A young filmmaker who recently returned from Afghanistan has been charged with stabbing a New York City cab driver the after asking the driver if he was Muslim and the driver said he was.
A judge on Wednesday ordered Michael Enright, 21, held without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault as a hate crime and weapon possession. The handcuffed defendant, wearing a polo shirt and cargo shorts, did not enter a plea during the brief court appearance.
Police say the suspect from suburban Brewster, N.Y., was drunk when he hailed the cab at 24th Street and Second Avenue on Manhattan's East Side at around 6 p.m. Tuesday.
The passenger started out friendly, asking the driver, Ahmed Sharif, about where he was from, how long he had been in America, if he was Muslim and if he was observing fast during Ramadan, Sharif told NBCNewYork.
But then, Sharif claims, Enright began making fun of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the driver says he remained quiet.
Then after a few moments of silence, Enright allegedly began cursing and screaming, then about 6:15 p.m. at Third Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, he yelled, “Assalamu Alaikum" and "This is a checkpoint,” and then slashed Sharif across the neck.
Police say that Enright was carrying a multipurpose tool called a Leatherman, which has a blade in it.
As Sharif went to knock the knife out, the perpetrator, still screaming, slashed the driver in the face, arm and hand.
"I was fighting for life trying to protect myself, but still he was yelling and cursing," said Sharif.
Sharif was able to flee the car and flag down a nearby police officer, who arrested Enright.
Sharif, 43, of Queens, was taken to Bellevue Hospital treated for multiple lacerations. Enright was also taken in for a psychiatric evaluation.
"It's being designated as a possible bias crime, but that involves more investigation," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
"It was sad, I feel hopeless, I feel unsafe, and I was shocked," said Shariff, who thought of his four children. "Because if i die there would be no one to take care of them."
Earlier, he had said in a statement that he believes that the current atmosphere in the city has made it difficult to be a Muslim.
"Right now, the public sentiment is very serious [because of the proposed downtown Islamic cultural center.] All drivers should be more careful," Shariff said.
Sharif accepted an invitation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch of the supporter of the mosque, to visit City Hall on Thursday.
"This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe no matter what god we pray to," the mayor said in a statement.
“While a minority of has-been politicians spew ignorance and fear, it’s the working person on the street who has to face the consequences,” said NY Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai. “This kind of bigotry only breeds more violence and makes taxi drivers all the more vulnerable on the streets where there are no bully pulpits or podiums to hide behind.”
Police sources said Enright had just returned from reporting in Afghanistan in May and he had ID on him identifying him as a correspondent for a news website.
The Village Voice first pointed out that Enright's Facebook page lists that he works for Intersections International, a NY-based firm "dedicated to promoting justice, reconciliation and peace across lines of faith, culture, ideology, race, class, national boarders and other boundaries that divide humanity."
Ironically, the group even has publicly supported the Park51 project -- the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque."
The Rev. Robert Chase of Intersections International says he believes that Enright has volunteered for the group, based on the police saying Enright is from Brewster, N.Y., and other details.
Chase says Enright, a student at the School of Visual Arts, has been a volunteer for about a year. He was in Afghanistan in the spring documenting soldiers' lives.
Intersections has come out in support of the downtown Islamic cultural center project, but Chase said Enright wasn't involved in that.
He said the situation was "tragic."
"We've been working very hard to build bridges between folks from different religions and cultures. This is really shocking and sad for us," Chase said. "If these allegations are true, we of course deplore this violence especially anything perpetrated against anyone simply because he or she is Muslim."
But Enright has reportedly had trouble with the law before -- he was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct last year and in 2008 he received two summonses for underage drinking.