Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim...

Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, talks about a planned mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. (July 21, 2010) Credit: Charles Eckert

For weeks she was the public face of the proposal to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, a plan that has stoked an international firestorm of controversy. But Daisy Khan, the wife of the imam planning the mosque and community center, never realized how much angst it would cause.

She and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, "are taken aback but not surprised" by the controversy, Khan, 50, a Jericho High School graduate, told Newsday recently. "It's as if we were starting all over again right after 9/11."

And in a second interview she expanded on her feelings about the controversy. "I think that the word would be completely 'overwhelmed,' " she told PBS' "Newshour" last week. "And I keep asking myself every morning that I come to work, How did we get involved in this? We're not public figures, and we find ourselves in the midst of the largest controversy of my life."

Some families of Sept. 11, 2001, victims, who oppose building the mosque so close to Ground Zero, where they lost their loved ones to the terror attacks, say Khan's efforts on behalf of the community center have been divisive and insensitive. "She's gone about this in a ham-handed way," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked jet flown into the Pentagon. She said Khan did not reach out to victims' relatives before the mosque proposal was brought to the local community board. "She's really hurt families."

Khan told PBS last week that she has been reaching out to 9/11 families since then. "We have to - the whole Muslim community now has to work very hard to reach out to ordinary Americans who really have no interaction with Muslims and their views are largely shaped by what they see on television," she told PBS. But it is clear the two sides are still far apart.

Growing up on Long Island, Khan knows firsthand what it is like to live as a minority. In the mid-1970s, she said, she was the only Muslim student at Jericho High School, which last year inducted her into its Hall of Fame for her interfaith work.

When she was a student, her conservative clothing and the accent of her native India at first made her the object of teasing, she recalled. And there was her unusual first name, Farhat, which she soon stopped using in favor of her middle name: Daisy.

The start at Jericho "was a lonely journey," she said. "I felt like a misfit."

Things began to change when the field hockey coach discovered she was a talented player. She joined the team, and her goals helped turn a losing team's fortunes around. "Suddenly, instead of being a foreigner," she said, "I became a hero."

The coach, Karen Schwartz, took Khan under her wing and taught her things such as "the fine art of American cuisine" - how to eat spaghetti, for instance, Khan said. Another teacher, Ira Green, invited her to speak about Islam to his social studies class.

"I think some of my activism began there," Khan said. "I recognized my role was to be a spokesperson for my faith."

Khan lived on Long Island for seven years, through high school and college at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and the New York School of Design in Manhattan. Afterward, she worked for 25 years as a designer for Fortune 500 companies. For about five of those years, she said, she worked on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower.

By the mid-1990s she started an organization that would reach out to Muslims who felt isolated, and to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. In 1997 she and her husband founded a group eventually named the American Society for Muslim Advancement. And by 2005 she gave up her work in the corporate world as a design architect to devote herself full-time to interfaith understanding.

Despite the controversy over the mosque, she said, "We stand for peace, and peace where it matters most."

Latest video