Driving While Muslim: Taxi Driver Slashed in Alleged Bias Attack

A 21-year-old college senior has been charged with attempted murder as a hate crime for allegedly slashing the face and neck of a Muslim taxi driver.

Police say suspect Michael Enright was drunk when he got into a cab on Tuesday night. He asked driver Ahmed Sharif if he was Muslim and celebrating the Ramadan holiday -- and then uttered the Arabic greeting "Assalamu alaikum" and said "Consider this a checkpoint," before slashing Shariff's neck and face. Enright jumped out of the cab and was quickly apprehended by police. The School of Visual Arts student is being held without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault as a hate crime.

Enright volunteered for the group Intersections International, that promotes interfaith dialogue. He also traveled to Afghanistan for his senior thesis, making a film about the average U.S. soldier. 

The attack has heightened concern by taxi drivers that the debate over a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque has raised tensions -- and perhaps played a role in the stabbing.

Bhairavi Desai of the Taxi Workers Alliance says the atmosphere is making drivers' jobs even more dangerous than usual.

"This is a debate saying that one group of New Yorkers, Muslims, are not as equal as other New Yorkers, non Muslims. And we are one of the most publicly identified of a large Muslim workforce."

Desai is recommending that drivers not talk with passengers about politics or religion. That's what driver Harris Hussnain says he's been doing. "The certain way they look at me...I mean I have a beard so you know, they know who I am," he says. "They will look at me at times like in a weird way. It does hurt my heart that people don't try to understand."

Gov. David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced the crime as a bias attack. Bloomberg will host Ahmed Shariff, who survived the stabbing, and his family at City Hall on Thursday afternoon.

Drivers are urging Paterson to sign the Driver Protection Act, already passed by the state legislature in June, into law. It would require all taxis to post signs warning passengers that assulting a taxi driver is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.