Muslim Philly illustration

What it’s like for Muslims in Philly, ‘Mecca of the West’

Amine doesn’t want to let what he considers 1 percent of his Philadelphia experience define his six years here, but it’s hard not to given that he says someone knocked him unconscious in the street for speaking Arabic.

It was Saturday night, January 16. He had just finished work as a valet at the Bellevue. Sundays usually mean a rare day off from work and class at Temple University, so he and a friend decided to go out. First, they stopped at Tavern on Broad. Amine, who is 34 and requested his last name not be used for family reasons, knew people hanging out there. They stayed for about 15 minutes then decided to get something to eat. Outside, near Broad and Sansom Streets, they chatted in Arabic about another friend’s problem and how Amine might know how to deal with it because he’d been through the same thing.

Amine noticed two women behind him and three guys in front of him. He thought the women were giving him an odd look, as if they wondered what he was talking about. So he said good evening to them in Arabic and explained in English that he had just offered a common Moroccan greeting. The three men gathered closely to him. Amine told them what he said and that it wasn’t a big deal.   

Everything went dark. Next thing Amine knew, he was in a hospital bed, his friend explaining how the women told the men Amine had cursed at them, and then one struck him in the back of the neck, and then he fell to the pavement. Doctors took a CAT scan. They checked for internal bleeding.

Amine has seen people arguing all the time in bars or on the sidewalks downtown. The misunderstandings have always ended without a fight. He thinks he knows why it didn’t end that way for him.   

“If I was a white guy like him,” he says, “he probably wouldn’t have hit me.  

“This is the first time in my life when somebody hit me because he thinks I’m different. I’m not saying he hit me because I’m Muslim, because he doesn’t know what religion mine is. But most Arabs are Muslims.”

‘How does this happen in Philly?’

Amine was assaulted in nearly the exact geographic center of Center City. A couple months earlier, outside the Shake Shack at 20th and Sansom, a patron said a man shouted at a Muslim woman to remove her headpiece until other restaurant goers and staff intervened, and got him to leave. In January, Edward Archer confessed to firing shots in West Philadelphia at police officer Jesse Hartnett in the name of Islam. In December, a severed pig’s head was thrown on the doorstep of Al-Aqsa mosque.

These incidents followed the Paris terrorist attack and boasts by Donald Trump to temporarily ban foreign Muslims from entering the country.

“People are understanding for the most part,” says Sally Baraka, a lawyer who lives in Philly. “There’s also apprehension given what’s happening today.”

So how are Muslims dealing with these issues? What are their lives like in this city?

So many of them call Philadelphia home. Community leaders estimate the amount at 150,000 to 200,000 — about 10-15 percent of the total population. Few other big cities, perhaps only Chicago and Detroit, can compare. In 2011, Greater Philadelphia’s mosque count of 63 was fourth in the country, behind Southern California, New York City and Chicago.

A minority of Muslims are of Arab or Middle Eastern descent. They are scattered throughout the city but heavily concentrated in the lower Northeast, Feltonville and around Front and Girard by Al-Aqsa. Most of Philly’s Muslim population is black. They’re also spread throughout Philadelphia, but black Muslim communities are particularly strong in West, North and Northwest Philly.

“We call it,” says activist and principal of AZK Communications Aliya Z. Kabir, “the Mecca of the West.”

Khabir helped worked on getting Philadelphia to consider recognizing the Eid Muslim holidays.

Khabir helped worked on getting Philadelphia to consider recognizing the Eid Muslim holidays.

Courtesy of Aliya Z. Khabir

In these neighborhoods, the influence of Islam is impossible to miss. If you’re not Muslim, a cousin or uncle or neighbor is, so the religion isn’t foreign to anyone. Mosques are nearly as common as churches. And Islamic culture blends into the mainstream, from the popular saying of “what’s up ach?” (ach meaning brother in Arabic) to the famed Philly beard.

“Everyone rocks a beard because they say it’s a Philly thing to do,” says Omar Woodard, a 32-year-old adjunct Temple professor heavily involved in the city’s philanthropy and political scenes. “Well, it’s a Philly thing to do because we’ve got a lot of Muslims here. And we drive the culture.”

Their culture isn’t monolithic either. There are different races, different ethnicities and different views. The Islam practiced by Woodard varies from the Islam practiced by Sharifa Abida Halimi. She’s a Temple senior whose father is an imam in Northeast Philly. Halimi wears a hijab, the traditional headscarf, every day, something she decided to do on her own when she was 13. Stories from around the world about the oppression of Muslim women only strengthen her resolve to wear it. Fortunately, she’s never had to deal with any of it here, not before and not after these incidents of the last few months.   

“I was shocked that there were people in Philadelphia that did that,” says Halimi. “I remember saying, ‘This is Philadelphia. How does this happen in Philly?’”

Sharifa

Sharifa Abida Halimi is studying early child education at Temple.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Healing at Al-Aqsa

A caretaker found the severed pig’s head on a Monday morning at Al-Aqsa. Marwan Kreidie, who leads the Al-Aqsa-based Arab-American Development Corporation, heard about it right away. The leaders of the community had a decision to make. Should they clean up the mess and forget about it? Or should they draw attention to the desecration of their mosque?

The first instinct for some was to keep the incident out of the public eye. Kreidie didn’t think silence was the right idea.

“There’s a tendency to try to sometimes to sail under the radar, don’t bring attention to yourself,” Kreidie says. “And my feeling is if you do that you invite more attempts like that. If people realize you won’t do anything and react to that then more stuff will happen.”

Al Aqsa
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Baraka, 39, sometimes attends Al-Aqsa and is involved with Kreidie’s organization. She says the reticence to speak out “just kind of shows how weak different members of the Muslim community feel we are.”

On the other side of the city a month later, another community had to deal with a crisis. This time it was the shooting of Hartnett by Archer. Plenty of politicians in Pennsylvania and nationwide were using the phrase “radical Islam” to describe what happened. At a community meeting at William C. Bryant elementary, Muslims and non-Muslims talked about the need to not back away. They wanted to emphasize the religion’s peaceful values and contributions to Philly.  

Neither community had reason to worry in either situation about a negative backlash, at least locally. Mayor Jim Kenney denounced connections to the true practice of Islam minutes after the police told media about Archer’s confession. The day after Al-Aqsa, Kenney, then-Mayor Michael Nutter and several religious leaders condemned the act. And then Nutter went next-level, calling Donald Trump an asshole.  

Later that week, on Saturday, Al-Aqsa hosted a barbecue. Anybody could come. Kreidie estimates the majority of the 500 visitors or so who did weren’t regular Al-Aqsa attendees or even Muslims. During the barbecue, designated captains from the masjid wearing pins showed guests around and answered any questions about Islam. It was an invitation for people to understand the religion straight from the source.

Baraka gets to explain her faith in a similar way. She grew up in South Jersey, attended Temple, works as a lawyer and has lived in Philadelphia for the last several years. Baraka has never worn a hijab. She prays when she feels like it. Not five times a day.

Baraka is the legal director at Sparta Systems and mostly works with tech startups.

Baraka is the legal director at Sparta Systems and mostly works with tech startups.

Courtesy of Sally Baraka

“From my look and appearance,” Baraka says, “I can blend in better than others might be able to.”

Snap judgements don’t happen when new people meet Baraka. She shares her faith when she gets to know them. And at the barbecue, at the height of Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric, people were bypassing stereotypes and getting to know real Islam at Al-Aqsa.

“It was equally as beneficial,” Baraka says, “for Muslims to heal that way.”

‘Who’s side are you on?’

The rise of Islam in Philadelphia’s black community traces back to the 50s and 60s, back to people like Omar Woodard’s grandfather, Elijah Woodard. He was a bodyguard for Malcolm X and a follower of the Nation of Islam. It differed from the Islam Muslims had been practicing for centuries, stressing black nationalism and separation from whites.  

This message carried wide appeal to Philadelphia. The city in the 50s and 60s was going through demographic changes, the white population shrinking and black population growing. As remains the case in many ways today, blacks were marginalized. Poverty and incarceration rates were high, and they had little to no representation in city politics.

Wayne Rahman, 65, lived on Columbia Avenue, now known as Cecil B. Moore Avenue. He worked in various barber shops as a kid and heard grown men talking about a religion that doubled as a movement. Shortly after a stint in the military, he converted, too.      

“I heard this message that attracted me towards the Nation about blacks needing to get up and do it for themselves,” Rahman says. “The message was stop depending on white people, get together and clean your own neighborhoods up, and build your own neighborhoods.”

Woodard’s grandfather, who died a few months ago, saw Malcolm X change his mind about the Nation of Islam after a Hajj Pilgrimage. When Malcolm X died, most black Philadelphia Muslims made the same move he did, dropping the Nation of Islam and becoming Sunnis. And most black Muslims in Philadelphia remain Sunni today.

Despite his grandfather’s past, Woodard grew up Christian. He celebrated Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving. Then his mother went to prison. Islam has a strong presence in prisons nationwide, providing a support system behind bars and on the outside, and when she came out she had converted. She wore the traditional dress. She started attending a mosque at 31st and Ridge.

“She asked,” Woodard says, “‘would you be a Muslim?’ I was like, ‘I guess.’ I’m 12, 13, what the hell am I going to do?”

Woodard dove into the religion and the culture. He learned how to read and write Arabic in eight months and how to speak it in a year and a half. He memorized the Quran in two and a half years. As a teenager he led prayers at mosques throughout Philadelphia, even once at Al-Aqsa, a rarity for a young black Muslim.

Omar Woodard

Omar Woodard worked on Anthony Williams' mayoral campaign and has been exploring a possible run for state senator in the 3rd District.

The decision to fully embrace Islam came a few years later for Woodard, after 9/11. He was a freshman at George Washington University. That morning he woke up for class in time to watch the second plane crash into the South Tower.

“There was confusion,” Woodard says, “like, ‘who’s side are you on? Are you a black guy who’s Muslim, or a Muslim who’s black?’”

He aspired for a career in politics already, and people stressed that mixing politics with Islam would lead to failure. Fifteen years later, the same advice hasn’t ceased. Just four months ago, someone who manages prominent political campaigns in Philadelphia asked him about his dream political gig. Woodard told him he’d love to be governor of Pennsylvania someday.

“He says,” Woodard recalls, “‘what makes you think Pennsylvania would elect a black Muslim?’”  

Two weeks after the shooting

For the first time publicly, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is speaking about his religion, and he says the conversation has been like therapy. He’s the most prominent Muslim in Philadelphia politics. He figures now is as good a time as ever to open up, post Al-Aqsa and the shooting of Hartnett and especially after the passing of his bill calling for Philadelphia to recognize two Muslim holidays.

“Because we’re doing the Eid legislation, it’s ‘oh, he’s a Muslim,’” Jones says. “And that’s true. If you want to know, I’ve never not told anybody. But that’s not what people come in here for. They come in here for potholes.”

Jones was first elected to represent the 4th District in 2007. A couple of months later, he was asked which rendition of the bible he wanted to use for his swearing-in as a Councilman. He told them he wanted a Quran. They didn’t have one. Longtime City Hall employee Anne Kelly King bought a hardcover Quran for him. Jones now keeps it in his office, room 404 in City Hall.

His walls are covered with framed posters and pictures, many of them images from the past. There’s Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and his friends Congressman Chaka Fattah and state Sen. Vincent Hughes. In the pictures, Fattah’s hair isn’t yet gray and Hughes’ hair isn’t yet missing. Next to his window, in the exact eastern corner of his office, is a poster of Eduard Charlemont’s painting “The Moorish Chief.” He faces it when he prays.

Islam, Jones says, influences all of his legislative decisions without forcing him to act upon his beliefs. He declines to get specific but sometimes he’s even voted in a way that would run counter to Islam.

“My religion is not worn on my sleeve,” he says, “like I can’t pass a law that is even abrasive to one group. I look for what is the greater good. And that is often difficult. I’ve taken some tough votes.”

Edward Archer shooting

Police footage shows Edward Archer allegedly shooting at Office Jesse Hartnett on Jan. 7 near 60th and Spruce Streets in West Philly

Screenshot police

One of the easier decisions came last week, when Jones introduced the legislation to recognize the Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. A friend of Jones asked him if the timing was maybe not right because of the shooting of Hartnett two weeks earlier. Jones thought the exact opposite. He stood with Muslims denouncing the act and saw a city doing the same, in large part because of the actions of its Mayor

“I did not support Jim Kenney,” says Jones. “I do support him now.” 

So one week after Republican Senator Pat Toomey and politicians throughout the country declared an act of radical Islam had taken place here, Philadelphia called for the city and school district to recognize Muslim holidays.

A large crowd of Muslims attended the hearing and listened to Jones speak. Afterwards a stranger came up to him and offered an “I love Muhammad” baseball cap, similar to the same fashion as the “I love New York” slogan. He placed it on Jones’ head. The cap is displayed in his office now, too.

Amine’s future

But what about Amine? Philadelphia’s progressiveness has shone through collectively in the last several weeks, but it can’t stop isolated incidents from happening.

Amine moved to Philadelphia from Morocco in 2009. There, he had a law degree but couldn’t find the right job. Here, he started work at a pizza shop in Moorestown Mall. Amine would wake up in his South Philly home at 7 a.m. to be on public transit by 8:30 and be in Moorestown by 11:30.

He took English courses and later got his associate’s degree in business administration, as well as a better job at the Bellevue. He started working toward a finance degree at Temple and has about one year left.

Amine met several good friends. He calls his main circle a “melting pot,” a group featuring whites, blacks and Asians and religions ranging from Judaism to Islam to Baptist. Lazar Mendy, one of his good friends, says Amine would often invite people over on Sundays for football and Moroccan food.

Amine moved to the Northeast about a month ago but had been living the previous five years at 12th and Oregon. His neighbors were mainly Italian-Americans. They not only embraced him but welcomed his parents, who don’t speak English, when they came to visit.  

“It was a great place for these six years,” Amine says. “I had a job, I had friends, I never had any problem with anybody.”      

Then the attack happened. Police are still investigating. They’ve not yet been able to find quality video of the alleged assault. A spokesperson says the incident is not being considered “a crime based on ethnicity” because of a lack of hateful language in the information and statements they’ve received from Amine and his friend.

Amine still has a few aches and pains from the attack. As of earlier this week, he was still needing to take pain medication before going to sleep.

But that’s not his biggest difficulty. He now considers staying in Philadelphia and holding onto the life he built a challenge.

“If I don’t stay here and finish my degree,” Amine says, “this guy who hit me, he succeeds. He tried to get me out of the city right away.”  

After his degree, he’s not so sure. Amine leans over a table at the Bellevue food court and mulls his future. Even though he loves it here, comfort and trust in Philly don’t come as easily as they once did.

“I’ll apply for a job out of the city,” he says. “I don’t know where exactly, but I just want to be away.”

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