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One On 1: Shamsi Ali Builds Peace Through Actions, Words

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Not every influential New Yorker can be found on the front page of the paper or as the subject of radio or television news stories. And yet, behind the scenes, they influence the lives of many of their fellow New Yorkers. Such is the case with Imam Shamsi Ali. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

He is an Imam. But especially in difficult times, when Islam and Muslims are under the microscope, Shamsi Ali sees himself primarily as a bridge builder.

"It gives me an opportunity, even, to push myself, to connect myself to my partners. To the Jewish leaders, to the Christian leaders. I extend my hands for help and embrace them," says Ali.

He may speak softly, but Imam Shamsi Ali has become one of the city's most influential religious leaders. He is the chief cleric at the city's biggest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street, as well as the director of the Jamaica Muslim Center and chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria.

He's the chairman of the Muslim Day Parade and also serves as the community's liaison to the New York City Police Department. And when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced support for the controversial downtown Islamic Community Center, Shamsi Ali was there with him.

His ability to work with the Muslim community's many factions -- South Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans, African-Americans -- is aided by the fact that he studied in Pakistan, taught in Saudi Arabia, and came here as an immigrant in the mid 1990s. But he was born and raised in Indonesia.

"When the South Asians or the Middle East have a kind of unhealthy competition, between communities -- it's a normal thing; sometimes happens -- I jump in and build a bridge between these two communities, because I don't belong to any of those two," says Ali.

Shamsi Ali is known for his outreach; speaking at interfaith events with Jewish and Christian leaders, connecting mosques and synagogues and teaching classes about Islam to non-Muslims. He says this is even more important now, amidst the controversy over the proposed Islamic Community Center. He defends the building of the center. But he's not opposed to it being moved further from the World Trade Center site.

"The discussion is more than just the project. and it's about Islamophobia. It's about a kind of limiting, possibly limiting the rights of the Muslims to exercise their religious freedoms," says Ali.

And yet, he says that individual cases of Islamophobia do not represent the real face of America.

"American people in general are still very much tolerant. I cannot imagine if September 11th happened somewhere else in the Muslim world, and it happened to be publicly known, let's say, through the media, that the ones who did it were Christians or Jews within the Muslim community, I cannot imagine what would be happening," says Ali.

Each Friday, more than a thousand Muslims of many sects, including Shia, Sunnis, and Sufis come together at the 96th Street Mosque to pray and hear his words. During a recent visit to the mosque, the Imam preached that in light of the controversy, now is the time for Muslims to engage even more with their fellow New Yorkers.

"If you go out and engage with American people you will influence them even more than Fox News influences them, more than New York Post influences them because they see who you are. This is the reality," says Ali.

He's built his reputation as a bridge builder through deeds. But he's also used words.
Shamsi Ali spoke at the post 9/11 service held at Yankee Stadium. And before President George W. Bush appeared at the World Trade Center site, he met with a small group of religious leaders, including Shamsi Ali.

"I was basically the person who asked him personally, Mr. President if you can go out publicly and say this has nothing to do with Muslims and Islam, we would really appreciate it. And he did it the following day," recalls Ali.

Shamsi Ali's home is in Jamaica, Queens where he lives with his wife and family. It's a few blocks from the Jamaica Muslim Center, where he serves a mostly South Asian community and a few thousand miles from his first home, the Indonesian province of South Silawesi.

"My parents basically was kind of confused -- where to send this kid to study? Because I didn't want to study, just going out and fighting with kids. So my parents sent me to an Islamic school," says Ali.

The fighting eventually gave way to a love of learning. In the late 1980s he earned a scholarship to university in Pakistan, where he was drawn in by the constant anti-Zionist, anti-Western drumbeat.

"Every day demonstrations against America, against the West, against Soviet Union. And that basically shaped our mindset," says Ali.

It was a mindset that was further shaped by teaching for two years in Saudi Arabia. But in 1996 he was invited by the Indonesian ambassador to the United Nations to come to New York and lead the growing Indonesian Muslim community here. He says he expected America to be like a European nation, meaning white.

"When I landed at JFK, and I saw Pakistanis, Africans, all kinds of people, I say what? Am I in America? That's the first impression that I had," recalls Ali.

He says the media in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia gave him a negative view of what he calls "the other," or non-Muslims. But his views started to change thanks largely to an Irish Catholic neighbor near his first home in Astoria.

"Every time I brought my kid to school, they walked out to the street and hugged my kids. We become just like, ya know, he's just like my parents, my second parents. And that really changed, completely, my mindset about 'the other,'" says Ali.

His moderate views on women in Islam, and music -- he's been called the Hip Imam -- plus his cooperation with the NYPD, have incurred the wrath of some radical groups.

"When these radicals criticize me and accused me as a FBI mouthpiece on the Internet, and I feel that I need to do more to educate my community about America," says Ali. "I use that opportunity to show that being a good American doesn't necessarily mean being a bad Muslim. And I want to show them that being a good Muslim doesn't necessarily mean being a bad American."

He says 9/11 is the main factor behind his commitment to build bridges of understanding between people. But the primary force behind his work seems to be a reckoning with his own misunderstanding of, in his words, "the other" before he arrived in New York.

"I feel that I wanted to do some redemption, I wanted to correct myself and that way I can correct my own community," says Ali. "I need really to do every possible way to educate my community first and others about each other. Because this is the only way to live our life and survive in this globalized world today."

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