While controversial plans for a mosque near the World Trade Center site may not have been behind this week's attack on a Bangladeshi cab driver in New York, the driver says his Muslim beliefs certainly played a role.
Taxi driver Ahmed Sharif, along with his wife and four kids, went to City Hall to meet Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday. His children were presented with gift bags filled with "I Love NY," "I Am an Official NYer," and NYPD T-shirts, as well as socks decorated with iconic yellow cabs, similar to the one their father has driven for 15 years.
So many reporters and news photographers showed up at City Hall to cover the event that a larger room upstairs was chosen, near City Council chambers, as opposed to the Blue Room, which is the usual site for most mayoral press conferences in the building. With Sharif by his side, the mayor made a statement denouncing the attack "This should never have happened, hopefully won’t happen again,” Bloomberg said. “Hopefully, people will understand that we can have a discourse -- that's what the First Amendment is all about. That is what America is all about." The mayor also mentioned that Sharif's wife had told him that they traveled to the U.S. from Bangladesh for a better life for their family.
When asked by reporters if the proposed mosque and cultural center near the World Trade Center site had anything to do with the alleged bias crime against Sharif, Bloomberg said he didn't know whether it was related but that everyone should feel safe on the streets of the city.
Sharif then met fellow drivers and supporters on the steps of City Hall. He briefly described the attack and how he's feeling. "From my back, he attacked me,” he said. “This is a very sad, a shock, me -- sometime I feel very lonely and unsafe. This city must be safe for everyone."
Sharif couldn't speak to the crowd for very long because of his injuries, but in a dramatic moment, he moved his collared shirt aside to show the jagged wound on his neck.
The injury was a reminder of how vulnerable cab drivers can be. The head of the Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai, said all of the fervor and polarization regarding the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque are putting drivers -- who are about 50 percent Muslim -- at more risk than ever.
She says she's shocked that's happening here. "If we as a people, as immigrants, people of all different faiths and backgrounds and colors, cannot feel safe in New York City then where do we go in America to feel safe?” she asked. “This is not Arizona. How can this happen in our city?"
Desai and TWA mebers are now calling on Gov. David Paterson to sign a bill, already passed by the legislature, called the Taxi Driver Protection Act, which would require all cabs to post signs reading:
"ASSAULTING A DRIVER IS PUNISHABLE TO UP TO 25 YEARS IN PRISON."
They hope that message might act as a deterrent in the way that Sharif's partition was not.