Tariq Shahid welcomed me barefooted in the prayer hall of Harlem’s Malcom X mosque. With friendly and kind words he asked me to leave my shoes in the corridor and walk with him on the carpet-covered floor. Green is the predominant colour on the columns, walls and windows, where Arabic quotations from the Koran celebrate the attributes of God. The traffic noise reminded me that we’re in New York, not in the Middle East, and this first meeting with Tariq ushered in a dialogue on what remains an open wound for the Islamic African-American community: September 11. He started by explaining the role of Imam Izak-EL M. Pasha, religious leader of the mosque, and apologized for his absence. He acts as spokesperson, and is in charge of public relations, but he refuses titles and prefers to describe himself as a friendly member of the mosque. He informed me that the Imam gave a radio interview on the eve of September 11, he mentioned his speech at the Yankee stadium on September 23 2001, when world leaders were invited to join in a common prayer, since the victims of the Twin Towers’ attack were faithful of world religions from world countries.
“I know Islam, and those responsible for such horrors are not Muslim. They have no knowledge of our religion – he told me with a serious tone. I am aware that for many people being a terrorist and being a Muslim are the same thing, but we are above all human beings and that is what makes us equal.”
Where were you on September 11 2001?
I was on the Second Avenue, in Manhattan, with my wife, who was pregnant at the time. We were going to the doctor and we realized that something had happened in lower Manhattan. We realized it was a devastating, tragic event, and we kept repeating: “It’s unbelievable.” I could only think about all those people, and I was afraid to think of how many were losing their lives. This awareness of loss was devastating. We then learnt that it was a terrorist attack, and I linked the date 9/11 to emergency number 911. It was a suspicious coincidence, of equally serious import. My heart was shattered.
How did the faithful react in the mosque?
Mayor Giuliani was desperately trying to contact Imam Pasha, who was travelling in that moment. In those tragic instants he sought his assistance and help. The Imam was the chaplain for Muslim police officers of New York Police and everyone wanted an explanation, they were looking for him, in those dramatic moments they needed his words of comfort.
It was eventually discovered that the terrorists were Muslim. Which feelings did you have to coexist with?
I am aware that this discovery triggered feelings of anxiety in many people but I know the Islamic religion, and I know that a true Muslim would never had done such a thing. The terrorists are self-proclaimed “Muslims” but this does not make a person a true follower of Islam. W.D. Mohamed, one of our theologians and thinker, who served as religious leader of the mosque before Imam Pasha, use to tell us that events ought to be viewed within given contexts and the contexts reveal the limits and borders we are forced to live with. We are aware that for many people Muslims and terrorists are the same, but this is not true. Those who uphold these views have no real knowledge of our religion. In those days a journalist asked a Muslim religious leader to define what a terrorist is. He replied that he should ask a criminologist not a man of faith.
After September 11 Imam Pash, that everyone knew for his integrity, had been invited to several meetings with the heads of the various law enforcement agencies and with high-ranking officers of the security department. When in one of these meetings the discussion appeared to be leaning towards indiscriminate accusations against all Muslims he asked the mayor to stop praying. And that’s what happened, because it was necessary to act as inspired persons.
After the prayer you took action…
The imam inspired and encouraged us to help everyone. I joined the Red Cross at Ground Zero, helping firefighters and rescuers in their shifts. I was there for months, once a week. People stood in shock when they found body parts, and we did our best to console them, to give them our support. We didn’t see them as Christians, Jews or Muslims. We were simply helping human beings, people, families.”
There, a humanity without labels came together..
Were you present at the interreligious ceremony of September 23, 2001 at the Yankee Stadium, organized by the city of New York?
I was there. Thousands of us were there. There were Governors, members of Senate and Congress, the President, religious leaders. We started praying and then Imam Pasha delivered a courageous speech before a world that had already labelled us as terrorists. He underlined that we were US citizens, and that we stood with our Country. The attack on the Twin Towers was an act of cowardice that no Muslim could do. We remembered all those who were killed and that among them figured also 300 Muslims. This occurrence in the stadium is seldom mentioned, and with the passing of time media outlets have forgotten about that ceremony. But I don’t want to speak about Muslims: the thousands who died are people, they can’t be classified on religious grounds.
God didn’t want all that evil – W.D.Mohamed reminded us on many occasions – for He cannot want evil and sin, He allowed it to happen because He gave us freedom of choice, which unfortunately includes the freedom to choose evil.
This source of evil makes an instrumental use of religion to place labels also on your community. How can prejudice be countered?
September 11, as well as other terror attacks, teach us a lesson that extends beyond the tragedy, namely, we cannot remain silent in the face of evil and we cannot turn a blind eye. It is necessary to speak out also against media portrayals that depict us all as potential terrorists. We all know that it’s not true. I had a special experience with groups of Catholics, with members of the Focolari movement, and I could never speak badly of them. I hope that those who know us well will always defend us. Goodness is growing at a faster pace than evil, and this should be known. That is why it’s important to make ourselves heard and find realms to speak out not only at local level but also globally.
How did you celebrate the memory of September 11 this year? We held no specific ceremony, instead we joined the official ones. Remembrance is important, but it shouldn’t be like a library, a place to remember by reading the first lines of a book.
Remembering the past is a thrust to persist in our activity and move on guided by our common denominator: we are all human beings.
No matter whether we live in different places or whether we are Muslims, Jews or Christians: first of all we are people, and we have a lot in common. This “commonality” must be cherished in order to dispel all labels and focus on our hearts, which is what unites us.