By: Jake Heller
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a small group of African Muslims gathered Saturday in Staten Island’s Masjid Rahmatillah—“the mosque of mercifulness”—to study the Quran.
Members of the mosque disparaged the prejudice they have faced as Muslims since al-Qaida attacked the World Trade Center 10 years ago, and stressed that Islam does not teach violence, but peace.
“Islam never teaches people to kill,” said 27-year-old Hasan Nyehn, who tutors at the mosque’s religious school. “Islam teaches us to be tolerant and respectful.”
“In fact,” Nyehn said, “the Quran teaches that whoever save[s] one life, it’s like he or she has saved the whole world. And whoever takes away one life, it’s like he has destroyed the whole [of] humanity.”
Nyehn was living in Liberia when the two planes hit the Twin Towers, and moved to the United States in 2002 to escape his home country’s civil war. When he enrolled in college upon his arrival, he found that the U.S. was not as welcoming as he had hoped.
Like many Muslims in America, he has dealt with a decade of discrimination since 9/11.
“I couldn’t relax in school because the tension was too high for Muslims,” he said. “You could not even be identified [as a Muslim]. Because once you are identified, people will call you a terrorist.”
Nyehn eventually dropped out of school.
Just around the block, 47-year-old Sulaiman Tunis, also Liberian, shrugged off the suggestion that 9/11 pushed Muslims to the fringes of American society.
“I feel accepted,” Tunis said. “Nobody never harmed me because I am Muslim.”
“People be saying negative things,” he conceded, “but those are things I don’t pay mind to.”
Nyehn, however, does pay attention to such negative comments, and he finds it troubling that his religion continues to be openly slandered.
“You still find people saying that Islam is a destructive religion,” Nyehn worried. “But if you study Islam, if you live with Muslims, you know that, indeed, they are a decent set of people.”
Though the mosque’s exterior was peeling, its inside was filled with steadfast devotion. Men and women dressed in their nicest religious attire—thawbes (robes) for men and hijabs and robes for women—prostrated and prayed in unison inside the mosque’s only first-floor room. Women prayed behind the men, separated by a slew of unfolded folding tables.
Among those praying at the mosque was Omar Faruku, who drives a cab in Manhattan and fills in as Masjid Rahmatillah’s imam when needed. Faruku said he suffered double-despair on 9/11, an emotion brought on by his attachment to both his adopted country and to his religion.
“I felt pain twice that day,” the Ghanaian said. “America was attacked—I felt that pain. And it was a Muslim who did it.”
Nyehn said that these two identities—American and Muslim—have been bifurcated for too long, and need to be reconciled.
“We must learn to live together as one people,” he said.
Nyehn, who is now back in school studying journalism, added: “We should love each other.”