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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

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

“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?”





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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