He has been called an imam on a mission.
Muhammad Shamsi Ali, an assistant imam at the Islamic Cultural Centre and a pillar of the Muslim community in New York City, is a slight man soft-spoken, yet forceful in his convictions. Foremost among those convictions is the belief that the only way for communities of different faiths to coexist is to begin contact on a person-to-person level. In his words, he has a passion for inter-faith initiatives.
Al Jazeera sat down with him on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to talk about how he feels his work has been affected by them, and how he has striven to break down barriers between religious communities in New York (a mission that has won him as much praise as criticism, from both Muslims and non-Muslims).
“The pain that Americans have gone through - for Muslims we experienced even worse than that, for many reasons,” he told Al Jazeera, saying that there were legal, security and political consequences for his community.
“We have been forced into a position of - psychologically at least - of being guilty.”
Completed in 1991, the Islamic Cultural Centre on East 96th Street in Manhattan, is the largest mosque in New York City, with a congregation of 1,200 on Fridays. As such, its leaders are often approached by the city when they wish to access the city’s Muslim community. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Imam Shamsi Ali was invited to be one of three people leading the “National Prayer for America” at Yankee Stadium.
Most of his work at the ICC and the two other Islamic centres that he works with focuses on inter-faith initiatives. Tellingly, he is cognisant of the fact that ultimately, the members of different faiths will have different worldviews, so that the concept of “dialogue” (at least without conversion) is somewhat tricky.
“Faith cannot be a dialogue. What we have is a dialogue between the followers of the faith – so Muslims, Catholics and Jews can have dialogue for common things. And most of the common things we have are social issues.”
For Shamsi, members of each community can learn from each other.
The response from Shamsi Ali’s congregation, however, has not always been positive when it comes to engaging in these initiatives that he has made his central concern.
“In the beginning I had just 10 people who came with me [to visit a synagogue]. But the following year I have like 30 people. The next year not only did they want to come, even they asked when we are going to visit the synagogue.
“So changes are taking place in the Muslim community. Always we have some exceptions. There are some radicals, there are some extremists – and we have to acknowledge the existence of tendencies of radicalism within the Muslim community, for many reasons.”
Shamsi Ali’s bridge building is not limited to being between religious communities: he, along with other imams, also serves as a "clergy liaison" with the New York Police Department. In this position, he acts as a point of contact for the police department and for members of the community who feel they have a point to raise. As an example, he talks about how he has urged the NYPD to meet with the Muslim community’s leadership in the wake of revelations by the Associated Press that the police department has been running what amounts to an undercover domestic intelligence operation aimed against the city’s Muslims.
The subject of the NYPD’s “intrusion into the privacy” of his community is something that Shamsi feels is counterproductive, and leads only to New York’s Muslims feeling more and more isolated.
Mahawish Rezvi contributed reporting for this blog.