Shamsi Ali: The rise and fall of a New York imam

Shamsi Ali

An imam once regarded as one of New York's leading religious figures had a sudden fall from grace. So what does the story of one man's attempt to adapt Islam to modern America tell us, asks Sune Engel Rasmussen.

Before the controversy that cut him down, Shamsi Ali was the leading figure of moderate Islam in New York, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

For a decade, the biggest mosque in New York, the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street in East Harlem, was his stage. Here, the diminutive Indonesian with a brusque demeanour praised democracy and vigorously condemned extremism, to thousands of worshippers. Outside the mosque, he taught the FBI and congressmen in Washington about inter-religious co-existence.

He befriended presidents too. In the days after 11 September 2001, the city of New York picked him to represent the Muslim community on President George W Bush's interfaith visit to Ground Zero. Another president, Bill Clinton, wrote the foreword to the new memoir, Sons Of Abraham, that Ali co-authored with a Jewish rabbi he counts among his close friends.

Although many of his conservative peers interpret the Koran to prohibit the use of music, Ali listens to rap and hangs out with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. He even shrugs, disinterested, at cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

In short, Shamsi Ali is the Muslim that liberal America wants. But he is not the leader all New York's Muslims want. Ali is a divisive figure in New York's Islamic community, and two years ago, the same mosque that gave him a platform to grow influential and popular, suddenly pulled the rug from under him.

Now, rather than preach to thousands at the 96th Street mosque, Ali speaks to a meagre congregation of 20 at the al-Hikmah Mosque, far out in the sticks of Queens, New York.

Shamsi Ali at the Jamaica Center Shamsi Ali at the Jamaica Center, Queens, New York

While his schedule is still packed with congregational duties at two mosques, and outreach activities and speaking engagements in public, the mosque that allowed him to rise to prominence at a young age no longer wants anything to do with him. The reasons for that are political, Ali says.

After years of tensions, he was quietly fired in 2011, or - depending on whom you ask - left of his own accord before he was. So quietly, in fact, that no one seems to know about it.

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Tensions over how to practise Islam in the US mirror the challenges faced by any number of religions when they come to the US. Like Judaism and Christianity before it, Islam faces challenges of cultural integration, and lacks institutions to represent believers on their own terms in years of increased public suspicion against the religion.

Life of Ali

  • Born Mohammed Utteng Ali in the village of Tana Toa on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 1968
  • Learn Koran by heart aged 11, and enrolls in Islamic boarding school in Makassar
  • Leaves Indonesia in 1988 to attend the International Islamic University in Pakistan then moved to Saudi Arabia to teach Islam
  • Begins work at Indonesian UN Mission in New York in 1996 and chairman of Al-Hikmah Mosque
  • Hired by Islamic Cultural Center in 2001 to promote interfaith dialogue
  • Becomes director of Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens in 2004
  • After meeting Rabbi Marc Schneier, the two religious leaders start working together
  • New York Magazine names Ali most influential Muslim leader in New York in 2006
  • Loses his job at Islamic Cultural Center in 2011
  • Releases Sons of Abraham, a joint memoir, with Marc Schneier in 2013

"The lack of these institutions makes it difficult for Muslims to tell their own story, their own narrative," says Khalid Latif, Muslim chaplain at New York University and another vocal interfaith proponent.

People who seek to integrate new religions into American society often meet as much resistance inside their communities, where prejudices against other faiths are rife, as they do from the outside, says Jose Casanova, professor at Georgetown University and one of the world's leading scholars on sociology of religion. But if they persevere, people like Ali can make a huge difference.

"If you have leaders who commit themselves to it, then they can carry communities with them," says Casanova.

An essential part of doing that is education, which is why religious institutions are so important, says Latif, and why Ali's exit from the Islamic Cultural Center was such a blow to religious coexistence in New York.

"That mosque could be amazing in terms of really helping to educate and do outreach, right? But it's not really doing that," says Latif.

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Ali likes to say he has a rebellious soul. But at the offices of the Indonesian Mission to the United Nations in New York, his first and longest remaining employer in the US, he wears the attire of American establishment.

The grey suit, lime green shirt and purple-striped tie all look slightly oversized on his lean, marathon-trained frame, as he edges forward on the couch to tell his story. It's a journey that begins and ends with fights. Including internal ones.

Beginning at age six, when Shamsi led children from his village Tana Toa on the Indonesian island Sulawesi in fisticuffs against children from rival villages, through his teenage years of practising the Indonesian martial art, silat.

Start Quote

It is not true that America is bad or worse than any Muslim countries”

End Quote Shamsi Ali

"That's another thing I like," he says. "I like to fight."

The third of six children, Shamsi grew up five hours' car drive from the nearest city. His parents had never read the Koran, but after they suggested he study it, it took him just eight months to learn it by heart. At 12, he enrolled in a pesantren, a strictly disciplined Islamic boarding school, where he quickly excelled as a top student.

"It was a jail in the beginning," he says. "But later, I began to call it a divine jail." At the school, he learned to sing verses from the Koran more beautifully than the other boys. And he learned to preach.

As a pre-teen, he gave sermons to the villagers, including his own mother who would superstitiously bless food by presenting it to a sacred rock. When Shamsi rebelled against that pagan custom and threw away his mother's food, she got so scared the rock would curse the family that she fell ill for three days.

Shamsi's view of Islam changed when at 18 he went on to study in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and found a stricter, more fundamentalist religion than he had been taught in Indonesia.

In Pakistan he married Mutiah, the 15-year-old daughter of the Islamic school's headmaster, who three years later gave birth to their first child. A few years later, the Indonesian Ambassador to the UN heard Ali speak to a group of pilgrims in Mecca, and was so impressed with the young imam that he invited him to run a newly built Indonesian mosque in New York.

Shamsi Ali Ali with his two daughters Maryam (left) and Malika

When he first landed in the US in 1996, at the age of 29, Ali was surprised to see that all Americans were not white. The first of them he saw were Asians, the cab drivers were Pakistanis, and his first neighbour and friend an elderly Irish Catholic man.

"It is not true that America is bad or worse than any Muslim countries. In fact, you find that America is better than many Muslim nations," Ali says, explaining how the ethnic makeup of New York softened the doctrinaire Islam he had been brought up with.

"Islam for me is about justice, equality, tolerance, freedom, giving right to others, respecting the human rights. And if you don't have these - even if you claim that you are a religious, Islamic country - that is a lie for me… Here in America, we have that."

Yet, Ali's liberalism has limits, and they are the ones that to him are unmistakably stipulated in the Koran. There is no way, for example, that he can approve of same-sex marriage. Centuries ago, he explains, Muslim scholars decided that homosexuality is a genetic mistake where a girl is accidentally born a boy, or vice versa.

While he would accept a child of his that came to him and said he or she was homosexual, he stresses that people who identify as homosexual should live a life in celibacy, get a sex change operation, or seek therapy, he says. "In that sense, I am orthodox."

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Ali was in the heart of the Manhattan when the two planes struck the towers. Al-Qaeda's attack on the US on 9/11 became a crucial juncture in Muslim relations with American society, and it pushed Ali to the front of the public sphere.

After having noticed his burgeoning interfaith activities, the City asked Ali to join President George W Bush at a visit to Ground Zero with a host of religious leaders. At Ground Zero, Ali asked the president to explain to the American people that Islam was not terrorism. And that plea seemed to work.

"The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. That's not what Islam is about," Bush said a couple of days later in a speech in Washington. "Islam is peace."

As Muslims came under scrutiny, he says, they became forced to rethink their place in society, and that brought some good things as well.

Start Quote

People have a need for art. We need entertainment. You can't deny that from our life”

End Quote Shamsi Ali

"After September 11, the Muslims became more open, more inclusive," he says. "They opened their houses of worships for others to come and observe and see what they're doing. They became more aggressive in terms of introducing themselves to Americans."

In New York, however, the oldest and largest mosque in the city, the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street, was not rethinking anything.

Founded by the government of Kuwait in the late 1980s, the mosque wasn't known for its progressiveness. In 2001, its head imam Muhammad Gemeaha said in an interview that "only the Jews" were capable of carrying out the attack on World Trade Center. Later his successor, Omar Saleem Abu-Namous claimed that there was no conclusive evidence that Muslims were behind 9/11.

Capsized by the following furore, the leadership of the mosque realized it needed a spokesperson more in line with the public opinion.

Enter Shamsi Ali.

He was working with the Indonesian UN Mission and at the Al Hikmah Mosque, and a press conference he gave after 9/11, in which he stressed the importance of faiths working together, had caught the City's attention,

The mosque offered Ali, who was steadily gaining admirers outside the Muslim community, a part-time position as assistant imam. And he quickly became the face of the mosque.

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Around the same time, Ali made an unlikely ally and friend. Like Ali, Marc Schneier is a self-declared orthodox believer who has raised ire with his outreach to other communities of faith. As vice president of the World Jewish Congress and head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Schneier is also one of New York's most influential rabbis.

"Most Muslims don't trust Jews, and most Jews don't trust Muslims," says Schneier, a heavyset man of 54 with backcombed hair, in a stern, droning baritone. Recalling the time before he met Ali, he says: "I had a definitive bias in those days toward Muslims. I saw them as the enemy. They were the demons out to kill all Jews."

Schneier's suspicion was reciprocated. Ali, whose interfaith work had mainly been limited to working with Christians, saw Jews as the true, clandestine rulers of America, and as innately anti-Muslim.

Rabbi Marc Schneier and Shamsi Ali

The two first met at a TV commemoration for Pope John Paul II. Schneier, who had been active for decades forming bonds between the Jewish and African American communities, saw something different in Ali, who publicly acknowledged Israel's right to exist.

The rabbi invited Ali to his synagogue to speak, and the two began "twinning" their houses of worship, as they called it, by paying visits and sermons to each other. After Hurricane Katrina, they visited victims in New Orleans, and had a big dinner cooked both halal and kosher with local religious leaders.

Although there are issues the two don't agree on, says Schneier, their relationship is about Muslims speaking out against anti-Semitism, against Holocaust denial, and it's about Jews speaking out against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.

In 2007, Ali and Schneier arranged the first summit of rabbis and imams in New York. And later, when New York's Jewish Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, wanted to reach out to the city's Muslims, he came to Ali's Friday sermon and prayed behind the imam, following the rituals of the Muslim prayer.

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In the daily life of most mosques, an imam is expected to lead the prayer, perform service at marriages and burials, teach and in general be readily available for counsel. And not all faithful want an imam who spends more time reaching out to other religious communities than serving his own.

"Shamsi Ali will go out and make friends with [Mayor] Bloomberg and [Police Commissioner] Kelly, but he was not able to make a programme that was good for the community," says Utjok Zaidan, 63, who refuses to attend Ali's prayers.

"What is it really they are trying to do?" he asks, referring to Ali's cooperation with Schneier. "We are supposed to be friends with the Jews, but our faiths are different."

As part of a group called Shamsi Ali Exposed, Zaidan even had a scholar in South Africa issue a fatwa, cautioning Muslims against performing prayer behind Ali.

The resistance to Ali's work extends beyond his overtures to the Jewish community. His teachings in general, about how to lead a modern Islamic life in a Western society, are infuriating some congregants.

"They call me the 'hip hop imam'," he says with a smile, knowing that more conservative readers of the Koran, who interpret the book to forbid practically all music, don't find that funny. "People have a need for art. We need entertainment. You can't deny that from our life."

Two of the widest publicised global insults to Muslims of the past decade - Florida pastor Terry Jones' Koran burning and a Danish newspaper's caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad - elicit only shrugs. "It was a joke, so we can respond to it as a joke," Ali says of the cartoons.

Protests in Lahore

As a response, opponents in another group, the Islamic Thinkers' Society have taken to internet campaigns to denounce Ali. "Shamsi Ali is a moderate Uncle Sam Muslim who wants the Muslim community to imitate the west," the group writes on its website.

In 2011, the mosque on 96th Street got a new chairman, Mansour al-Otaibi, who was less enthusiastic about Ali's interfaith work. Suddenly, Ali no longer had the protection of the leadership, but it took a political conflict of global importance to topple him.

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The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 pitted supporters of the popular protests against defenders of the autocratic order, also in New York.

Ali sympathised with the Arab protests. He also knew very well that his employer in the mosque, the government of Kuwait, a little oil rich monarchy ruled by the same family for nearly 300 years, did not.

On a Friday in February, 2011, Ali strode through the prayer hall to deliver his noon sermon. Mounting the pulpit, he overlooked several thousand people sitting on the floor. The atmosphere was filled with a sense of anticipation. At the end of his sermon, Ali fixed his eyes on the men on the floor and said, "Every human being in their lives view freedom as a necessity. Prosperity without freedom does not guarantee happiness."

Start Quote

It was advised to [Ali] and to the other imams as well, that it was preferable not to speak about politics in sermons”

End Quote Mansour al-Otaibi Chairman, Islamic Cultural Center

He then asked his Egyptian brothers and sisters in the mosque to join that afternoon's protests on Times Square against the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak. The protesters in the Arab world needed their solidarity and support, he said.

After the prayer, the chairman pulled Ali aside. "This mosque doesn't deal with politics," he told him. But Ali replied that anti-dictatorial struggle was an inherent part of Islam. He was told he had to spend more time with his congregation and less on outreach activities, and he left the mosque.

The mosque insists that Ali was fired rather than left on his own account, but the chairman, Al-Otaibi, denies that it had anything to do with his interfaith activity.

In an email, he writes: "It was advised to [Ali] and to the other imams as well, that it was preferable not to speak about politics in sermons."

Abdulrazak al-Amiri, who is daily director of the mosque, elaborates: "The people are coming here to pray, some of them are with the regime, some of them are against the regime. We don't want this in our mosque."

However, Ali claims he was squeezed out for political reasons, including his friendship with the Jews.

"There's a deep racial discrimination in the community. Many think that if you are not Arab, you are not accepted to lead Arabs."

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Since his days at the pesantren in Indonesia, Ali has thoroughly enjoyed singing verses from the Koran for masses of worshippers. On a recent afternoon, in his family's two-story home in the low-rise jungle of Queens, he recites verses for two men in his living room.

Ali has just returned from a two-week trip to Indonesia to visit his sick father, and while there, newspapers and magazines wrote extensively about him and his interfaith work. That's the reason the men, one of them fresh off the plane, have come - unannounced - to pray on the floor, wedged in between the coffee table and the window.

Ali and his wife Mutiah have lived here since 2004, when Ali took a job at the Jamaica Muslim Center, which is smaller than the 96th but still serves a large, predominantly Bangladeshi congregation. He also preaches to a small number of worshippers at the al-Hikmah Mosque.

Jamaica Muslim Center

Mutiah, a mild-faced woman wearing a loose-fitted dark dress and a black headscarf, serves the two men tea and plantain crisps. At 36, she is nine years Ali's junior, but looks younger. Three of the five children run haphazardly around the living room, waving plastic swords above their heads.

The daughter of a madrasa principal, Mutiah is more conservative than her husband. "But I support him in everything he does," she says.

His face shows the first discreet signs of middle age as he readily admits that his influence over his large congregation is diluted by all the time he spends away from it, building relationships with other faiths. Later this year, he hopes to establish his own interfaith, not-for-profit organisation which will provide a prayer room to younger worshippers. With an international tour promoting his book, this year may end up being one of the most important in his career.

"I'm sure that will be the beginning of the real journey," he says, as he closes the front door to his house and makes the five minute stroll to the Jamaica Muslim Center.

In front of the gold-coloured pulpit, he turns his back to the crowd to lead the prayer. He then begins to sing with that striking voice that so entranced people in his pre-teens.

The loudspeakers outside the mosque carry his song through the sleepy streets, then down the hill to the busy avenue, where it dissolves and disappears in the traffic.

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