When NYPD wears a Muslim topi

Police chaplaincy lets Khalid Latif embody both Islam and American culture.

Photo by Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
One man, two worlds: Khalid Latif preaches the Friday sermon at the Islamic Cultural Center, also known as the 96th Street Mosque, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Religious force: Khalid Latif in his police uniform at New York University.

Around five in the morning one day in the summer of 2007, just as Imam Khalid Latif was preparing for the salatul-fajr, the obligatory prayer between dawn and sunrise, the phone in his small Manhattan apartment began to ring.

He had been up late the night before, having just conducted a nikkah, a Muslim wedding ceremony, for a South Asian couple he knew from New York University, where he served as chaplain. Afterward, he offered to drive a few students back into the city, so he had not gotten home as early as he might have expected.

On the phone was an operations dispatcher from the New York Police Department (NYPD), where Imam Latif also served as a chaplain, having been named only three months earlier to the post. This was his first emergency call: Two cops had been shot, one fatally. He was to go to the hospital to minister to the families and fellow officers of the fallen.

He has had a number of emergency calls since then, but none has been for a Muslim officer or family. The eight members of the NYPD Chaplains Unit – a group of part-timers that includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews – take turns being on call. But even when the relevant denominational chaplain arrives, the first responder often stays. For six hours, Latif remained with the mother of the slain officer, an Orthodox Christian. She wept the entire time.

Latif recognizes the jarring cultural tableau he often presents to those he ministers. He is young, a 2004 graduate of New York University. Bearded, he wears a topi skullcap with his NYPD blue; his gold police badge bears his Pakistani name prominently. Indeed, part of his ministry, he says, is to help develop a particularly American form of Islam – one fully integrated into the social fabric of the United States.

“Day to day on the job, there’s the sensitivity trainings, culture immersion trainings – but it’s really about being there for Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” Latif says. “It’s a stressful job [for officers], and they need someone to talk to and someone who they feel will have their back, and stand up for them.”

• • •

Few Muslim clerics have attempted to extend their ministries beyond their own folds. In the US, nearly 60 differing ethnicities, cultures, and languages practice varying forms of Islam. The tremulous cadences of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, are heard five times daily in parts of New York. But individual Muslim communities have remained mostly insular and separate.

In the past few years, as Latif has become a more visible figure in the emergence of an American form of Islam – he has turned down chaplaincies at Princeton and other universities to stay with the NYPD – he has grappled with how Americans view Muslims in a post-9/11 world. On the other side, as a young leader, he has also been seeking ways for Muslims to take part fully in such a diverse and predominantly non-Muslim culture – one that often remains suspicious and fearful of their beliefs.

And so he often wonders, what does it mean to be both Muslim and American? Like some ethnic Muslim-Americans, “we’re presented with Islam, but we’re not presented with an Islam that necessarily works in the context we’re in,” Latif says. “There’s a lot of questioning of how you remain true to traditional cultural norms ... while maintaining yourself and fitting into a broader American society.”

Latif has consciously shaped his ministries to help forge a new kind of Muslim identity, one that confronts this painful clash of traditions. The experience echoes that of Catholic immigrants who a century ago found themselves in a largely Protestant culture suspicious of their beliefs.

Unlike their counterparts in Europe, Muslims in the US tend to be solidly middle class and mainstream. Their incomes and education levels mirror those of the general public, according to a comprehensive 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center. That has helped them fit into the broader society. No one is sure of their numbers, though. Some groups say there are as many as 7 million Muslims in the US. Pew estimates there are 2.35 million throughout the country, mostly in urban areas.

Many devout Muslim immigrants simply try to re-create their traditional cultures in the US, say some scholars. But when their children grow up within the American culture, they adopt American attitudes and values. “What the [older generation] sees is that religion can only survive in their particular cultural matrix,” says Sherman Jackson, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, a Muslim who has also addressed Latif’s questions. “So their tendency is to take that cultural matrix wherever they go as a means of preserving the religion.”

“In America, we are in a different cultural space, and we are still in the process of trying to develop a culture that resonates with the teachings, the sensibilities, the moral parameters of our religion,” he continues. “What you have are two communities, one who says that Islam already has a cultural expression, the other saying that, no, Islam in America is in the process of developing a cultural expression.”

• • •

Latif’s own religious awakening began his junior year at Wardlaw-Hartridge, a private prep school in Edison, N. J., where he grew up as the youngest of three children. He played defensive back on the football team and was class president. His father, a doctor, had brought his bride to the US in the 1970s. Though not particularly devout in their early years, the family connected with their religious roots during the 1990s.

By his junior year, Latif was taking advantage of his reputation and position as a top student and popular leader to cut class – to attend mosque. But he would arrive there in his prep-school jacket and tie and driving a black Lexus. “I had no idea, I had no comprehension whatsoever, about differences in people’s perceptions of affluence and socioeconomic backgrounds,” he says. “I just wanted to pray. And so it became hard to find someone to teach me.”

At NYU, he continued to explore his religious identity and became a leader in the university’s Muslim student group. After graduating, he became the de facto chaplain. Eventually he attended Hartford Theological Seminary, which has a program in Islamic Studies.

His work at NYU and Princeton, where he also served as a chaplain, attracted the attention of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appointed him an NYPD chaplain in April 2007. For Latif, serving in a world-renowned American institution was the perfect opportunity to forge a particularly American form of Islam.

“And now it’s like, how do you mesh together this seeming dichotomy of Islam and the West?” he asks. “When I walk down the street and I’m wearing my uniform, and I also have a beard and my head covered, you see that that’s not a dichotomy, it’s a reality.”

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