NEW YORK – A Muslim cab driver whose face and throat were slashed in a suspected hate crime attack appeared with Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday as city officials sought to ease tensions in the debate over a plan to put a mosque near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, investigators sought to unravel contradictions in the life of the suspect, a baby-faced college student who had traveled to Afghanistan with a group that seeks to promote interfaith understanding.
The Bangladeshi driver, Ahmed H. Sharif, said the proposed mosque and Islamic center north of the World Trade Center site did not come up in his conversation with the passenger accused of using a folding knife to slash his neck and face after asking whether he's a Muslim.
"Of course it was for my religion. He attacked me after he knew I was a Muslim," Sharif said at a news conference at City Hall.
Bloomberg said it is impossible to know the motive of the attack. But he made a pointed connection to the debate about the planned Islamic center, which has ignited intense emotions worldwide.
"This should never have happened and hopefully won't happen again," Bloomberg said. "Hopefully, people will understand that we can have a discourse. That's what the First Amendment is all about. That's what America is all about."
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said authorities did not believe the cabbie's attack signified any trend in anti-Muslim crimes.
"We see it as an isolated incident," he said.
Passenger Michael Enright, of Brewster, N.Y., remained jailed without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault as hate crimes and weapons possession.
Sharif and one of his advocates at City Hall, the leader of a taxi drivers' labor group, said the conversation in the taxi turned from pleasant to disturbing as Enright began to make jokes about Ramadan.
Investigators were still trying to make sense of what they know about the 21-year-old visual arts student who once volunteered with a group called Intersections that promotes interfaith tolerance and has supported a proposal for the downtown mosque.
Robert Chase, Intersections' director, said the organization had helped pay to send Enright overseas to Afghanistan in April, a trip he took as part of a senior video project he was doing at the School of Visual Arts. As part of the work, Enright spent time embedded with U.S. troops.
Chase said Enright did not appear tormented or different when he returned from Afghanistan, but said "we knew he was witness to some really awful things over there."
"We could tell that he'd had an intense experience, but he was the same Mike we knew," Chase said. "He's always been professional, always been courteous, always been diligent."
Authorities say 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.
Enright was carrying two notebooks that contained details of his experiences in Afghanistan but did not appear to contain any anti-Muslim rants. The journals were in a backpack along with an empty bottle of scotch, Kelly said.
Enright told police he had been drinking since 2 p.m. Tuesday before his 6 p.m. arrest. He accused the arresting officers of violating his constitutional rights and falsely claimed to be Jewish, Kelly said.
Enright's attorney said at a court appearance Wednesday that Enright was an honors student, lived with his parents in the New York City suburbs and had volunteered in Afghanistan.
Sharif praised New York as a city where "all color, races, all religion," live "side by side peacefully." But he said the attack had made him feel unsafe and lonely. He said meeting with Bloomberg helped him feel more secure, and he welcomed the support from the city.
Supporters of the mosque — a group that includes Bloomberg — say it's a matter of religious freedom. Opponents argue that the site is too close to the place where Islamic terrorists attacked the World Trade Center site nine years ago.
Muslims have been worshipping at the Islamic center site since last year, but it received new attention after developers sought to move ahead on a planned expansion that includes a community center.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, said anti-Islam sentiment has bubbled up with new fervor during the debate about the mosque, leading to more bias incidents nationwide.
In addition to the cab driver stabbing, a mosque in Madera, Calif., was vandalized, and anti-Muslim graffiti was discovered in the parking lot of a Texas Islamic center, the group said.
"Hate rhetoric often leads to hate crimes, and I think that's what we're seeing now," spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
Including the attack on Sharif, there have been 10 hate crimes reported against Muslims in the city so far this year, up from six total last year, Kelly said. By comparison, the top hate-crime categories this year are 93 anti-Semitic, 36 anti-gay and 23 anti-black incidents, according to the NYPD.
The anti-Muslim total is so low, "I don't think you can draw any conclusions from these numbers," Kelly said.
The Anti-Defamation League said it had been tracking "an intensified level of anti-Muslim bigotry" in public forums over the past few months.
It cited scores of incidents involving either harassment, hate speech or outright violence, including a pipe bomb explosion at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Fla., in May and a July fire at an Islamic center in Mareitta, Ga.
"The mood in the country, in general, is one of lack of civility and anger and rage," said ADL director Abraham Foxman. "When you raise the rhetoric on hate, there is always potential for violence."
The ADL itself opposes the construction of an Islamic community center near ground zero at the World Trade Center site, saying the location would unnecessarily agitate some 9/11 victims and families and would be "counterproductive to the healing process."
Associated Press writers David B. Caruso and Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.