Muslim takes a subway beating to help Jews
By Phillip Sherwell in New York
Last Updated: 2:55am GMT 17/12/2007
It is a story of bravery and goodwill across religious divides, and normally cynical New Yorkers have taken the hero to their hearts.
When Hassan Askari saw two couples on a subway train being pummelled by a white gang yelling anti-Semitic slurs in response to a Jewish festival greeting, he knew he could not turn the other cheek.
The small-framed American Muslim accountancy student jumped to the defence of the Jewish group, prompting the bulky thugs and their female hangers-on to turn their fury on him.
As the assailants pinned him to the wall and punched him viciously, Walter Adler, one of those initially set upon, was able to break away to pull the emergency alarm. Police arrested the attackers at the next station.
Mr Askari, 20, who comes from a Bangladeshi noble family that had close ties to the British Raj, has now become firm friends with Mr Adler, 23. The two even sat down to break bread at the end of the Hannukah, the Festival of Lights.
His brave intervention has earned him hero status in New York and one newspaper headline read simply: "Peace Train". But the modest Mr Askari told The Sunday Telegraph that he was amazed at the fuss.
"My parents brought me up to do the right thing and my religion teaches me to help my fellow man," he said. "I would have done the same thing for anyone. Religion and race have nothing to do with it. I have friends who are Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Everyone's the same to me."
Mr Adler, also a student, ended up with a broken nose, stitched lip and a battered face while Mr Askari suffered two black eyes and heavy bruising. "A random guy jumped in and helped a Jewish guy on Hannukah - that's a miracle," Mr Adler said after the attack.
According to Mr Askari, the problem started when the gang loudly yelled "Merry Christmas" and one of Mr Adler's party answered "Happy Hannukah".
This innocent remark apparently prompted a furious response, witnesses told police.
"This gang were already being noisy and obnoxious and then they just lost it," Mr Askari said. "They were cursing and spitting on Walter and the others. They said: 'Don't wish us happy Hannukah. This is a Christian country and Hannukah is when the Jews killed Jesus'."
Mr Adler's girlfriend Maria Parsheva, 23, gave a similar account, recalling: "They said: 'You dirty Jews, you killed Jesus on Hannukah, you should all die'."
At this stage, the gang of more than 10, including two women, attacked.
"Walter was getting badly beaten and the girls were attacking the girls. It was crazy," said Mr Askari. "I knew I had to do something. I tried to pull them off and I was shouting 'What's wrong with you people?' Then they grabbed me and pushed me against the wall and beat me up, but thankfully Walter was able to pull the emergency cable and the police were waiting by the time we stopped at the next station."
But Mr Askari, who is 5'7" tall and weighs just 10 stone, was saddened that other passengers in the packed carriage did nothing.
"I just hope that if people see something like this in the future, they will step in," he said.
And he hopes his actions may do something to change the minds of those who view Islam negatively. "If this changes one person's perceptions, I'll be pleased," he said.
Police arrested eight men and two women and have charged them with offences including assault, menacing and inciting a riot. Prosecutors may add hate crime charges which carry heavier sentences.
Mr Jirovec, 19, is to start a six-month sentence in January for an attack on two black men. But he denied the latest incident was racist, saying he did not know the others were Jewish.
He also claimed Mr Adler's party were drunkenly taunting his group, shouting: "We killed Jesus." Hate crime complaints have soared by 20 per cent in the last 12 months in New York, to the alarm of civic leaders.