The good of Islam shone only brighter as the last light of the longest day of the year dimmed.
The moment was coming when the assembled members of the NYPD Muslim Officers Society would break their fast for Ramadan.
This room on the fifth floor of the New York University Islamic Center could have almost been designed for the society’s annual Iftar dinner. A wall of windows to the right looked west to where that the sun was setting beyond the buildings of lower Manhattan. An identical wall of windows at the front offered a due south view of the Freedom Tower, glinting golden in its skyward soar 20 blocks directly downtown. The sight was so gorgeous as to make you almost forget the absence where the twin towers once stood.
The near forgetting triggered a sudden remembering of that morning 15 years ago, but the perpetrators of that mass murder could not have been more different from the Muslim officers who now rose with their families for the singing of the national anthem. The officers had their hands over their hearts as they faced the flag held by the color guard positioned at the front in dress uniforms.
An NYPD chaplain, 33-year-old Imam Khalid Latif, stepped up to the podium and delivered the invocation with the new tower and the twin absences directly behind him. Latif had also given an invocation at the inter-faith gathering when Pope Francis visited the September 11 memorial last year.
The word “pontiff” derives from the Latin “pontifex,” which means "bridge builder." Latif has proven himself to be a pontiff in the same way as FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, who died on 9/11. Judge greatly preferred the Brooklyn Bridge to even the tallest of Manhattan’s office towers and felt that the sacred distance was not up, but across.
More recently, Latif had been in the news as one of the organizers of a 2012 pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia whose 80-some participants happened to include Omar Mateen, future murderer of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Mateen had also gone the previous year. Both trips were booked through the Dar El Salam travel agency, but only the second was one of the trips regularly organized by the NYU Islamic Center along with its counterpart at Yale. The 2012 trip also included 14 members of the NYPD Muslim Officers Society as well as 38 family members. The NYPD contingent had its own bus and itinerary and none of the participants can recall any contact with the killer.
Mateen had wanted to become a police officer himself in his home city of Fort Pierce, Florida. But he had been rejected because of his temperament, his failure to be forthright, and his inability to explain why he wanted to wear a badge. He tried to say that he was rejected because he was Muslim, but the truth is he was turned away as would be someone of whatever faith who so obviously wanted to be a cop only out of a desire for power as an antidote for low self esteem and feelings of inadequacy. He took selfies of himself wearing NYPD t-shirts, but he failed to embrace the role model provided by these fellow Muslims who had became cops out of a desire to help others, not to inflate themselves; to save lives, not to take them.
Mateen’s hunger for power had also led him to abuse his first wife to the point that she divorced him on the very year of his second pilgrimage. Mateen had failed either to hear or to heed Latif’s widely disseminated 2009 sermon, “Real Men Don’t Hit Women.” The all-encompassing differences between Latif and Mateen were reflected in a message the imam posted on the day of the mass murder in Orlando. Latif addressed it “to my brothers and sisters in the LBGTQ community” and to those who had lost loved ones.
“The only way to make sense of such senseless acts is through living with hope, compassion and love’” Latif wrote. “My thoughts and prayers are with you all.”
Latif made no mention of Mateen eight days later, as he followed his invocation at the Muslim Officers iftar dinner with some brief remarks. He did speak of having met the Pope.
“We spoke of the importance of people coming together,” he told the gathering.
Latif said he and the Pope had also spoken of the example that had been set by members of the NYPD and other first responders, who had run into the burning towers, risking all with the hope of rescuing others.
“Giving everything,” Latif now noted.
The quiet in the room had deepened as Latif invoked the example followed by all true cops of whatever faith. He drew smiles as he recounted a question that a surprising number of people had asked him after his time with the Pope.
“What he smelled like,” a seemingly still puzzled Latif reported. “I say, ‘I don’t know, he smelled good.’”
Latif also drew smiles when he offered some thoughts on the approaching iftar, which traditionally begins with dates and water. He recalled aloud that he had not liked dates as a boy even though his father had put them on everything, even breakfast cereal.
“To me they looked like little cockroaches,” Latif said.
But after he turned religious in his teens, he had begun to fast, forsaking all food and drink from sun rise to sun set. He had taken a bite of date and tasted an unequaled sweetness, followed by a sip of water that turned equally remarkable. And he had been sharing this transformation with all who broke the fast with him.
“It’s not really about empty stomachs,” he now said. “It’s about full hearts.”
He related lessons imparted by what was much more than just a ritual.
“We see opportunities to do good pass by, we see opportunities to speak out pass by,” he said. “Some of our existence has to be bigger than the feeding of our own self…”
The president of the society, Lt. Adeel Rana, then stepped up to the podium. He spoke of the importance of mutual trust and of religious freedom.
“Do not hesitate to follow your faith and practice your faith,” he said. “This is the beauty of America.”
He noted that there is good and bad in all groups.
“We can counter that evil with good,” he said.
He introduced an honored guest, the chief chaplain of the NYPD, Rabbi Alvin Kass. The rabbi held up a plastic bag of kosher food.
“The only fast in the world to be broken by a sandwich from the Second Avenue Deli,” he said.
Laughs came when one of the Muslim officers called out, “Did you bring extra?”
Sunset was nearing as Rana quickly proceeded though a series of awards. The first was to Det. Salah Ali, who had organized a youth basketball tournament among teams of various mosques on June 4. The winner had played the Muslim officers, who won in terms of offering the kids a role model, but were trounced as measured by the scoreboard.
“They ran circles around us,” Ali cheerfully allowed. “They were fast.”
Another award went to Officer Fuhad Hussain, who had been retuning with his wife to their car after visiting her ailing mother when a man staggered from a house in his boxer shorts, bleeding from what would later prove to have been hammer blows.
“Call 911! Call 911!” the man cried out. “They’re in my house!”
The man said two thugs had burst into his home and attacked him. Hussain told his wife to call 911 as he dashed inside with the same selfless spirit other cops had shown on 9/11.
“I have to do something,” he said as he now stood with his wife at the dinner. “I got them both.”
“It was very scary,” his wife recalled.
The light beyond the windows was changing from golden to a deepening red.
“We got three more minutes before he can break the fast,” Rana told the assemblage as they sat at big circular tables with trays of dates and individual sized bottled water.
Det. Ali Hammutoglu approached the podium. He had been raised in Turkey, where he spent seven years studying at an Islamic school. He had come to America in 1997 and did not speak English until he was 22.
On the society’s most recent pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Hammutoglu had heard one of the world’s greats give the call to prayer. He now prepared to offer his own very best as the moment came to break the fast.
With a hand held cupped to his ear to better hear himself , Hammutoglu filled the room with a stirring beauty derived from deepest feeling and tireless practice. The words are the same in the five daily calls to prayer, but the melody varies subtly. He chose the one usually associated not with the close of day, but with the start, which seemed exactly right. The end of the fast felt more like the beginning of something else.
The officers and their families and guests reached for the dates and tasted that unequaled sweetness. They twisted off the tips of the water bottles and sipped the ordinary turned sublime.
And the imam had been right to say this was less about an empty stomach than a fullness of heart, for there was a manifest closeness in the room. There had been a hint of it as people first stepped off the elevator and greeted each other and now it became palpable as a double bond; Muslims as well as cops, twin towers of the spirit, double ideals of peace in action.
Those who so desired went to the floor below to pray. They then returned and prepared to further break the fast by lining up at a row of food trays. They filled plates with chicken and rice and salad. The one faith embraced various cultures, which led some to choose white sauce, others hot sauce and some both.
The whole wonderful scene was surveyed by the society’s president emeritus, Det. Ahmed Nasser. He had sat down at a table with four other Muslim members of the NYPD to found the society in 2006. The five had now grown to more than 700, notable among them Nasser’s nephew, Capt. Jamiel Altaheri.
At 33, Altaheri is the youngest captain on the NYPD, serving as second in command of an upper Manhattan precinct. He grew up in downtown Brooklyn and moved to the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst after he got married.
Altaheri recalled that his new neighbor seemed to have trouble placing him ethnically. But Altaheri’s wife covers her head with a hijab.
“He sees me, he’s cool,” Altaheri remembered. “He sees my wife…”
Altaheri went over to introduce himself and held out his hand, as he would upon moving next door to anyone.
“He smacks my hand away,” Altaheri recounted.
Some time later, Altaheri noticed that he had not been seeing his neighbor come and go. He inquired at the neighbor’s house if everything was all right and got a “What’s it to you?”
Altaheri asked around and learned that the neighbor was in the hospital. Altaheri made further inquiries to find out which one and went to visit him.
“He was in shock,” Altaheri recalled. “He started tearing up. He said, ‘I’m not tearing up for you, I’m tearing up for myself. I feel like such a piece of shit.’”
Altaheri now reported, “From then on, we were the best of friends.”
Altaheri subsequently moved to the Bronx, where his 10 year-old daughter, Nadine, was called a “terrorist” by some of the kids at school. He recalled, “She asked me, ‘How is it people call me a terrorist and you’re a police officer?’”
Altaheri and his wife went to the school and made efforts to raise awareness about bullying and bigotry. Word reached City Hall and Altaheri and his daughter were specially invited to the Mayor’s 2016 State of the City Address.
“We were asked to give the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said.
Altaheri clearly said this out of pride in his daughter. He is too modest about himself to offer a tale from the last minutes of 2014, when he was still a lieutenant. You would have to call up an article in the New York Daily News to learn that he had been in Times Square when he saw a couple who appeared to be in some distress.
“Is everything okay?” Altaheri asked.
Roger Higgenbottom had terminal cancer and one thing he had done after being diagnosed was marry his wife, Debra, six more times. Another top item on his bucket list was to see the famous ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. They had traveled from Wisconsin only for him to be overcome by the effects of his chemo and the pain from a tumor.
With the clock ticking toward midnight Roger had summoned all the strength he could muster to rise from his hotel bed. He and Debra had made their way to Times Square only to find themselves cordoned off in a packed pedestrian area where they would not be able to see the ball.
Altaheri escorted the couple past the police barricade. The Higgenbottoms arrived just below the ball at 11:57 PM. They could not have asked to be in a better place on earth as they joined the countdown and cheered in 2015 three minutes later.
Eighty-four days later, on March 25, Roger died. Debra had asked him his fondest memory and he told her it was the time Altaheri had appeared as if an angel and brought them in to see the ball drop.
That October, Altaheri was promoted to captain. He was at the promotions ceremony at police headquarters when he spotted a face he had first seen in Times Square 10 months before. Debra had come to surprise him as a way of saying thanks.
Altaheri said nothing of that as he now prepared to eat, adding both red sauce and white. He did speak of the importance of keeping an open heart.
"See yourself in other people's shoes," he said.
Through the wall of windows to the south, the Freedom Tower stood alight in the night. Darkness filled the surrounding absence wrought back when Altaheri was just a teen by killers said to believe that Islam would reward mass murder with 74 virgins in paradise.
Altaheri lives by the true Islam, a faith that is compassionate and forgiving. He cited a very different number.
“The Prophet says you give somebody 70 excuses,” he said. “You have to see the good in people.”
He described being a cop as an opportunity to recognize, defend and practice that good
“Every day on this job is a blessing,” he said.