A Tale of Two Muslims in Times Square

May 7, 2010

Alioune Niass heroic Time Square Vendor
Alioune Niass heroic Time Square Vendor

It's a tale of two Muslim immigrants in America. One is a 30-year-old Pakistani man who became a citizen last year and recently hit a major downturn in his life, the other is a middle-aged Senegalese man who sells pictures of the iconic New York skyline in Times Square. Saturday night, their paths crossed unexpectedly. And there a new chapter in post-9/11 life was sparked.

We've heard a great deal already about the events that led up to the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, who has confessed to the plot. And we've heard a lot from the two street merchants who alerted police to the smoking car.

But what about the story of Alioune Niass, the Senegalese street vendor, who first spotted the smoking car and asked the vendor at the next table, Lance Orton, to call 911? It's almost no where to be found. Two Muslim men on the opposite sides of morality - one trying to take lives, another trying to save lives.

Here's a brief excerpt from Alioune Niass' interview on Democracy Now! yesterday:

REPORTER: I asked Alioune Niass what his reaction was when he found out the suspect in the attempted bombing is a Muslim-American born in Pakistan.

ALIOUNE NIASS: That not religion, because Islam religion is not terrorist. Because if I know this guy is Muslim, if I know that, I'm going to catch him before he run away.

REPORTER: How do you think Muslims are generally perceived in New York by police, by law enforcement, when it comes to investigations into terrorism cases?

ALIOUNE NIASS: If one person is bad, they going to say everybody for this religion. That is, I think, wrong.

REPORTER: Alioune's not awaiting for a call from the president, but as one of the first people to notice and speak out about the smoke rising from the SUV, he does want some recognition that a Muslim immigrant from Senegal might also be counted among the eyes and ears of New York City.

Niass deserves to be a full and equal part of this story. He is the face of a sincere, dedicated and responsible Muslim in America, and is horrified that the perpetrator is a fellow Muslim.

The balance in real life must be mirrored in media coverage and from the lips of public officials. Yes, there is a real threat of violence from unstable and volatile extremists. First, the Christmas Day underwear bomber. Now, the Times Square car bomber. Between them were Joseph Stack, the Hutaree Militia and the Neo-Nazi bio-chemical terror plot in North Carolina.

If anything is to be learned and remembered at this delicate time, there are two lessons to take away. First is that Alioune Niass' heroic act is not atypical of American Muslims. Prior to this incident, there have been at least six major terror plots against the United States that were prevented due to the assistance of Muslims. Second, as the above examples show, no one faith or political ideology has a monopoly over terrorism. This is why profiling based on ethnicity, race or religion will never work in ensuring our safety. These are two of the primary findings in MPAC's recent counterterrorism paper Building Bridges to Strengthen America: Forging an Effective Counterterrorism Enterprise between Muslim Americans and Law Enforcement.

This week, we have witnessed a rapid spiral in public discourse around national security. While most of the country looks at Arizona's new law as draconian and un-American, few people have raised an eyebrow by Sen. Lieberman's proposal to rescind the citizenship of any individual suspected of terrorism. And CNN headliner Anderson Cooper smirking when Bill Maher makes a crude and offensive joke about Islam on primetime television.

In times like these, we have to pull together as a nation and rely most on our Constitutional principles and the rule of law. We owe suspects their due process rights, we owe the public a balanced representation of two Muslim men on opposite sides of the same situation, and we must rise above our worst instincts to cast suspicion on an innocent minority population. Our country must embrace Muslims, particularly in moments like these.

For Muslim Americans, we're stuck shaking our heads in disgust and disbelief at moments like these. We must continue our work to promote healthy communities, strong identities, and work for change. We can't understand this kind of outburst of violence, but we're committed to rejecting extremism and working for better days ahead.

Help us continue our work with a quick
one-time or monthly donation.