Jailhouse Islam – The Radicals Among Us

Last May, Philadelphians were stunned when police officer Stephen Liczbinski was shot in cold blood during an altercation with burqa-wearing robbers. But that murder, and other recent violent acts in the city, has its roots in a form of Islam being taught in our prisons — and being funded by Middle Eastern extremists

Sergeant Simpson, Liczbinski’s buddy, took over his old spot in North Philadelphia. Then in November, in the neighborhood where Liczbinski died, a drunk driver fleeing police slammed into Simpson’s car and killed him.

Meanwhile, a Germantown mosque stirred up an international controversy when its leaders refused to bury Howard Cain. Relatives complained that Cain was a devoted Muslim, and that regardless of the circumstances of his death, religious leaders had an obligation to attend to his interests in the afterlife. At the Germantown Masjid, managing director Tariq El Shabazz fielded calls from as far away the Arabian peninsula, which he says were mostly positive.

The decision to forgo the funeral didn’t seem extraordinary to non-Muslims, initially, but it represented a critical shift in the way Philadelphia’s Islamic leadership interacts with the general population.

And it offers a potential solution for some of the city’s most pressing problems.

A STROLL THROUGH much of Germantown and West Philadelphia makes clear the Muslim population’s vibrancy there.

Restaurants, shops, markets and services cater to Muslim customers along Walnut Street, Lancaster and Germantown avenues. Men wear the short, brimless kufi hat, and women wear hijab in various forms. Immigrants from Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan and other places all make their homes here.

The community’s heart rests at Saad’s Halal Place at 45th and Walnut, a venerable old Middle Eastern restaurant that serves ritually clean food. The patronage ebbs and flows through the day according to prayer schedules and school hours.

To focus on flair and flavor is to overlook some of the darker issues afoot in the community, though. Philadelphia is said to have the highest incidence of polygamy of any American metropolis, for instance, because so many people in this quarter feel it’s acceptable under orthodox law. It’s an uneasy reality at best, and at worst it’s much, much worse: In April, for instance, a 48-year-old suburban woman named Myra Morton pleaded guilty to murdering her husband over his second wife in Morocco.

Laws are clean and clear, but people and religion and crime are untidy things that sometimes defy the law’s best efforts. And so sometimes the best solutions to social problems may not only come down from the law, but also up from the people. One of the most powerful reasons for the downfall of the old Mosque No. 12, for instance, was that Muhammad Kenyatta gathered the courage to speak against the organization in the mid-1970s. Kenyatta was a brilliant, complicated man — he was a black nationalist and changed his name to honor the leader of the Nation of Islam, yet he worked as a Baptist minister — and his word carried a great deal of weight in the community. When he spoke out against the mosque, accusing its leaders of using it as a criminal base, its fortunes began to decline.