On May 28, 2010 the conservative Washington Times newspaper ran an editorial in opposition to what they called the “9/11 Mosque,” the proposed Muslim cultural center set to be built blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
It marked the beginning of a long summer plagued by the heated rhetoric of conservative icons like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller and Sarah Palin. All of them wasted no time offering their own condemnations of the center on their own blogs or Facebook profiles. Candidates running for federal office as far away as North Carolina campaigned almost exclusively on their opposition to the “ground zero mosque.” Fox News devoted hours of airtime to opponents of the center to peddle their talking points. And thousands of hateful, vitriolic emails came pouring into the offices of Park 51, the center.
All of those emails landed in the inbox of Aylin Karamehmetoglu, the newly hired Chief of Staff at the Cordoba Initiative, the non-profit organization behind the cultural center.
Karamehmetoglu, a 2007 Stony Brook University graduate, began at Cordoba in early June of 2010 and was immediately placed at the forefront the center’s biggest challenge: defending itself from relentless and largely false attacks from a constituency proven to be impervious to rational argument.
“I was like ‘what happened? What’s going on here?’,” she said.
And she wasn’t the only one caught off guard. The sudden outrage over the cultural center, identified by its address of Park51, was a surprise to just about everyone at Cordoba. Just six months earlier, in December of 2009, one of Fox News’ most outspoken conservative personalities Laura Ingraham spoke with Daisy Khan and voiced loud praise for the center.
Ingraham was right to offer her support. Park 51 was conceived as a Muslim version of the 92nd Street Y, an immensely popular community center for the city’s large Jewish population. And like 92Y, Park 51 was to be a place of inclusion and collaboration.
“Our goal is to build a community center where all faiths and all cultures can congregate,” said Karamehmetoglu. “It’s about improving understanding and building trust.”
But whether because of politics—midterm elections season was beginning to pick up—or an effective fear campaign by members of the Islamophobic right or perhaps both, good will towards Park 51 expired quickly.
“And then all of a sudden, they went from supporting us to branding us terrorists,” said Karamehmetoglu. “Lost was the message of peace and understanding and love.”
Aylin Karamehmetoglu was born in Istanbul, Turkey and moved to the United States when she was 2. A local resident on Long Island, she chose Stony Brook out of convenience more than anything else.
“I wanted to major in International Relations, but Stony Brook didn’t offer it at the time,” she said.
Instead, Karamehmetoglu entered the Political Science department, earning a spot on the Dean’s List every semester and graduated in 2007 with a 3.98 GPA. She said she stills keeps in close contact with some of her favorite professors in the department. When I spoke with her, she had just returned from a trip to campus, where she met with, among others, a former professor.
After graduating from Stony Brook, Karamehmetoglu enrolled at NYU. This past May, she earned her Masters in Transnational Security and International Relations.
By then, she had also gained experience in the world of non-profits through various internships, so when she found a job opening on idealist.org, a job listing website that specializes in the non-profit sector, she was well equipped.
It wasn’t with the Cordoba Initiative, though. Karamehmetoglu was interviewed twice for a position at Cordoba’s sister organization, the American Society for Muslim Advancement. But she didn’t speak Arabic, a key requirement of the job.
As Karamehmetoglu was going through the interview process though, the former Chief of Staff at Cordoba left. Daisy Khan, the executive director of the ASMA, suggested Karamehmetoglu speak with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, about the opening. She was hired on the spot after a quick conversation over the phone.
“We’re very happy to have her,” said Khan. “We needed someone who was very passion driven, and she is.”
Passion and dedication became even more essential as the summer wore on and the very public conversation over Park 51 got more intense. The job that Aylin had signed up for was transformed into a type of public relations triage: putting out fires every time Glenn Beck discussed Park 51 or Pamela Geller organized protests outside the proposed location.
“We were in such a crisis mode, that every day was a new day, and every moment was something different,” said Khan. “Everyone was very much in the trenches, doing what they needed to do.”
Aylin was exceptionally good at removing herself from the equation and focusing on the task at hand, according to Khan.
“You do your marching orders, you don’t think about anything else,” she said. “Aylin was very heads down, focusing on what needs to be done.”
Still, a job constantly surrounded by so much controversy can wear down even the most hard-nosed workers.
That’s when Karamehmetoglu opens another kind of email: those from the supporters of Park 51 who write in to offer words of encouragement.
“I’ve read every single supporter email,” she said. “We’ve gotten emails from 9/11 families’ survivors. One gentleman who lost his daughter wrote to say ‘you honor her’.”