Mosque’s burial refusal stirs global controversy

Turning down a request last week to bury alleged cop-killer Howard Cain at the Germantown Masjid has sparked an international controversy about the burial of Muslims.

And locally, during Jumah, or Friday prayer services, several imams denounced the May 4 killing of Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski and the bank robbery by a trio, two of whom wore Muslim women’s garments.

During these sermons, called kutbah, the religious clerics preached about the need for safety and security in the city, and issued an apology to the Liczbinski family.

And perhaps most importantly, Islamic leaders have begun to discuss the criminal behavior of some Muslims who pray at their mosques – much to the chagrin of ex-jailhouse Muslims, who are used to silence on such topics.

These events represent a major turning point in the once-insular Muslim community here where leaders want it to be known that their Allah-fearing believers do not condone such violence.

“This was a wake-up call, not just for us to say Islam calls people to good behavior, but when we see [criminal behavior] in the mosque, we have to speak about that,” said Amin Nafari, a visiting imam who preached last Friday at Masjidullah in West Oak Lane.

“We have been afraid to confront it headlong,” he added. “The days of isolation and extremism are over. We have to apply Islam in situations we find ourselves in in our broader society.”

“We cannot allow our religion to be hijacked by anyone in the name of Islam,” Nafari said.

Religious leaders here expressed condolences to both the families of Liczbinski and Cain.

“We ain’t no criminals,” said a tearful relative of Cain’s last week after the Germantown Masjid turned the family down to pray Janaza, or funeral prayers. “We’re trying to bury him with a little bit of dignity. I swear I’m sorry about the cop, but we are the ones who have to bury him.”

Cain’s wife is pregnant, and has three children, she said.

On Friday, friends and family washed Cain’s bullet-riddled body and said the prayers before they buried him themselves.

“We never said he should not have a Muslim burial. We just didn’t want it at our mosque,” said Tariq El Shabazz, managing director of the Germantown Masjid, on Germantown Avenue near Logan Street.

Reaction to the mosque’s decision was overwhelming, said El Shabazz, who heard from imams from all over the world, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was the hot topic of Islamic blogs and Web sites, and even the national media weighed in.

“For nine out of 10 people, the reaction was positive,” said El Shabazz. “People are used to the masjid being silent, so when you take a position and condemn certain behavior, it’s a shock to the people.”

“They are trying to hide under a banner of Islam,” he added.

Cain’s relative called the Germantown Masjid “a bunch of hypocrites,” while others claimed the decision was “political.” Others pointed out that the Catholic Church buries notorious mobsters.

Cain “is being judged by how he went out,” she said. “Cain prayed five times a day, gave to charity leaving $5 in his pocket. It’s a horrible tragedy what happened. Whatever he did, he paid his due.”

But El Shabazz, a defense attorney who said he’s represented “some notorious defendants,” cited Islamic teachings for the mosque’s decision.

Prophet Muhammad, he added, would not perform funeral services of those who committed major sins, such as suicide, murder, but he urged the deceased’s relatives and friends to do so.

At Friday services at the Germantown Masjid, Imam Talib Abdullah talked about “people with attitudes.”

Abdullah chastised those who knew what Cain planned but didn’t stop him. “That would have kept him alive,” he said. Safety and security takes precedence over everything, including food and shelter.

“You can sit in peace in America, but you can’t do that in Sudan, Somalia, or Palestine, he added.

Imam Suetwedien Muhammad, of Masjid Muhammad, of the Wister section, said: “What [Cain] did was totally wrong. It shouldn’t fall on a mosque or the whole Muslim community.”

Last week, Mayor Nutter sent a letter to Muslim leaders, saying “I do not think that this crime was an act of violence directed from or against the Muslim community.

“This city needs every one of all faiths, races, and ethnicities to come together in peace,” the mayor added.

Nevertheless, Muhammad, like other Muslims, has felt the heat.

“Three police officers [killed] in two years? “That’s a problem for us, whether Muslims did it or non-Muslims,” Muhammad said “We have police officers who are Muslim . . . who probably feel the backlash.”

Like other religious leaders, Muhammad talked about the need for a better re-entry program for Muslims returning from prison.

“We need to do a better job with the men and women coming out of prisons,” said Nafari. “And we have to increase our civic engagement.”

“We want to send a message to stop the violence, stop the drug dealing, stop all kinds of this stuff,” Muhammad said. “Death and jail look good to our young people. They have given up all hope.” *


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 13, 2008.
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