of New York and New Jersey


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Islam in New York: Growing Presence of Diverse Peoples United by Faith

NY Times Article

Published: May 4, 1993

To get an idea of who New York City's Muslims are, stand outside the Islamic Center of New York, the city's most prominent mosque, on Third Avenue at 96th Street in Manhattan.

On a recent religious holiday, through its doors came Pakistanis in flowing pastel gowns, black Americans wearing kente-cloth hats, an Albanian couple trying to quiet their crying daughter, West Africans in high head wraps, Bahrainis in business suits, Egyptian cab drivers, Yemeni restaurateurs, a young Bosnian who stood up in mid-service and gave an emotional appeal for his countrymen.

The city has about 70 mosques, nearly twice as many as a decade ago, said Dawud Assad, associate director of the Muslim World League in New York City and president of the city's Council of Mosques. He said it was difficult to say how many Muslims there were in the city, but he estimated 800,000, up from about 680,000 a decade ago.

The Muslim population has also become more diverse by race and nationality as more and more immigrants have arrived seeking political or economic refuge.

"New York has the most cosmopolitan Islamic community in America," said Marc Ferris, who did research on Islam in New York for a coming book on Muslim communities in the United States. "To say a mosque is Pakistani or Guyanese just means they started it. Once it is open, everyone just comes on by." Schools for the Faithful

Roughly half of the city's Muslims are recent immigrants, and about half of them are South Asian, Mr. Assad said. Arabs make up the second-largest group.

New York Muslims have founded about 10 schools, most teaching through the eighth grade but some continuing through high school. The schools are scattered throughout the city, with a concentration in Jamaica, Queens, where many Asian and black American Muslims live.

Financed with donations and tuition, the schools combine standard school subjects with study of the Koran, Islamic history, Arabic and other religious topics. Lessons are scheduled around the daily prayers.

On religious holidays and on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, a mosque is usually packed with worshipers of various nationalities who may live or work in the neighborhood and go to the mosque because it is most convenient. But most other times the mosque reflects a particular Islamic ethnic group, serving as a place where congregants can speak their common native language, give money and gifts to those headed back to the homeland, exchange job information and gossip about local politics.

The mosques range from lavish Ottoman-style buildings to basements of car-service garages. In downtown Brooklyn, the Islamic Mission of America is the cornerstone of the Arab district on Atlantic Avenue, where Arab restaurants, bakeries and cafes give the area the feel of downtown Cairo. Founded in 1939 by a Moroccan immigrant, the mosque is among the oldest and most prominent in New York. A Surge From Europe

Perhaps 20 percent of recent Muslim immigrants to New York are from Eastern European countries like Albania, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

Albanian Muslims, who have tended to settle in Flatbush in Brooklyn, account for one of the biggest surges. Many live near the Albanian American Islamic Center for New York and New Jersey, where Imam Isa Hoxha oversees Friday prayers -- in both Arabic and Albanian -- for about 300 people each week.

By some estimates, at least 100,000 Asian Muslims live in the area, most from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan but many also from Malaysia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. They live mostly in Queens, especially Flushing, where the Muslim Center of New York has expanded from a single apartment in 1975 to a large building now under construction.

Pakistani immigrants are by far the most active group in spreading the word of Islam and building Islamic institutions in the New York area, Mr. Ferris said. In 1983, they built the Islamic Center of Corona in Queens, the city's first mosque to be built as such. Before then, mosques were mainly established in abandoned buildings, storefronts and basements, where many still are.

Pakistanis are also behind a most American way of transmitting the holy word: bumper stickers that read "I al-Islam." They are not shy about ferreting out and calling up lapsed Muslims on Fridays to nudge them to prayers.

"Every since the 50's, the Pakistanis have done the most to promote Islam in New York," Mr. Ferris said. "The reason they work so well here is because they often speak English and keep a high profile. Some go door to door just like Jehovah's Witnesses." Bound by Need

In 1913, long before Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X popularized the Nation of Islam, Noble Drew Ali started the Moorish Science Temple in Newark. Today there is a large concentration of black American Muslims in the New York area, many of them in Harlem, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

A few scattered storefront mosques attract fundamentalists, who draw inspiration from the visions of outspoken imams like Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who for years has called for the overthrow of the Egyptian Government.

The area's Muslim community is often bound more by necessity than by love. Muslims are a minority, and suspicion and hostility often surround them.

"Even Shiites and Sunnis go to the same mosques in New York," Mr. Ferris said, referring to the two major Islamic sects, which often feud. "Some say religion is the most tenuous of threads, but Muslims really stick together."

Map of the Tri-State area showing locations of Muslim Schools and Mosques.

Ben Miftari