What is your name and how are you affiliated with NYU?
My name is Khalid Latif, I work as a university chaplain for NYU, I am also the executive director of NYUs Islamic center and I currently started to work as a senior fellow for NYU's "Of Many Institute." My primary role is with the Islamic center, I oversee most of the administrative responsibilities as well as the programmatic responsibilities. We have a pretty diverse population so we need a pretty diverse array of programs that we need to offer, everything from community service to community programs, religious programs, we do a lot of counseling, we have pretty much anything you can think of.
What do you think is the mosque's role in the American context?
When we are trying to define what the masjid is in the American context, I think it is really hard to come up with a single definition. When you are thinking about what the landscape of Muslims looks like in the US, you have Muslims from all over the world who have settled here and have called this place their home and the reality and needs of all these populations differ from place to place. To give you an example, my great great grandfather probably didn't speak English, and would be more comfortable in a mosque that fit with what he thought was culturally normative and one that understood the realities that he faced day to day. It would be problematic for me as someone who is more comfortable with English and was brought up and raised here to say that I have to understand this as an either or situation. He needs to have his needs met as much as I need to have my needs met. And so what the masjid means to him needs to be something that exists in the United States as much as what the masjid needs to me. And if he is comfortable with the masjid as a prayer space where we just go to pray 5 times a day, and we go there once a week to hear a sermon, and that is it, then that is fine for him. And for me, if I am looking for a place that is more about community and where I can find a place where I can find people who are a little more like minded to me, or find individuals that I can seek advice from or council from, or even just develop on a personal and spiritual level, then the masjid means that to me. And to someone else it can be something totally different.
I think where we are today we find that the masjid as being a primary institution within the Muslim communities across the US, and from it we now see certain communities building offshoot institutions, but it is still in a very young state. It is in a place where individuals who are not necessarily trained to run essentially what is tantamount to a nonprofit are doing their best to run something that a generation later now are saying that there is now a need for individuals who are more trained in those realms to take over. They are thinking that it is time to start looking at counterpart institutions in other religious communities and seeing how are their houses of worship running and how are they catering to their respective consistencies.
I went to Holland recently and I visited a moroccan mosque, and it was beautiful, and they had huge subsidies they received from their government to build these cultural centers that they then incorporate a masjid space into. And these guys had like flatscreen TVS, etc. We left from the Moroccan mosque and we literally walked about 15 feet and the building next to it was a Turkish masjid, and we went in, and it was the same setup, but everything was now Turkish. And they said "Isn't it great that we are able to have our own spaces?" And I said to them "Where do the Dutch people to when they want to access Islam?" And they said "What do you mean?" I said "If I was Dutch, and I didn't speak burbur or urdu, and I wanted a place to go feel comfortable and a place to be, where would I go?"
What advice would you give to a mosque board in America?
If you are the one who is given the blessing of providing the space or facilitating the space for others to come, you have to think really broadly about all the people coming in and what is going to give them a comfortable space so that they can have the focus that they are supposed to have while they are in prayer. Do some masjids do that well? Yeah. Do some not do it well, yeah. It varies from place to place. I don't think it is good to think in general terms, because then we discount those who are doing it well. What we need to do is look at the examples of those who are doing it well and see how it is that they are providing adequate space? How is it that they are attune to the realities of their communities, and see then how you can replicate it. if you take the stance that says everyone is doing everything poorly, you are not going to do it well.
What were some of the challenges you guys faced in building NYU's Islamic Center?
When we were building out our Islamic center at NYU, early on, we had critics who said you know what, you tend to be too progressive or too liberal, and now, years later, they come to all of our programs, and they are the people who say that this is a great place to be. We had to deal with issues in terms of race and ethnicity, ideological distinctions, at the end of the day the creation of a space that enables me as a a person to comfortably engage diversity and understand that the other that even though they are a Muslim becomes empowering. Certain things just take time.