The September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center has brought the study of the city's Muslim population into prominence. Knowledge of New York's Muslims is sketchy, but Columbia University's three-year-old program to study the Muslim community is filling in some of the gaps.
The Muslim Communities in New York City Project works to inform public policy makers, Muslim communities and educational institutions on issues affecting the city's Muslim population. In the aftermath of September 11, the project appealed to all Americans for tolerance, and condemned any violence against persons or property based on race, ethnicity, or religion.
Project Coordinator Louis Abdellatif Cristillo says the program, supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, was formed because of a lack of understanding about the growing Muslim population in New York City. "So these sorts of questions began to emerge," he explained. "How are Muslims dealing with being Muslim in New York City? The idea was to really try to fill the tremendous vacuum of knowledge about Muslims in New York City."
Mr. Cristillo says some 600,000 Muslims live in New York. The city's Muslim population represents almost every ethnic group, including African Americans, Latinos, West Indians, Europeans, South Asians, and Middle Easterners.
Before the project began, little documentation on New York's Muslim community was available. To gather the raw data, graduate students walked the five boroughs of the city, mapping out the human geography of Muslims living and working in New York. "They literally for a year walked every neighborhood in New York City in the five boroughs identifying locations where Muslims appeared to be engaged in providing goods or services whether they were religious or secular," said Mr. Cristillo.
The project found Muslim New Yorkers involved in every aspect of the city's life from economic to social to religious. While their communities may be faith-based, Mr. Cristillo says, they still value the American ideals of freedom and democracy, and share the same hopes for equality and prosperity.
They also share in the grief and anger the United States experienced since September 11. Muslims died in the World Trade Center attack and Muslims worked in the rescue and recovery effort at Ground Zero as doctors, firefighters and law enforcement officers.
Supervising Fire Marshall and President of the Islamic Society of Fire Department Personnel Kevin James was at Ground Zero on September 11. "We need to do a lot of soul-searching as a nation, and the Muslim community needs to realize that they have to open their doors and get involved not only on Islamic issues when it concerns them but just general issues political, environmental," he said. "We need to let people see us and interact with others so we don't have this stigma or dark cloud every time something happens."
In a city as ethnically and religiously diverse as New York, Kevin James and Louis Abdellatif Cristillo say bringing information to the public could not come at a more crucial time.