Ahmed Sharif, 43, a Muslim, an American citizen of Bangladeshi origin, has been driving his cab for the past 15 years, roaming the streets of New York City, streets which by now have become more familiar to him than his own country of birth, which he left 25 years ago, until something changed all that last Tuesday night.
It started off like any other night, but ended like no other he had ever experienced.
A baby-faced young man was his first fare for that shift, but little did he know that he would be his last. In a hospital bed, his face, neck arms and hand slashed, Sharif recalls the conversation he had with his attacker, Michael Enright.
According to a statement posted on New York City Taxi Workers Alliance website: “The man, 21, started out friendly, asking Mr Sharif about where he was from, how long he had been in America, if he was Muslim and if he was observing fast during Ramadan. He then first became silent for a few minutes and then suddenly started cursing and screaming. There, at about 6:15 pm at Third Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, he yelled, ‘Assalamu Alaikum. Consider this a checkpoint,’ and then slashed Mr Sharif across the neck. As Mr Sharif went to knock the knife out, the perpetrator, continuing to scream loudly, cut the taxi driver in the face (from nose to upper lip), arm and hand.”
Enright, who was reportedly drunk at the time he stabbed Sharif, was arrested and charged with second degree murder as a hate crime and first degree assault as a hate crime. Photos of him looking very frightened in a New York City courtroom were just as disturbing as the images of his victim stretched on an emergency room gurney, blood streaming down his face and machines wired to his chest.
It’s hard to imagine what was going on in Enright’s mind when he did what he did.
Some reports have related the incident to the toxic atmosphere bred by the “bigotry and anti-Islamic rhetoric” in the debate surrounding the proposed Park 51 Islamic center (formerly known as Cordoba House) a few blocks away from Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers once stood.
The grueling debate over the center has exposed a racist, Islamophobic streak in the mainstream US discourse vis-à-vis the Muslim world.
President Obama’s support for the center was viciously used against him in a Republican offensive that played into the atmosphere of fear and ignorance plaguing US society. Disinformation campaigns have led to the findings of a recent survey that revealed that nearly one in every five Americans believes that Obama is Muslim and that only 34 percent of respondents correctly identified him as a Christian, while 43 percent were unsure of what religion he practiced. This poll was taken before Obama waded into the controversy of Park 51 and publicly supported Muslims’ right to worship freely in the US, so it’s hard to imagine what the results would be now.
The proposal by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose Cordoba Initiative is behind plans for this $100 million, 13-story project aimed at fostering inter-faith relations has been both rejected and accepted by Muslim and American intellectuals across the political spectrum. The division has not been clear-cut, with some Islamic scholars saying that this is not a battle worth fighting and that the proposal was being made at the wrong time and place.
Such a negative, defeatist attitude will get us nowhere. It’s been 10 bloody, war-infested years since 9/11. Revenge wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have claimed the lives of thousands of Afghani civilians and soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the so-called war on terror, not to mention the thousands who died indirectly as a result of displacement and disease. According to statistics posted on the US Department of Defense website, over 5,500 American soldiers were also killed in action in both countries. Thousands were also wounded in action, many of them young volunteers who had returned home and are likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.
It’s time to end this cycle of hate, fear and death and to confront, head on, the conflation of Islam and terrorism that has used the un-Islamic arguments of a vocal, deviant minority that claims to be the guardians of Islam at the expense of a silent majority of Muslims who are bearing the brunt of the actions of such radicals.
Imam Feisal is fighting the right fight at the right time. And the Muslim world must unanimously support him, not because New York City necessarily needs one more Islamic Center or prayer area, but because this latent hostility within US society and by extension across the borders informing US policies in the Muslim world must come out into the open and be confronted and eradicated. The role of this center is dual: it will both educate US society about Islam and Muslims as well as educate majority Muslim societies about the US, whose image has been distorted beyond recognition because of the actions of a handful of warmongers on both sides.
To go back to Enright, a closer look at his background will reveal that the Park 51 debate was not the only reason why he stabbed Sharif last Tuesday. Reportedly a 2007 graduate of Brewster High School and an aspiring filmmaker, he recently returned from Afghanistan, where he filmed Marines as part of a project for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he is a student. In Afghanistan, he was embedded with a Marine Corps crew that included his fellow Brewster High graduate, Cpl. Alex Eckner.
Enright’s first-hand experience at the forefront, in the US war in Afghanistan cannot be ignored and hence his actions must be analyzed through the wider prism of the US’s unscrupulous military adventures that have bred victims of soldiers and civilians on all sides.
Truth is the first casualty of war. But the flesh and blood casualties of ill-conceived, unjust wars will continue suffering on side streets in New York, London, Iraq, Germany and Madrid until this cycle of hate ends. Park 51 might well be the turning point in this long struggle for the truth.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.