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Urban Islam and the war on terror: Amidst media sensationalism over the capture of American-born jihadis, few are examining why urban youth of color increasingly gravitate toward Islam. (To the Point).

Since the capture of the six Washington men accused of engaging in weapons training to join Al Qaeda and would-be terrorist Jose Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican ex-gang member who encountered Islam while in prison, terrorism experts and columnists have been warning of the "Islamic threat" in the American underclass, and alerting the public that the ghetto and the prison system could very well provide a fifth column for Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Writing in The Daily News, black social critic Stanley Crouch reminded us that in 1986, the powerful Chicago street gang al-Rukn--known in the 1970s as the Blackstone Rangers--was arrested en masse for receiving $2.5 million from Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi to commit terrorist acts in the U.S. "We have to realize there is another theater in this unprecedented war, one headquartered in our jails and prisons," Crouch cautioned.

Chuck Colson of the evangelical American Christian Mission, which ministers to inmates around the country, penned a widely circulated article in The Wall Street Journal charging that "Al Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America's prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be 'disenchanted with their country's policies ...As U.S. citizens, they will combine a desire for 'payback' with an ability to blend easily into American culture." Moreover, he charged, "Saudi money has been funneled into the American Muslim Foundation, which supports prison programs," reiterating that America's "alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad."

Since September 11, more than a few American-born black and Latino jihadis have indeed been discovered behind enemy lines. Before Padilla (Abdullah al-Muhajir), there was Aqil, the troubled Mexican American youth from San Diego found in an Afghan training camp fraternizing with one of the men accused of killing journalist Daniel Pearl. In February, the New York Times ran a story about Hiram Torres, a Puerto Rican whose name was found in a bombed-out house in Kabul, on a list of recruits to the Pakistani group Harkat al-Mujahedeen, which has ties to Al Qaeda. Torres, also known as Mohamed Salman, grew up in New Jersey, graduated first in his high school class and briefly attended Yale, before dropping out and heading to Pakistan in 1998. He has not been heard from since. A June edition of US News and World Report mentions a group of African Americans, their whereabouts currently unknown, who studied at a school closely linked to the Kashmiri militia, Lashkar-e Taiba.

The two most notorious accused terrorists now in U.S. custody are black Europeans, French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui and the English-Jamaican "shoebomber" Richard Reid, who were radicalized in the same mosque of London's major black community, Brixton. Moussaoui' s ubiquitous mug shot in orange prison garb, looking like many American inner-city youths with his shaved head and goatee, has intrigued many and unnerved some. "My first thought when I saw his photograph was that I wished he looked more Arabic and less black," wrote Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy. "All African Americans need is for the first guy to be tried on terrorism charges stemming from this tragedy to look like one of our own."

But there has been little exploration in the U.S. of why alienated black and Latino youth might gravitate towards Islamism. The Islamic threat in the American ghetto has been sensationally identified, and campaigns have been introduced to stem the "Islamic tide," but with little probing of the underlying causes of urban nihilism and rage.

Targeting the Disaffected

Is there any truth to the claim that Muslim states or Islamist groups specifically targeted African Americans to undermine the U.S. government or to recruit them in wars overseas? US News and World Report notes that, just in the 1990s, between 1,000 and 2,000 Americans--of which "a fair number are African Americans"--volunteered to fight with Muslim armies in Bosnia, Chechnya, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Many were recruited by radical imams in the U.S. According to several reports, in the late 1970s the Pakistani imam Sheikh Syed Gilani, now on the run for his alleged role in Daniel Pearl's murder, founded a movement called al-Fuqara (the poor) with branches in Brookiyn and New Jersey, where he preached to a predominantly African American constituency. Using his Soldiers of Allah video, Gilani recruited fighters for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Likewise, working out of what the FBI called, his "jihad office" in Brooklyn the Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman allegedly raised millions of dollars for the Afghan r esistance and sent 200 volunteers to join the mujahideen.

There are 6 to 7 million Muslims in America, of which the 2.5 million-strong community of African American Muslims is the largest. But the majority of African Americans, and increasingly Latinos, who embrace Islam do not end up wearing military fatigues in the mountains of Central Asia. For most, Islam provides order, meaning, and purpose to nihilistic and chaotic lives. But even if most do not gravitate towards radical Islamism, why the attraction to Islam in the first place?

Escaping the West

Many blacks and Latinos in American metropolises live in poverty and feel alienated from the country's political and cultural traditions. Repelled by America's permissive, consumerist culture, some search for a faith and culture that provide rules and guidelines for life. But many young African Americans, and increasingly Latinos, reject Christianity, which they see as the faith of a guilty and indifferent establishment. Estranged from the U.S., their search for a sense of community and identity has increasingly led them to the other side of the Atlantic, to the Islamic world.

By embracing Islam, previously invisible, inaudible, and disaffected individuals gain a sense of identity and belonging to what they perceive as an organized, militant, and glorious civilization that the West takes very seriously. One Chicano ex-convict tried to explain the allure of Islam for Latino inmates, and why Mexican Americans sympathize with Palestinians: "The old Latin American revolutionaries converted to atheism, but the new faux revolutionary Latino American prisoner can just as easily convert to Islam. [For the Mexican inmates] the Palestinians had their homeland stolen and were oppressed in much the same way as Mexicans.

Just as significant as political and cultural alienation, however, is the fact that amidst the economic hardship of the inner cities, and in face of state apathy, Muslim organizations operating in the inner city and prisons deliver materially. As in much of the Islamic world, where the state fails to provide basic services and security, Muslim organizations appear, funding community centers, patrolling the streets, and organizing people.

The growing Islamic presence in American inner cities must also be understood in the context of the Reagan-Bush era of neoliberal economics and of the deindustrialization of the urban core. As the state withdrew and capital fled, social institutions and service agencies disappeared, leaving an institutional vacuum which different religious groups, many of them Muslim, would come to fill. In Central Harlem, Brownsville, and East New York--areas deprived of institutions and job opportunities--dozens of mosques (Sunni, NOI, Five Percenter and Nuwaubian) have arisen, standing cheek by jowl with dozens of churches, all trying to provide some order and guidance.

Islam and Urban Despair in Europe

Concentrated in the gritty, crime-ridden suburban neighborhoods (les banlieues) that encircle French cities and periodically explode into car-burning riots, Frances largely poor Muslim population is angry and restive in the face of a rising anti-immigrant tide, heavy-handed policing tactics, and declining living standards. The confluence of Islam and urban unrest in Europe was displayed in a consummately post-colonial moment in October when France and Algeria met in a soccer match, the first since Algeria's bitter war of independence. The match was stopped prematurely when thousands of French-born Arab youth, seeing Algeria losing, raided the field chanting, "Bin Laden! Bin Laden!" and pelted two French ministers with bottles.

As in the U.S., in the 1990s, neoliberal policies of privatization and exchange rate unification have exacerbated the situation in the banlieues. The unemployment rate has risen to 13 percent, with 45 percent being the average in the banlieues, areas previously reliant on the automobile and manufacturing sector. Consequently, in the past 10 years, the rate of juvenile crime in France increased 80 percent. With the rise of le Pen's National Front in France and the beur's (as French-born Arabs are called) disillusionment with the left and sell-out leaders, many young banlieusards are looking to the Islamist groups that appeared, organized charities and rallies, and patrolled the cites, the substandard housing projects where most immigrants live.

Zacarias Moussaoui did not grow up impoverished in the militarized cites, but by all accounts, the French-Moroccan harbored a deep racial rage. His mother Aicha El-Wafi, said he was often ridiculed because of his dark skin and frizzy hair. People called him "a black African and a Negro and laughed in his face." After his stint in London's Brixton mosque, he became disgusted with Western permissiveness, and appalled by the evils produced by Western capitalism such as alcoholism, prostitution, and begging. His brother Abd-Samad told the London Times, "I noticed an attitude when he came back to France. He would use the pejorative African word toubab to describe white people, and he would also say 'I'm a black Arab, I hate the white West.'"

The urban and racial situation in Britain is similarly distressing. West Indian and South Asian youth live in poor "mill-and-mosque" towns, devastated by capital flight in the late 1980s and 1990s, where the anti-immigrant British National Party is making inroads, and where racial strife erupts frequently. Many of these youth have drifted towards radical Islamist groups. In 1999, eight Muslim Britons were arrested in Yemen for plotting terrorist attacks against British targets, and it's estimated that 3,000 Muslim Britons trained in camps in Afghanistan. Brixton, where both Moussaoui and Richard Reid worshipped, has repeatedly experienced civil unrest in response to police brutality or police indifference to violent hate crime.

Reid, whose father is Jamaican, was raised by his white mother and her white partner. His racial alienation was "the genesis of his problems," according to one childhood friend. Reid dropped out of school and became a graffiti artist named Enrol. "He desperately wanted to be black, to sort out his roots. He went off the rails and joined a hard gang of black youth," said another friend. While in Feltham young offenders' institution, Reid became a Muslim. After embracing Islam in prison, he began attending the Finsbury Mosque in South London, where Abu Hamza al-Maari, a fiery anti-American imam, regularly called for jihad against the West. Robin Reid, the father, tried to explain his son's trajectory, observing that Richard found solace in Islam because "Islam accepts you for who you are... Even I was a Muslim for a little bit." And how it was racism that drove him to Islam: "I am a Cockney, born within the sound of Bow Bells. My father was Jamaican but my mother was white from Newcastle. All my life I have bee n told 'Go home, nigger.' We had to move five times when I was a child to different parts of London. Each time it was to get away from the racist taunts."

Islam in Prison

Over the past 30 years, Islam has become a powerful force in the American prison system. According to one report, nowadays one third of the million or more black men in prison are claiming affiliation with the Nation of Islam, Sunni Islam, or small Muslim sects, such as the Moorish Science Temple. (Mike Tyson, during a stint in prison in the mid-1990s, became Muslim and adopted the name Malik Shabbaz. "I'm just a dark guy from the den of iniquity," the former heavyweight champion explained to journalists.)

The presence of Muslim organizations in prisons has increased in the last decade as the government cut back on prisoner services. In 1988, legislation made drug offenders ineligible for Pell grants, the federal financial aid program; in 1992, this was broadened to include convicts sentenced to death or lifelong imprisonment without parole, and in 1994 the law was extended to all remaining state and federal prisoners. In 1994, Congress also passed legislation barring inmates from higher education, stating that criminals could not benefit from federal funds, despite overwhelming evidence that prison educational programs not only help maintain order in prison, but prevent recidivism. Legislation also denies welfare payments, veterans' benefits, and food stamps to anyone in detention for more than 60 days.

In 1996, the Clinton Administration passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity act, preventing most ex-convicts from receiving Medicaid, public housing, and Section 8 vouchers. In a 1998 executive order, Clinton denied Social Security benefits to inmates. All these cutbacks affected people of color disproportionately, but African Americans in particular because of the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African American men.

In this atmosphere, it is no surprise that Muslim organizations in prisons are gaining popularity. The Nation of Islam provides classes, mentorship programs, study groups, and "manhood training" that teaches inmates respect for women, responsible sexual behavior, drug prevention, and life management skills. Mainstream American Muslim organizations also provide myriad services to prisoners. David Schwartz, who recently retired as religious services administrator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has strongly rejected the notion that American prisons are a breeding ground for terrorists. (In addition, NYU scholar Robert Dannin, author of Black Pilgrimage to Islam, who has studied Islamic conversion in prisons, asks: "Why would a sophisticated international terrorist organization bother with inmates--who are finger-printed and whose data is in the U.S. criminal justice system?")

Islam and Cultural Resistance

Pan-Africanism and pan-Islam were fused together by African American and Muslim intellectuals over a century ago to fight colonialism, racism, and Western domination. Today, the cultural forces of Islam and black nationalism have converged to create a political, oppositional counterculture that has a powerful allure. At root, the attraction of African American, Latino, Arab, South Asian, and West Indian youth to Islam, and movements that espouse different brands of political Islam, is evidence of Western nations' failure to integrate racial, ethnic, and immigrant communities, and to deliver basic life necessities and social welfare benefits--policy failures of which Islamic groups (and right-wing Christian groups) are keenly aware.

But rather than prompt examination of why youth in the urban core and its appendage institution, the prison, would be attracted to Islam (whether it's an apolitical Sunni or Sufi Islam, a sect like the Five Percenters, the overtly political Islam of the NOI, or the jihadist Islam of Al-Fuqara), the cases of Moussaoui, Reid, and Padilla have led to arguments about how certain cultures are basically "unassimilable," hysterical warnings of a "black (or Latino) fifth column," and aggressive campaigns to counter Islamic influence in the inner city. Evangelical groups are trying to exclude Islamic institutions from Bush's faith-based development initiative. Jerry Falwell stated that "it is totally inappropriate under any circumstances" to give federal aid to Muslim groups, because "the Muslim faith teaches hate. Islam should be out the door before they knock. They should not be allowed to dip into the pork barrel."

The aspirations of the very poor and disenfranchised in America will continue to overlap with the struggles and hopes of the impoverished masses of the Muslim Third World, who will in turn continue to look towards African Americans for inspiration and help. By and large, African Americans do not seem to share the hostility to the Islamic world which has intensified since September 11. It was after all black Representative Barbara Lee who cast the lone vote against the bombing of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And it was black members of Congress, Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney, who spoke out against America's bias towards Israel and the sanctions against Iraq, Libya, and in Hilliard's case, Cuba, and consequently were ousted from office by a coalition of right-wing special interests. The current public discourse, which conflates all strands of Islam (fundamentalist, orthodox, militant, pacifist)--with terrorism and with the political agitation of alienated ethnic minorities who embrace Is lam, is dangerously simplistic, obfuscates more than it clarifies, and cannot explain the resonance of Islam and Muslim political causes in communities of color.

Hisham Aidi is a research fellow at Columbia University's Middle East Institute. A longer version of this article appears in the journal Middle East Report (Issue 224, Fall 2002).

Hisham Aidi, "Urban Islam and the War on Terror." Hisham, a research fellow at Columbia University's Middle East Institute, works on the university's Islam in New York Project, sponsored by the Ford Foundation.
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Author:Aidi, Hisham
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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