If someone asked me for a list of the most decent people in Buffalo, one of the first names to spring to my lips would be Fajri Ansari, the boys basketball coach at Turner/Carroll High School.
Ansari's teams have won two state championships. He has sent more players to Division I schools, by far, than any coach in the area. He's run camps teaching athletes how to prepare academically for college. But he has always considered coaching a secondary calling.
In his job as assistant director of admissions at Buffalo State, he has recruited thousands of students to the college. Many were from his native New York City and would not have made it without his intervention and support.
Ansari is proudest, however, of his role as a leader in the city's Muslim community. He is an Imam at Masjid Nu'Man, a mosque on the East Side. He also serves as the Northeast representative for the Muslim American Society.
So it seemed fitting when Mayor Masiello chose Ansari to address the crowd on Niagara Square at Sunday's candlelight vigil for the victims of last week's terrorist attacks.
Ansari didn't know how the crowd of 50,000 would react. In recent days, there have been more than 200 accounts in this country of people being harassed or attacked because they were Muslims, or because they looked Arabic or South Asian. In Chicago, police restrained a crowd of about 300 angry people marching at a mosque.
But a calm came over Ansari when it came time to speak. When doves were released, he turned to Henry J. Mansell, bishop of the Buffalo Catholic diocese, and said it reminded him of a similar gesture on his visit to the Vatican two years ago, at a world assembly of religions.
Ansari told the people not to seek vengeance, but peace and understanding. He told them true Muslims also were saddened and outraged by the events of last Tuesday. Don't equate terrorism and evil with religion, he said. You'll be playing into their hands.
"If anything, Muslims have more to lose," Ansari said Monday at Buffalo State. "When someone who professes to be a Muslim does this, he does more harm to the cause because Muhammad, the prophet we follow, never would have killed innocent men, women or children. His whole life was about tolerance."
The urge for vengeance is understandable. But it's troubling to know that Americans would lash out at a religion about which they know so little, and which has 1.2 billion followers.
"See, it's not the true people who are doing it," Ansari said. "Evil has no favorites in terms of religion. It's against all religions. Evil wants to get rid of everybody and everything that's good, human, tolerant and loving."
The word "Islam" means "peace." Yes, we need to find out who committed these crimes and punish them. But if we aspire to a more peaceful world, we need to understand people who are different from us. We might discover they're not so different after all.
Ansari said he's bothered by misconceptions about Muslims. For one thing, they do not condone suicide. The Koran (the Islamic bible) says a person who dies in the cause of God is guaranteed a place in Paradise, but that doesn't mean killing innocent people.
"I think they manipulate or brainwash people into believing they're doing something for God," Ansari said. "It's against Islam to commit suicide. There's nothing Islamic about it. It's automatic hellfire to take your own life.
"People grow up with this mind-set and they feel, 'Well, what do I have to lose?' " he said. "America, unfortunately, becomes a target. If you become weak in your faith, you may decide God isn't really with you, and you take matters into your own hands. When you get some evil, manipulative people who know the language and scripture and start interpreting it for people, then they carry out your sick plan."
At its core, Ansari said, Islam is similar to Christianity. Muslims believe in one God and in an afterlife, though you have to justify it by living a good existence on Earth.
Ansari went to the Ukraine recently on a basketball trip. He found a mosque and a Muslim cemetery. It cheered him to know that even in Soviet times there was a strong Islamic presence.
"What I also realized in traveling was there's no place like America," he said. "There's no doubt this is the best country. But I think we need to do a better job of recognizing that this country is growing in diversity. It's not going to be the same. Maybe for some people, that's hard to accept."
At Sunday's vigil, Ansari was approached by a woman whose daughter recently converted to Islam. An uncle was killed in the World Trade Center tragedy. Some of her relatives treated her like an outcast, saying her Allah was responsible. But after hearing Ansari's talk, they apologized.
"Sunday night I was so encouraged, so inspired," Ansari said. "We have a reputation for being a very segregated city. But it was good to see people willing to open up in terms of tolerance and acceptance. There was such a great spirit in the people."
Today, Ansari was to fly back to his native New York. Buffalo State has a regional recruiting office there. It'll be hard for him. As a kid, he worked as a messenger, with frequent stops at the World Trade Center. He knows many people who lost loved ones last week, though no one in his immediate family was injured.
He prays with all his heart that evil won't win out in the end, that God or Allah willing, the human family will not be divided.