Thursday, August 26, 2010

This is a checkpoint.

For all the heated rhetoric generated about the Park51 (Cordoba House) mosque controversy in the last month or more, one man’s drunken, potentially murderous manifestation of outrage in a cab in lower Manhattan on Tuesday night may be the physical tipping point in the debate.

If not for the actions of Michael Enright, the arguments over the fate of the proposed Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan would probably go on being arguments, and nothing more, for weeks to come. But because Enright, a young white documentary filmmaker with an apparent drinking problem, slashed Bangladesh-born, New York City-raised taxi driver Ahmed Sharif at East 24th Street and Second Avenue on Tuesday evening, a Rubicon of intolerance has been crossed and, by utter coincidence, the forces against the mosque are the ones who crossed it.

In one stroke all the theoretical fears of violence in the wake of the Park51 controversy aren’t theoretical  anymore. What Enright did effectively conveys to supporters of the Park51 project the kind of public relations victory money couldn’t buy, at the expense of opponents.

It was bad enough for the center’s opposition that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come out strongly in support of Park51 — not once but twice, in ringing and memorable speeches that have set the debate’s new, and higher, rhetorical bar. It was bad enough that the issue had breached the usual water’s-edge convenience of partisan politics (with some well-regarded conservatives starting to support the project).

Now this. An earnest, young videographer on a bender in the city takes a knife to an everyday American while allegedly screaming military phrases — “This is a checkpoint, motherfucker! I have to put you down!” — and changes everything. And nothing.

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The game, of course, changes from a standpoint of perception, and it damn well should. The crime allegedly committed by Enright has finally put a human face on the Islamic experience in post-9/11 America.

From all available evidence, Ahmed Sharif is precisely what he appears to be: an immigrant who’s been here far longer than the country he was born in, someone who defines his identity as being an American as much as being a Muslim. He’s lived in New York for 25 years. He’s a father of four kids. He pulls his 9-to-5 oars in the water like anybody else.

For Michael Enright, Ahmed Sharif was, at least briefly, the New Other.

“I saw the knife coming through my neck right here," Sharif said Wednesday to reporters. "Once I see his face, is so much anger and mad at me, I don't know, and hate. He have to kill me. And I ask him, 'please don't kill me, why you have to kill me, what I did?'" Sharif escaped the cab after being slashed in the face, neck and shoulders; he locked Enright inside the cab and contacted police.

Enright, of Brewster, N.Y., remains in jail without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault, with hate crime designation, and weapons possession.

Where to from here. Despite what seems to be an open & shut case of a hate crime a la 2010, strands of the story don’t fit the comfortable templates. Hardly: Enright, an honor student who was recently attempting to get publicity for a documentary film, had worked in Afghanistan as a volunteer with Intersections International, a mulitfaith, multiethnic cultural and social outreach group founded in September 2007, an organization that publicly announced its support of the Park51 community center on Aug. 3. Friends have said that the Michael Enright they knew wasn’t capable of this kind of outrage; Intersections International said basically the same thing in a statement on its Web site.

Curiouser and curiouser. Leave it to Zead Ramadan, board president of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to ask (last night on MSNBC) what everyone’s asking. “My question is, what made him tip?”

The early blame, of course, goes to the alcohol. But there’s been something in the air since May (since before May, really), that virus of intolerance that’s contagious and familiar as the flu.

Some members of an evangelical church got the bug bad early this month when they traveled to Connecticut from Texas — Texas! — to protest against worshippers leaving a mosque in Bridgeport, shouting "Jesus hates Muslims!" and “Islam is a lie!”

Hundreds of people have joined with Republican politicians in protesting plans to build a large Muslim center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

And today, on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Terry Jones, the sadly stubborn, undereducated evangelical minister of the Dove World Outreach Center, declared that his church will observe Sept. 11 as “International Burn-a-Koran Day.”

“We hope to send a clear, radical message to Muslims ... that sharia law ... is not welcome in America,” Jones said, insulting the broad cross-section of Muslim Americans in a single sentence.

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We know where we stand. What’s taking shape is the first play of a disturbing zero-sum game being advanced principally by the most extreme ideologues on the right. With them, you are either for or you are against. And in the current toxic (and now violent) climate, that kind of division amounts to being the drawing of battle lines.

Drunk or sober, whether he knew it or not, Michael Enright was right about one thing: This is a checkpoint, a moral checkpoint for an angry, exhausted nation that’s lashed out like this before, under similar trying circumstances in the national past. More to the point, this is a crossroads. Two roads really are just ahead of us.

One leads to a challenging but definitely possible future; the other leads to the abyss. And we know, right now, what lies at the end of each of them.

Image credits: Enright: Unknown (possible courtroom pool). Sharif: via

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