Black, Arab Muslims and Liquor Store Vandalism

Last week in Oakland, Calif., two liquor stores owned by Arab Muslim immigrants were vandalized. In one incident, men in suits and bow ties confronted the owner and smashed bottles and refrigerators. In the second incident, a store was burned down and an employee kidnapped. According to Oakland police, in both incidents the suspects entered the store and questioned why a Muslim-owned store would sell alcoholic beverages when alcohol is forbidden in Islam. Commentator Murad Kalam, an African-American convert to Islam, says immigrant Arab Muslims and black Muslims have misconceptions about each other — misconceptions made evident by the incidents in Oakland.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Oakland, California, two communities of Muslims are caught up in a story of violence and arson. Last week two liquor stores owned by Arab Muslim immigrants were vandalized. The videotape has been playing on television since then. On it, black men in suits and bow ties confront the man behind the counter, and then they smash refrigerator doors and knock bottles off shelves. According to Oakland police, during the incidents the suspects asked why a Muslim-owned store would sell alcoholic beverages when alcohol is forbidden in Islam?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Then, police say, early Monday morning one of the liquor stores was burned. Police have identified some of the vandals on the tape. Yesterday two men surrendered to police. They're connected to an Oakland-based black Muslim group. Police have been clear that it is not the Nation of Islam.

SIEGEL: This story resonates deeply for commentator Murad Kalam. He's an African-American convert to Islam. His first novel is set partly in Oakland, and he spent a year in Cairo getting to know Arab Muslims. He says that immigrant Arab Muslims and black Muslims have misconceptions about each other, misconceptions made evident by the incidents in Oakland.

MURAD KALAM:

When I saw the video of six neatly dressed, young, black men vandalizing an Oakland liquor store, I thought it was a story I'd heard before. Flare-ups between inner-city blacks and the immigrant store owners are nothing new. But the men who ripped the beer bottles off the shelves, like the men who'd worked in the store stacking them, were Muslims. To be clear, the suspected vandals belong to a fringe group.

The vandals' point was that their victims were hypocrites. How could a Muslim sell liquor? The store owners' point will be much the same but hypocrisy of a different sort: How could an American, Muslim or not, destroy their livelihood in the land of opportunity, resort to lawlessness in the land of law and order?

I've been in mosques all over the country and seen immigrant Muslims praying shoulder to shoulder with African-American Muslims. The American mosque has always been shockingly well-integrated. Racism is always lurking somewhere, and often this high-mindedness does not always make it past the mosques' doors.

Still, for the past 60 years African-American and immigrant Muslims have often marveled at each other. Immigrants have asked: Why would any African-American rush to change his name to Daoud when my cousin Daoud has just changed his name to David? For African-Americans, often recent converts, their Muslim immigrant brothers and sisters have an aura of Islamic authenticity. Immigrant Muslims come from the exotic Muslim countries they've only heard of. These are places replete with minarets and streets of floating veils. They are born into the Arabic names African-American converts have adopted.

But marveling is not understanding, and each group has much understanding to do. It is not hard to see why immigrant Muslims could rationalize opening liquor stores in the inner city. America is for them what they've seen on television, the land of endless paradoxes. `In this land of paradoxes,' they think, `I can sell liquor at the front of the store and make my prayers in the back.'

The young African-American vandals on the videotape were immigrants of a different sort. They seem to be refugees from urban chaos and hopelessness to a land of Islam they've imagined, a land without crack dens and liquor stores on every corner and a land without paradoxes. `In a land without paradoxes,' they may think, `sin is sin, and I can vandalize the corner liquor store without compunction because drinking is sin.'

Of course, the story is not finished. All that we know is this: The suspected vandals will go to court; the store owners will rebuild their liquor stores; and each Friday Muslims all over the country, immigrant and black, will pray together, shake hands, wish each other well and go their separate ways.

BLOCK: Murad Kalam is the author of the novel "Night Journey."

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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