When a local Muslim group rented out the long-abandoned Burger King on Knapp Street in the summer of 2014, it was supposed to serve as a short-term place for prayer during the holy month of Ramadan. The congregation, an offshoot of the Muslim American Society, expected their mosque on Voorhies Avenue to be completed within a couple of months.
However, a year-and-a-half later, the congregation is still marooned in the geographic margins of Sheepshead Bay. The former Burger King, at the corner of Knapp Street and Avenue Y, is located across the street from a wastewater treatment plant and a boarded up gas station. There is no heat in the building; worshipers have set up a few space heaters to get through the winter but they aren’t much good. To separate the prayer rooms for the men and women — who must be kept apart during services — they’ve hung a few sheets across the room.
“This experience has really humbled us,” said 25-year-old Ahmed Sulaiman. “A lot of people would be hesitant to pray in a place like this. But we decided the community needed a place to pray. We knew [building the mosque] was going to take a long time.”
After the congregation first proposed building the mosque in 2010, in order to accommodate a growing Muslim population in the area, the project generated an enormous controversy. Neighbors, who feared the prayer house could become a breeding ground for radical terrorists, fought the proposal through public demonstrations and legal challenges.
The battle stretched for years, and might explain why the group’s administration dodged our interview requests for more than two weeks. However, when we made it out to the Knapp Street Burger King during Friday prayer, worshipers seemed eager to share their experiences.
“We are Americans. We are part of this society,” Muthana Abdulla, 36, said of the backlash against the mosque. “We respect all beliefs and all religions. And we ask others to respect our right to practice our religion.”
Allowey Ahmed, one of the directors for the Muslim American Society in Sheepshead Bay, said he believes the brunt of the controversy is behind them.
“There are always those who have that hate. But even those who hate us, we try to prove that we are as good or better Americans than they are,” he said.
Ahmed said completion of the mosque keeps being postponed because of unexpected costs and hurdles required to obtain a certificate of occupancy from the Department of Buildings (DOB). The congregation has to keep scraping together money from its members in order to complete another inspection or hire another contractor. Everything has to be done right, Ahmed explained, so that no one can take away their mosque.
Unexpected costs and delays are not unusual for new houses of worship. The Turkish American Eyüp Sultan Cultural Center, a four story mosque in Brighton Beach languished for almost 10 years amid construction delays while its congregation worshiped in a gutted bowling alley.
The outside of the new mosque in Sheepshead Bay, located at 2812 Voorhies Avenue, looks completed. The three-story red-brick structure has a freshly painted gate along the sidewalk. The concrete entryway and steps are immaculate — and all the windows are installed. However, there is still work to do inside. The DOB records indicate that in order for a certificate of occupancy to be issued, 18 more items at the property must be completed, including an elevator and electrical inspections, a final site survey, and the address must be approved.
Meanwhile, the congregation has made the most out of their gutted former fast-food franchise. The parking lot overflowed with cars as people rushed into the building during the afternoon call to prayer. However, not having a fully-functioning house of worship deprives the congregation of many services, such as after-school youth programs, religious studies programs, and meet-up events. Ahmed says the mosque will offer those services when the building is completed.
“I hope the mosque is completed quickly,” said 17-year-old Mohammed Salem. “It will have more space, more things to do, a better place to pray. Right now, we have to wear a lot of stuff because it’s cold.”
The lack of heat also discourages the elderly and mothers with young children from joining their community to pray, Salem said.
Many of the worshipers we spoke with seemed optimistic that the move-in date could be just around the corner. In the meantime, the congregation continues to pool more cash to raise money for the next step in the project. Whenever the Voorhies mosque is completed, it will be a major milestone for the Muslim community in Sheepshead Bay.
“I feel like we’re finally becoming a part of the community. A lot of Muslims own local grocery stores, we own houses here, we play basketball in the park with our neighbors,” said Sulaiman. “But we can’t wait to have a place in our own neighborhood that’s beautiful, that we each can say we helped build.”