Atrocious Act

Black Muslims react with horror to September 11.

Adib Mahdi and Abdur-Rahim Hameed. Mahdi is concerned about the expression of widespread fear of Muslims that has followed the terrorist attacks.
  • Adib Mahdi and Abdur-Rahim Hameed. Mahdi is concerned about the expression of widespread fear of Muslims that has followed the terrorist attacks.
  • Image by Joe Klein

On Friday morning, December 14, two black Muslims, Abdur-Rahim Hameed and Adib Mahdi, residents of San Diego, agreed to speak about the local African-American Muslim community and its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Hameed is the founder and president of the nonprofit Black Contractors Association located at 61st and Imperial Avenue.

Mahdi, vice president in charge of business development of the Black Contractors Consortium, the for-profit component, works out of the BCA building. Their remarks came just one day after the White House released a transcribed videotape in which Osama bin Laden recounted events that implicate him in the terrorist attacks.

Mahdi, 41, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, has been a San Diego resident since 1977. Powerfully built, with an Asian cast to his face that mistakes him for a Nigerian, Mahdi said that nowhere in Mohammed's teachings was there permission to take part in activities that led to the tragic events of September 11. "I want to make that clear," he said.

The Islamic faith, he said, offers the African-American community "an answer to the times." Mahdi recounted how, early in the 1930s, during the Depression, Elijah Muhammad (1896-1975) met Wali Farad, a white man, who established the Temple of Islam in Detroit and is credited with founding the Nation of Islam, or Muslim faith, among blacks in the United States. In 1934, Farad disappeared and Elijah Muhammad (the name conferred on him by Farad) claimed the role of successor. Elijah Muhammad set forth a program of a separate black self-sufficiency that stood outside the mainstream integrationist position of the Civil Rights movement and defined the course for the first African-American Muslims.

When Elijah Muhammad died, the Nation of Islam underwent a schism. Louis Farrakhan, whose appeal was second only to the assassinated Malcolm X (1925-1965), took on the leadership of the Nation of Islam and continued to espouse a separatist racial theme. Wallace Deen Mohammed, Elijah Muhammad's son, stepped away from the political arena and urged his followers instead toward the practice of orthodox Islam.

"Recently Minister Farrakhan has shown a change of attitude. He has encouraged his followers to take up the study of Islam," said Mahdi. (Both he and Hameed are followers of Wallace Mohammed.)

On Sunday, February 17, Louis Farrakhan, marking the birth of Elijah Muhammad with a speech at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, condemned religiously inspired violence. According to the Associated Press, in the long keynote speech the Muslim leader, once famous for inflammatory remarks about Jews and Christians, urged unity. "I'm a Jew, I'm a Christian, and I'm a Muslim," Farrakhan announced to several thousand at the convention, whose theme was "Healing the Wounds to Bring About a Universal Family." He called upon Hispanics, American Indians, and other ethnic groups to unite in destroying racism.

With the stadium's giant TV screens ablaze with maps, Farrakhan explained how the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, as well as other Middle Eastern and African conflicts, were instigated by the United States' "insatiable appetite for oil."

Suggesting that a Nuremberg-style trial would be convened for American presidents "if the truth were known," Farrakhan went on to criticize the use of "the American soldier, black, brown, and poor white, to fight a war that is unjust and wrong." Farrakhan said that true patriots should speak out against bad policies. He described the Bush administration as "a shadow government" and said it was preparing to wage war on Iraq.

Earlier, Mahdi had attempted to describe the structure of his religious observance, which made the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a refutation of Islamic law. Islam, he said, is made up of five pillars. "The first pillar, and central to the faith, is the belief that there is only one God, and that God is Allah." The next pillar, he said, is prayer (salat). Prayers are borrowed directly from the Koran and offered five times a day. Charity (zakat) and fasting (zawn) come next. The last pillar (hajj) is a pilgrimage to Mecca that all believers are urged to make at least once in their lives.

"For us," he said, returning to the terrorist attacks of September 11, "this was an atrocious act! It is written in the Koran that Islam is a religion of peace and that a Muslim is one who submits his will to the will of the Creator, to Allah. And Allah does not command us to murder women and children, to kill innocent people. No! Submission to the will of Allah means to follow what is natural in life. The birds and the plants, everything in nature follows the will of Allah. The will of Allah enjoins us to live in harmony, like the animals and plants. Because all nature follows the will of Allah, we say that everyone is Muslim." Mahdi shrugged off the notion that, especially now, many Americans would not relish being called a Muslim. Taking his cue from Christians who claim the Bible as the true word of God, he said the Koran was written 1400 years ago and was the only one of the world's major religions to be available today in the same language (Fuswa, or classic Arabic) in which it was originally written. "The information is there for all to see."

The African-American community represents the largest group of Muslims in the U.S. Given their numbers, Mahdi said he was surprised when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Muslims for her show, a program called "Islam 101," and did not speak with one African-American.

Reflecting on the ill treatment women received at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mahdi was eager to quote the Koran. "There, it is written that Paradise belongs at the feet of the woman. A man who has a daughter is promised Paradise. And a man who has two daughters is guaranteed Paradise." As for how this perception of women plays out in religious observance and in daily affairs, he admitted that at the mosque, the Masjid, women sit behind the men, and in the streets, women are seen to defer to the man. "But they are not behind us. Rather, we are in front of them." He emphasized that this was not just a case of semantics. "The man's role is to step forward and guard and protect his wife and family."

He said that Wallace Deen Mohammed observed some years ago that one can always tell the condition of a society by the state and the treatment of its women. "And our women are the most dignified in American society," offered Mahdi. "The Muslim woman is taught not to see herself as a sex object, as the society teaches. Allah has given the woman the gift of carrying our children and the man the responsibility of respecting her as our wives."

Like many others, Mahdi came to Islam through a relationship with a Muslim. His maternal uncle arrived in Little Rock one summer and spoke with authority about the Nation of Islam. Years later, when Mahdi visited his uncle in San Diego, he took his shadah, or declaration of faith. In his family of nine brothers and sisters, six are Muslims.

Mahdi is concerned about the expression of widespread fear of Muslims that has followed the terrorist attacks. "America," he said, "was always looking for labels and stereotypes on which to pin others." In a recent Channel 8 newscast, he said, a woman supported claims by the FBI that the Holy Land Foundation, and its executive director, Ghassan Elashi, a local resident, were implicated in funding terrorist activities. The woman admitted having no knowledge of the particulars. "The woman announced that she did not need to see the documents, she didn't need convincing." Here, said Mahdi, was a clear example that the press was promoting a negative stereotype of Elashi as well as Muslims, in general.

Mahdi explains that the Islamic faith encourages its followers to read, study, and be responsible citizens. Hameed is a good example of Islam's transformative powers. Nicknamed "Big Red" for his light skin and red hair, the 47-year-old grew up in the streets of East San Diego. He recalls himself as a frustrated youth, "an angry adolescent with a third-grade reading level and no place to take my feelings or clarify my politics. And with no skills necessary for advancement in the culture, I was heading nowhere."

Hameed was 16 when he first heard about the Nation of Islam. He enrolled in the University of Islam, a high school that offered remedial and advanced academic courses. "I dreamed of becoming a builder and helping to construct communities for our people."

Sustained by his dream and supported by a number of black contractors (including William Walker and Alvin Jones, brother of Federal District Court judge Napoleon Jones), Hameed eventually earned his contractor's license. In 1982, he laid the groundwork for what was to become the Black Contractors Association, an organization founded so that others would not face the hurdles he had met. Fifteen years later, in 1996 -- one year before construction began on the BCA building -- he was named among the "50 People to Watch" by San Diego magazine. Under Hameed's leadership, the Black Contractors Association, an apprentice center for inner-city youth, was named "Minority Business Advocate of the Year 2001" from the Greater San Diego Business Development Council.

About the terrorist attacks, Hameed says, "They were terrible acts, ones that all Americans must experience with a sense of horror." Incensed that these acts should have been undertaken under the name of Islam, he nevertheless warns against a rush to judgment. About the videotape of Osama bin Laden, he said, "According to Islam, it takes four witnesses plus clear evidence before a person may be found guilty."

Louis Farrakhan struck a different cautionary note at the convention in Los Angeles. Offering a description of "U.S. oil politics," he said that, according to the way the war is prosecuted in Afghanistan, President Bush might "summon the whole Muslim world against the West."

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