Ali walks to the Jamaica Muslim Center, a few blocks away from his house.
The Islamic Cultural Center opened its doors in April 1991.
Ali arrives at the Jamaica Muslim Center to co-host an event of the “Weekend of Twinning.”
Ali talks to Rabbi Michael Weisser of the Free Synagogue of Flushing during the "Weekend of Twinning."


Ali settled in Queens with his wife and two children. Three more were born in the U.S. He says his friendships with his non-Muslim neighbors helped change his view of the West, and convinced him of the need for Muslims to mingle with people of other faiths.

Rapidly imposing himself as a central figure of New York City's Muslim community, he became the chairman of the Muslim Day Parade, started working as a clergy liaison for the New York Police Department, and engaged in many interfaith events. After 9/11, city officials chose him as one of three religious leaders to represent American Muslims at the memorial prayer at Yankee Stadium. Known for his continuous efforts to reach out to other faiths, Ali in 2006 was rated the most influential Islamic leader in the city by New York Magazine.

A "strategic" mosque

His appointment to the ICC, the first building constructed as a mosque in New York City, only reinforced his commitment to bridge different religious communities. Calling the ICC the "PR officer" of American Muslims, Ali believes it is his mission to "dispel misconceptions" about Islam, and to connect with other faiths. "It is perceived as the real center, the cathedral of Muslims," Ali says.

"It's strategically important," confirms Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, national director for the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances at the Islamic Society of North America, ISNA. "If Washington, D.C, is the capital of the U.S, New York is the capital of the world in a sense. That's why you need to have Muslim leaders who are level-headed... Every word, every action has a global implication."

Ali has perfectly internalized this idea. In less than 10 years at the mosque, he's established a free space for non-Muslims to come and ask questions about Islam, he's made countless appearances on TV to condemn terrorism, radicalism and anti-Semitism, and he's initiated a regular dialogue with various religious leaders, including many rabbis.

With Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and founding rabbi of the New York Synagogue, he's launched a yearly “Weekend of Twinning” of mosques and synagogues throughout the country, to get congregations to intermingle. With Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he's organized a charity event to feed homeless people in Manhattan. Most recently, he's started organizing social gatherings with Rabbi Michael Weisser's congregation in Flushing, Queens.

A troubled past

"New York City is so diverse, that's why I want to give priority to interfaith," Ali says. "The only way to survive [here] is to build bridges of understanding and cooperation."

His focus on Muslim-Jewish relations is not a coincidence. In the past, the mosque's relationship with New York Jews has not always been tranquil.


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Copyright © 2010 Chine Labbé and Mahawish Rezvi. All Rights Reserved.