When the planes struck the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali's job dramatically changed. Ten years on, the imam of New York's oldest mosque is still intrepidly leading his followers in a faith under fire.
On September 11, 2001, Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali was in Midtown Manhattan when the Twin Towers were struck and pandemonium – laced with blind terror – gripped the streets of New York.
The slight, thinly mustachioed imam of Indonesian origin began walking from Manhattan to his home in Queens when a minor New York miracle occurred: he managed to snag a taxi.
“The taxi driver was Mexican. He didn’t know I was Muslim and he continued cursing Muslims right through the ride,” recounts Ali.
Ten years after a group of 19 Islamist militants carried out the worst terrorist attacks on US soil, the 42-year-old imam refers to the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as “the worst days”.
Ali is the religious leader of the “East 96th mosque” as New Yorkers call the squat, domed structure on Third Ave. between 96th and 97th streets. The Islamic Cultural Center of New York – as it’s officially called – is home to the city’s oldest mosque.
For New York City’s estimated 600,000 Muslims, the East 96th mosque is the nearest equivalent of Cairo’s Al Azhar or New Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Not everyone may worship there, but the mosque has institutional clout.
Ali himself leads the Friday noon prayers before a typical congregation of about 2,000 worshippers hailing from approximately 65 different ethnic backgrounds, ranging from Arab, South Asian, South-east Asian, African, African-American, as well as converts of European-American descent.
In its May 2006 issue, New York Magazine rated Ali the most influential Islamic leader in New York. Besides heading the East 96th mosque, Ali also leads 1,000 Muslims in worship at the Indonesian Cultural Center in the Queens neighbourhood of Woodside, and approximately 4,000 Muslims of Bangladeshi origin at the Jamaican Muslim Center, also in Queens.
It’s an extraordinarily spiritual as well as public position, one that Ali fills with a mixture of breakneck efficiency and stunning modesty.
Days of fear and reassurance
Born in a remote region of Indonesia, Ali received a scholarship to study in Pakistan before moving to Saudi Arabia and finally ending up as an imam in New York.
In an eventful, much-travelled life, the 9/11 attacks posed the toughest challenge of his ministerial mission.
“They were terrible days and nights,” says Ali. “Muslims were scared to reveal their identities. Some suggested that we have to close the mosque. But we never did close the mosque, we decided against it.”
What kept Ali – and the mosque – going, was the peculiar dichotomy of the American reception to Islam, a chasm between the statistics on paper and the reality on the ground.
In the days and weeks after 9/11, amid widespread fears that Muslims would be targeted, Ali – like many imams across the country – received calls from neighbours of various faiths offering help and support.
“So many people in the neighbourhood called, they were extremely helpful and so kind,” explains Ali.
Party members ignore Bush's call
In a speech delivered on September 17, 2001, at the Islamic Center of Washington, then US President George W. Bush said attacks such as 9/11 “violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” he said, before adding, “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens…and they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
Ten years later though, his fellow party members have proved less receptive to Bush's message, with Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich joining an acerbic campaign to block the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero, which has mistakenly – but deliberately – been dubbed “the Ground Zero mosque”.
On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, hundreds of people gathered near the site of the planned Islamic cultural center for an “anti-Ground Zero Mosque” demonstration, which featured well-known right-wing figures such as Pamela Geller, a blogger and co-founder of Stop Islamization of America, and Robert Spencer, another blogger whose writings were quoted by Anders Breivik, perpetrator of the July 22 Norway attacks.
A recent study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution titled, “What It Means to be an American” found that 88 percent of Americans agree that the US “was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular”.
But when it came to US views on Muslims, the picture got murkier with 30 percent of respondents saying Muslims want to establish Sharia law and 47 percent saying Islam and American values are incompatible.
Imam Ali would beg to disagree. Over the past decade, Ali’s central message to his congregation has been to engage with the democratic values of America rather than inhabit a culturally segregated space.
As one of the city’s leading imams, Ali’s role has been to help his congregation – many of them hailing from far-flung corners of the globe – reconcile Muslim traditions with American life. It’s just one of the aspects of what he calls “bridge-building” a term that frequently crops up in his conversations.
But Ali does not just help his community build bridges with the outside world. The 9/11 attacks have multiplied the number of hats this Indonesian-born American imam has been forced to don.
“Our work as imams is to lead the faithful in prayer. But September 11 changed that. We became bridge builders with other communities, we became ambassadors for the Muslim community to city and law enforcement officials, we became counsellors tackling a range of issues, the impact on our work was enormous,” says Ali.
An imam on a mission
It’s not an easy job, Ali would be the first to admit. As a leader of a community under close scrutiny, Ali is frequently called upon to liaise and cooperate with law enforcement officials on the lookout for extremists or potentially troublesome members of mosque congregations.
Not all members of his congregation appreciate the meddling presence of law enforcement officials, but Ali is typically philosophical about having to play that balancing act.
“Suspicions are high on both sides,” says Ali. “The community is suspicious of working closely with law enforcement and law enforcement officials are also suspicious of the community. I try to tell my congregation that the best way to target extremism is to work together since security is in our shared interest.”
Interfaith dialogue, particularly with the Jewish community, is another challenge Ali faces as a New York imam. His bridge-building work with Jewish religious groups has received plenty of media coverage, including a special site, which was built by two Columbia University journalism students, appropriately titled, “Imam on a mission”.
It's a daunting mission, Ali admits. “It’s not easy for many Muslims to work with Jews – and vice versa. I’ve been challenged by extremist elements in the community who want to know why I work with the Jewish community because of the Palestinian issue,” says Ali, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian issue as the “800-pound gorilla in the room”.
“I tell them I’m interested in finding common ground so we can find a solution to the problem,” says Ali.
It's a sentiment that would raise eyebrows in some circles – particularly those who have been on that roadmap before and have since got lost.
But ten years after 9/11 and a decade of anti-Islamic acrimony has not dented this amiable, Indonesian-born imam's optimism. “I'm looking forward to a better world. I'm sure the next ten years will reflect all the good work of the past decade and I know we face a brighter future.”
*Main photo credit: Chine Labbé (www.imamonamission.com)
Date created : 2011-09-12