The Jewish Week [December 12, 2007]
After three days in the media glare, the so-called "Subway Good Samaritan" retreated to upstate New York in the middle of last week. But the trip with a friend lasted just 24 hours, and when Hassan Askari returned to his life as a Berkeley College accounting student and a deliveryman for two East Village Indian restaurants, a fuller picture began to emerge of a thoughtful 20-year-old Bangladeshi with a multicultural cast to his life and strong views about the common ground he believes exists between Jews and Muslims.
And in an interview with The Jewish Week after his upstate getaway, Askari — hailed as a hero for coming to the defense of several Jews who were the victims of an anti-Semitic attack on Dec. 7 on the Q train — touched on such sensitive issues as 9/11 and Islam, the nature of faith and Jerusalem.
Askari sees little irony in the tableau of a Muslim leaping into the breach to save Jews. "I have always had friends of all backgrounds, including Jews," he said in the interview. "Two of my closest friends in New York are Bengali Jews from Dacca. While living in Bangladesh, I also had Hindu and Buddhist friends, and my fiancé, Cannelle Cuvalier, who is from Belgium but lives in Bangladesh, is from a Christian background.
"Unfortunately, most people are not willing to learn about other religions and respect them," he continued. "I believe that no one religion has a monopoly on truth. My dad always taught me, ‘You will never know the truth before you die and stand before God.’"
Of the ties between Jews and Muslims, Askari added, "Judaism is the faith that is closest to Islam. It seems to me that Jews and Muslims are kissing cousins with a lot of similarities in the way we practice and the rules we observe. I really hope Jews and Muslims can come together as friends and allies and this incident helps to inspire that. If we can come together here in New York, it will set example for other places, like the Middle East."
The subway attack landed Askari and Walter Adler, 23, one of the Jewish victims, on the front page of the tabloids. It led Daily News columnist Michael Daley to write: "If you are ever tempted to curse all Muslims, think of Hassan Askari, who should be riding the trains free for the rest of his days." It earned Askari and Adler honors from the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding, a coexistence group headed by Rabbi Marc Schneier and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The two young men were hailed by Rabbi Schneier "for their courage in not allowing their faith to come between them in a time of need. They are leading by example."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was scheduled to host Askari at City Hall on Wednesday, and the Anti-Defamation League was scheduled to make him the inaugural recipient of its "Stand-Up New Yorker Award" the same day, an award established to honor Askari.
But his actions, Askari told The Jewish Week, were just a natural extension of his upbringing. He was born in the U.S. to Bangladeshi parents, but spent most of his youth in the Bangladeshi capital of Dacca, returning to the U.S. in 2006 to attend Berkeley College. He said the values he received from his parents, his Islamic faith and the Bangladeshi society he grew up in help explain why he didn’t hesitate to jump in when he saw Adler, Adler’s girlfriend Maria Parsheva and the others being roughed up.
Throughout the interview, Askari, a slender young man with long hair who still had two black eyes and a swollen face, continued to insist, "I don’t consider myself a hero. I did what anyone would do."
Yet when reminded that he was the only person on the subway car who intervened on behalf of the victims, Askrai responded, "Well, I hope people learn from this that they need to get involved when someone else is in trouble. I was raised to always help, and not to stand by and let a person get beaten up."
Askari said of the attack on the Q train: "I watched the situation develop. This big group of kids was cussing at the others and then started pushing them. I grabbed one of the attackers and said, ‘Are you crazy’? Then someone jumped me. It was a nasty scene, with blood all over the floor."
Speaking of Bangladesh, Askari said, "It is very impoverished country, but also a very communal society where everyone knows everybody else and everyone helps each other. My religion is also a big factor in who I am. It taught me good moral values; what you can and can’t do. Islam teaches you that you have to be there for someone in need, no matter what his or her race, religion or nationality."
Askari said of his upbringing, "My parents taught me to respect other cultures and religions. My mother is very religious and prays five times a day, but she is also very liberal and open-minded. My father, who is in the garment business in Dacca, is a nawab [an honorific title for Muslim nobility] and is one of three generations of our family to be knighted by the monarch of England."
Yet despite his aristocratic background, Askari emphasized that his family is no longer wealthy; much of their holdings were in land, much of which has been confiscated by the Bangladesh government in successive land reforms. Therefore, he said, "I plan to stay in America, because I have greater opportunities here."
Askari offered no opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, except to say that he sees Jerusalem as "everybody’s birthright. Jerusalem is where our common history is and cannot belong to just one faith. I would very much like to travel to Jerusalem and experience it firsthand."
Askari said he believes that Osama bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers have given a false picture of Islam to the world. "Sept. 11 was a humongous tragedy, yet I do not believe that the perpetrators of that crime are representative of Muslims as a whole. Most Muslims I know have similar values to my own."
Nevertheless, Askari acknowledged, "Personally, I’m not that religious, although I have immense faith in Allah. I work a lot and so it’s difficult for me to pray five times a day. Still, I try to pray as much as possible."
Does Askari expect his fiancée to convert to Islam before he marries her? "If she wants to convert that’s fine, but if she chooses not to, that wouldn’t prevent me from marrying her."
Askari said he hopes to transfer soon from Berkeley College to Baruch College, where he wants to study finance. Asked whether finance is not an odd career choice for a Good Samaritan, Askari responded, "Not at all. One can do wonderful things for people through finance. In Bangladesh, I did an internship at the Grameen Bank, headed by Muhammed Yunis [who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work with microcredits]. I saw that giving a [no-interest] loan of $50 to a poor person can have a huge effect, that people who formerly lived in mud huts with leaky roofs now own two or three houses and a small pieces of land thanks to the microloans they received and their own hard work."
Askari said he has been closely following legal developments in the subway attack case and was pleased to read in the media last weekend that prosecutors plan to charge the attackers in the subway incident with hate crimes. According to Askari, "It is good they are going to be charged with a hate crime, because this attack was so clearly motivated by hate and they deserve whatever punishment is involved. What they did was terribly wrong and it’s shocking that something like this could happen in New York City."
Reflecting on the intense media coverage, and the aftermath, of the subway incident, Askari said, "Going upstate briefly and then back to work gave me a feeling of getting grounded again in reality. It has been exciting being a celebrity for a few days, but I need to keep my focus on everyday life. If I don’t work, I won’t be able to pay for college."
Askari added, "I expect that when all this acclaim dies down, my life will go back to what it was before. The only difference is that this may open to me more opportunities to help people, something I have always wanted to do."