LATEST PAPER
38° Good Evening
38° Good Evening
News

Brooklyn Historical Society presents an oral history of being Muslim in Brooklyn

The "Muslims in Brooklyn" project is a collection of 50 stories told by Brooklynites.

From left, Hassan Ben Jaafar, Maâlem of Innov

From left, Hassan Ben Jaafar, Maâlem of Innov Gnawa, Liz H. Strong, and Karim Ababou, record an oral history interview about Jaafar's music and his life in Brooklyn for the "Muslims in Brooklyn" project. Photo Credit: Diane Duggan

They're entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers and community leaders — but above all, they're Brooklynites.

For a group of Muslims, the borough and its residents have helped shape their identity and fortify their heritage. Zaheer Ali, an oral historian for the Brooklyn Historical Society, said it didn't matter if someone had family roots in Bangladesh, Egypt or Puerto Rico; if they were Muslim, Brooklyn welcomed them.

"Brooklyn is a special place for these communities," he said. "They have a place where they can celebrate their culture and their religion."

Ali said he wanted others to learn from these diverse stories, and during the past year worked with 50 Brooklyn Muslims to create an oral history project for the entire world. "Muslims in Brooklyn," which launches Thursday on the Brooklyn Historical Society's website, covers a broad range of topics voiced by narrators of all ages and backgrounds, including immigrants and first-generation Brooklyn Muslims.

Ali commissioned recruiting help from community leaders, spiritual leaders and others. The response, he said, was quick and immense. 

"What was important was to have as much of a breadth of diverse experience as possible," he said. 

Debbie Almontaser, who runs a consulting group and has written several books on the American Muslim experience, was one of the 50 contributors, and said she talked about how Brooklyn made her faith stronger. The Ditmas Park resident, who was born in Yemen, grew up in Buffalo to parents who wanted to assimilate to their new home and raised her in a secular household. Not long after she moved to New York 38 years ago, she visited the Islamic Mission of America mosque in Cobble Hill and began to explore her religion.

"What was unique about the Islamic Mission was that it welcomed diversity," she said. 

Almontaser said she has seen other young Muslims strengthen their spirituality in the borough through the years, and develop pride in their upbringing.

Shahana Hanif, 27, a staff member for City Councilman Brad Lander, said she too has seen Muslims grow as a community. but for her the strength has been one sided. The lifelong Kensington resident expressed growing concerns about the lack of women's voices when it comes to Muslim community groups and initiatives.

"A lot of spaces in Kensington is dominated by men," she said.

As part of her oral history, Hanif talked about the struggles she and others have faced for years advocating for Muslim women's equality. 

"I think it is a message that is hopeful," she said. "There are systems for structural change."

Ali said the oral histories will live beyond the online database. The Brooklyn Historical Society is planning to create an academic curriculum from the stories for elementary and high school students.

The goal, he said, is to show young New Yorkers that they all share a common bond, regardless of their religious background. 

"Teaching empathy has become paramount both in our civic life and in terms of learning," he said. "It is important that people are able to and learn to make connections outside their own personal selves."

News photos & videos