New York City – When an attack happens in the United States, the first thing that passes through Zaid Nagi’s mind is a prayer: “Please, don’t let them be Muslim.”
Nagi, the vice president of the Yemeni American Merchants Association in New York, says each time an attacker turns out to be a Muslim, he knows that his life and the lives of those in his community will only get harder.
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“They look like us; they sound like us,” Nagi said, “but they do not represent us.”
On Wednesday evening, Nagi joined around 200 other New Yorkers for an interfaith vigil to remember the eight people killed and 12 injured in Tuesday’s attack.
Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old man, originally from Uzbekistan, allegedly drove a rented pick-up truck into a busy bicycle path on the city’s West Side Highway.
Muslim immigrants, Nagi said, are doubly affected by such attacks, which serve as a reminder of the violence that drove many to leave their countries of origin, and also increase their own insecurity in the US.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo labelled the attacker a “lone wolf”, but Saipov’s apparent sympathies with ISIL have many within the Muslim community fearing heightened Islamophobia.
‘Extreme Vetting Procedures’
Some of these fears have been stoked by President Donald Trump’s calls to end the Diversity Visa lottery programme, which he said helped get Saipov entrance to the US in 2010.
Trump also tweeted on Thursday that “The United States will be immediately implementing much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures”.
All members of the Yemeni community in New York are directly affected by these threats, Nagi said.
Many Yemenis, he said, rely on these programmes, and their families depend on remittances they send back to Yemen.
In response to the attack, religious leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu community organised Wednesday’s interfaith Vigil for Peace.
It was held in Foley Square, located between the African Burial Ground National Monument and New York County Supreme Court, and which served as a triage centre on September 11, 2001.
The assembled crowd joined in prayer and song, and representatives from the city government and community nonprofits addressed the tragedy and grief after the attack and the importance of coming together in solidarity.
Afaf Nasher, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in New York, said during her remarks at the vigil that by gathering, “we defy the evil that thrives in discord and disunity”.
Show of communal grief
Everyone, as persons of faith, compassion and morality, shares a basic belief that life is sacred, Nasher continued, and called to “serve our fellow human beings with love”.
There have been several unforeseen consequences of Trump’s victory and the apparent Muslim “animus” of Trump’s administration, Harold Levine, a Jewish New Yorker, told Al Jazeera after the vigil.
One such consequence is the opening up of “channels of communication between New York’s Muslims and the Jewish community”.
Last year, Levine did not have any Muslim friends. He did not know that Islam considers Moses, David and Solomon to be prophets. He did not know that both Jews and Muslims use non-secular calendars and traditionally pray multiple times a day.
Today, he is involved with the Jewish-Muslim Outreach Initiative for Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, has volunteered to serve multiple Iftar meals and counts several Muslims – including Dr Debbi Almontaser, one of the vigil’s key organisers – among his closest friends.
Recognising that Muslims in New York City are under “tremendous pressure”, Levine said that gatherings like Wednesday’s vigil are vital, not only to “show support for one another, and as a show of communal grief,” but also to show that most New Yorkers “do not feel that most Muslims are terrorists”.
Instead, as Almontaser said, they are integral to the New York community. “And we have to show everyone that the fabric of this city cannot be torn.”