Imam Khalid Latif On Faith, Fear And Getting Stopped By Airport Security
Imam Khalid Latif is one of the people profiled in The Secret Life of Muslims, a digital series about Islamophobia. He is also the first Muslim chaplain at New York University. Our thanks to NPR’s Fresh Air for this interview.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest is the second ever Muslim to serve as a chaplain in the NYPD, Imam Khalid Latif. When he took the job 10 years ago, he was also the youngest person ever to serve as an NYPD chaplain. He’s also the executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center at NYU. He’s done a lot of interfaith work, and has shared the stage with the Dalai Lama and the Pope and has met with President Obama. Latif’s parents are American citizens who emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan. Latif is one of the people featured in the new digital series about Islamophobia called “The Secret Life Of Muslims.” The series is on multiple platforms, including Vox, the USA TODAY Network, “CBS Sunday Morning,” the public radio show “The World,” and the “Secret Life Of Muslims” website.
Khalid Latif, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you’ve been working with police officers and with students. Give us a sense of the range of reactions you’re seeing in the Muslim community that you work with to the election and imminent inauguration of Donald Trump, who has proposed a registry for Muslim immigrants and a ban – he’s spoken of a ban on Muslim immigrants coming to America. He’s used the phrase a total and complete shutdown of Muslims coming to the U.S.
KHALID LATIF: You know, I think a lot of Muslims are very scared, and I think they’re valid in that fear. The reality, unfortunately, is such that even leading into the elections we saw a gross increase in anti-Muslim bias and incidents. In New York City, where I live, leading into the elections, just in a matter of weeks you had two imams – religious leaders of a Muslim community in Queens – who were shot in the back of their head and passed away subsequently. Following afternoon prayers, a 60-year-old woman of Bengali descent was walking home one evening in Queens as well with her husband who is asthmatic, and she had moved a few blocks ahead of him to get home quicker to get dinner ready. And he said later at a press conference that I was at that he heard her screaming and came upon her and found her stabbed and had eventually succumbed to the wounds just a couple of blocks away from their home. There was two mothers strolling their babies in Brooklyn who had been assaulted. A woman wearing a headscarf in Midtown Manhattan had been set on fire. These were all things that happened prior to the election.
Post the election, you know, I think what hit me hard, being at New York University, we have various prayer rooms that Muslim students use on our campus. And the day after the election in our school of engineering in Brooklyn, Muslim students walked into their prayer room to find the entrance with the word Trump written across it and an exclamation point. About a week later, there was Jewish students who on their dorm room door found swastikas, the words make America great again, white pride, make America white again on their doorways. And these were realities that I think evoked a lot of different emotions understandably.
GROSS: Do you have any personal concerns about how you or your family will be affected by President Trump?
LATIF: You know, I mean, I find myself in a lot of unique positions. And I could tell you as somebody who has traveled on behalf of the State Department, met with the heads of Homeland Security, interacted with senior White House staff and the president himself on numerous occasions, I’ve also been visited in my home by the FBI multiple times. Getting on and off of planes is not really a fun experience.
GROSS: Wait, wait. Just to clarify what you’re saying, the first set of meetings you had were to find out your opinions and to work with you. When you’re talking about the FBI, they were thinking of investigating you. So (laughter) you’re getting it from both ends, cooperation from – like…
LATIF: Well, I think, you know – yeah.
GROSS: …We want your opinion, we’re the government, we want your opinion. At the same time, people are treating you with suspicion from the government.
LATIF: Well, you know, I mean, to give you an example. John Brennan, who is then the Homeland Security head, had visited our Islamic Center at NYU in an event we had done with the White House. And after a private meeting, there was a public gathering. And in that, he addressed the audience saying that Imam Latif, President Obama, thinks of you as a great American citizen and a role model, an example, et cetera, et cetera. And a week later was the first time I started getting detained coming into the country that I have a passport of – off of international flights. And so to just understand and recognize that even someone like me who has the connections that I do finds themselves in these places.
GROSS: So I’m going ask you to describe your job as an NYPD chaplain.
LATIF: So I started working for the NYPD in 2007. There’s about eight chaplains now at the police department of various faiths – Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, there’s a rabbi and myself, an imam. We do a lot of counseling. We do a lot of religious services for officers – uniform and civilian. Our role is to not cater simply to our specific faith community, but to serve as a resource for the 53,000 people who make up the police department, and by extension their family members. We’re on call one day a week if, God forbid, there’s some kind of emergency – somebody gets shot, somebody dies in the line of duty. We’ll go to the hospital to be with the officer, with their fellow officers, their family members.
There’s a lot of ceremonies that start and end with invocations and benedictions. And we can do advocacy work on behalf of other officers. We’re given the appointed rank of inspector, which is one rank below a one-star chief. It’s a fairly high rank in this military-esque institution, and it allows for us at times to utilize and leverage the rank to speak on behalf of those who are of a lower rank just to be able to amplify their voices a little bit more.
GROSS: How many Muslim police officers are there in the NYPD?
LATIF: We estimate that there’s probably about 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims who work in the NYPD, both uniform and civilian, and that includes traffic cops as well. But there’s been Muslims in the police department for quite some time now, and they come from very diverse backgrounds, pretty much every race, ethnicity, culture that you could think of, men and women, different levels of religious observance as well.
GROSS: So when you’re dressed in civilian clothes you wear a kufi which is a Muslim skull cap, and you have a fairly short beard. So people might recognize when they see you that you’re a Muslim. When you’re in your uniform – because you do wear a uniform when you’re on duty, right?
LATIF: I do, I have an inspector’s uniform.
GROSS: So are you wearing like a police hat or a kufi?
LATIF: I still have my skull cap on – my kufi – and I wear my beard as well.
GROSS: Right. You don’t take it off when you’re on calls?
LATIF: It’s not coming off.
GROSS: So when you’re on call and you’re working with officers who aren’t Muslim, do you ever get faced with any stereotypical preconceptions or any, like, negative vibes because you are Muslim?
LATIF: You know, I mean, the interactions that I’ve had that kind of affirm the fact that people see me through my faith when I’m in uniform hasn’t really come from within the police department. But unfortunately at times when I’m kind of outside of the department but still in my uniform, I’ve had people when I’m walking down the street ask me if I’m dressed up for a costume party. People who have asked me, how is it possible that someone like you could work for the police department? I think one of the most striking experiences for me came when I attended one of the ground zero memorial services on September 11.
So one of the things that we do as police chaplains is attend the 9/11 memorial every year on September 11. We start out by having breakfast at police headquarters with family members who lost loved ones on that day. We then take a bus down to the ground zero site and participate in the ceremony. On the ninth anniversary of the attacks, Vice President Biden was there. And the ceremony was a little bit more closed off because the current memorial structure that exists there now was still being built.
And so I’m in my police uniform. It’s an inspector’s uniform. I still have my beard. I’m wearing my kufi, my skull cap. I’m talking to people as we’re waiting for the ceremony to start, and three men approach me wearing suits. And they say that Secret Service has spotted you from the top of a building. They want us to check your credentials just in case. And I said to them, just in case what? And they said, we’re sorry that we’re doing this to you. I said, then why are you doing it? And to be able to understand what they’re questioning at that moment isn’t really my physical presence at that location, but the entire validity of my emotion tied to that space.
When I was an undergrad at New York University on September 11 in 2001, I stood with about 15,000 of my classmates in Washington Square Park in the middle of our campus as we watched the second plane fly into the towers. We faced a lot of backlash as students at that time. The day after, there was a young woman who tried to push me down the staircase of our dormitory. We had to answer a lot of requests for media from all over the world because we were arguably the closest Muslim group to the ground zero site. And we had no established chaplaincy or Islamic Center at that time, so we just had to do what we could.
I went to a lot of funerals for people of my faith and other walks of life who died on that day. And so much of the work that I do until today is informed by the atrocities of that day. And in that moment, these men are questioning the validity of all of it. And the frustrating thing isn’t that I’m going through it, but I can’t really do anything about it.
And so where I couldn’t say anything and there was hundreds of people who were watching and they said nothing, there was a woman standing next to me who lost her son on September 11. And she said to those men that what you are doing right now is more dishonoring to the memory of our loved ones that we lost on that day than anything else. That here this young man is standing with us in our moment of need, and you’re making it seem as if he’s doing something wrong just because he’s Muslim.
GROSS: And what was the response to that?
LATIF: Well, they got very uncomfortable (laughter) and kind of just…
GROSS: The FBI agents?
LATIF: …Trickled away. Yeah. And, you know, I say this, again, as somebody who – I’ve shared the stage with people like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. I’ve met with the president. I’ve been interviewed by a lot of different media. And I’ve still found myself as an individual who has dealt with the realities of being profiled, detained, surveilled, visited by federal law enforcement who, when I’ve asked them after they’ve talked to me multiple times, what do you really want from me, they’ve said, you’re just too good to be true and know that we’re watching you.
When I think of a good person, I think of this woman who simply did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. She leveraged her power and her privilege in a unique way to help somebody who was underserved and underprivileged. And I think that’s how we challenge systemic mechanisms that infringe on the rights of minority populations who don’t have the power dynamic in their favor.
Because really, who in their right mind is going to say something to a mother who lost her son on September 11 while she’s standing at the ground zero site on the anniversary of September 11? And she knew that. And she understood that. And she was the only one who could have said what she said. And she just did it because it was the right thing to do.
GROSS: So you said that the FBI agents at this 9/11 memorial service said to you, you seem too good to be true. Just know we’re watching you. So do you feel like…
LATIF: They said that to me in my office after they had visited me in my home (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. OK.
LATIF: So that was on another – we’ve had a lot of different interactions. I have some friends there now who’ve seen me quite often in different places, but (laughter).
GROSS: So do you feel like you are – do you fear you are under surveillance now? Do you know if you are?
LATIF: Yeah, I mean, it’s tough to understand how it’s like to go through it. But the first time the FBI visited me in my home, I was actually asleep in my bedroom. And a friend of mine was staying over. He knocked on the door to my bedroom and I said, what’s going on? And he said, the FBI is here. They walked into my living room. I sat down and had a conversation with them. I live in a New York University building, so I had reached out to our university’s senior leadership, the head of public safety, to let them know what was going on.
A lot of the questions that they were asking me in my home were tied to just other people, ideas, Muslim organizations and institutions. And a public safety officer then knocked on the door and told them that they needed to leave, that they didn’t have permission to be there. The next day, when I left from my building to go to my office, I walked a couple of blocks to where my car was parked and both of the agents were standing next to my car. And they said, please, we’d love to continue our conversation. Why don’t we go to the federal building?
And I said, there’s no way I’m going with you to the federal building. They then followed me to my office. We had a conversation for a few hours. The conversation shifted from talking about things more generally to me in specific, at which point I said to them, you know, what is it that you’re really looking for? What do you want from me? And one said to me, you’re just too good to be true. Just know that we’re watching you.
And in the weeks after, I found myself in a place where I was constantly looking over my shoulder, seeing if someone was driving behind me. I didn’t go to see my parents in their home for quite some time, didn’t really see my siblings because I didn’t want to bring somebody to where they were. And there was kind of this fear.
GROSS: So you were the youngest chaplain in the history of the NYPD. So you were – what? – 24 when you started on the job?
LATIF: I was 24, yes.
GROSS: I’m just trying to imagine what the reactions of officers were – what their reactions were when they first met you. I know when I started doing interviews and I was around 24 – and I’m shorter than you are – people would be almost panicked at the beginning, like, you’re so young, like, really, they’re letting you do this, you know (laughter). So what kind of reactions…
LATIF: I’m actually pretty short, so…
GROSS: Are you?
LATIF: …I might be shorter than you.
GROSS: So what were their reactions that you were supposed to be guiding them, ministering to them? And these are cops who see everything – life and death and suffering and crime and – so tell us.
LATIF: But, yeah, early on it was pretty interesting. I had to get accustomed to just the uniform and the rank of inspector and what that meant. And I think what was more of a challenge in overcoming was not my age alone, but really kind of the hierarchy to authority. At 24, to have a lot of grown men who were at times, you know, 10 years older than me, 20 years older than me calling me sir, saluting me. And, you know, it wasn’t even always in the most opportune times. There was times I would walk into the restroom and there would be men who would be standing at a urinal, and they would stop and salute me. And I would tell – you guys, you don’t have to do that, it’s OK. But where people were looking at me by my age, they then weren’t necessarily identifying me through the prism of my faith. And I think the combination of the two factors, you know, led towards a lot of deep relationships being built that now at 34 I recognize the importance of in retrospect.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of a time early in your career as an NYPD chaplain where you felt really unprepared to deal with the kind of, you know, emotional turmoil that you were faced with after one of the officers went through, you know, a terrible experience on the job?
LATIF: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the heaviest experiences for me was probably the first time I had to go to the hospital after somebody was shot. And I think at that moment it really dawned on me what it’s like to be a police officer, to be in a place where you were moved and motivated to your best to literally give everything that you have of yourself for the sake of somebody else. And now sitting in a hospital where I see somebody who’s been shot, I see the officers and how they have this sense of not even camaraderie but real brotherhood and sisterhood, and a recognition that in their minds – you can gain an insight by looking in their eyes and seeing that they’re thinking that could have been any one of us. And I think it created a really unique opportunity for reflection and introspection for me in terms of just, you know, what are the values that I live by? And what does real selflessness mean to me? And, you know, what does it really mean to serve those that you’re serving?
GROSS: Are Muslim police officers concerned that if Donald Trump does enact an immigration ban on Muslims or if he requires Muslims to register with the country that the officers are the ones who will have to enforce it?
LATIF: You know, I’ve had a lot of conversations with different governmental agencies in the city. And I think New York City has taken a stance, as well as New York state, seemingly, that if at a federal level there are iniquitous and unjust law enforcement policies that are going to be enacted that New York City is not going to abide by those. Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken a very forceful stance on that, addressing the city in public gatherings as well as through kind of media interaction and saying that there’s no way he’s going to allow for that to be something that happens in New York City.
I’ve had similar conversations with the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. He’s a really great person that is also a voice that’s speaking against policies such as this. And so I think that’s kind of where New York is at. And hopefully that’s something that’ll stand.
GROSS: So you work with a lot of students and police officers and, as I said, do a lot of public speaking around the country. So in many Muslim countries – and I’m not talking about America here. But in many countries that are, you know, predominantly Muslim, women don’t have full rights. Gay people don’t have full rights. Not that gay people have full rights in the U.S. either. Or maybe women, for that matter. But, I mean, for instance, like, in Saudi Arabia women can’t even drive. In many – in some countries and in some parts of some countries, women can’t show their faces. They have to wear a full-body veil.
So do you find that, like, some students, for instance, like, younger people who are trying to figure out what their own identity is and what they – you know, who they want to be are confused about what it means to be a Muslim because they see what it means in primarily Muslim countries, which can be much more limiting and restrictive than it is in the United States?
LATIF: You know, I think the identity issues that young Muslims and older Muslims have around what it means to be Muslim, those exist. But I wouldn’t say that they exist because of how cultures distinct from one’s own culture chooses to practice faith or at times restricts one from practicing faith in the way that they would want to. And there’s a billion and a half Muslims in the world, and their relationship to faith is heavily influenced by kind of the culture in which faith is practiced.
So, you know, I think one of the best ways it was described to me is that the relationship that Islam has to culture is similar to the relationship that water or a stream, a river would have to the bedrock that it flows over in the sense that the water takes on the color of the rock that it’s passing over. And so, too, Islam looks like the culture that it’s practiced in. So Islam in China looks Chinese. Islam in Malaysia looks Malaysian. Islam in Turkey looks Turkish. Islam in Singapore looks Singaporean.
What I’ve seen in terms of traveling around the world, visiting Muslim majority countries as well as countries where Muslims are a gross minority, is that a lot of people live very differently from the way that we live in the United States. And for us to be able to understand the complexity as to why certain places are the way that they are necessitates at times for us to kind of be with those people rather than just being with our preconceived ideas and notions of them.
And that’s by no means to justify or to pretend like there aren’t inequities, gross oppressions and injustices that exist, but to be able to understand then, well, what do we do with the recognition of those? And how do we create an understanding as to how we can build real remedies to those things?
GROSS: Was being Muslim an important part of your identity when you were growing up?
LATIF: You know, as a young person, I didn’t really have any Muslim friends. I went to a school where I was one of two Muslim students. And I had a relationship to Islam, but I don’t think I necessarily had so much of a sense of ownership over it. I’ll give you an example anecdotally. My brother and I, we went to visit my grandmother in Pakistan, where my family’s from, when I was around 12 years old. It was after my grandfather had passed away.
And I was walking through the streets of Pakistan with my brother, and I was wearing these really baggy jeans and I had on Timberland boots. Back then, I had this really long Pantene Pro-V kind of hair – it was very wavy and shiny – that I miss very much these days. I was wearing a baseball hat backwards. And to say the least, I wasn’t really dressed the way everybody else was dressed.
And there was a boy that I saw as we were walking down the street who was probably about 4 years old. He was wearing cultural attire called a salwar kameez, a very loose shirt that went down below the knees and matching pants. It was, like, a greenish color clothing that he was wearing. And he was just staring at me. And when I got really close to him, he kind of craned his head backwards and screamed on the top of his lungs in Urdu, the language that’s spoken there, (speaking Urdu) that Michael Jackson is here. And then he and his friends started chasing me up and down the street because they thought I was Michael Jackson.
But I think, you know, in retrospect, I didn’t really fit in there. The place where my parents were from, the place where my grandparents lived is a place I had a connection to. I had a certain affinity to it. But it still wasn’t my space, so to speak. And the challenge was in trying to reconcile that with the idea that so many people also felt that someone like me didn’t belong in the country that I was born into. And if I didn’t fit in where my parents came from and I was made to feel as if I couldn’t be myself in the country that I was from, where would I really go?
GROSS: So your parents immigrated from Pakistan. My impression is that they were relatively secular when you were growing up. You can correct me if I’m wrong.
LATIF: No, no. They – I mean, my father prayed. My mother prayed. You know, they taught us how to read the Quran. We fasted in our month of fasting. So I wouldn’t say that they were secular.
GROSS: Do you feel like your approach to practicing Islam is different from how you were brought up? And I guess what I’m trying to say is do you feel like you’ve found a way of practicing Islam that speaks to your generation, that speaks to who you are as, you know, American-born and as somebody who grew up – what? – in the ’80s?
GROSS: ’80s? ’90s?
LATIF: I was born in 1982.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
LATIF: But, you know, I think what’s embedded in this is one of the problematic narratives that Muslims face, right? My parents were still practicing Islam even when my mother didn’t wear a headscarf or my father didn’t have a long beard. And I think what we see is the shaping of who Muslims are in this kind of very homogenous way that says a practicing Muslim only looks like this. That’s why I think a series like “The Secret Lives Of Muslims” is so important is because it gives us insight into multiple narratives that help us to think much bigger than a Muslim is somebody who lives 500 miles away or 500 years in the past.
I mean, I think when we’re able to convey to people in general – Muslims included, as well as people who come from different backgrounds – that Muslims are pretty much everything that you could think people would be. So politically Muslims are Democrats. They’re – for some reason – Republican. They’re independents. You know, they’re people who are young and old, male and female, every race, every ethnicity, every profession that you could think of. They’re wealthy. They’re poor. They’re in between. And so it’s hard to say that there is an Islam that somehow indicates somebody’s level of commitment to the religion or will somehow suddenly be something that can speak more broadly for all Muslims because Muslims are just so different from one another.
GROSS: Can you mention one of the passages from the Quran that really resonates with you as a – you know, as an American-born Muslim who really came into your faith when you were a student? And now you’re an imam and a chaplain, so, like, you’ve grown deeper into your faith, but you live in a very, like, contemporary American world.
I mean, from what I know of you, you love hip-hop. You and your wife – when she was pregnant – watched “The Walking Dead” a lot and caught up on the series when she started to go into labor (laughter), when you were waiting to actually get to the hospital. So, I mean, you know, you’re certainly not turning your back on American popular culture. Like, you’re in it. You’re interested. You don’t see that as being antithetical to practicing your faith. So give us an example of a passage from the Quran that you feel speaks to you as a contemporary American that – you know, living in the world.
LATIF: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many. You know, I think one of the passages when I was younger that really spoke to me in terms of just shaping for me an understanding around diversity says – addressing all of humanity – it says, oh, humanity, we – meaning God – have made you as male and female and created you in nations and tribes so that you might know one another. Indeed, the most elevated of you is the one who has the most kind of mindfulness and consciousness of God. And I think as I go back to that verse, you know, a lot of words get lost in translation. The part that says to know one another as distinct nations and tribes uses the Arabic word – it says (speaking Arabic). And in Arabic, you have a lot of words that mean know and think.
So one of the ways you could tell that something’s important to the Arab people is just the number of different ways that they have to say a certain word. There’s, like, a hundred different ways to say the word horse and camel. There’s a lot of different ways to say the word love. And thinking, knowing, reflecting has a lot of different words in the Arabic language.
And so, you know, to know something in terms of knowledge, you would use the word (speaking Arabic). Understanding – if, you know, I said to you, do you get what I’m saying, you would use the word (speaking Arabic). And here the word (speaking Arabic), you know, it’s not just I know but I have, like, a deep acquaintanceship, a familiarity, you know, an understanding that is experiential. And that’s the way the Quran is telling us that we should know people who are different from us, not just through kind of simplistic understanding but to have some semblance of knowledge that is tied to actual interaction.
GROSS: Well, Khalid Latif, thank you so much for talking with us.
LATIF: Thank you for having me.