Is New York cabbie stabbing result of 'anti-Muslim hysteria'?

Islamic leaders are concerned that the increasingly heated debate over the mosque near ground zero is stirring up anti-Muslim rhetoric that could incite violence and hate crimes.

Seth Wenig/AP
Taxi driver Ahmed Sharif, bottom right, speaks to the media, surrounded by supporters, on the steps of City Hall in New York, Thursday. Michael Enright, who once volunteered with a group that promotes interfaith tolerance, was charged Wednesday with using a folding knife to attack Sharif after he said he was Muslim.

In the wake of a knife attack on a Muslim New York City taxi driver, Islamic leaders are calling for an end to anti-Muslim rhetoric that many say has proliferated on talk radio and cable TV amid the heated debate over the planned Islamic center near ground zero.

Many prominent Muslim-American leaders say they are alarmed by what they deem "anti-Muslim hysteria" that could lead to violence and hate crimes.

“I have been working on behalf of other Muslims for more than 30 years and I have never see it like this, not even after the 9/11 attacks,” says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington.

WATCH VIDEO: Three Muslims in New York talk about American misconceptions of Islam

Mr. Hooper blames the harshness of language toward Muslims not just on the heated protests over the Islamic center planned for a site 2-1/2 blocks from ground zero, but also on right-wing rabble rousing, continuing resentment over the election of Barack Obama, and the difficult economy.

“We’ve had a perfect storm for Islamophobia,” Hooper says.

Erica Payne, the founder of a New York nonprofit called the Agenda Project, blames politicians of both parties for not speaking out more forcefully against what she called an increase in hate speech directed at Muslims.

“It’s happened very quickly, a lot of matches have been lit all at once,” says Ms. Payne, whose group released a YouTube video calling on politicians to take a more prominent leadership role. “Those who should have held the fire extinguisher have abdicated,” she says. “If they don’t take hold of themselves, this will be the very beginning of a long line of these kinds of incidents.”

In the case of the taxi driver, a young man, Michael Enright of Brewster, N.Y., is alleged to have entered a cab driven by Ahmed Sharif, who is from Bangladesh.

“It was a friendly conversation at first,” says New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Mr. Enright apparently asked Mr. Sharif if he was a Muslim and how his Ramadan was going, says Commissioner Kelly. But, fairly quickly, Enright is alleged to have started making anti-Muslim statements before pulling a knife out. He is accused of cutting Sharif’s throat, face, and shoulders.

Kelly says arresting officers found an empty liquor bottle in Enright’s briefcase as well as some journals that had yet to be examined because of the need for a search warrant. Enright was taken to Bellevue Hospital for observation. Kelly says Enright claimed to be Jewish. “We don’t believe that to be the case,” says Kelly.

According to press reports, Enright is a film student and just returned from filming troops in Afghanistan.

Ten hate crimes against Muslims have been reported so far this year in New York City, says Kelly. In 2009, there were 6 for the entire year. Since 2001, an average of 10 hate crimes against Muslims have been reported annually.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited Sharif, his wife, and his four children to City Hall on Thursday. At a media-packed photo opportunity, Mr. Bloomberg said, “These things are rare but one time is enough.”

Later, on the steps of City Hall, Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, blamed “fear mongering,” which she said “leads to hate crimes.”

Ms. Desai urged New York Gov. David Patterson to sign a bill (already passed by the legislature) that would make assaulting a cab driver punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Since more than 50 percent of the city’s taxi drivers are Muslims, she says, the enactment of the legislation in the light of the attack is particularly important.

WATCH VIDEO: Three Muslims in New York talk about American misconceptions of Islam

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