New York University imam and New York Police Department chaplain, Khalid Latif, heads a group of people redefining – and battling with – what it means to be Muslim in the US today. By Nasya Bahfen.
Khalid Latif’s office is like the rest of the Islamic Center at New York University (NYU): slightly ramshackle and kind of disorganised, but also laid-back and welcoming. The centre’s temporary home is the basement of a church near the NYU campus in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Our appointment is for 3pm, half an hour before Imam Latif, a university chaplain, will lead the Asar afternoon prayer. He politely declines my offer (made by text message) to bring him coffee and I wait on a sad-looking sofa, perpendicular to his desk that has seen much better days, as he types up an email. I wander over to read the names of the board games stacked haphazardly at eye level on a crowded bookshelf by the door.
‘Do you want to start [the interview]?’ he asks.
Imam Latif is not married, and if his Twitter feed is any indication, he spends an inordinate amount of time at work. A friend from my hometown of Melbourne once said that because Muslims avoided alcohol, our parties were all fun and games – literally. ‘When your community doesn’t drink,’ she had said dryly, ‘you tend to play a lot of Monopoly.’
Better board games than whisky for a single guy stuck in his office late at night, I figure, as I turn back to him. ‘I’m waiting for you,’ I reply.
He motions towards the sofa. ‘Okay, let me just send this.’ I sit down again and Imam Latif turns his chair so that he is facing me, his MacBook on his lap. He hits send and I start the dictaphone on my mobile. Seeing that I am recording the interview, he asks if I would prefer to close the door to his office.
Board games in the office, the MacBook, stylish wardrobe (unless he is delivering a Friday khutbah, he sports fashionably ripped jeans, preppy V-neck sweaters and blazers) – clearly, he is not the typical imam, at least not typical of the imams I have come across. I was struggling to think of any imam in Melbourne, or even Australia, who would be comfortable talking to a strange woman in a closed room.
Imam Latif tells me how his position at NYU became full-time in 2007, and how he is also a part-time chaplain with the city’s police force. His full-time role with the university, however, has an ambitious dimension to it. ‘We have a project here to build the first fully established and institutionalised centre for Muslim student life in the country at a university, similar to what most Jewish communities and a lot of Catholic centres have: fully staffed professional models responsible for catering to the needs of students from that specific faith-based community.’
He says the Islamic Center (IC) at NYU is the first of its kind in the United States. I think it is a safe bet to declare it the first of its kind anywhere.
The scene in the large sports hall on the fourth floor of NYU’s Kimmel building is one of organised chaos. The IC’s undergraduate wing is holding a carnival. In one corner, a group of young men and women take turns shooting hoops. Along the back wall, soft drinks and pizza are being served. These are Muslim college students, so in the absence of booze, board games (again) rule the day, with small groups of people queuing up for huge versions of Connect Four and Snakes and Ladders. In another corner, two male students of subcontinent background furrow their brows as they concentrate on a gigantic chessboard. ‘About half an hour’ is the response, when I ask them how long they have been at it. Tragicomically, someone has forgotten to turn off the cotton candy machine, and a couple of young women desperately give out masses of pink fluff.
I had been trying to pin down Imam Latif for an interview for a couple of months and hoped to do so at the carnival, but our arrival and departure times clash – he is making preparations to leave just as I am hanging up my coat near the pizza stand. He gives me his mobile number and suggests I call him when I am free.
Looking around for any of the older graduate students or alumni, I spot Rayad Khan, a computer science and maths graduate who oversees the Islamic Center’s technology and multimedia. The Imam’s plans for the evening have fallen through, so he ends up staying for the rest of the carnival. Rayad is talking to him about the Twitter feed for the centre’s upcoming annual conference – a topic Rayad has broached with me for advice. He waves and I head over to join them. Imam Latif gives me a cursory glance, then turns around and abruptly walks off.
I look at Rayad. ‘Do I smell?’
He laughs. ‘No, Khalid’s just a busy guy,’ he explains. ‘You’re a new face and he doesn’t know you very well.’ He pauses, then adds, ‘Plus, you’re married, and he’s in a position of religious authority, so there’s an extra level of formality there.’
There has to be a way of creating a medium as we transition through generations
My first real experience with the Islamic Center was for Eid ul Adha prayer, though I had googled it before arriving in New York in November 2010. The prayer attendees were like the people on the website: a Benetton advertisement. In his office, Imam Latif describes how, growing up (he is 28), the only other Muslims he met were those who were from the same country as his parents.
‘My family came from Pakistan—we’re Kashmiri in background. I would be an example of growing up with an Islam that was rooted elsewhere. It made sense, but not necessarily here, entirely. For us being in New York we have to be reflective of the dynamic that exists here.’
Straight away, I saw parallels between what he was talking about, the dynamics of the Muslim communities I’d grown up with in Australia, and those that I’d witnessed in the United Kingdom. The vexed issue of faith communities reflecting the requirements of its members seemed to be one common to minority Muslim populations in Western countries.
For several years, the Australian media has predominantly portrayed Muslims as ‘the other’. Under the previous Howard government, imams were told to deliver sermons in English, with no recognition of the diversity of a community whose members were first, second and third generation Australians. In a few brief sentences, Imam Latif succinctly explained why many mosques in the US still do not use English.
‘You can’t set up a community at the expense of someone else’s needs, right? There are populations that need the sermon to be given in the language that they understand. Is it wrong for me to say “I need it in English” and so you have to do it in English as much as it’s wrong for someone to say “Well I can only speak Urdu and so I need it done in Urdu”? There has to be like a way of creating a medium as we transition through generations. It’s not like “let’s break off [from our heritage] or do something new”; it’s just that there’s a need that has to be met, so how do we meet that need?’
It made me kind of sad thinking about how no Muslim leader in Australia had been able to articulate that justification as well as he just did – to be able to undermine a false narrative in a calm, rational and logical way. Or perhaps someone had, but no one tried to get it out to the media, or no journalist spoke to anyone who had. At any rate, I wished, and still wish, we had someone like him.
The carnival winds down at around 10:30, and Rayad and I head towards the station at West Fourth. A homeless man asks us for money, and starts verbally abusing us when we refuse. ‘Jihad, jihad, jihad!’ he screeches. He is clearly mentally unstable, but he at least had enough of his faculties to be able to associate – however inaccurately – a random bearded man and headscarf-wearing woman with a particular socio-political phenomenon. I am impressed. Rayad, who stands a good head taller than the homeless man, is not. ‘Welcome to New York,’ he tells me, shaking his head at the departing bum.
The E train is whizzing towards uptown Manhattan. Rayad tells me about what the Islamic Center has done for him. ‘They’re trying to build a strong sense of community, and they’ve succeeded. I’m not a student at NYU anymore but I still hang out with the friends I’ve made there.’
Despite being a temporary Manhattanite, I understood what he meant. As a visiting scholar at NYU with very few friends in the city, I had to actively look for a social network if I was to avoid going insane with loneliness. I found it, at the IC.
The people around the IC were open and accepting, sharing mobile phone numbers, inviting me to dinners and, sigh, the inevitable board game nights. I tell Imam Latif that I am impressed with how non-judgemental they seemed to be, but he says not everybody agrees with what it does.
‘It’s a community, you still have individual… ’ His voice trails off as he tries to explain some of the blocks the centre has run up against. ‘Not everyone feels comfortable here. So if you come in on any given day, you can meet someone who’s really nice to you and you’re like, “Oh this is a great place”. Or you can meet somebody like myself – you emailed me and it took me three months to get back to you and you’re like, “This is not somebody who respects or appreciates me.’
I assure him that I never thought that, and just figured that he was busy.
‘But you know what I’m saying, right? It all depends who you’re engaging with and what experience you have with that individual interaction.’
The few times I had heard Imam Latif speak to an audience in person, I was blown away by the content of his Jum’ah sermons. You can view them on the Islamic Center’s website at www.icnyu.org (the videos have audience members from as far away as Indonesia). Some of the topics he has addressed during Friday prayer include forced marriages and domestic violence among Muslims. Yet again, I find myself wishing that we (Muslim communities in Australia) had an imam like him.
‘When I started working here we had people saying “You’re too progressive, you’re too liberal” and those same people now say “You’re very accepting”. I think the idea of being progressive or liberal is rooted in doing things differently,’ he says.
‘For many people when they see something different that might be something that’s problematic they use qualifying terms that carry kind of a pejorative understanding, like “liberal”, right? Or even “progressive” turns into an insult.’
From speaking to the female students, I know that they were consulted on the use of the Islamic Center’s prayer space, and that they were specifically asked if they wanted a barrier to be placed in front of their section of the space (which is no less large than the men’s). A movable room divider currently covers half of the women, taking into account that some of the female students were uncomfortable praying without the barrier while others were happy to go without it.
It reminded me of the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia even if the IC (being a temporary space in the basement of a church) might not have been as well maintained or aesthetically pleasing. That mosque in my city of birth is Jakarta’s Masjid Istiqlal, which can accommodate more worshippers than the huge Melbourne Cricket Ground can accommodate sports fans. At Istiqlal, women pray on the left in the main hall and men on the right. I think back to my first experience of praying there. Did it feel a little strange, having grown up in Melbourne praying in little rooms added for women almost as afterthoughts, or behind – not next to – the men? Admittedly, it kind of did – but only at first.
This is the kind of effect, Imam Latif says, the Islamic Center has for some people. ‘It creates a very safe space for people, where they feel comfortable engaging with others. So it’s not just Muslims who dress a certain way or Muslims of a certain skin colour who will interact with one another. You get into a place where authority legitimises for you engaging people who practice differently, and you still feel okay with that.’
The sizable remnants of an audience of three hundred people are on their feet, applauding filmmaker Jacob Bender in a cavernous auditorium at the United Nations headquarters on First Avenue. Jacob is taking questions and posing for photos, following a screening of Out of Cordoba, his award-winning documentary on the lives of Averroes (ibn Rushd) and Maimonides. His two young daughters are distributing his business cards. The setting – a conference room with the name of UN member countries in alphabetical order on desks – is too tempting to pass up as a photo opportunity for me, Rayad, systems administrator and NYU Polytech alumni Mohammad Umer Alam, and Columbia University visiting scholar Muhammed Esat Altıntaş. Sadly, we cannot find Esat’s native Turkey, but we do find Umer’s parents’ country of origin, Pakistan. One of the photos we later post on Facebook shows two UN staff members in the background watching our antics, either bemused or unimpressed.
Later on, at a halal Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Umer reiterates the sentiment Rayad expressed after the carnival: the Islamic Center at NYU has been so successful in its pursuit of ‘community’ that years after he was a student, he still spends a significant amount of time hanging out with the people he met through its religious and social events or programmes. I am feeling melancholy at having to leave New York and the friends I made through the IC, though the memories were priceless, whether serious (like Qur’an classes) or silly (board game overload and corny photo-taking sessions while pretending to be diplomats). I bring up Imam Latif’s role in the centre’s development. ‘You know, I really wish I could clone him and bring him back to Australia in my suitcase.’
‘You know, he could probably fit in your suitcase,’ Rayad muses, referring to Imam Latif’s diminutive height. Maybe. But the breadth and depth of his ideas and vision could not.
This article first appeared in the Muslim community newspaper Crescent Times, based in Western Australia.
The author is a lecturer at the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University in Melbourne. She is also a committee member of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria.