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Morality and Religion in America (II)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria, on January 7, 2006...

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria, on January 7, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Another strange incongruity of the moral question in the United States is that Middle Eastern Muslims like my Iranian friend who felt “duped” by the American cultural industry into believing that America is the sanctuary of unbridled debauchery and hedonistic self-gratification are actually some of the biggest purveyors of harmful social substances.

In many cities and mid-sized towns in the United States, Arab immigrants from the Middle East own and sell alcoholic drinks, drugs and cigarettes to Americans, especially in poverty-stricken, crime-infested African-American neighborhoods. And this is spawning tensions between African-American Muslims and Middle-Eastern, mostly Arab, Muslims.

This fact was brought to light on November 23 last year when a group of African-American Muslims dressed in bow ties and dark suits invaded Arab-owned corner stores in a city called Oakland in the state of California, and smashed all the liquor and wine bottles there with metal pipes. Before destroying the shops, the Black Muslims reportedly queried the shop attendants why they were selling alcohol when it was against the Muslim faith.

One of the stores, in fact, mysteriously went up in flames five days after it was attacked by the Black Muslim youths. Similarly, an attendant in an Arab liquor store was abducted for more than 12 hours in an automobile trunk. He was later found unhurt, but police haven't ascertained if these occurrences have any connection to the vandalism.

Just last month, meanwhile, well-dressed African-American men went into another Arab-owned liquor store in Oakland and, according to news reports, asked the attendant about his Muslim faith. The clerk wasn't threatened, and no incident was recorded.

The immediate trigger of these incidents is that African-American Muslim youths in California are angry that Arab Muslims were exploiting the moral vulnerability of the black community to sell cheap liquor and drugs—things they can neither legally consume nor sell in their own countries. They contend that a surfeit of liquor stores conduces to crime, gang violence, homelessness and other social ailments that plague the Black community here.

It may come across as anomalous to some readers that there are American citizens who are Muslims and are even passionate enough about their faith to want to protect it, even at the expense of flouting the laws. America has a long history of Islam in the black American community, starting with the emergence of the Nation of Islam—a group of militant Black Americans who profess what many mainstream Muslims would consider heretical Islamic religious beliefs.

The group was founded in 1930 by a certain Wallace Fard Muhammad. Upon his death, Elijah Muhammad took over reigns of the organization. Among the many prominent Black American Muslim activists the organization produced was the late Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the current head of the organization. (I will write a separate article some other time about the Nation of Islam and how its teachings differ from mainstream Islam).

However, it was not followers of the Nation of Islam that broke into Arab liquor stores last November; it was another more mainstream African-American Muslim group that goes by the name of Your Black Muslim Bakery. It is a community institution initiated by a certain Yusuf Bey, a well-known Black Muslim leader who died of cancer in 2003. The bakery sells Islamic books along with baked goods, and has won praise for creating jobs for young men from poor African -American communities.

Bey's 19-year-old son, Yusuf Bey IV, led the group of young African-American Muslims who smashed to smithereens all the alcoholic drinks sold in the Arab shops in Oakland, California. He, along with four others, is now facing charges of hate crime and vandalism. The images of seven others were caught on store security cameras, and are being searched by the police.

What was curious, some would say instructive, in the invasion of the shops, which was caught on tape and shown on national television here, was that no one was kidnapped. (No connection has yet been made between the kidnap of a shop attendant I talked about earlier and this incident). No goods were stolen. The vandals just wanted to make a point: Stop selling alcohol to fellow Muslims.

This event draws attention to a lot of issues, not least the furtive sybaritic lavishness that Arabs in America not only indulge in but “export” to morally susceptible and economically disaffiliated Black neighborhoods. I do not by this suggest, in the least, that all Arabs here are hedonistic and sell alcohol (incidentally the etymology of that word is Arabic!).

However, given that they are Muslims, it is difficult to ignore the oddity of Arab immigrants dominating the liquor-selling business in many towns and cities in America.

Now, were the Arab liquor sellers mortified for being put on the moral defensive by Black Muslims? There is no evidence to think so. President of the Yemeni American Grocers Association, Mohamed Saleh Mohamed, told The Associated Press: “Any Muslim is forbidden to sell alcohol but that doesn't give you the right to vandalize by force and try to impose your view. That's not acceptable in any religion.”

(The grocers association is the umbrella body of the liquor sellers that are in the eye of the storm).

Another shop owner by the name of Saleh told the Associated Press that his decision to sell alcohol is “between me and God.” “We're just coming here to make a living like anyone else,” he was quoted as saying.

To be fair to the Arab traders, their main motivation for selling alcohol is the desire to survive in this merciless, cut-throat, profit-driven capitalist economy. It is one of the few businesses that immigrants here can engage in without having to compete with Americans. What is more, most of them have legal licenses to operate their businesses.

The worry, however, among Black Muslims is, should the Arabs make a living at expense of the Black community? Why don’t they go to other ethnic neighborhoods?

I called my Iranian friend a couple of weeks ago to ask if he could still stand on the moral high ground and claim victimhood of American (im)moral imperialism. “Aren’t your people fertilizing immorality in the Black community here by selling cheap liquor and drugs to people?” I asked him. All he could say was, “It’s a complex problem, Farooq.”

Another problem that this episode has brought to light is the huge disconnect between the Arab immigrant Muslim population here and American-born Muslims, especially Black Muslims. While Black and Middle Eastern Muslims may pray at the same mosques, their worlds hardly intersect beyond that. Arab Muslim store owners tend to live in the suburban areas away from the problems, anxieties and concerns of Black Muslims, who mostly live in cities.

Both groups also nurse negative stereotypes of each other. Arabs, like some white Americans, tend to view Black Americans as a community of criminals, pimps, drug addicts and tramps, while Black Americans view Arabs as a bunch of hypocritical, opportunistic, self-indulgent, sly, even racist, impostors who could also be terrorists. The image of Arabs after 911 has not helped this stereotype.

In urban America, it is customary for poor residents to resent immigrant merchants who sell cigarettes, bread and alcoholic beverages in neighborhood markets, but this is the first time, according to commentators, that religion has been injected into this age-old tension.

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