Store Attacks Set Off Strife Within Islam

OAKLAND, Calif., Dec. 1 – The authorities charged two men on Thursday with felony hate crimes, vandalism and false imprisonment in connection with attacks last week on two liquor stores owned by Muslims of Arab descent.

One of the men, Yusuf Bey IV, 19, is the son of a prominent black Muslim leader who founded Your Black Muslim Bakery Inc., a company that operates a bakery and several other Oakland businesses.

Mr. Bey’s father, Yusuf Bey, who died two years ago, established an Islamic sect similar to but not affiliated with the Nation of Islam, the organization led by Louis Farrakhan.

The other man charged on Thursday was Eugene Cunningham, 73, an associate of the elder Mr. Bey.

Both men turned themselves in on Tuesday. Oakland Deputy Police Chief Howard Jordan said arrents warrants were issued for four other men believed to have been involved in the incidents, but the police and the district attorney’s office would not provide details about the case or the charges against Mr. Bey and Mr. Cunningham.

The charges stem from attacks on Nov. 23 at San Pablo Market and Liquor and the New York Market near the city’s gritty west end, where liquor stores have been a recurring flash point between longtime residents and new immigrants.

The incident at the San Pablo store, caught by a video surveillance camera, involved a dozen or so black men who smashed bottles, toppled food racks and broke glass displays, the police said. The men wore dark suits and bow ties, the traditional attire of black Muslims in Oakland, and confronted the merchants about the sale of alcohol and pork, which are forbidden in Islam.

“They said, ‘Are you Muslim?’ ” said Abdul Saleh, 44, who is from Yemen and has owned the San Pablo market since 1996. ” ‘Why are you selling alcohol to our community?’ And then they started trashing everything.”

Fifteen minutes later and just blocks away, the New York Market was the target of a similar attack, the police said. Again the owners were questioned about the goods they offered for sale. The market was later set on fire and its owner kidnapped. The owner was found about 12 hours later locked in the trunk of a vehicle in the nearby town of El Cerrito, unharmed but shaken.

The police said they were investigating whether the arson and the kidnapping were related to the vandalism at the two stores. The charges filed Thursday against Mr. Bey and Mr. Cunningham did not involve the arson or the kidnapping, the district attorney’s office said.

The crimes have set the neighborhood on edge and have raised questions about Your Black Muslim Bakery, a franchise established in 1968 that also includes a school and other enterprises. The organization has often been a source of controversy.

The local branch of the Nation of Islam condemned the attacks at a news conference and said its members were not involved.

The owners of the liquor stores and many patrons suggested that the incidents had been motivated by economic hardship and race, not religion.

“These guys are frustrated about something,” said Mikael Artle, 21, a food server who lives one block from the San Pablo market. “Just look at the neighborhood. It’s depressing to be out there while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

John Wyrick, 53, a stocky African-American who sells tires and once lived in the neighborhood, hugged Mr. Saleh, the owner of the San Pablo market, as he entered the store. Mr. Wyrick said that he had been worried about his friend of 20 years since the attack.

“I know the people who did it, and I don’t understand,” Mr. Wyrick said. “The pot can’t talk about the skillet. They drink just as much as anyone. Being Muslim has nothing to do with it.”

Mr. Saleh characterized the attacks as “a hate crime,” but he too doubted that religion played a role.

“They think we come from the Middle East and we’re taking over the small businesses,” he said. “We’re just trying to make a living.”

Local scholars who have studied racial and economic tensions in Oakland said liquor stores had often been a source of conflict.

“There has always been tension in the inner city between African-Americans and the new immigrants,” said Prof. Hatem Bazian, who teaches Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Muslim Communities in the West, a project of the university. “And often, the primary entry to the local economy is the liquor store.”

Professor Bazian said most of Oakland’s liquor stores were now owned by Arab-Americans, who are among the city’s newest immigrants. Buying an established liquor store is often an ideal way to get an economic footing in the city, he said, because it requires limited language skills and minor investment and typically brings with it a captive clientele.

Professor Bazian condemned the attacks, saying those involved had overstepped the bounds of their religion and civil society.

“This is not acceptable within normal basic Islam,” he said. “It is not an issue of Islamic thought. It’s an issue of whether to take the law into your own hands.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The New York Times, USA
Dec. 2, 2005
Carolyn Marshall

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This post was last updated: Saturday, August 4, 2007 at 10:56 AM, Central European Time (CET)