people, we are empty, so they were able to put Christianity in our heads. It's simple, when you have no knowledge, you're a baby. Then we show you Jesus, this white guy with blue eyes, long hair, and they tell you that it embodies the good, God. You have to grow up with this image. Every white that you see on the street is a reflection of God. So you're scared, you think that these people are closer to God than you are ... What image do you do with yourself and grow up?! An image very low, very low.”

Walli Sharif and Muhammad Shah Abdualeem both left Nation of Islam and joined Sunni Islam. But their discourse is nonetheless racialist. At Coffee Senegal after a few manly hugs and anti-Semitic remarks, Muhammad Shah Abdualeem brings an end to the discussion: “In Islam, we found a real fraternity.”

So, will the Muslim community in New York be able to give a more universal and spiritual fellowship to the world?

See A Journey's unique, definitive Mosque City NY.

See A Journey's series on debate over the Ground Zero mosque

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Translated from cover story of Le Monde des Religions (French


  • Hi John, The French text is available if you sign up for free with Le Monde des Religions. Because the article has just come out, we thought that it was fairest to link to the article which requires registration. I am sure that Le Monde wants to benefit from those sign-ups. Later, we might post the French through a link to our own library.

    Jennifer Schwarz is Secretaire generale de la redaction, the equivalent of managing editor, for Le Monde des Religions.


  • Wow !! Congratulations !! Saw the link at the bottom and clicked on it - sure enough, took me to LeMonde's website and see the photo for the article. Too bad the French text is not available as well!!!

    Wow Tony!! GREAT WORK - now internationally known !!!

  • So Jennifer Schwarz works for Le Monde? And then this will be translated into French publication in France?

  • I like this article.

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