by: Imam Shamsi Ali*
As I prepared myself to say goodbye to 2022 and welcome the new Gregorian calendar new year 2023, I was highly pleased and joyful, not only to watch the craziness of the people in Times Square from my warm living room, but also because of my high optimism, hope and expectation that the year 2023 would bring more blessings, joy and happiness to our world.
But the most important reason why I was joyful and optimistic about the new year was because of good news I received from one of the prestigious “think tanks” in America called the Brookings Institute. On December 29, 2022 the Institute released the result of its survey about Americans’ view on Islam. The result was very optimistic. Compared to 2016 when only 57% Americans had a positive view about Islam, this year (2022) it increased to 78% of Americans who view Islam positively.
As an Imam and an activist of Dakwah in this country, I was certainly pleased and happy to learn about this. I mentioned then in one of my lectures that this is due to our collective efforts as a community, particularly our proactive participation in American public life. As some have known, in the last midterm election there were 83 Muslims elected to a variety public positions in America.
I went to my bed on that night peacefully, got rest, and surely woke up for my morning prayer on time. Upon finishing my prayer as a habit I grasped my phone to see if any interesting news came in. All of the sudden I was struck by a news headline on the Yahoo website saying: “The attack on two police officers in Times Square on New Year’s Eve was inspired by Islamic radicalism”. The word “Islamic” was underlined.
I ran to turn on my TV and tried to find out more news about the attack from different sources. And almost all, if not all, news outlets, electronic and printed and even social media, had the same headline: “Islamic radicalism bla.bla.bla”.
At that moment my joy and hope about the new year turned to sadness and disappointment. I was sad because that evil and heinous crime took place on the night that was supposedly to be the night of joy and hope. I was disappointed because at almost the same time the Brookings Institute released the result of its survey on Americans view of Islam, which was very positive and optimistic, such an evil act should take place to destroy that positive image of the faith.
I could not resist thinking and trying to find more information about what, who, how and why such an evil attack had taken place in Times Square, the heart of New York City, and the capital of the world. In the City where a small thing can turn big, an ordinary matter can turn extraordinary. If a tourist is attacked by a dog in New York City it can turn into breaking world news. How about (a self proclaimed) Muslim convert who attacks two police officers in Time Square on the night of the new year?
I then began to search all online news, including social media in an attempt to find out any information which are possibly not mentioned on the mainstream media. So I turned to “Mr. detective Google” to ask about what really happened and who the perpetrator was.
As I searched and read more sources on the news I found out that both victims (two police officers) and the perpetrator were brought to a city hospital for treatment. One of the great things about America is that even when a person committed a crime his/her rights are guaranteed. This evil doer was brought to a governmental hospital and treated equally as the victims. According to the information we got the criminal got shot during the attack.
I also came to know that the perpetrator is a very young from the State of Maine, a 5 hour drive from New York City. Several news sources also mentioned that the only reason why he was considered “radicalized by Islam” (and becomes a “Muslim radical”) because he had posted in the past on his social media about his desire to go to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. In fact, the young man has been put on the watch list of the FBI for some time.
What I did next was I tried my best to get an access to talk to the perpetrator. And I got that opportunity to meet and talk to him. He was indeed a nineteen years old white (Caucasian) boy. When I met him, he was charming and welcomed me with a smile. While he talked to me, he looked innocent and pretended no tragic event just had happened in his life.
In my brief conversation with him , he acknowledged that he studied Islam by himself on the internet. Prior to his conversion, he never met any Muslim and/or studied under any Muslim Scholar. Although he acknowledged that he took his “shahadah” (conversion) in one of the mosques in his city.
When asked how he began his willingness to learn about Islam, he responded: “I came to read about many forms of injustice in the world on the internet. I came to read about what’s happening in Afghanistan. And I found Islam to be a religion of justice”.
His reading about Afghanistan and the Taliban led him to further his search about the religion. But when asked why did he learn about Islam in connection with Afghanistan and particularly with the Taliban he answered he himself is searching for fairness in life. According to him he’s been treated unfairly by his peers, and his own family for many years.
What really struck me in this conversation is the fact that this young man embraced Islam just last August of 2022. And by December of the same year (2022) he had become (a so called) “Muslim radical”. Almost all media portrayed him as someone that’s become radical because of his new faith (Islam). Although he himself acknowledged that he does not know much about the faith, did not study the source of the faith (Quran and Sunnah), but all of the sudden with his evil action he was portrayed as a committed (which also wrongly translated as extremist) Muslim.
Lastly, not to forget to mention that in the very same night of the new year, there were shootings which took place in two different US cities; one in Florida and another in Georgia. Three innocent lives were taken by those shootings. Amazingly the perpetrators religious affiliations were not to be mentioned on any media outlet at all….funny hah!
A happy new year with good news was buried by a sad news. What a pity!
Manhattan City, 17 January 2023
- Director of Jamaica Muslim Center/ President of Nusantara Foundation