African-American Muslims reflect on current events
By Christine Morente, Chauncey Bailey Project
MENLO PARK – Your Black Muslim Bakery was once an establishment that symbolized self-reliance and black empowerment in Oakland. Now, it’s a skeleton of what it once was and lost its level of contribution in society many years ago, said Imam Ben Ahmad of Menlo Park.
“Something obviously happened,” said Ahmad, who once bought a bean pie at the Islamic bakery 15 years ago. “If there was criminal behavior, that’s totally contrary to the tenets of Muslim beliefs.”
Ahmad refers to recent media reports on 21-year-old Yusuf Bey IV, the head of Your Black Muslim Bakery, who not only has been accused of kidnapping and torturing a woman, but also of forgery, grand theft, identity theft and filing false documents. Additionally, Devaughndre Broussard, a 19-year-old handyman at the bakery, is being held on charges that he killed journalist Chauncey Bailey in downtown Oakland on Aug. 2.
Because of these incidents, Ahmad said, there will be a distortion of the public’s perception of Muslims who, like himself, are African-American.
One of the fastest-growing Islamic groups, African-American Muslims make up 30 percent of all American Muslims, according to ReligionLink.
A large number of African-American Muslims embrace orthodox Islam, rejecting the racially-divisive teachings of today’s Nation of Islam, which is under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. The term “Black Muslims” is often used in this country to denote members of Farrakhan’s separatist Black-nationalist movement, the Nation of Islam.
Ahmad, who became a Muslim in 1974, said that the Nation of Islam’s ideology changed in 1975 with the death of leader Elijah Muhammad, who maintained that Black Muslims must cultivate a life for themselves and be economically self-sufficient.
Muhammad’s son, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, elected as leader after his father’s death, emphasized that the focus should be on the human aspect of being a Muslim.
Through Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, Black Muslim businesses sprouted up in many major cities nationwide to show independence from the establishment and self-reliance. In the 1970s, Yusef Bey opened Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland. The business became an anchor in the community, creating a community school and other bakery outlets, according to the New York Times.
But over the years, the owners and associates of the bakery have been accused of criminal activity (the elder Bey is said to have been excommunicated from the Nation of Islam in the early’70s).
Bey died in 2003 of cancer, before a case alleging he raped a 13-year-old girl years before came to trial.
In 2005, his son, Yusef Bey IV, was arrested and charged with vandalism and a hate crime. According to reports, he trashed Muslim-owned stores that sold alcohol. And most recently, a federal judge ordered the liquidation of Your Black Muslim Bakery assets.
“Your Black Muslim Bakery is one of a few existing Black Muslim businesses in the country,” Ahmad said. “I don’t know much of the operation, but they were not part of the framework referred to as the Nation of Islam.”
Ahmad said it’s a shame that these recent events may cause some to lump all blacks who are Muslim into one category.
“There needs to be a recognition that people can lose their moral focus and resort to things that are contrary to their high ideals and principles,” he said.
Ahmad points to 32-year-old Margari Hill of Palo Alto as being a positive example of a strong African-American Muslim.
The Stanford University student said the recent controversy with the bakery is unfortunate. Hill added that in the 90s, Black Muslims were very prominent and garnered much media attention.
Fifteen years later, things have changed.
Hill said when the media portrays Muslims, it usually shows those who have migrated to the United States or, more recently, those whose focus is opposite of Islamic teaching, rather than the struggles of African-American Muslims in society.
Hill converted to Islam when she was 18 after being drawn to the “universal understanding in Islam that all people are all trying to meet our Lord,” she said.
“We are an established and significant group,” Hill added. “We are actively engaged civically.”
Ahmad feels today’s youth — Muslim or not — must be more morally upright.
“There needs to be more emphasis in encouraging a desire to do the right thing,” Ahmad said. “Islam means peace. Obviously those who claim Muslim can lose peace. We should be working together to uphold those core values.
“I learned to recognize that God is one, truth is one and humanity is one,” he added. “People have to get time to cultivate it.”
San Mateo Times staff writer Christine Morente covers faith, families and the North County. She can be reached at (650) 348-4333 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.