WASHINGTON – A decade after attending every court hearing in the case of the Lackawanna Six, Dr. Khalid J. Qazi found himself at the headquarters of the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday, picking up the agency’s top award for community service.
And a decade after prosecuting the six Lackawanna residents on charges related to their visit to a terrorist training camp, William J. Hochul Jr., now the U.S. attorney in Buffalo, will find himself at Saturday’s annual banquet of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York – which Qazi founded – picking up that group’s top award for community service.
It’s a coincidence, and yet it’s not.
Qazi said that when he nominated Hochul for his organization’s award, he was unaware that Hochul had nominated him for the Justice Department honor.
But to hear the two men tell it, this week’s dual honors are the product of mutual respect and mutual effort to build bridges between federal law enforcement and Buffalo’s Muslim community.
“I just think that because Dr. Qazi has done so much to break down the barriers between the Muslim community and law enforcement, the time is right to honor him,” Hochul said.
The same goes for Hochul, who, Qazi said, has been “ever-present” in the local Muslim community.
Now this might seem to the untrained eye to be an alliance of strange bedfellows, but in reality, Qazi and other local Muslim leaders have been cooperating with the federal government since before the 2002 arrest of the Lackawanna Six, the Yemeni-Americans who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaida stemming from their visit to a training camp in Afghanistan.
“That was a very difficult time for our community,” Qazi said. “But we are looking ahead. We are not looking back.”
Qazi founded the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York in 2004 hoping to get past that difficult time, and to create a forum in which Muslims could discuss public policy and interact with government officials.
“We’ve worked very hard to develop an understanding with government agencies at different levels in order to do two basic things: to enhance homeland security and to make sure civil rights and civil liberties are protected,” Qazi said.
Hochul is among those who have been very impressed with Qazi’s work.
The U.S. attorney praised the Muslim leader for organizing a community meeting on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and another such event after U.S. forces killed al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden in a May 2011 raid in Pakistan.
Hochul noted that Qazi also organized an event in which law enforcement officials met with the Muslim community to discuss surveillance that the New York Police Department was doing in, of all places, in Western New York, and that the Muslim leader’s work also led to sensitivity training for Customs & Border Protection agents.
“Dr. Qazi has helped to break down walls that often prevented meaningful communication and forge a relationship of trust and hope,” said Hochul, who attended the award ceremony Wednesday where Qazi was the lone recipient of the Attorney General’s Citizen Volunteer Service Award.
Qazi received the honor “for his outstanding volunteer contributions to the department’s mission,” the Justice Department said in announcing the award ceremony.
Hochul, meanwhile, has made plenty of outstanding volunteer contributions to the local Muslim community, reinvigorating the “Bridges” program that aims to build ties between Muslims and law enforcement, Qazi said.
“He has been extremely visible,” Qazi said. “He is available every time and anytime.”
Hochul is a regular at the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s “open mosque nights.” He also partnered with the group on a job fair and has offered young Muslims internships and job opportunities, Qazi said.
None of that should come as a surprise, Hochul said.
“I’ve always been treated with respect and honor by the Muslim community,” he said.
Hochul said that this stems, in part, from the care he took during the Lackawanna Six prosecutions, making sure to brand the young Yemeni men as lawbreakers but steering clear of calling them terrorists.
Hochul also said that as a second-generation American of Polish descent, he has an understanding of immigrant communities, which he termed “an important part of our Western New York family.”
Increasingly, that’s just what Muslims – who number about 25,000 in Western New York – are, Qazi said.
“The community started out as Muslims in America, but we have come to be American Muslims,” he said. “We have achieved an identity where we are proud Muslims and proud Americans, together.”