Khalid Latif: A Muslim Imam Speaks Out

(Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle)

Khalid Latif addresses students, faculty, and clergy at the Kimmel Center at NYU on February 29, 2012.

On the morning of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Khalid Latif was an 18-year-old undergraduate at New York University. During one of several campus evacuations that day, at the top of his dormitory stairway, Latif felt a forceful shove on his shoulders. Turning around, he faced the anger-stricken face of a fellow student who had attempted to push him down the stairs. Latif had already heard students voicing anti-Muslim sentiments that morning, and says he believes his visible identity as a Muslim made him a target.

Now 33 and one of the nation’s most outspoken Muslim leaders, Latif says he knew that day that life for Muslims in America would never be the same. Today, as chaplain and director of the Islamic Center at NYU, Latif says he has seen anti-Muslim sentiment surge in this election cycle to a level unmatched since 9/11. The presumed Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has pledged to temporarily ban Muslims from even entering the U.S. and regaled audiences with grisly stories of mass executions of Muslim prisoners. Texas senator and erstwhile presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has called for police to "patrol and secure" Muslim neighborhoods. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are now five times more common than they were before the September 11 attacks.

As Muslim anxiety mounts nationwide, Latif has emerged as an increasingly outspoken defender of his community. In addition to serving as the center’s chaplain, Latif maintains a bustling cross-country speaking schedule and routinely appears on such media outlets as CNN, NPR, and the BBC. As an adviser to the Obama administration on Muslim issues, he was  instrumental in helping instigate the president’s first visit to an American mosque. His sermons and speeches, which bear titles like “Real Men Don’t Hit Women” and “Intention vs. Action,” garner thousands of hits on YouTube and iTunes. As a member of multi-faith panels and services, Latif has shared the stage with Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.

Straddling the worlds of academia, religious life, and public activism, Latif is uniquely positioned to lead his community in the face of hostile political attacks. Active engagement is essential, says Latif, who urges Muslims not to succumb to political fatigue. “We cannot afford to be silent. We have to vote, we have to come out strong and strategic,” says Latif.  He is also urging Muslims to recognize their common cause with other marginalized communities, including immigrants, LGBT individuals, and people of color.

Yet despite his celebrity, Latif admits to feelings of vulnerability that have lingered since 9/11. The imam is small of frame and understated in his manner, and keeps his dark beard trimmed close. He is most often seen sporting business-casual attire complemented by a traditional skull cap known as a kufi. And notwithstanding his national celebrity and credentials as the youngest-ever chaplain for the New York Police Department, Latif is routinely harassed by the FBI and other government agents. The sense of being under constant suspicion, says Latif, is all too common for Muslims in post-9/11 America. Public harassment and hostile political rhetoric, he says, leave his community perpetually on the defensive.

“We’re caught in an echo chamber,” said Latif during a recent interview in his cramped office in NYU’s Global Center for Religious Life. “We’re either being attacked, or responding to those attacks. Either way, we’re in negative territory.”

 

THE SON OF KASHMIRI immigrants from Pakistan and the youngest of three children, Latif grew up in Edison, New Jersey, in an affluent household. In his younger years, he was was ambivalent toward Islam, he recalls, but describes how his interest in the faith was kindled at age 17 when he cut class one day to slip away to a nearby mosque.

“I didn’t know why, exactly,” says Latif. “All I can say is, it felt right.” Latif was soon making a habit of sneaking off to the mosque throughout his senior year. Even so, his transformation did not take place overnight. As he puts it, “I had a lot of questions to work through.” Latif gave his first sermon as an NYU undergrad at age 18. After graduating, Latif went on to serve simultaneously as the first Muslim chaplain at both Princeton University and at NYU’s Islamic Center before choosing to concentrate his efforts on the latter. Latif now lives in Manhattan with his wife, Priya Chandra, and their two children: three-year-old daughter Madina, and infant son Kareem.

Latif says he still thinks of himself as a seeker, and uses his sermons to invite followers to ponder tough questions. A key question for Muslims, he says, is: “How does this faith intersect with issues of injustice or human suffering?” True faith, he says, should manifest “internally and externally.”

Latif’s hallmarks are a progressive approach to Islam and a passion for interfaith collaboration. In New York City and across the country, Latif routinely works with leaders of other faith communities, insisting, “we have to view each other as allies.” Latif was named Global Interfaith Visionary by the United Nations Temple of Understanding in 2010, and in 2012 he helped found an interfaith leadership program, the Of Many Institute, which trains religious leaders to work collectively for social change. This initiative was the centerpiece of the 2014 documentary by Chelsea Clinton, Of Many.

Latif spoke alongside Pope Francis during the pontiff’s U.S. visit last year, and he points to the Catholic leader as a leading source of inspiration. He recalls how the pope went off-script during his mass at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral last fall, praying for 700 Muslims killed in Mecca that day. “No one would have faulted him if he hadn’t prayed for them,” says Latif. “But he chose to use his position of influence to preach compassion for people of other faiths.”

Even as he advocates for civil liberties, Latif has often found his work interrupted by altercations with government agents. In early 2010, just weeks after coordinating with the White House to host John Brennan, Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, at NYU, Latif received a visit from two FBI agents at his front door. They lodged no formal charges, says Latif, but expressed their suspicions that Latif “was too good to be true.” They left after Latif called campus security, but informed him that they'd “be watching,” he says. Later that year, while participating in a memorial service to commemorate the ninth anniversary of  9/11, Latif was approached by the Secret Service. They informed him that he'd been spotted from a distance by one of their team—on that day, Latif was wearing his trademark kufi along with his NYPD uniform. The agents said they'd need to check his credentials “just in case.”

At about that same time, Latif began to find himself routinely picked up by government agents in American airports. “They were always waiting for me at the plane door,” he says. “For about five years straight, I never saw an airport arrival hall.” Instead, Latif spent hours in anonymous backrooms, watching officials thumb through his belongings with latex-gloved hands. With every detention, Latif asked for an explanation. “I never got a real answer,” he recalls, shaking his head.

Latif says that many Muslims are subject to unlawful surveillance, adding that what's often worse is the fear that they’ll have no legal protection if their rights are violated. This anxiety can be debilitating, says Latif, adding, “There's also a sense of bitterness that comes with being criminalized without cause.” While “security" is a legitimate concern, says Latif, “it should not be used to justify mistreatment.”

Latif has refused to be intimidated, and if anything has redoubled his public engagement. Last year, in several lengthy meetings with the White House, Latif urged the president to take a more proactive approach in addressing Islamophobia. Latif describes these meetings as “substantive,” and says he was heartened by the results: In addition to the president's Baltimore mosque visit, the U.S. Department of Education has issued an advisory to address the increased bullying of Muslim students. Even so, says Latif, there’s much more work to be done.

In appearances at national conferences, university commencements, and religious summits across the United States and abroad, Latif encourages his audiences to turn their beliefs into action. One of the most effective ways to combat Islamophobia, he says, is to foster a robust community of Muslim believers. By urging Muslims toward professional excellence and civic engagement, Latif says, he hopes to combat the “one-dimensional” portrayal of his community.

Latif cites activist Linda Sarsour, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, and scholar Dalia Mogahed as examples of Muslims who are reshaping public images of Islam. “Americans need to grasp the diversity of Muslims in this country,” says Latif, who expresses exasperation at the way his religion is routinely reduced to public stereotypes and political talking points. Lack of nuance in the way Muslims are portrayed, he argues, leaves voters susceptible to simplistic vitriol from the likes of Trump. Instead, Latif hopes Americans will come to realize that “Muslims are artists, athletes, doctors, inventors—people, like everyone else.”

One of the greatest challenges he faces is apathy, says Latif—both from Muslims and from Americans at large. Latif says he often finds it difficult to spur his constituents to action, because “a lot of Muslims are so sick of the rhetoric, they want to disengage completely.” Latif also deplores what he sees as the relative passivity of many mainstream liberals. In the post-9/11 era, defending Muslims can be a liability, says Latif—one that few seem willing to take on. The result, says Latif, has been ongoing discrimination against his community, which is only occasionally addressed when a candidate such as Trump levels particularly inflammatory attacks.

Still, Latif sees larger forces behind the nation’s current anti-Muslim mood. Far from an isolated phenomenon, says Latif, Islamophobia reflects broader, systemic injustices against a variety of groups. “We can’t isolate our experiences from other patterns of oppression,” says Latif, an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Yes, Trump is saying terrible things about Muslims, but that’s not our only concern. The forces that perpetuate Islamophobia are often connected to racism, sexism, and white privilege. We can’t be insular in our thinking.”

As he braces for the final stretch of this election cycle, Latif warns that “the next few months will probably be really difficult” for the Muslim community. Even so, he says, he has gleaned some hope from the progressive energy unleashed by Bernie Sanders’s campaign. "We're finally hearing tough questions about race and economic justice being raised in the mainstream," notes Latif. “I think that points to an opportunity for America to evolve. I hope we will.”

Latif says his hope for the Muslim community—and for his two young children—is that Muslims will continue to rise above the bigotry and intimidation emerging on the campaign trail and around the country. After all, Latif asks with a combination of weariness and resolve, “What option do we have?” 

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