By Jeremy Harrow
With the war raging in Iraq and Muslim-Americans fearful of hate crimes targeting their communities, Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured more than 100 members of the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica Friday that the city would protect them from persecution.
Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the director of the center, said it was a “great honor” to have the mayor as a guest speaker at the Queens mosque.
Bloomberg spoke briefly to the Jamaica congregation following their traditional Friday afternoon prayers, called Juma in Arabic. The mayor boasted of the city’s diverse population saying that “today almost 40 percent of New Yorkers come from other lands.”
Singling out the city’s Muslim residents, Bloomberg told the audience “you contribute tremendously.” The mayor said he felt compelled to visit the mosque after seeing Al-Sahlani, an Iraqi-American, on television denouncing Saddam Hussein.
“I pray that the day of Iraq’s deliverance from Saddam will come soon,” said the mayor, who emphasized that the war was “not against the people of Iraq or Islam.”
Al-Sahlani said the Muslim community shared the sadness of the Sept. 11 attacks and that they were there to help and do whatever they could to serve New York City. He sought to separate the mainstream followers of Islam from the fundamentalist elements that promote terrorism.
“Sometimes a few drops in the ocean can negate the whole value of the ocean,” Al-Sahlani said.
Bloomberg assured the congregation that the city would not tolerate any hate crimes or religious persecution. “As long as I’m mayor, that will always be enforced,” he said.
Bloomberg urged the center’s members to report any acts of anti-Muslim discrimination to their local police precinct or to the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
Mohammed Safa, who worships at the center regularly, said the “time was right” for the mayor to come to speak to the congregation. The 46 year-old business owner was extremely pleased with Bloomberg’s appearance. “I hope we will have more connection,” he said.
After his short speech, Bloomberg shook hands with everyone in the audience as he made his exit, including the students from the Al-Iman school that operates elementary through high school classes at the center. Ta-Hir Iqbal, a 19 year-old senior, said his classmates were “very glad to have him over here.”
Ana Maria Bazan, who works with the New York Immigration Coalition in Manhattan, said that while Bloomberg’s comments were helpful, they did not fully address all of her organization’s concerns.
“What we’re hearing from immigrants is that they’re afraid to contact the police,” she said. Bazan said that many immigrants, especially those who are here illegally, are afraid to report hate crimes because they fear the police will turn their names over to the Immigration & Naturalization Service.
She added that the coalition has been unsuccessfully trying to meet with the mayor personally to discuss implementing a policy that would protect would-be informants from deportation.