By Tom Hays
NEW YORK – Michael Enright once volunteered with a group that promotes interfaith tolerance and has supported a proposal for a mosque near ground zero — an experience distinctly at odds with what authorities say happened inside a city taxi.
The baby-faced college student was charged Wednesday with using a folding knife to slash the neck and face of the taxi’s Bangladeshi driver after the driver said he was Muslim. Police say Enright was drunk at the time.
A taxi drivers’ labor group quickly used the attack to denounce “bigotry” over plans to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks north of ground zero. While supporters of the mosque say religious freedom should be protected, opponents say the mosque should be moved farther from where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch supporter of the mosque project, invited the taxi driver to visit City Hall on Thursday.
“This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe no matter what god we pray to,” the mayor said in a statement.
A criminal complaint alleges Enright uttered an Arabic greeting and told the driver, “Consider this a checkpoint,” before attacking him Tuesday night inside the yellow cab in Manhattan.
A judge ordered Enright, 21, held without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault as hate crimes and weapon possession. The handcuffed defendant, wearing a polo shirt and cargo shorts, did not enter a plea during the brief court appearance.
Besides a serious neck wound, cabbie Ahmed H. Sharif, 43, suffered cuts to his forearms, his face and one hand while trying to fend off Enright, prosecutor James Zeleta said while arguing against bail.
Defense attorney Jason Martin told the judge his client was an honors student at the School of Visual Arts, had volunteered in Afghanistan and lives with his parents in suburban Brewster, N.Y.
To deny bail, given his background, “I don’t think is warranted,” Martin argued.
A representative for the volunteer group, Intersections International, called the situation “tragic.”
“We’ve been working very hard to build bridges between folks from different religions and cultures,” said the Rev. Robert Chase. “This is really shocking and sad for us.”
The group, founded in 2007, says it’s dedicated to promoting justice, reconciliation and peace among people of different faiths, cultures, ideologies, races and classes.
A trailer for a Enright’s school film, “Home of the Brave,” was excerpted on the group’s website. Enright followed his former high school classmate, Cpl. Alex Eckner, and his Army unit through basic training in Hawaii and their deployment to Afghanistan.
The film, set for release in 2011, shows soldiers training with weapons in a pool, running in formation and celebrating birthdays and Christmas while in basic training.
“You can’t not be scared, that helps you operate,” one soldier says in the trailer. “It helps you do your job.”
Sharif, who has driven a cab for 15 years, was quoted in a news release from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance as saying the attack left him shaken.
“I feel very sad,” he said. With the tension over the mosque, he added, “All drivers should be more careful.”
Enright hailed the cab around 6 p.m. Tuesday, police Deputy Inspector Kim Royster said.
Sharif told authorities that during the trip Enright asked him whether he was Muslim. When he said yes, Enright pulled out a weapon — believed to be a tool with a blade called a Leatherman — and attacked him, Royster said.
After the assault, the driver tried to lock Enright inside the cab and drive to a police station, police said. The attacker jumped out a rear window about 15 blocks from where he hailed the cab, they said.
An officer there noticed the commotion, found Enright slumped on a sidewalk and arrested him.
Advocates argued that the tense climate around the proposed Islamic center was creating the potential for anti-Muslim violence.
“As other American minorities have experienced, hate speech often leads to hate crimes,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Sadly, we’ve seen how the public vilification of Islam can lead some individuals to violence against innocent people.”