The Opportunity To Do Right-Khalid Latif


Speaker: Alumni are crucial to the success of any college and we're fortunate in having dedicated alumni generously give to the college their time and their experience and support. Each year, we recognize one of them for their involvement with the college over the years, as well as their own personal and professional achievements and this year is someone whom many of you know, because he's an active part of college life today. Our alumni honoree today and the recipient of the college alumni distinguished service award is Imam Khalid Latif. [Applause]

He is a university chaplain for NYU, the executive director of the Islamic Center here, as well as chaplain for the New York City Police Department. He graduated ten years ago, in 2004, with a major in Middle Eastern Studies and a minor in Politics. Just a year after graduation, he was appointed the first Muslim chaplain here and two years after graduation, the first Muslim chaplain at Princeton. In 2007, under his leadership, the Islamic Center here became the first ever established Muslim student center at any institution of higher education in the United States. And also that year, when he was 24, mayor Michael Bloomberg nominated him to become the youngest chaplain in the history of the NYPD.

Through his work, Imam Latif has demonstrated not only an exceptional dedication to gaining and disseminating religious knowledge and values but has begun to carve out a much needed space for young American Muslims to celebrate their unique identity and have their voices heard in the larger public sphere, working tirelessly to foster dialogue with people of other faiths, in order to clarify misconceptions and encourage mutual education. In 2012, Imam Latif co-founded with our vice chancellor, Linda Mills, our rabbi, Yehuda Serna and Chelsea Clinton the Of Many Institute, a programatic (?) groundbreaking model for multi-faith leadership at a university level.

The Of Many Institute supports the new generation of religious and civic leaders, who reach across faith boundaries to solve social problems together, and his work has recently been documented in the film that has made our imam a movie star. The title, "Of Many" premiered at the Tribeca earlier this year. He's been named a Global Interfaith Visionary by the United Nations Temple of Understanding, one of 100 New York City Luminaries by the public library, one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by Georgetown University's Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim/Christian Understanding and the Royal Islamic Studies Center's millenial leader. He was named Christian Science Monitor's "30 Under 30," you all have a lot to live up to.

For all of those reasons and for the fact that he is one of the people that makes NYU not just be a home or a college or community in name, but a home and a college and a community in reality, we're lovingly presenting to him the Back Bowl. Imam Latif. [Applause]

Imam Latif: You know, I just took a look at myself and realized, I look like Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z. [Laughs] It's truly an honor and privilege to be with you all on this special day, to accept this award. A decade has passed since I sat where you all sit. I can honestly say that my time as an undergrad at New York University's College of Arts and Sciences has helped me to become a "citizen of the world," because during my time as an undergrad at NYU, I realized not that the world was such a big place, but that the world was large enough to fit so many different types of people in it.
As you sit in this sea of purple, dressed head to toe exactly the same, side by side with people who are different races, ethnicity, have different lifestyles and beliefs, come potentially from different countries of origin than your own, on this special day of achievement, I would ask that you make a commitment, that today will be the first of many days that you will sit with people that you could fully get away with never speaking to at any point in your life, but you won't do so because your being with those who are different from you will enhance your own individual growth, and, added to that, I would ask that you make a commitment that, when you have the opportunity to simply go out and do good, you do so without condition or qualification.

Not seeing if the hand that extends the hand to you matches you in terms of country of origin, race, skin color, any other socially constructed difference that we utilize to justify being separate from each other, but you look at the shared humanity that you have, to be able to say, "I will do when the opportunity is there for me." You don't know what kind of impact it can have, really, on those who are waiting for people like yourselves to come into their lives and help them get through some of the obstacles that they face.

As it was mentioned, one of the roles that I fulfill today is serving as a chaplain for the New York City Police Department, and as a chaplain for the NYPD, I'm given the rank of an Inspector. It's a pretty high rank, it's one rank below a one star chief. And one of the things we do as department chaplains is, we attend the 9/11 memorial service that takes place every year. We go to police headquarters and have breakfast with family members who lost loved ones on that day. We then take a bus down to the Ground Zero site and we wait until the ceremony starts. On the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the ceremony was a little different than what you have today.

You had the stage where people spoke from, you had an area where VIPs and family members and city officials would stand. Behind us would be a press pit, and then behind them would be anyone from the city who wanted to come and watch. And as I was standing in my police uniform, I had my beard, I was wearing a skull cap and I was talking to people who were there, who had lost their loved ones on that day and three men approached me in suits, identifying themselves as Secret Service, saying that, "Someone had spotted you from the top of a building and they wanted us to check your credentials, just in case." I said, "Just in case what?" And the one man said, "I'm sorry that we're doing this to you." I said, "Then why are you doing it?"

You have to understand, what's being questioned at that moment is not simply my presence there at that time, but something that's much bigger than that, my entire validity of emotions tied to that site. I was an undergrad at New York University on September 11th, 2001. I stood with about 10,000 of my classmates in Washington Square Park, looking downtown. The Kimmel (sp) Center was being constructed at that time, the Global Center wasn't there. You had a more clear shot of everything that was going on. There was a lot of commotion, people were talking, and as we were sitting there, a silence erupted when we watched the second plane fly into the towers.

Everyone just stood for what seemed like an eternity but really it was just moments. And as instantaneously as that silence hit us, it shattered and everyone went in different directions. I went into my dorm where I was living. Goddard and I heard people who were living on my floor saying things to the effect of, "We should get all of the Muslims together and send them out of the country so that things like this don't happen." We had to evacuate the building and someone tried to push me down the staircase and when I turned around to look at her, she had a lot of anger on her face.
We were put in front of media outlets from all over the world because as students we were arguably the closest Muslim organization to the ground zero site at that time and people wanted to know what Muslims thought and we had to step up and take on the responsibility. I stood at numerous funeral services for loved ones who were lost on that day, both who were of my faith and people who came from different backgrounds. So much of the work that I even do to this day is informed by that day and those men were questioning the validity of all of that.

The frustrating thing wasn't that I was going through it, but I couldn't really do anything about it. If I said anything in return, it would probably make the situation that much worse. And many people were standing and watching, and amongst them was one woman who had lost her son on that day. And where I could not speak, she spoke and she said to those men that, "What you are doing today is more dishonoring to the memory of our loved one that we lost than anything else. That here this young man is standing with us in our moment of need and you are making it seem as if he is doing something wrong, just because he's Muslim." And as instantaneously as that validation left, it came right back.

Why I share that story for you is for two reasons. One, for us to overcome certain battles, the battles have to take place, they have to exist to begin with. If I was not in that place or that circumstance or situation, the scenario would not have taken place. As you move forward, sometimes break out of your comfort zone and go to places that you may not necessarily see many who are like you, but you know, your presence will set precedence for those that come after to have it that much easier and more importantly, when you think about what it means to achieve and to be of a person of distinction, don't think of somebody like me but think of that woman who, when that opportunity to do right came her way, she simply did it, for no other reason other than it was the right thing to do.
Be like her. Be like Joshua Garcia, the Arrowmark [SP] Food employee who works at our university, who, when one of your classmates fell in front of an oncoming train on a subway track and people stood with their phones taking pictures and videos, he moved and jumped, not thinking about what he would lose, but only about the person he could go out and do something for. Be like him. When the opportunity comes to go out and do work, don't put conditions on who your allies and partners could be. You sit right now with friends, but think of the people who are sitting rows behind you, who you might not have spoke to at all but they can very likely be the people who would be your best partners in going out and changing this world.

I have no doubt that each and every one of you as individuals could go out and do amazing things on your own. Just because you can do it by yourself doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to start doing things together. If I can ever be helpful to any of you as you go through your life's journey and trajectories, please don't hesitate in reaching out. I will try my best to be a resource to you in whatever way possible.

Congratulations to you on this day of celebration and achievement. May your noble intentions be elevated and life's objectives be facilitated as you continue to do all that you do. May you be protected from hearts that are not humble, tongues that are not wise and eyes that have forgotten how to cry. May your successes of today be the first of many and may you be granted more success on every tomorrow that you see. Go out and change the world, class of 2014. We all are behind you and have high hopes. Thank you. [Applause]