- Associated Press - Thursday, August 26, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) — 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. Mr. Enright was so drunk and incoherent when he was arrested that he was taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, police said.

He was later taken to court and remained jailed without bail Thursday on hate crime charges.

He was found with two composition-style notebooks on him that contained details of his experiences embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan but did not appear to contain any anti-Muslim rants, a law-enforcement official told the Associated Press. Mr. Enright was carrying the journals in a bag along with an empty bottle of scotch, the official told the AP on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

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 a leading Islamic group claimed a recent increase in anti-Muslim attacks since the controversy began.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch supporter of the mosque project, met privately with taxi driver Ahmed H. Sharif and his family at 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.

Mr. Bloomberg was asked after meeting with Mr. Sharif and his family whether the attack could be related to the opposition to the proposed mosque.

“You never know what’s related. I wasn’t in the cab,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Mr. Sharif did not speak to reporters.

Mr. Enright uttered “Assalamu aleikum,” Arabic for “Peace be upon you,” and told the driver, “Consider this a checkpoint,” before attacking him Tuesday night inside the yellow cab in Manhattan, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

A judge ordered Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, condemned the attack and said that anti-Islam sentiment has bubbled up with new fervor amid the debate about the downtown mosque, and that it’s leading to more bias incidents.

In addition to the cab driver stabbing, in recent days a mosque in Madera, Calif., has been vandalized.

A man also stormed a Queens mosque, shouting at worshippers and urinating on prayer rugs, spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. New York police said that the incident isn’t believed to be bias-related, that the suspect was drunk and didn’t know he was at a mosque.

Gov. David Paterson said Thursday that the cabbie stabbing “should certainly compel us to remembering … this is what terrorists really want. That we are now fighting each other, this is making their day.”

A representative for the volunteer group where Mr. Enright worked, 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 Mr. Enright’s school film, “Home of the Brave,” was excerpted on the group’s website. Mr. 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 troops 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.”

Mr. 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.”

Mr. Enright hailed the cab around 6 p.m. Tuesday, police Deputy Inspector Kim Royster said.

Mr. Sharif told authorities that during the trip Mr. Enright asked him whether he was Muslim. When he said yes, Mr. Enright pulled out a weapon — believed to be a tool with a blade called a Leatherman — and attacked him, Mr. Royster said.

After the assault, the driver tried to lock Mr. 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 Mr. Enright slumped on a sidewalk and arrested him.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela, Sara Kugler Frazier and researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York, and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y.

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