BY JEFF DEENEY Back at the beginning of April I spent an afternoon hanging out with Saddiq Abdul Jabbar and Tunji Turner from the Germantown Masjid which, according to the Daily News, has become embroiled in an international controversy over its decision to not provide a burial service for a Muslim man killed during the botched bank robbery that left police officer Stephen Liczbinski dead. The City Paper was doing a three part series called “Politics Lost” focusing on what impact the impending Pennsylvania primary election might be having on some of the more isolated neighborhoods in the city. They pitched me with filling the third and final slot and left me with the decision about which neighborhood to cover. I immediately thought about one of the city’s many Masjids, and more specifically a Masjid whose constituents were primarily black American converts to Islam. This lead me to East Germantown, and to Abdul Jabbar and Tunji Turner.
I understood the mixed reputation on the streets about Philadelphia’s black Muslims going into the story; I’ve heard the allegations that their Masjids encourage polygamy, that domestic violence is rampant in their community, that the Masjids are little more than fronts for organized crime cartels. But at the same time I’d seen the positive impacts that groups like the Germantown Masjid have brought to their surrounding communities; business revitalization, educational services, moral guidance to the spiritually lost. There’s a rich and conflicted story unfolding in the city’s black Muslim community, and the Liczbinski tragedy and its aftermath embodies it in a number of ways. It’s a story of virtue versus violence, righteousness versus thuggery, legitimate hard work versus illegal fast money, and separation based on racial hate versus integration based on participation in a larger global religious community. It’s also a story that has primarily transpired behind closed doors in a very secretive world, leading to allegations and hearsay on the streets that only further confuse the story. In writing the article on the primary election for the City Paper, I was hoping to use politics as a wedge to pry the door open a little and shine some light on the men behind the beards that spill out onto Germantown Avenue in droves every afternoon at prayer call.
I spent a decent amount of time in East Germantown as a social worker, and had a client at one point who was a member of the Germantown Masjid. I had been in the Islamic bookstore not far from the Masjid previous to writing the article, though only in the company of other black community members, and even then my presence didn’t feel entirely welcome. I wasn’t surprised at the chilly, suspicious reception I described in the story’s opening paragraph; the black Muslim community is a historically separatist entity that really sees no use for or benefit from contact with the white world. I was initially snubbed by the man at the counter but persisted, telling him about the work I had done in the community, that I had met members of the Masjid previously. He relented and gave me Saddiq Abdul Jabbar’s number. When I contacted Abdul Jabbar I was surprised by the difference in tone that he took with respect to community relations.
Abdul Jabbar was quick to highlight some of the changes at work within his community. Separatism was the old way, he explained, and while some members still feel that black Muslims shouldn’t vote in elections, shouldn’t participate in organized community development plans working in tandem with city council members, etc., the leadership of the Germantown Masjid had made a clear decision to start working with the community at large, if only under certain circumstances. Part of this decision was forced by the logistics of a growing congregation; Philadelphia’s black Muslim community is substantial (he estimated 6,500 members) and growing quickly. The Germantown Masjid had far outgrown its capacity and needed a new space. Completing a project of that size and scale, purchasing and renovating an entire warehouse, required some political savvy. It necessitated relationships with people outside the Muslim community. It seemed to me that Abdul Jabbar was saying that his community had weighed the pros and cons of integrations versus separation and decided that integrating had become the better deal.
But, only when the laws of Islam and the powers of the machinery of the larger world were aligned, Abdul Jabbar repeatedly stressed, would the group consider working within the American social mainstream. Otherwise, they would simply abstain from the political process as they had for many years. He didn’t specify what kind of political situations that violate Islamic law would cause the group to abstain from interaction with the larger community. Regardless, integration does requires some moderation in rhetoric and a change in historical policies. Like, for example, meeting with a white writer to talk about how the group makes political decisions. It seemed like the group was taking a big step into the unknown when Turner and Abdul Jabbar met with me that afternoon. It’s a story that might not have made it to print ten years ago.
It’s important to note that during time I spent with Abdul Jabbar talking on the phone and during the tour of East Germantown that followed I never felt that I was in the presence of a man who was anything other than straightforward, sincere and pretty progressive considering the history of the black Muslim movement. He was a serious man who enjoyed discussing the ins-and-outs of Islamic law that guides his organization’s decisions. But he was also a warm and friendly man who laughed a lot and made easy conversations. The same went for his friend Tunji; they both struck me as interesting and intelligent guys who were committed to the strengthening of their community. I wrote the article as such, trying to convey the sense of willingness to build bridges coupled with a distinct moral sternness that I heard in their voices.
The City Paper loved the story but wanted to vet the sources a bit before proceeding. We don’t know much about these guys, the paper said, let’s make sure they’re not embroiled in anything. Let’s make sure there’s no corruption history, no pending indictments, no sweetheart arrangements with suspect council persons. So we vetted the sources as best we could and the Masjid came back clean as a whistle, at least as far as corruption and shady involvement in city politics went. Beyond this, there was very little in the press about the group, at all.
Less than two months later the group is under a media microscope for refusing to bury a cop killer, a fact that they can’t be happy about. While they were willing to discuss some of the group’s policy decision making processes with me, they weren’t very comfortable doing it. At various points during the time I spent with Abdul Jabbar he seemed to falter in his conviction that talking to the press was the right idea. He asked about my credentials. He wanted to know how the article was going to be written, what information it would include. He kept returning to the central suspicion of the white establishment that black Muslims have carried with them for decades now, that his organization is trying to shed, but clearly hasn’t yet shed entirely.
The group’s press statements regarding the refusal to bury Howard Cain so far are in line with what I heard from them previously. Everything in the Germantown Masjid goes back to Islamic law; the group does not make decisions based on opinion or emotion. Policy questions get kicked up to the group’s Imam, who reviews the problem in light of Koranic teaching and his decision filters down to the rest of theMasjid’s constituents through emissaries like Abdul Jabbar and Turner. This is how the process was described to me in early April.
The Germantown Masjid has repeatedly stated that the refusal to bury Cain wasn’t a political decision, but was based on Cain’s violation of Islamic laws. Considering that the Masjid’s decision process described in news coverage of the controversy follows exactly the model the group laid out for me two months before Cain killed a cop, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think it’s a political decision aimed at quelling the controversy the would surely follow if the group had buried Cain. But I could see how someone would come to that decision. Remember, this is a group in the late stages of completing a major urban development project that still needs the city’s cooperation in order to see their plans for East Germantown come to fruition.
Many, especially in law enforcement, have pointed out that Tariq El Shabazz, the Masjid’s managing director, is a prominent and very successful defense attorney who has made a lucrative living by defending some of the most feared and reprehensible criminals in the city. It’s not necessarily an empty claim, but it’s also an allegation that doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s an inference here of organized criminal activity, that El Shabazz is probably connected to his clients’ criminal contacts in the community somehow, that maybe he benefits from these street level connections. The news coverage of the story has repeatedly mentioned that many black Muslims convert to the religion in prison, adding to the sinister air of yet-undiscovered complicity in organized crime. Sure, that all seems to make sense that a prominent Muslim defense attorney would come up dirty; it’s a logical story with a logical arc. It’s almost like something you would see on Law and Order. But the fact is that El Shabazz , as far as I know, isn’t under suspicion of any illegal activity, and real life isn’t television. And I’m sure it’s not from lack of trying to find skeletons in El Shabazz’s closets. I would venture to guess that a prominent member of a black Muslim group who is a successful defense attorney probably has a pretty thick file in a drawer somewhere at the FBI. I think those suspicious of El Shabazz should either produce something substantial or recognize the fact that the American judicial system allows even the most heinous criminals legal representation. Shabazz may have a dirty job, but it’s a dirty job that someone’s got to do.
Personally, I think the Germantown Masjid and the larger black Muslim community should be lauded for both their decision not to bury a cop killer and their newfound willingness to discuss policies with the mainstream media. These groups have come to understand that cooperation with the community at large furthers their ability to positively impact their communities. In doing so, walls of social isolation that used to surround these communities have begun to come down. As social isolation has ebbed, these groups have moderated their messages. These groups are still staunchly socially conservative, and still have a long way to go before they could be considered mainstream. Their gender segregation policies are retrograde and out of place in America (the pizza shop off Germantown Avenue that serves the Masjid population has separate booths with curtains for women and children) and I can’t even imagine what gets said in private within Philadelphia’s Masjids about homosexuality. But the black Muslim community is taking baby steps towards the mainstream on a suddenly large and brightly lit stage in the wake of Stephen Liczbinski’s murder. I think the groups are moving in the right direction, and deserve applause for doing so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.