By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"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 shahadawith 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 nicewhen 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 isnice. 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 believehe would say something like that! I was so stunned I didn’t even want to shake his hand afterward!"