This story — I do not know how accurate it is — portrays Shamsi Ali as a liberal Muslim who flouted the Sharia prohibition on music and wasn’t overcome with rage over Muhammad cartoons. Apparently he didn’t call for censorship and the adoption of Islam’s blasphemy laws in the wake of those cartoons, either. At length, he was fired from New York City’s largest mosque — a move quite revealing about Muslims in New York. Was Ali’s liberal Islam unpalatable to them?
“Shamsi Ali: The rise and fall of a New York imam,” from the BBC, November 2 (thanks to Nic):
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.
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….