New York imam forges close ties with city’s Jews

May 16, 2008

New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom HeneghanNew York’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) on East 96th Street in Manhattan, is getting applause from an unexpected quarter — the city’s influential Jewish community … Much of the credit for the upbeat mood goes to Mohammad Shamsi Ali, the ICC’s Indonesian-born imam who arrived here only 12 years ago and has been rated by New York magazine as the city’s most influential Islamic leader.

At the end of my trip to the U.S. to cover the pope’s visit, I visited the ICC and interviewed Ali. After more research and interviews, I wrote the feature quoted above that just ran on the Reuters wire today. There is no Grand Mosque of New York, but the ICC unofficially plays that role. And Ali has emerged as one of the city’s leading Islamic personalities. As New York magazine put it, “Ali is the one imam who can mediate between the diverse and fractious elements of the 800,000-member Muslim community in New York … Since 9/11, he has become the community’s unofficial emissary to law enforcement and the mayor’s office.”

During our interview, Ali ranged over a wide number of topics. The strict format for our news features leaves little room for some of them, but I’ve posted more on page two of this post. Other links not included in the feature are the Jewish Week article quoted there, a New York Daily News op-ed article by Ali on Muslims, terrorism and the police and the attack on him by a tiny (“we are less than a handful…”) group of Islamists.

Imam Shamsi Ali, 23 April 2008/Tom HeneghanWhat struck me while interviewing Ali and the two rabbis, Marc Schneier and Burton Visotzky, was their view that there was a lot more cooperation going on between Muslims and Jews than gets publicised. I’m the first to admit the media report a lot of negative stories — the negative element is usually what makes them news, just like a surprise element does. I have nothing against reporting positive news and was happy to be able to do so here.

On the next page, I’ve posted further quotes from the interview with Ali to give interested readers more insight into the issues mentioned in the feature. A lot of this just didn’t fit into one feature. Would you have written a different article with the material that was left out?

Imam Shamsi Ali:

On inter-faith dialogue in New York

“One of the blessings of living in New York is that we can do this very easily. The nature of New York is diversity. I think no single group can live by themselves without others. There is a strong interconnection between communities. That’s the only way to live our lives normally here in New York, we must connect with other people … I consider this a real blessing. These are the real Islamic things we want to see. Islam is respecting all people, Islam is embracing diversified members of society … We must be able to stretch our hands and our selves to other people so we can live together. The nature of the city itself provides this opportunity. So it’s normal and natural we have this.”

Comparing the Muslim experience in Europe and the U.S.

Prayer hall of the New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom Heneghan“In Europe, I think both sides really are not flexible. America is secular country, but the people are very religious. The way we Americans understand secularism is different from the European understanding. In America, religion is a private matter but it doesn’t mean you cannot practice it in public. You can have your headscarf, even in parliament or the police force. But in Europe, they are rigid in the way they see the concept of secularism. This probably reflects into the behaviours of the Muslims on the other side as well. They feel they have to protect their identity … But here in America, we feel easy practicing our religion. It’s OK to be religious, it doesn’t violate at all the concept of secular society.”

Is it difficult to be Muslim in the city of 9/11?

“It was, especially in the first two weeks after it. Many Muslims were scared … There is still some prejudice and misunderstanding. But the further we are from that, the more people are understanding. Before September 11, you never saw any Islamic leader invited to speak in the national media on Islam. These days even Fox News invited me to speak about Islamic issues. I think this is great. It’s an opportunity. Fox News is kind of tough. Being Indonesian, we are always polite (laughs). But I learned lessons. But we have good representation in the media. There is a good trend taking place.”

Islam in America

“We feel at home here. To be honest with you, those people who are really sincere with their religion and understand the religion properly, they see many things Islamic in America, more Islamic than in many Muslim countries. First of all, freedom and Islam are like fish and water. Islam cannot live without freedom … Here in America we have freedom. You can express yourself freely. It is guaranteed by the Constitution. Then you have justice for all, equality. We have to say there are some interruptions because of the security. But it doesn’t at all change the real nature of America. For those Muslims who understand the teaching, this will make them feel that America really belongs to them and they belong to America.”

Freedom in Islamic countries?
“There are many faces of Islam in terms of cultures. I think many people in the West, including America, misunderstand Islam as one monolithic form. In fact, it is not. We Imam Shamsi Ali, 23 April 2008/Tom Heneghancan speak of Egyptian Muslims, Saudi Muslims, Pakistani Muslims. Yes, we believe in the same faith, the same God, the same Koran. But interpretations of the texts is very much influenced by the cultural affiliations. When you deal with women’s issues, for instance, Saudi practice is probably considered Islamic but we Indonesians do not. We consider it un-Islamic because those practices do not give the real values that Islam gives to the women. When you come to the freedom issue, we consider that what’s happening in many parts of the Muslim world today is not Islamic because it simply contradicts the real values of Islam.”

How did you find living in Saudi Arabia?
“Often people would see me as less religious simply because I didn’t follow their own culture. The way I dress for example — I have my own taste. I don’t have to dress like Saudis with a turban and all, because I have my own culture. In this case, they feel I don’t represent the real features of a scholar. I faced a kind of challenge. But the difficult thing is not only living in Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries. Sometimes we cannot speak our minds and hearts. Here in America, we can speak our minds.”

Can tensions in the Middle East poison interifaith relations in New York?

“There is no doubt about that. Even among the Jewish community, they feel that. But we finally reminded one another that we may have different opinions on the issues, particularly Palestine and Israel, but our relationship doesn’t only rest on this one issue. We have some other things where we may cooperate and help each other. Thats why, without denying the possibility of different stands on the issue, we are also willing to go beyond that and walk together.”

How do you deal with radical Islamists?

“Some Muslims like the Islamic Thinkers Society are against Jews and against non-Muslims. I consider them ignorant and in need of an education. I feel a deep responsibility to bring them back to the right track. It makes me worry when I see what Imam Shamsi Ali, 23 April 2008/Tom Heneghanhappened in Britain, in London with Hizb ut Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun. They are very much fundamentalist radicals. I don’t think these will give any benefit to our community, nothing at all. Among the Jewish community there are also fairly radical people. It is the responsibility of us in the middle to strengthen our unity and come together and try to find solutions to problems that surround our communities. I say to non-Muslims: let us do the job but have confidence in us … In a meeting with the NYPD, I told them we acknowledge the presence of radicals in the Muslim community — but it doesn’t mean we support them. In fact, the radicals are marginalised in many ways right now … So I don’t feel we need aggressiveness. I feel we need to reach out … We need confidence in us (from non-Muslims) and we need support. Don’t put suspicions over us. We are not confident enough to do the job. All good Muslims must have good intentions for America because this is the country where we live and we consider this our own country. The opposite is true too — if you’re not good Muslims, you’re not good Americans.”

Does being Indonesian make it easier to work with Jews?

“Most probably, yes … Arabs are more attached to the issue. But I think it’s not only because I’m Indonesian and not Arab. It’s because I understand everything else appropriately. I don’t mix everything at once .. I really hate generalisations. I hate when people generalise that all Muslims are bin Ladens and all Jews are enemies … We want the Israelis to have their own state and the Palestinians to have their own state. It is simply unacceptable to me to say that Israel will not exist. Israel is a member of the UN, guaranteed by international relations. From which perspective can we say there must only be one country? It’s simply unacceptable. Likewise when some people say there is no Holocaust. It is a reality of history. From which perspective would you deny this? … I am a Muslim but I am not a Palestinian. It is not about religious conflict, it is about a political entity and about land … That is why Muslims and Jews can come together … Our relations should not be political, but religious, human, as human beings.”

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[...] For ease of reading, I’ll copy from the edited version of the interview here, but since this is really interesting, I’d ask you to read about the complete interview here. [...]

[...] holidays this fall. He expects to use the months he will be off to finish a book he is writing with Imam Shamsi Ali, a prominent New York cleric, about troubling texts in the Torah and the Koran. If congregants need [...]