While new disturbing details surface about the 21-year-old man charged in the nearly fatal stabbing of a New York City taxi driver Ahmed Sharif, Muslim groups are working hard to portray the attack as the tragic outcome of months of virulent anti-Muslim sentiment surrounding the so-called "Ground Zero mosque."
First, the seemingly contradictory nature of the alleged attacker. The accused is Michael Enright, a 21-year-old aspiring filmmaker with a reportedly "bad, bad drinking problem." Enright had just recently returned from a three month stay in Afghanistan, where he had been shooting a documentary film. He was also a volunteer for an interfaith group in New York CIty that had recently thrown its support behind the controversial Cordoba House project to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero. His Facebook profile picture was of him with a young girl he had met while in Afghanistan.
According to police and media reports, Enright drunkenly stumbled into Sharif's Manhattan taxi on Tuesday night. After a few minutes of casual small talk, he allegedly asked if Sharif was a Muslim and observed Ramadan. When Sharif replied that he was, Enright grew silent for several minutes before breaking out a pocket knife and slashing Sharif in the face and neck. Sharif alleges that Enright yelled, "This is a checkpoint, this is checkpoint, motherfucker." Then he tried to escape out of the cab's window (Shairf had locked him inside) and practically fell into the hands of two NYPD officers who were stationed nearby. Officers also found Enright's personal diary at the scene, which was filled with anti-Islamic rants.
What seems clear is that Enright, who was arraigned yesterday in New York City on charges of attempted murder and felony assault with hate crime enhancements, has a serious substance abuse problem. It also appears that substance abuse may have simply exacerbated deeply-held racial hatred. One person who was friends with Enright's roommate during his first year in college recalled to Talking Points Memo a binge drinking scene the night President Obama was elected:
I remember on election night 2008 we were all downstairs outside of the dorm screaming and celebrating at Obama's victory and Mike came outside with tears streaming down his face. He pushed his way through us and when he came back five minutes later he had two 40's in his hands.
As we've seen before, it's not enough to simplify hate crimes down to personal character flaws, especially since they always happen within a national political context.
While former classmates, colleagues, and neighbors seem shocked at Enright's violent outlash, prominent leaders in the Muslim community claim that he's just one piece in a much larger puzzle. They're placing blame squarely on the shoulders of politicians who've been spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric around the country in light of the debate over the Islamic cultural center.
On Thursday morning, Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Worker's Alliance, told Democracy Now that the attack is clearly linked to the current political debate:
There is no doubt in our minds that the fear mongering and the ignorance and the hatred that has been spewing around this Islamic cultural center--which has erroneously been called the 'Ground Zero mosque'--we have no doubt that it's that hatred that's risen to the surface and that's led to this violence. And all of these has-been politicians, you know, who around the country who have been making a bigger issue out of this, that man's blood is on their hands.