(Reposted from Bay Ridge for Social Justice’s Facebook page.)
The third-annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day march in Bay Ridge, in support of immigrants and other marginalized groups, ended this year at the Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center on 62nd Street and Sixth Avenue, a building distinguished by the minaret on its southeast corner, which can be seen from blocks away. “Beit El-Maqdis” is Arabic for “the Holy House of Worship,” which is also one of the names of the holy city of Jerusalem. The center’s mosque serves between 600 and 700 worshipers on Fridays. It is one of eight or so mosques in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park that serve a Muslim population of approximately 22,000.
In November, the building was vandalized. A man was caught on camera smashing windows and a security camera with a hammer. After attacking Beit El-Maqdis, the man went to the Fatih Camii Mosque, on 60th Street and Eighth Avenue, smashing windows and desecrating the building. He was apprehended and charged with criminal mischief. After the incident, politicians, community leaders and faith leaders rallied to speak out against the senseless violence. In New York, the overall crime rate has plummeted in recent years, but hate crimes continue to rise.
On the Friday evening before the march, I sat down with Issam Mualla, board and executive-committee member of Beit El-Maqdis.
Tell me a little about the Islamic Center.
Beit El-Maqdis was founded in 1999, the year the building was first bought. It started out as a community center and then a mosque as well. In addition to religious services, we hold classes and have other activities. On Fridays and Sundays, for example, there are karate lessons for kids ages 6–14. And on Saturdays and Sundays we have Arabic-language and religion classes. Kids can also get help with tutoring in subjects like math. We also have an ESL program. Altogether, we have more than 180 students, boys and girls, as well as adults, who regularly attend some activities. We also hold town hall meetings for the wider Bay Ridge and Sunset Park community.
What was your reaction or the reaction of the community to the vandalism that took place back in November?
In the 18 or 19 years Beit El-Maqdis has been here nothing like this has ever happened. This is a very close community, and it is a safe community, so people were shocked when this took place. Local rabbis and priests and political officials all came together at Beit El-Maqdis in the days after the attack. They were all supportive and had one message: these kinds of acts are not acceptable. We are part of the mosaic of the neighborhood, and we all have to stand together. This is what the community took from this incident.
What are your thoughts on the MLK march? Had you heard about our previous marches?
Yes, of course. I hear that there are different opinions, and that there are some people who won’t like a march like this, but in our community, people like it. There is a reason for it that is important for the community. This is a good way to bring everybody together, to know that we all have to accept each other, without any kind of discrimination based on race or color or beliefs. People should be united and put all difference aside. That’s why people need to come together for this march.
What are your hopes for the New Year?
My hope for the New Year is for peace and justice for all, especially right here in the United States, but all around the world.