White Muslim From L.A.
to New York to...jihad?
By Brendan Bernhard
December 2, 2004
HOW TO BECOME A MUSLIM
Five days before 9/11, Charles Vincent bought his first Koran. Six weeks later, while smoke was still pouring from the remains of the World Trade Center, he formally converted to Islam in the mosque attached to the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street and Third Avenue in New York City. A blond, blue-eyed 29-year-old from Torrance, California, he readily admits that he chose an unlikely moment to fall in love with the world’s most newsworthy religion. But in the three years since, his devotion to Islam has only deepened. Like a growing number of white Americans and Europeans, he has discovered that Islam is not just the religion of those "other" people.
"Every day I’m more surprised than the day before," he told me one evening in October, breaking his Ramadan fast in a harshly lit fast-food restaurant a few blocks from the 96th Street mosque. "The last religion I wanted to belong to was Islam. The last word that came out of my mouth was Allah. Islam pulled me out of the biggest hole I’ve ever been in."
Dressed as he is in an Islamic-style tunic and a white kufi, or cap, with an untrimmed ginger beard sprouting from his handsome, classically Californian face, Vincent may look unusual, but he certainly isn’t alienated, or for that matter, alone. In the United States, there are estimated to be roughly 80,000 white and Hispanic Muslims, along with a far greater number of African-American ones. In France, there are perhaps 50,000, according to a secret government intelligence report leaked to the French newspaper Le Figaro. (A Muslim resident of the racially mixed Belleville district of Paris told me that out of every 100 Muslims one sees there, 30 are former French Catholics.) The report stated that conversion to Islam "has become a phenomenon [in France] that needs to be followed closely." A recent study commissioned by Jonathan ("Yahya") Birt, a Muslim convert and the son of a former director-general of the BBC, put the figure in Britain at a more modest 14,000, and there are similar estimates for Spain and Germany. More people are converting on all sides of the globe — from Australia and New Zealand to Sweden and Denmark. At the moment the number of converts can only be called a trickle, but it is steady and gathering in power.
Becoming a Muslim is surprisingly easy. All you need to do is take shahada — say, La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah ("There is no true God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God") in front of a Muslim witness (or, according to some people, two witnesses) and, bingo, you’re a Muslim. That done, you are required to pray five times a day, donate a certain amount of money to charity, fast between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, and, health and finances permitting, make at least one haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca during your lifetime.
Of course, there’s the small matter of why a non-Muslim would first choose to convert to a religion increasingly associated with dictatorial governments, mass terrorism, videotaped beheadings and the oppression of women. One reason might be disillusionment with wall-to-wall entertainment, jaded sexuality, spiritual anomie and all the other ailments of the materialistic West. Another might be protest. A few days after George Bush’s re-election, critic James Wolcott joked on his blog that, in tribute to the president’s (and the Christian right’s) victorious pro-religion agenda, he was going to convert to Islam, not least because "fasting during Ramadan should be wonderfully slimming, enabling me to get into the Carnaby Street paisley shirt that was a bit binding the last time I tried it on." A few days later he announced he was putting his conversion on hold following a long discussion with his editor, Graydon Carter, who had pointed out that another Vanity Fair writer was thinking along the same lines and two Islamic converts on the same perfumed masthead might be a bit much.
In fact, had one of the Vanity Fair scribes been serious about going down to the mosque to offer his services to Allah, no one at the mosque would have blinked an eye. Recently I was present as Heriberto Silva, a Catholic teacher of Spanish literature at the City University of New York, took shahada and became Abdullah Silva, Muslim, during Friday prayers at the 96th Street mosque. A frail 60-year-old bundled into an old parka, a thick volume titled A History of the Arabs tucked under his arm, he told me afterward that his conversion was due to three factors: a long-standing fascination with the Islamic world; the encouragement of his Muslim friends; and a desire to register a personal objection to the Iraq War.
"We see a president who is preaching about freedom and democracy, and it is not true! It is all lies!" he told me. "And then I am looking for something that is real truth, and I found in Islam that truth."
Vincent’s conversion appears to have been a more muddled, emotional affair, but also a more dramatic one, since it took place in New York against the backdrop of 9/11. Like a lot of people who convert to Islam or any other religion, he did so after a particularly difficult period in his life in which he not only lost his "way" but also his job and his apartment, and, after a fight outside a nightclub, came close to losing an eye as well. He also had a good Moroccan friend — "the Mysterious Moroccan," as I’ve come to think of him, since he wouldn’t speak to me — who strongly encouraged him to convert, and may even have insisted that he do so as a price of friendship.
Muslims are just as intrigued by Vincent’s transformation as anyone else. "I was making prayer in this mosque during Ramadan in November 2001," he told me, "and I could feel the brother next to me stare. After the prayers, the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘How did you become a Muslim?’ That was very strange to me. I didn’t know how to answer him. I said, ‘What do you mean, how did I become a Muslim?’ And he said, ‘How did you become a Muslim? You have to have a story of how you became a Muslim.’ And I realized he was right. There was a process I went through. Muslims know that it’s not by chance that you come into this religion. I know that now too."
FROM SIOUXSIE TO ALLAH
Vincent was born into a middle-class Catholic family in Inglewood and grew up in Torrance. He was the youngest of eight children — all boys. After "dabbling" in college, he took a job as a bellman at the Torrance Marriott, and worked his way up to the position of night-shift auditor, which he kept for five years. He enjoyed the responsibility, and the feeling of being awake in a hotel in which everyone else was asleep. But he often asked himself what he was doing with his life, and the answer came: "Didn’t do anything today, didn’t do anything today, didn’t do anything today . . ."
A sociable loner, he would end his shift at 7 in the morning, eat in a Taco Bell on Hawthorne Boulevard in Lawndale, and sleep until 3 in the afternoon. In his free time he worked out, went swimming or surfing, and hiked in the Palos Verdes. He had amibitions to be a stage actor and took part in a local production of Red River, but his passion was for music. His girlfriend was obsessed with the band Danzig (a band member pulled a gun on them when they broke into the grounds of his Hollywood house), and he, in turn, was obsessed with the spiky, aging lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees. He waited for Siouxsie outside her hotel when she played in L.A., asked her to autograph T-shirts and pose for photographs, and would stand in the front at her concerts so he could grab her leg onstage (she let him). One night, hanging around in the lobby of her hotel, he asked if she would pose for yet another photograph, and Siouxsie decided she’d had enough. "You have one minute," she answered in an icy voice. That was the last time he saw her.
When he thought about moving to New York, his brother Mike encouraged him. "Dude," he said, "you know what? You’ve already worked for Marriott for five years in this nowhere city, and now they’re trying to make you work even longer hours. Just go." In 1999, Vincent went. Through Marriott, he arranged to take a job at the front desk of the Marriott in Times Square, while he himself lived in a hotel on James Street in the West Village. It was an old, musty, creaky place down by the waterfront whose main claim to fame was that the survivors from the Titanic had been put up there in 1912. In the room next to Vincent’s was a transvestite. As New York beginnings go, it was classic.
But within a couple of years, Vincent was in trouble. He quit the Marriott and became involved in an ill-fated pet-care business venture, which was when he met the Moroccan, whom he hired off the street. It was a chaotic time, and they soon became best friends. They spent a lot of time partying, blew all their money, and by the summer of 2001 they were both out of work and had lost the apartment they’d moved into in New Jersey. For a few weeks, they were virtually homeless.
Things got even worse after Vincent and the Moroccan got into a fight with some guys outside a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Over the phone, Vincent’s brother Mike told me he thought the brawl may have broken out because the Moroccan was harassing some girls coming out of the club. Vincent says the Moroccan had nothing to do with it; in fact, by this time the Moroccan was already rediscovering his Islamic faith and had begun to distance himself from Vincent, who would see him praying and feel bewildered.
Vincent’s version of the story is that he and a friend from Las Vegas, Joey, saw a girl vomiting on the sidewalk outside the club. She was tiny, and she kept vomiting and vomiting, and they couldn’t believe how much was coming out of her. Joey had a camera, and they decided to take a picture. When the flash went off, the girl’s boyfriend looked up and said, "You think that’s funny?" "Yeah, it’s funny," Vincent replied. They got into a shouting match, and suddenly the boyfriend was standing in front of him, ready to fight.
It was late on a Saturday night in the Village, and hundreds of people were milling about in the street. Soon they were baying for blood. Several of the girl’s other male friends joined in, and Vincent remembers being dragged across the street and pushed down by three men, when someone hit him in the eye. Joey had disappeared, but the Moroccan, who was down the block, heard the shouts and came running over. When he saw what was happening, he tried to defend his friend, taking on several men by himself. Eventually the police arrived, took one look at Vincent’s face and called an ambulance: A blood sac had formed in his eye and was starting to protrude from it.
It was after being discharged from the hospital, wearing a big bandage on his eye, that Vincent saw a Muslim selling copies of the Koran on the street in Queens. Recalling some of the things the Moroccan had been telling him about it, he bought one, though he didn’t read it straight away. A couple of days later he began to lose vision in his eye. It had become infected, and in order to prevent the infection from endangering the vision in his other eye, the doctors told him they might have to take it out.
Shortly before 9/11, Vincent ended up spending two nights at St. Vincent’s Hospital on the west side of Manhattan, with both of his eyes bandaged, wondering if he was about to go blind. "All I could hear was the beeping of the machinery around me and the people and the nurses talking, and I guess in the darkness I had time to think about myself and my situation," he told me, recalling his frame of mind at the time.
"Where did I go wrong? I came from a good family in California — what led me to this? You know, bringing me all the way to New York to be sitting in a hospital. Here I am, I’m going to lose my eyeball. How did this happen? Why would this happen to me? And while I was covered, while I had the bandages on, that’s when I prayed for the first time in my life. I asked God to not let this happen to me. And so I did a heartfelt prayer to God."
Vincent’s prayers appear to have been answered. The following morning the doctors took the bandages off his eyes, and the vision in his bad eye had returned. He was then rushed into the operating room for some laser surgery. By 9/11 he was out of the hospital, though still wearing a patch on his eye, and staying in a house in Queens belonging to his Moroccan friend’s cousin. The Moroccan’s mother had come to visit from Casablanca, and so when the planes struck the towers, Vincent — unlike most Americans — experienced the day from the perspective of someone living in the bosom of an Arab family.
"All we had to do was look out our door to see the World Trade Center, all the smoke," Vincent said. "I remember being at a grocery store a block from our house, calming [the Moroccan] down. And he gave me the scenarios of how Islam was going to be the victim of this all. And again, not knowing anything about it, I said, ‘Okay, calm down, calm down, I know what you’re saying . . .’
"Because he’s Arab he knew a lot of Arabs, and the Arabs he knew I knew. They all knew exactly what had happened and the way it was going. They were more shocked than anybody, and they didn’t know how to take me now. So the focus was on me. ‘What do you think happened? What do you think about this? What do you think is going to happen?’ I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know any more than you about this, so don’t . . .’ I couldn’t answer any kind of question like that."
In the days after the attack, while New York’s traumatized citizens stared at their television sets, watching endless replays of the planes slicing through the World Trade Center, Vincent read the Koran, becoming more and more enraptured by it as he went on.
"In the second chapter it says, ‘In this book you’ll find no doubt,’" he told me. "Meaning no contradictions. There’s nothing that’s going to say one thing here and another thing there. But as you read, you understand this was not written by a man. There’s a clear, clear distinction between this book and others. What was also shocking was that it clarified the other book — the Bible. It’s spoken of in the Koran, and spoken of highly in the Koran. So I was absolutely baffled that this book I had no idea existed was explaining my book for me.
"It was a very strange time to decide to come into a religion like this," he concluded, "but for me it was meant to be. It was meant for me to see this, and it was my time to see it."
I first met Vincent outside a small Bangladeshi mosque on First Avenue and 11th Street in New York’s East Village. It was a Saturday night in October, and he was standing in front of the entrance talking to another Muslim, Raul ("Omar") Pacheco, a 43-year-old Spaniard who converted in his 20s and later spent five years on a scholarship in Saudi Arabia. Vincent wore the Islamic dress of many of the Bangladeshis who go to the same mosque, and the light above the doorway illuminated his pale skin and blond beard. The lines around his eyes seemed unusually pronounced for a man not yet 30. His face looked drawn, but he smiled broadly, displaying a glistening row of white, orthodontically perfect Southern California teeth. He said he drove a cab — like so many other Muslims. Laughing, he told me that he had converted just before 9/11 — "Great timing, right?" — though the next time I saw him he had subtly amended his story. I asked for his phone number, but he seemed reluctant to give it to me. His line was being tapped by the FBI, he said, like those of most Muslims. Instead, he gave me his e-mail address.
My impression that night was that Vincent took Islam very, very seriously, almost to the point of parody. That he drove a cab seemed a bit much — it was as if he were trying to replicate a certain kind of Muslim lifestyle in America down to the last detail, to become just another Yemeni or Pakistani driving busy Westerners around. It was the reverse of the old expat, colonial phenomenon of "going native." Vincent had "gone immigrant"; he’d expatriated himself inside his own country. There was something moving about his sincerity. Was he learning Arabic? Did he plan to go to Mecca? Was he still in touch with his old friends from L.A. and elsewhere? What did his parents think? Had the FBI talked to him? There wasn’t time to ask. Explaining that he was working the night shift in his cab, he excused himself and disappeared into the darkness.
Pacheco, it turned out, teaches Arabic at the mosque on 96th Street, and he told me that for a while Vincent had been one of his pupils. (I later sat in on a class, which was made up of a white professor from Hofstra University who had converted to Islam and an African-American couple, also converts, and their three boys, all of whom were laboriously copying down sentences from the blackboard in Arabic script.) Unlike Vincent, Pacheco was dressed in ordinary street clothes. Looking at him, no one would guess he was a Muslim. He looked like an ordinary Spaniard of the Almodóvar generation, and had a Texan wife — also a Muslim. ("My wife is a cowboy!" he joked.) His own preference, he told me, was for the Sufi branch of Islam, which he believes is less doctrinaire, more poetic in its essence than the dominant brand.
And what did he think of Vincent? "I was like that once," he responded, adding that he also had worn the white kufi and Arab dress. But now he no longer felt the need to advertise his Muslim status. "Ninety percent of the Europeans who have embraced Islam went through a certain kind of crisis, of not being completely satisfied," he told me. "I was very indecisive and unfocused when I was young, and Islam brought me steadfastness, energy. It makes sense, Islam. There are many crazy people, of course."
Ten days after that first encounter, I arranged to meet Vincent outside the same mosque at around 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. Even allowing for the fact that it was Ramadan, the number of people filing in and out would have astonished a priest, who would have been overjoyed to have that many congregants in a week. There were plenty of churches, even cathedrals, in the neighborhood, but most of them were locked. Whereas there were about 100 people in the mosque, as many as it could fit, rows and rows of barefoot men listening to a pre-recorded voice intone prayers in Arabic.
At 1:45, Vincent pulled up in his cab and apologized for being late — he’d had to take someone to the airport. He was wearing dark, almost-wraparound glasses that made him look like a postmodern American ayatollah, a hip blind sheik. He was sniffling because of a cold and limping because of a back problem. On his wrist he wore a chunky Swatch wristwatch — a gift from the Moroccan. I asked if I could take his photograph, but he said he would prefer it if I didn’t. (He later allowed photographs to be taken.) It’s against the true Muslim’s belief, he told me, as is shaking hands with a woman other than one’s wife. Movies are now forbidden as well, along with music, because Muhammad said it was "of the devil." In his cab, Vincent either listens to the news or Arabic-language tapes. The last time he was in Torrance, he gathered up his entire music collection — CDs, records, rare LPs he’d hunted down on Melrose Avenue, videos of concerts, rock star posters, jars of ticket stubs from Lollapalooza and concerts by Siouxsie, Danzig, Ministry, Sisters of Mercy, Christian Death — and dumped the whole lot into an industrial-size garbage can in his mother’s back garden. And felt really good about it too. It was as if he’d purged himself of a lifetime of Western culture.
"Why shouldn’t you listen to music?" I asked.
"Because it takes up valuable space in my mind, space I need for the entire Koran rather than Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ or something nonsensical like that. These things are not going to benefit me in the hereafter, they will only be held against me."
Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of the Michigan-based Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA), a Sufi Muslim organization that has many white adherents and keeps tabs on fundamentalist Islam in America, calls that "a very hardcore, Taliban-style belief. I wouldn’t say it’s militant, but it’s very extreme. The problem is it can often lead to a militant attitude in the future." According to the ISCA, the majority of mosques in the United States have been taken over by radicals who preach the dour, restrictive version of Wahhabi Islam financed and championed by Saudi Arabia.
"If you go to an ordinary Islamic country," Siddiqui told me, "they don’t act like that. Most Muslims watch TV, take pictures, listen to music . . . The same is true of a lot of the people who go to the mosques in America. The people who go to them are normal Muslims, but the people who run them are very strict. If a new Muslim comes, they will grab him and indoctrinate him."
Could something like this have happened to Vincent? In his study of Wahhabism, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud From Tradition to Terror, Stephen Schwartz discusses another Californian convert, the notorious "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan waging jihad against his country. "The speed with which [Lindh] succumbed to Wahhabi conditioning is seen in his peremptory rejection of music almost as soon as he began praying and studying — not just hip-hop music, with its negative and arguably destructive character, but all music," writes Schwartz, who thought that Lindh’s conversion was partly a product of his own superficial culture and existence. "Wahhabism filled the emptiness in Lindh exactly as ‘militia’ paranoia filled the void in homegrown American terrorist Timothy McVeigh," he argues.
Vincent denies that he has been manipulated by anyone in the mosques he goes to, or by his Arab acquaintances. On the contrary, he says that he and his Moroccan friend discovered — rediscovered in the latter’s case — Islam and the Koran together. Nor does he think much of Sufism. "Be careful of that stuff," he told me in his kindly way when the topic came up during one of our first conversations, a frown furrowing his brow. "I’ll just give you a little example of what I mean by that. The Prophet Muhammad, salla ‘alayhi wa sallam [peace and blessings be upon him], anything that came out of his mouth was recorded, just like you’re recording now. And he said this religion will break up into 73 sects, and all of them are going into the hellfire except for the one on the true path of true religion. So when it comes to Sufism, it’s not anything I would consider to be . . . For me, I can’t consider that being any part of an article about Islam."
"So you consider yourself a Sunni Muslim?"
"I would say I was a Muslim following the one true path."
ISLAM IS A WAY OF LIFE
While Vincent worshiped inside the mosque, facing a wall decorated with a map of the Muslim world and five clocks displaying the different prayer times, a small, bearded man in traditional Islamic costume approached me on the sidewalk. His brown eyes were wide open, unblinking, consciously mesmeric, and a big smile lit up his face. Did I have any questions? Was there anything I wanted to know about Islam? He said his name was Hesham el-Ashry, that he was an Egyptian from Cairo, and he invited me to sit down with him on the mosque’s carpeted floor to talk.
Nearby people were praying, sitting around, chatting quietly, even — in the case of one African-American — stretched out asleep. There was a small curtained area for women to pray in, but I didn’t see any women. Someone later explained that this was because women are not required to go to the mosque as often as men, and since the majority of Muslim immigrants are male, there are fewer women anyway. Nonetheless, the overall impression one receives in the mosques is that women are treated, if not as second-class citizens exactly, then almost as an afterthought. In fact, watching the men go in and out of this one little mosque — a thousand or so per day — you could easily mistake it for a kind of social club for men.
"Thanks be to Allah, that he made me Muslim," el-Ashry began, warming up with a brief homily on the "five pillars" of Islam. His English was good, if eccentric, and he had a honey-smooth voice. "We are not Muslims because we are wise, we are not Muslims because we are clever, we are not Muslims because we are so smart. Even when we worship, when we come to pray, when we fast, it is a blessing from Allah. He pleases us by making us Muslims, and by making us worship him."
"Why did you come to the United States?" I asked.
El-Ashry smiled. "The reason is coming to work, to stay here, to have a better life — like everybody. But then afterward I learned that my traveling from my home country to any other place should be, first of all, to make do’wa — to tell people about what is Islam, the truth of Islam, the reality of Islam. So I changed my intentions, and I made my main purpose [in] America to talk about Islam, and my second purpose, to work and make a living."
El-Ashry estimates that he has converted about 20 white Americans to Islam, though he believes that you don’t "convert" to Islam, you "revert" to it, since we are all Muslim at birth — to become Muslim is simply to return to one’s natural state. (As Vincent said to me, even dogs and cats are Muslim, since they behave exactly as Allah decrees.) The Americans he converted, said el-Ashry, had lots of questions about Islam, from why Muslims "kiss the ground" five times a day to why they encircle a black box in the desert. "So when I explained the truth and the reality about everything, then they found out things that completely changed their idea about Islam. They found out the truth about Islam, and about 20 of them asked, ‘Can we be Muslims?’ And I said, ‘Well, you have to be Muslims.’"
I asked how many Americans he thought would convert to Islam in the future.
"Only Allah knows that. I wish all would be Muslims."
"How did you meet these Americans?"
"You see the way I met you?" el-Ashry replied. "People be looking at [me] with a critical eye, sometimes. Sometimes they stop me in the street, talking. Sometimes my neighbors. Sometimes the people I’m working with. Wherever I have a connection with people. And sometimes people come to the mosque asking questions, and I talk to them."
I asked el-Ashry about the way Muslims pray, the different positions they adopt — sitting, standing up, bending down with hands on knees, head down on the floor.
"We pray, or we are supposed to pray, in the same way the Prophet Muhammad prayed," he explained. "He said, ‘Pray in the same way you see me pray.’ So that’s why we have to do every single movement according to what he used to do. He taught us where to look, how to stand, where to put your hands, how to open your legs or close your legs. Every single thing he taught us how to do. And this is not only in the prayers, because what people doesn’t know about Islam is [that] it’s not a religion."
"What is it then?"
"Islam is a way of life. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught us everything up to how to go to the bathroom. Even when you go to the bathroom, how to go in, how to go out, how to sit, how to wash, how to take a shower. [He taught us] how to eat, how to start your food, how to treat your wife, how to treat your children, how to wake up in the morning, how to put your slippers on, how to put clothes on, how to take clothes off, what to eat, what not to eat . . . And everything had a purpose."
Presumably the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, did not leave written instructions on how a Muslim should drive a cab in New York City. Even Vincent, with his long experience in the ultimate car culture of Southern California, says he has had to learn to be more aggressive in order to survive in the streets of Manhattan. As Vincent sees it, Islam has not only granted him a new name — Shu’aib ("Think of ‘shoe’ and ‘Abe’ Lincoln," he suggests helpfully) — it has also made him into a completely different person from the happy-go-lucky one known to his friends and family back in Torrance. Even to himself.
"In L.A., I had no direction. I was absolutely clueless as to what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I really cared mostly about the irrelevant things — my music, my hanging out, my friends, my parties. Anything that had no weight or relevance to it, that was what I was most concerned about. I was working just like anybody, living for the weekend, to buy clothes, impress myself, impress others.
"What I can tell you is this," he went on, his voice hoarse and nasal because of his cold, his thoat dry from fasting. (It was already seven hours since his last meal.) "There was Vincent, and there’s Shu’aib. And literally it’s two different people. Why? Because I could never, God willing, be that person again. Meaning my character, my mentality, my closed eyes, my narrowmindedness — everything was just wrong. I use the analogy that I had to have my vision taken away from me to have my eyes opened. All I can say is thanks God for Islam, because it teaches you everything about this life, about this world. It makes you ponder everything, not in a spiritual kind of way, but in a reality kind of way. So when I see things —"
"What do you see here, for example?" I asked as we sped uptown on a beautiful fall day past stores selling expensive jewelry and the finest clothing, past a stunning Japanese woman waiting at the light in a long white coat, her white poodle, straining on the leash, in a coat as well . . .
"Only God knows what’s in people’s hearts, and how they really are and how they really feel, but what I see is a lot of people who are misguided," Vincent said, frowning behind the wheel. "Where are they going? What are they doing? What are their objectives today? Did they stop today to say thanks God for these new clothes I’m wearing? Did they stop today to say thanks God for the food they ate? Did they stop to call their parents? That’s what I see people lacking."
The life Shu’aib lives now is far more demanding than the one Charles lived in the past, and he drives himself far harder than the average Muslim. Every day he must rise before dawn, wash (and during Ramadan, eat), and then hurry down to the 96th Street mosque for the morning prayer, usually in the company of 40 or 50 sleepy worshipers. By 5 a.m., he is in his cab, which he picks up at a depot on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. The streets are dark, the air frigid. For the next 12 hours he is both in control and controlled by others — a driver at the mercy of his passengers. The city is dotted with mosques, and he must find one of them to pray in at lunch time (though he won’t eat) and again in the middle of the afternoon before finally turning in his cab at 5 p.m. On an average day his take is $85, and he doesn’t seem to mind how hard he has to work for it. "In Islam, money is nothing," he says with a trace of contempt. "We don’t wake up in the morning with dollar signs in our eyes. The first thing we do in the morning is pray."
Four nights a week, he goes to night school at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, where he takes classes in anthropology, the Bible as literature, and Western civilization. He has also served as the vice president and president of the college’s Muslim Students Association, which he helped organize with Avais, a good-humored Pakistani student with a thick mop of black hair. Last year, Vincent gave a talk titled "How Islam Changed Me" for the student association. "We wanted to show that he’s a Muslim and that he’s part of our family — to make a statement that Muslims are not always South Asian or Arab," Avais told me one evening, while he, Vincent and a handful of other Muslim men, including a Jewish New Yorker who is also a convert, were breaking fast in a room above a mosque on 55th Street. The atmosphere was convivial and collegiate. "It’s time to pig out," one of the party joked, digging into his food. Then, humorously, he corrected himself: "Maybe I should say, ‘Cow out.’"
Vincent’s talk was a success. Afterward, a white student named Eric, now Farouk, came into Islam. Within a year Eric had converted his mother, sister and grandmother, Vincent told me, sounding a mite envious. (He longs to convert his parents, even daydreams about it while he’s in his cab, with an intensity that might startle his mother, who, much as she respects her son’s choice, told me she has no intention of joining an organized faith.) The college has a sizable Muslim population, and the non-Muslim students are intrigued by Islam. Vincent gets a lot of inquiries, often from girls, who, to show off their interfaith sophistication, will start a conversation with him by saying, "Oh, I know somebody who is an Islamer" or "I know someone who believes in Muslims."
From the outside, Vincent’s life looks a little grim. He drives a cab — a job white Americans outsourced long ago to Third World immigrants. He has no health insurance and, despite a serious back problem, has been going to a doctor popular with cabdrivers who sounds like someone out of a William Burroughs novel. A reputable physician won’t give you a back injection without having an MRI taken first, but Vincent got four back injections and a bottle of painkillers within two visits. ("Where does it hurt?" the doctor asked, prodding his spine before plunging in the needle.) The painkillers help, but they make him dopey too — which, on top of the punishing sleep schedule (near the end of Ramadan, he spent a night praying in the mosque and then went straight to work), isn’t exactly what a passenger hopes for in a cabdriver.
As for women, not only does he not have a girlfriend, he isn’t even permitted to touch a female hand. He hopes to get married, but his wife will either have to be Muslim or willing to convert immediately. "Women are just part of this life," he told me. "They’re just part of this world. So they’re not going to be beneficial to you in any way. I’m not speaking of Muslim women. I’m speaking of regular women on the street. In my opinion, they’re the ones who are oppressed, not the Muslim women. Ask any Muslim woman if she’s oppressed, and they’re going to say no. They wouldn’t be fighting like they are with this head-scarf issue in France — you know why? Because they don’t want to take it off. Why would they upset the Creator, rather than the Creation? They’re not going to let the Creation ordain for them what the Creator has already ordained.
"For sisters, now, they get utmost respect. Not just from Shu’aib but from any Muslim brother. Ask any Muslim brother, and he’ll tell you that just by seeing a scarf on a woman’s face, on her hair, they have nothing but respect for her. They cannot disrespect this person. Why? Because she’s doing what was ordained for her to do — which is cover herself, have modesty. She’s following what was God’s orders."
A woman not following God’s orders flagged us down from the curb. Wrapped in a fashionably cut red coat, she was in her 40s, brisk and business-like, with lips that were two thin red lines. "Sixty-second and Madison," she ordained, getting into the cab for a five-block ride.
"Where is she going, what is she doing?" Vincent asked after she got out a few minutes later. "To me, the way I see it now, people are living and dying for this world. So much so that nothing else matters, nothing else is relevant. What is relevant is the bag in her hand. She needs to make sure she looks good, that she’s up to par. She needs to spend her money on . . . nonsense! To me, and from being Muslim, I don’t need any of this. I don’t need to waste my time with these people, because they’re not here for the same purpose I’m here for, they don’t see things the way I see them. They’re running very fast, and what’s going to happen at the end? They’re going to die!"
As we headed down FDR Drive, with the East River streaming past us on our left, the conversation turned to politics. It was a week or so before the presidential election, but Vincent said he had no intention of voting. Democracy is based on compromise, he told me, and Islam does not compromise. If he could vote for an Islamic state, he would, with Saudi Arabia as the model. Asked about Taliban-era Afghanistan, he replied cautiously that he didn’t know enough about it to comment. It is his fervent hope that early next year, in the company of a million or so other Muslims, he will be able to go on the haj and circle the black stone at Mecca. "Besides wanting my parents to become Muslim, there’s nothing I want more."
THE SYRIAN ISLAM-SPREADER
The floor of the men’s room in the 96th Street mosque was awash in water. To the left of the entrance stood a huge basket of mismatched flip-flops and sandals, to be put on before going inside. Along one wall men sat on marble blocks in front of taps for people to perform their ablutions — washing feet, arms up to the elbow, rinsing nose and eyes — in preparation for prayer. There were no urinals, just a row of cubicles complete with a tap on one side (for more ablutions) and a plastic bucket on the other. Talking in the men’s room is strongly discouraged. Achieving cleanliness before God is a serious business.
It was Friday prayers, the Islamic Sabbath. One Muslim among many, Vincent found a place on the vast carpeted floor of the main prayer room, and was soon swallowed up by the crowd. Topped by a dome, the mosque feels light and airy and comfortable, like the world’s biggest yoga studio. There is an upstairs balcony for the "sisters," a mihrab — a kind of understated altar — and a minbar, or pulpit, an upright latticed box at the top of five carpeted steps from which the imam delivers the khutba, or sermon. There are no pews, no chairs, no furniture of any kind at all — just an immense plush carpet, a calming green with geometric splashes of color, large enough to accommodate several tennis courts. With its informality and stretches of empty space, the mosque can make a church or a cathedral look pointlessly elaborate and ornate, and it feels curiously modern and user-friendly. Except during specific prayer times, you don’t have to be silent in a mosque, and if a cell phone goes off, nobody makes a fuss. On the contrary, two people can sit and talk while, nearby, someone else prays.
By 1:30 or so, the mosque, both upstairs and down, was packed to overflowing, which meant there were at least 1,300 people there with more lining up outside. (Carpets had been laid out on the grounds to accommodate those who couldn’t get in, and a mountain of castoff shoes was piled up outside the front door.) A slender young woman, veiled in unusually filmy black, rushed in through a side entrance, slipping off a pair of silver-mesh slippers before continuing barefoot on her way up to the balcony. The shoes were inlaid with a beaded flower pattern, and the label on the insole said "SWEET." Lying on the marble floor, inches from the carpet, they looked deliciously sinful.
Sheik Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a Syrian preacher with green eyes, milk-white skin and a clever face framed by a bushy ginger beard (people at the mosque joked that he and Vincent were brothers) ascended the stairs to the pulpit to deliver the sermon. Vincent had heard al-Yaqoubi before and approved. "He’s pretty blunt," he told me, suggesting that the Syrian, unlike some preachers, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Al-Yaqoubi wore a white hat that looked like a tassel-less fez, and a long, pale, hooded Moroccan robe. Holding a pair of black worry beads in one hand, clutching the stair railing with the other, he made a strikingly archaic and authoritative figure. For a while he spoke in Arabic, then switched to English.
Al-Yaqoubi, who spends every Ramadan at the New York mosque but is also a regular visitor to California (he is staying in Orange County this week and will be at the Zaytuna Institute in the Bay Area later in the month) is what might be termed an itinerant Islam-spreader. Based in Damascus, he is the son of a celebrated scholar and delivered his first khutba at the age of 14. He was the imam in a mosque in Gothenburg, Sweden, for several years (in 1999, he was made mufti of Sweden), and has worked and preached in England, Canada and Scotland. He has been to the United States 25 times, and, given the cost of the average flight between New York and Damascus, not to mention Stockholm and Edinburgh and Strasbourg and L.A., someone must be funding him handsomely.
Multilingual and media savvy (he quoted Lancet’s estimate of 100,000 war-related deaths in Iraq to me hours after it first surfaced on the Internet), al-Yaqoubi is optimistic about Islam’s prospects in the West. He estimates that he gives shahada to approximately 100 Americans (of whom 20 will be white, the rest African-American, Hispanic and Asian) every Ramadan in New York, and has had quite a lot of success with whites in the San Francisco Bay area. The diversity of American society makes it easier for Islam to take hold, he believes, because there is no dominant culture to repel it. In England he has had less success, but in Scandinavia "we have lots of the native people coming, but slowly."
The theme of his sermon, which was titled "The Ongoing Battle — But Who Is the Enemy?" was jihad. Jihad as self-defense, as peaceful dissemination of Islam and as self-struggle. Although the 96th Street mosque is the largest and best-known in the United States, and therefore presumably a showcase for moderate Islam in America, the sermon was both moderate and inflammatory in tone, switching from one to the other almost sentence by sentence.
"Anyone who extends peace to us, we extend peace to them," al-Yaqoubi barked over the heads of the seated congregation. "We fight for the sake of Allah . . . We fight those who oppress us, who take our property and our freedom of speech . . . The media depict us as monsters, that we love to fight — No!"
Parts of the sermon were openly political. Al-Yaqoubi, who is considered a moderate, spoke approvingly of jihad in the battlefield, of "fighting in order to liberate your country, as the Iraqis are doing." (Asked about this afterward, he told me that it is natural to fight against an invading army. As to why Arabs so rarely rise up against their own Arab oppressors, he said it was un-Islamic to use violence against a local government.)
From the pulpit, al-Yaqoubi claimed that the early Muslims who came to countries like Egypt and Syria and Iraq and North Africa did so "not to occupy land, but to liberate people who were oppressed by their governments." As for spreading Islam by force, he said, Americans should understand the concept better than anyone, since "America feels she has the right to impose democracy all over the world" and "to throw away governments that don’t agree with her policy." But whereas the desire to disseminate Islam "is based on the divine," the American approach to spreading democracy "is based on greed."
Having said that, al-Yaqoubi once again took a more conciliatory approach. "This doesn’t mean that we are going to practice jihad in America. We have to show our neighbors respect. We love people around the world and want them to become Muslims."
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, were al-Yaqoubi’s remarks about the role of the Muslim immigrant in the West. While many Muslims have come here to earn money and live a better life, he said, they can justify their decision to live in a materialistic, non-Islamic country by acting as messengers for Allah. "What justifies us living in America, other than trying to convey the Message?" he asked rhetorically.
The sermon built to an impassioned, rapid-fire crescendo, in which, almost shouting, al-Yaqoubi seemed to divide jihad into foreign and domestic spheres, with appropriate action for each. "Wherever the American troops are — wherever they are, they are going to be defeated," he yelped. But "here in this country," he instructed Muslims to "leave jihad to those who are fighting jihad," and "work peacefully" to represent Islam.
The end of the sermon signaled the time for prayer, and the atmosphere in the mosque became electric. An usher, massive and rotund as a bouncer, rushed around pushing the congregants into precise rows like Japanese commuters being squeezed into a Tokyo subway car, forcing them to stand shoulder to shoulder in line after line after line, from the back of the mosque all the way to the front. There must be no gaps that wily Satan could slip through, sowing division. As the prayers commenced, thousands of faces touched the floor with choreographed precision.
"It’s a beautifully simple and elegant religion. It’s extremely sensible," I was told by Bruce ("al-Baraa") Randall, a personal trainer and student of South Asian history from Northern California who recently converted to Islam and attends Friday prayers at the mosque. Looking at the hundreds of bent bodies, you could see what he meant. From an observer’s viewpoint, it was rather like a bizarre sartorial demonstration — look, here are the backs of a thousand jackets and the seats of a thousand trousers! Swatches of fabric in every color joined to form an immense patchwork tapestry stretching from one end of the room to the other. To a Christian, it could look strangely alluring. No hymns — no pretending to be singing. Even the prayers, though in Arabic, were brief and required only minimal call-and-response. Curiously, while demanding what to a Christian might appear to be excessive uniformity and obedience, Islam seemed to permit the individual a considerable amount of personal breathing space too. And if you were a non-Arabic speaker, listening to prayers in a foreign language would, I suppose, be similar to a Catholic attending services held in Latin.
With the prayers under way, there was almost no room for the unbeliever. Two mild-mannered cameramen from India’s STAR channel, who were standing next to me filming the proceedings, hurriedly folded up their tripods and disappeared. I decided to go with them. I squeezed my way to the back where the mountain of shoes was surrounded by more mountains, hundreds of Merrills and Nikes and Adidas and lace-ups and sandals flung down on top of each other. Outside more men were praying on the carpets provided, all in equally precise rows, and two men in wheelchairs had made a mournful duet of their own.
Afterward, as the mosque emptied, I ran into Vincent, who was shaking hands and saying "Salaam alaikum, alaikum salaam" to people left and right, many of whom he knew by name. He looked happy, a big smile of belonging on his face. Though it has put him at odds with ordinary American society, becoming a Muslim has also given him a sense of community unavailable to him when he was just another white dude into loud music, parties and girls. It has brought him distinction. The mosque was full of young Arab and South Asian men, sharply dressed businessmen with neat beards, cabdrivers in baseball caps, diminutive Bangladeshis in white robes and trousers — and religion came as naturally to them as breathing. They were entirely unselfconscious about it, and it was obvious that they considered it a source of unity and solace and power. Not for the first time I found myself wondering how it is that so many urban whites have managed to turn their own religion into an object of scorn, even a source of shame, while everyone around them continues to reap the benefits of organized faith. And, since the religious impulse shows no sign of dying out, should we be surprised if spiritually inclined urban whites decide to join a religion which, unlike Christianity, seems to be alive?
"I consider that absolutely the best day of my life," Vincent said, his face bright with happiness when I asked him about the day he took shahada three years ago in this very mosque. "The way I describe it is, it seemed like physically and symbolically the people were emptying into me. This entire room was still full. The imam said, ‘Is there anyone here who wants to take shahada?’ and my friend stood up and said, ‘C’mon, c’mon.’ I said, ‘Now? Here? In front of everybody?’ And he brought me up, and I took shahada with another guy. All I remember of that day is that no one seemed to have moved in the room. The amount of people you saw today? They still remained when I finished saying, ‘I testify there is no god to be worshiped except for Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger.’"
"That’s all you had to do?" I asked, just making sure.
Vincent laughed. "Why, are you ready?"
EVERYBODY LOVED HIM AT THE MARRIOTT
For Vincent, Islam has brought meaning, ethics, discipline, purpose and hope to a life that obviously contained too little of those things before, even if nobody else seemed to notice. Over the phone, his 38-year-old brother, Mike, who works in the computer industry, kept using the word nice to describe his kid brother.
"Chuck, for some odd reason, was extremely nice compared to the rest of us," he said musingly, as if he were still scratching his head over it after all these years. "When we were younger, me and my friends used to say, ‘How did he become so nice when all the rest of us are so aggressive?’ One thing I can see when he’s with his Muslim friends is he goes out of his way with the kids’ fathers to help them with English. He’s just always been nice."
Joshua Rhodes, a buddy from Vincent’s Torrance days, described the L.A. Vincent as "a real fun guy. In high school there were cliques, and he had freedom to roam within all the cliques. A little rebellious, not in a political sense, but he had a wild haircut sometimes, jewelry, more of a punk or Goth. He liked hard punk, Sisters of Mercy. Everybody loved him over at the Marriott."
And now everybody loves him at the mosque. Vincent is nice. He is thoughtful, kind, polite, well-meaning and intelligent, and he has a good sense of humor. Still, I have to confess I’m a little worried about him. Though he is quite articulate, when he talks about the Moroccan — usually referred to vaguely as "my friend" or "my roommate at the time" rather than by his name — he becomes evasive and speaks stumblingly, as if he were trying to protect not only the Moroccan from scrutiny but also himself. Several times I asked to meet his friend but was told that he had no interest in meeting me. The same went for Vincent’s roommate, who is Egyptian and, like the Moroccan, also a strict Muslim. (Both attend Hunter College — the Moroccan studies physics, the Egyptian biochemistry. According to Vincent, they intend to return home as soon as they have their degrees.) Nor was I permitted to come to the apartment, which is in a Pakistani-owned building where, he claims, the FBI not only taps the phones but occasionally sends an agent over to say hello in person. His roommate’s mother was visiting from Egypt, Vincent explained, and it would therefore be awkward to have me there. Vincent himself won’t stay in the apartment if his roommate isn’t present, since being alone with the mother wouldn’t be "respectful."
Lately, Vincent and the Moroccan have been going to a mosque in Queens housed in what was until recently a liquor store. It is, I gather, a particularly austere-looking mosque in which a particularly austere form of Islam is preached. Because the people at the mosque follow shari’a — the code of law based on the Koran — they’re considered "extremist," he told me. The sermons there are in Arabic, but someone is usually on hand to translate. The 96th Street mosque, though it is one he will always go to because it happens to be near his apartment, is too mainstream for him. A fortnight after he’d spoken approvingly about al-Yaqoubi, Vincent had changed his mind. The Syrian was too open to innovation, to allowing stylistic changes to the religion, and in Islam that is haram, forbidden, he said.
The fanaticism, though its expression is muted (it’s not really possible to be an openly fanatical Muslim in America), is undeniable. He told me how last year he and the Moroccan complained to the sheik at 96th Street because there were some photos on display in the mosque showing Jordan’s Queen Rania on a visit, and there are not supposed to be any pictures in mosques. As Vincent remembered it, she may even have been unveiled — another outrage. When they told the imam about it, the imam gently waved aside their objections on the grounds that every religion needs about 5 percent room for deviation, and occasionally you have to bend the rules. According to Vincent, the Moroccan’s jaw nearly hit the floor when he heard this. Even as he related the story, sitting over a plate of post-Ramadan sushi in a restaurant, Vincent’s eyes widened in appalled amazement. "Bend the rules!" he said. "I couldn’t believe he would say something like that! I was so stunned I didn’t even want to shake his hand afterward!"
Islam is not always political — two weeks after the Friday prayer service, I heard al-Yaqoubi deliver a far milder, actually quite charming sermon on the subject of entertainment, complete with puzzled references to Eminem ("He had a hit song about killing his mother with a shovel. Can you believe it!") — but it’s an open question whether it’s possible to become a Muslim in America without being influenced by inherently adversarial, anti-democratic Islamic politics. (Sufi Muslims would appear to be the exception, though al-Yaqoubi is strongly influenced by Sufism himself.) "Mosques in Western countries are permeated with Wahhabi ‘jihad’ rhetoric, encountered the minute one walks in the door," Stephen Schwartz writes in The Two Faces of Islam. "Some imams preach jihad; some tolerate it sympathetically; some oppose it privately but are intimidated into permitting it. But it is everywhere. If the imam does not advocate jihad, activists hang out on the premises or on the sidewalks and in the parking lots nearby, spreading the word."
Following his sermon on entertainment, al-Yaqoubi led the assembly in a prayer for the just deceased Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. It did make me wonder whether the same would happen if Osama bin Laden passed away — or Saddam Hussein, or al-Zarqawi, the head-chopping leader of the totalitarian, imam-approved Iraqi "resistance." I asked Bruce Randall, the convert who attends Friday prayers at the 96th Street mosque, if he was at all bothered by being asked to say a prayer for the late PLO leader. "Arafat’s a prominent Muslim," he replied. "Why wouldn’t we pray for the death of a prominent Muslim? A couple of weeks ago we did a prayer for the death of a prominent scholar in Medina. We pray for scholars, we pray for leaders."
Randall also disagreed with the idea that al-Yaqoubi’s statement about American troops had a political motivation. "I can understand how an outsider would interpret those words in a different way," he allowed, though he himself had only been an "insider" for a month at the time of the sermon. "When I hear the sheik say that, I’m hearing a leader of my religion saying that God will protect the people who are following his righteous path. To my ears, it’s not a political statement, it’s a religious one. God will not let Islam be struck down. If there are Muslims being attacked somewhere in the world, He will protect them."
When I pressed him further on how he felt about listening to a Syrian imam implicitly call for the defeat of American troops in the middle of Manhattan, Randall answered, slightly frostily, that "In America we have this thing called the First Amendment."
And no doubt the sheik is well aware of it. Listening to him I had the sense that certain Muslims have studied liberal Western society the way a military general assesses an enemy position — probing for strengths and weaknesses, deciding where and how and at what cost penetration can be achieved.
On the subject of Islam and politics, Vincent seems to be in serious denial. The phrase "Islamic terrorism" is an oxymoron, he once told me, and from my conversation with his Torrance buddy Joshua, I gather Vincent’s Muslim friends had already given him their own version of Fahrenheit 9/11 — with Jews, rather than Saudis, as the principal actors — long before Michael Moore came up with his own. But should one expect anything else, given the world he moves in? Two weeks after 9/11, Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, then the imam of the mosque on 96th Street, abruptly moved back to Cairo, where he promptly told the Arab media that Muslim children were being poisoned by Jewish doctors in American hospitals, and that Zionists had masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon.
In Vincent’s eyes, Islam can do no wrong because Islam is wonderful and his own discovery of it a "miracle." I sometimes think about his passion for this religion, to which he is far more dedicated than the average Muslim, and wonder how it’s all going to end up. "A lot of Muslims don’t know a damn thing about the political side of Islam," says Peter Leitner, a counterterrorism expert in Washington, D.C., meaning that they are unaware of the extent to which the religion has been infiltrated for political purposes. "Politicization is almost always part of the package," says the Islamic Supreme Council of America’s Mateen Siddiqui, referring to hardcore Islamic converts. But if al-Yaqoubi feels comfortable saying in front of 1,300 people in the heart of mainstream American Islam that American troops will be defeated wherever they go, then what might be said in Arabic in small, obscure mosques in Brooklyn, Queens and elsewhere with a translation murmured into a pale, friendly, naive American ear?
But perhaps there is no need to say anything. When I asked Vincent what he thought about al-Yaqoubi’s statement, he answered, with a touch of defiance, that he felt just fine about it. "I do wish the American troops would be defeated," he told me, adding, "I’m a Muslim first, and I just live in this country." (If he could find a bumper sticker that read "AGAINST THE TROOPS," he said, he’d put it on his cab.) And were he ever to find himself in the Middle East, let’s say Iraq, would he fight against American soldiers? "If there was a jihad," he replied evenly, "I don’t see how I could not join in."
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