By Jennifer Glickel, Shayna Jacobs and Heather Grossmann
GRAMERCY — A 21-year-old man was charged with attempted murder and assault in a hate crime after he allegedly stabbed a taxi driver after asking him if he was Muslim on Tuesday evening.
Michael Enright, from Brewster, N.Y., was "highly intoxicated" when he hailed a cab at 6:14 p.m. at East 24th Street and Second Avenue and asked taxi driver Ahmed H. Sharif, “Are you Muslim?” authorities said.
Sharif, a 43-year-old Bangladeshi man who lives in Queens, replied to Enright that he was in fact Muslim, police said.
Enright yelled "al salaam a'alaykum," the Arabic greeting meaning "peace upon you," at Sharif and then said, "Consider this a checkpoint," according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
He then pulled out a Leatherman pocketknife tool and stabbed Sharif from the backseat at least five times in the throat, the upper lip, the left forearm, the right arm and the hand. Prosecutors said the cab driver was slashed "halfway across his throat." EMTs who treated Sharif said that if the cut had been any deeper he "would have been dead," prosecutors said.
"I saw here on his face so much hate and [he was] so upset, so angry at me because of my religion," the cab driver told reporters in his home in Jamaica, Queens, NY1 reported. "It's a shock to me."
Sharif said he felt he was going to die during Enright's attack on him, the station reported.
Earlier in the day Sharif said in a statement, that he felt very "sad" and he'd "never feel this hopeless and insecure before."
"Right now, the public sentiment is very serious [because of the Ground Zero mosque debate]," he said, urging all cab drivers to be careful.
Sharif was able to pull over at East 40th Street and Third Avenue after the attack, lock Enright in the backseat, and jump out of the car to call 911, police said.
Enright temporarily escaped but police found him crouched in the middle of the street.
Both men were then taken to Bellevue Hospital — the driver for his injuries and Enright for a psychiatric evaluation, police said.
Enright was arraigned Wednesday afternoon on charges of attempted murder in the second degree as a hate crime, assault in the first degree as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon. He faces from 8 to 25 years in prison if convicted and was denied bail.
"This your honor is a highly vicious attack on a person because of his religion," Assistant District Attorney James Zaleta said at the arraignment.
Enright is a film student at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts and is currently working on a thesis project documenting "war’s effects on the soul," according to Intersections International, a social justice group Enright volunteered for.
The film chronicles the experience of his former classmate's Army training, which took Enright to Afghanistan during his friend's deployment.
This is not Enright's first run-in with the law. Last year he spent a day in jail after he was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct, and in 2008 he got two summonses for drinking underage, the New York Post reported.
The young man's lawyer, Jason Adrian Martin, said that his client was "terrified and shocked."
Enright's father paced back and forth outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon, saying only, "I love my son. I need to talk to my son."
Faiza Ali, community affairs director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said she was taken aback when she heard about the attack.
"My initial reaction is what message is this sending out to the Muslim community?" Ali said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference in support of Park51, the proposed mosque near Ground Zero which has become a national controversy.
"There’s no question bias-related violence is fueled by political posturing from politicians [on the Ground Zero mosque]," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke with Sharif Wednesday and invited him to City Hall Thursday to show him that neither ethnic nor religious bias has a place in our city.
“This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe, no matter what God we may pray to," Bloomberg said. "We will continue to do everything possible to crack down on any crime that targets someone because of who they are or what they believe.”
Gov. David Paterson also issued a statement, saying that it was fear of this type of violence that led him to call for a "respectful and unifying conversation about the Park51 project."
"In the wake of the alleged hate crime against a New York City taxi driver, I must take this opportunity to remind New Yorkers that we cannot and will not allow bias and ignorance to infect our communities and deny our hard working, innocent residents the respect they deserve," Paterson's statement read.
Cab drivers in the city were worried about their own safety Wednesday as news of the attack spread.
"It’s very bad. I’m definitely more concerned," said Liton Deb, 27, who has been driving a cab in Manhattan for a year.
Ziaul Fattah, 42, has spent the past 15 years driving a cab in Manhattan.
"This country stands for freedom," Fattah said. "You can’t hate a lot of people."
Taxi and Limousine Commission spokesman Allan Fromberg told DNAinfo that the agency had no comment citing the ongoing investigation.