Most people know of Daisy Khan from when she was the center of the storm surrounding the construction of Park 51–a project that, unfortunately, you probably more easily recognize as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” In her new memoir, Khan takes us through her struggle during that time, but also tells us so much more–about her childhood, her marriage, her amazing feats battling women’s oppression the world over. altM’s Asma Uddin asked Daisy a few questions about her journey.
I’d like to start with the start of your journey toward writing this book. As you write in your Acknowledgements, you hadn’t really ever imagined that others would want to know your story. Laura Yorke and Carol Mann convinced you otherwise. What was it like to write your story and to birth it into the world, to let others know so many private details about your life, to open your life to outside commentary and critique?
While structuring the arc of my story I came to the realization that this book was not only about me but also about my message. Its aim therefore, was to disrupt people’s understanding of Islam and Muslim women and to inspire readers on their path of self-discovery. To give the reader a glimpse into the lived experience of a Muslim women, I had to become relatable. This meant I had to be candid about my joys and sorrows and expose both my inner struggles and outer achievements.
My challenge came when my childhood mores clashed with my American culture. At first, it was hard for me to open up, to reveal parts of my private life, which in my upbringing were never for public consumption. But I continued forward because I considered the message of the book to be more important than the messenger. I was also acutely aware that I was speaking to multiple audience and had to strike the right balance between conveying without offending and educating without embarrassing.
I see criticism as an invitation to solve problems, to make amends and corrections. My spiritual practice has taught me to place immense trust in myself, so I welcome genuine critics, they are like a good friend, they help us see our blind spots.
At several points in your book, you express the times in your life when you wanted or expected a particular path but then life took surprising turns that you now realize were all leading to your current role as a global influencer. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? 10 years from now?
The path to leadership requires remaining open to new ideas and continually staying on a quest for knowledge. Today, we are living in a pivotal ME Too moment where women’s activism has taken on a whole new significance. It has never been timelier for women to collectively stand up for themselves and join with other movements. My story is made up of many stories: our own and those of our ancestors, but also the stories and cultures of people whose lives intersect with ours. I hope we can open ourselves to one another, so that more respect can flow between us. Whatever work I do, I will do it while holding true to my beliefs. I hope to inspire others to act upon their own convictions to bring peace and stability to this fractured world. As a Muslim women, I want people to know that this is the future of faith.
You said in your book that sometimes “change feels slow, merely a steady drip from a faucet rather than a waterfall of momentum.” But in many of the stories you relay, it does seem like change came fairly easily. Moments when merely pushing back with some aspect of Islamic theology or law was enough to drastically change people’s viewpoints—for example, the man who heard an imam’s sermon against forced marriage suddenly regretted the decisions he had made about his daughter; or the petition that successfully countered a proposal to move the women’s prayer space out of the Mataaf in the Haram Sharif; or the husband who was easily persuaded that the triple talaq did not constitute a valid divorce in his case when a young Christian man from your office told him so. I was also surprised by the imams in Afghanistan who suggested that America should have spent its money training imams. How did you accomplish these goals without facing more resistance?
It is said that when a person hears the truth his mind falls silent. When it comes to the exploitation of women, a particular falsehood had taken root in Muslim communities around the world. In order to lift the truth of Islam, a truth that has inspired positive social change for fourteen hundred years, we decided to approach change in a holistic manner. Rather than emulating a secular human rights approach, which tends to avoid Islam and fails to speak to Muslims, we took the opposition approach. We recognized and appreciated the importance of religion in the day to day lives of Muslims to speak with a humane and equitable voice!- and the Islamic voice. Because of this, our arguments penetrated deeper into the hearts and minds of people encouraging them to abandon negative attitudes towards women.
Your book is titled after and centers quite a bit on dreams and dream interpretations. Dreams, for you, guide your major life decisions and foretell your future. The one dream episode that caught me off guard was the one involving Imam Feisal and the fact that he immediately, and seemingly dispassionately, interpreted it as meaning that you two must marry. Can you tell me more about that moment when he told you that – your emotions, maybe internal conflict or confusion? Or did you always have certainty that his interpretation was correct? How have others reacted to that part of your story?
I was in shock and awe at the same time. None of this made sense. I sat at my desk in my apartment and tried to decide how to proceed. I barely knew the imam. Was God granting my wish by finding me a man from the mosque—this specific man? I couldn’t miss the irony—I had asked God for a man, not an imam. Maybe He had misunderstood me! All I could think of was “How could this be? I clearly could not marry an imam! I was supposed to marry a banker, a lawyer, an accountant—a professional, someone like me. At first, I forced myself to ignore the dream.
Two days later, I had another true dream which convinced me that God had answered my prayers. I felt myself floating, as if the hand of God was guiding me. Then I looked beyond the imam as an icon, at the man himself, and I thought: He exudes a spiritual aura. He’s committed to connecting people of various beliefs, to creating dialogue. He’s a charming man, has a beautiful baritone voice, wears nice clothes. Was I going to reject this gift that God had sent me? Being married to the imam would surely channel my energies in a positive way—I hoped his work would mobilize and motivate me in my own calling. More than anything, I knew I had to trust my dreams.
You and your husband have done many amazing things. One of the things you’re perhaps best known for is the Park 51 project that would have served as a space for tremendous cultural exchange and engagement. It was recently announced that the developer of Park 51 is going to instead use the space to build luxury condos with a three-story museum adjacent to the tower. Can you tell us more about those plans and whether you’ll be involved in the proposed museum? What will that museum house?
The proposed Cordoba House community center which was renamed Park 51 was designed to meet the varying needs of the Muslim communities with a special aim to enhance interfaith relations and be open to the public. Even though our plans did not come to fruition, the dream of a multipurpose community center with a performing arts center, lecture hall, a culinary school, youth facilities, a library and prayer space “is still very much alive.” We have no direct involvement with the museum but in a place like New York which is arguably the most diverse cultural hub of the world, it will be a welcome addition.
Meanwhile, our work continues without wall, my husband has spearheaded a new Cordoba House, which is planting the seeds for the next generation through a cutting-edge curriculum that places a strong emphasis on a child’s personal spiritual development and on the practical application of Islamic values in a modern-day context. I am looking at the next frontier for the empowerment of Muslim women. We had been training the thought leaders and imams, reshaping the dialogue, informing communities—but we now had to look inward. The next group we need to reach is our own rising generation of young women to focus on those who seek the light that comes through the crack in the window. It is with small steps, that a journey happens.