Lost in Translation | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Lost in Translation

A group of Muslim students say law enforcement may be misreading their mission

"Even though the government is saying [the PATRIOT Act] is the law now, well Jim Crow and slavery was the law at one time, but it was immoral law, and we fought against it." -- Amir Muhammad Shareef

"The rhetoric of Muhammad Shareef makes people nervous." -- Omar Slater

"Wherever there are two or three black people together organizing around any type of social affair you're gonna have intelligence gathering, brother." -- Rashaad Byrdsong

"Are the Feds gonna hear that tape?" asks Hamza Perez.

When an old-model, analog, mini-cassette recorder is placed in the center of the room, mouths freeze. In a tiny classroom, only slightly larger than a freight elevator, a choir of a dozen men sit cross-legged and scrunch-kneed on the floor. At least they resemble a choir, since most of them are wearing long flowing robes, but ain't nobody singing today.

Perez is seated in the back row and is much shorter than most in the room. But like his brethren, his face bears neither smile nor frown, suggesting his question is not rhetorical.

When assured that no law officials would hear the tape, faces relax. It's that serious.

These are the men of the Sankore Institute of Islamic Studies, famous among many young Muslims but a curiosity to some local Muslims and, apparently, a subject of interest to law enforcement. Call them a "floating" university, as their school has no real physical structure that would support the name. But what they lack in bricks and mortar they make up for in books and manuscripts. A quick pan of the room reveals a sizable collection of aged hardbacks and stacks of documents that look like they could use a few mothballs. They bear Arabic figures and inscriptions; hardly anything is in English.

The group's leader, Amir Muhammad Shareef, says he personally rescued most of these documents from countries as far away as Sudan, Mali and Nigeria. He is seated at the front of the classroom, and he's quiet. For now.

Many of the Sankore members have been rescued too. Except for Shareef, they are all in their 20s. Most are from other cities, sometimes from prisons where, like many American Muslims, they found Islam while incarcerated. Most of them also are from out of state, having learned of Sankore through the Internet, Islamic networking, or in prisons where Shareef has served as a Muslim chaplain.

Someone believes that these Sankore men are threats. The men in this jamaat, or congregation, report at least five separate incidents in which they claim to have been pulled over in their cars, approached in the streets or at their homes. Some offer reports of badge-toting men questioning family members living in other states. The group recently moved from its original quarters in Pittsburgh's East End to the North Side. Shareef says the move was not in response to police surveillance, but he doesn't want the new location disclosed.

"They fear black men," says Shareef of the apparent investigation, sure it's FBI work.

All the men of Sankore aren't black, though. It's a mix of Latinos, blacks and whites. And these Muslims draped in robes, turbans and sandals give off no feeling of menace. Just the opposite: The tape recorder froze faces, but after the melt, it's all smiles and humble pie. They speak proudly about their families and the kids they work with in community programs.

Sankore, for example, recently started a program called Jawala Scouts, similar to the Boy Scouts except with religious requirements and behavioral codes the kids must follow. Perez and Luqman Abdu'salaam run a mentorship program and provide academic tutoring and anti-drug and anti-violence programs in area schools. The group boasts of its beliefs and activities on a Web site, www.sankore.org.

However, members like Talib Ali, who is a GED instructor for Pittsburgh Literacy, and Muhammad Abdullihi, who teaches at the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh elementary school, say they've been stopped and questioned by FBI, and can't understand why.

"If I can just paint a good picture of what they are trying to do," says Shareef, "perhaps the FBI has a responsibility to report about every Muslim activity in the city. However, our community is closed. Most of our brothers are ex-felons, they're not rats."

Masjid Al Mu'min in Lincoln-Larimer is a small two-story home constructed of bricks that look as old as Islam itself. It's easily one of the oldest houses on Paulson Avenue. On one end of the street sits the new multimillion dollar Kingsley Association community center and the Mt. Ararat Baptist mega-church, together serving as twin anchors of the economically strapped city neighborhood. Masjid Al Mu'min is about five blocks down on the opposite end of Paulson. While not as lavish as Kingsley or Ararat, spiritually speaking it has almost as much presence and impact on that neighborhood: It's one of the oldest mosques in the city and its members are known for feeding the community and aiding in the economic development of black neighborhoods in the East End.

This is where the Sankore Institute began in Pittsburgh, where Shareef brought over hundreds of manuscripts and booklets from various African nations, primarily the Sudan. The main function of Sankore is to translate these scripts in order to instruct Muslims in America from a traditional perspective.

"A lot of times Islam is presented to us here out of its cultural context," says Luqmann Abdu'salaam, a longtime member and instructor of the Institute. Some adherents in the United States, he says, have taken Islam and twisted it into more watered-down or Americanized versions. New movements like the Nation of Islam, the African-American Muslim nationalist movement begun in the early 20th century, have moved away from their origins, he says. "What Sankore does," Abdu'salaam says, "is bring it back in alignment, in its proper context for indigenous African or African-American Muslims."

Last year, Shareef moved his Institute out of Al Mu'min to the North Side. There are reports that he did so because of disputes between Sankore's leadership and others in the mosque. Abdu'salaam admits that there were some ideological differences. But the reason they went to the North Side, he said, is that there are no worship places there; resources are normally concentrated to the East End, where most such centers, called masjids, are located.

Omar Slater, president of the Pittsburgh Islamic Council, an oversight-advisory coalition of local Muslim masjids, says he knows little about Sankore, "except that they are very humble, quiet brothers," says Slater.

But, he says, Sankore recently did some programming with the Monroeville-based Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, a prominent member of the Islamic Council. And Slater says Shareef contacted him last summer about joining the IC. Slater also says he's aware of the FBI questioning local Muslims about Shareef and Sankore.

Bill Crowley, local FBI spokesman, says that he can't confirm or deny whether there is an investigation into Sankore or Shareef. Assistant Chief of Investigations Regina McDonald did not return calls from City Paper about police activity involving Sankore.

But American Civil Liberties Union local director Vic Walczak says the FBI is interviewing "African-American Muslims." He says he's sat in on many of those interviews, though he will not identify any specific interviewee.

In Slater's opinion, one reason for law enforcement's interest in the group may be that "The rhetoric of Muhammad Shareef makes people nervous."

Shareef doesn't present himself as a threatening figure. He's of lightweight build and articulate. When he begins speaking, his voice is calm, but it reaches forceful and vociferous levels, quickly.

When asked why the FBI would think his students are dangerous, he hollas back, "Yes, every one of these brothers are dangerous." Then continues calmly, "But if you leave them alone, you will find men who will protect you, protect their wives, protect their children and look out for their community."

The speech sounds like early, militant Nation of Islam rhetoric draped in a peaceful, traditional Islamic sensibility. The irony is, most of Sankore's members -- among whom are ex-criminals and former gang members -- don't quite reflect Shareef's fire in either tone or manner. These are the "quiet, humble" brothers of whom Slater speaks.

What gets Shareef charged up are the interviews FBI investigators have been conducting with local Muslims since 9/11 (See CP, "Are You Part of a Revolution Trying to Overthrow the Government of the United States?" Jan. 8, 2003). He believes some of those questions are about him. Members of Sankore say they've also been questioned by FBI.

Shareef believes that the Muslims who cooperate with FBI are "afraid."

"Most of them have left poor countries and they have good jobs now, and they don't want to lose that," Shareef contends. "I believe it's a mistake to have that attitude. I believe they should struggle for their rights. Every immigrant who has come here has struggled for their rights and that's what makes America what it is.

"We're not going to participate," says Shareef. "Even though the government is saying this is the law now [through the PATRIOT Act], well Jim Crow and slavery was the law at one time, but it was immoral law, and we fought against it."

Muslim and FBI cooperation is becoming something normal like at no other time in American history. In Minneapolis, the FBI has partnered with trusted imams so that Muslims can have direct input on interrogation tactics in exchange for information about suspicious Muslim activity. Muslims, especially immigrants from Middle East and African countries, have questions about FBI procedures, and some believe the best way to build trust is to have these kinds of arrangements

"We have developed relationships with newspapers and the FBI primarily as an informational relationship," says Slater. "Every time [the FBI] goes out to question Muslims they contact us. We have been working to make sure of one thing and one thing only, and that is that Muslims' civil rights are not violated."

Slater, who is an ACLU board member, speculates that one reason the FBI may be asking questions is because so many Sankore members are former gang members from out of state.

"It appears to me they [the FBI] are following up on leads; whether they are credible leads I don't know," says Walczak. "The FBI should follow investigative leads ... our concerns are they sometimes want to speak to people a second, third or fourth time and we don't get explanations about why."

"Look at the old COINTELPRO," says Talib Ali. "You had these black groups focused on self-determination and liberation of their people, who didn't preach passivism -- they were organized and very revolutionary."

COINTELPRO, or the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, was a program in the 1960s and '70s to infiltrate and disrupt civil rights and anti-war organizations. The program's goal, in its own words, was to prevent the arise of a "black Messiah." While it phased out in the early '70s many blacks, including members of Sankore, believe that it still exists just under different names.

Ali is preparing mint tea in the kitchen of the house where the Sankore Institute is now temporarily based. All around the kitchen are baked goods: pies, breads and cakes. There is no sugar or honey in sight as they abide by a strict diet and won't use these ingredients, not even for tea.

Today, he continues, "They send the FBI out to single out certain members and question them. ... Next thing you know these organizations imploded on themselves."

He smiles broadly, mentioning revolutionaries targeted by COINTELPRO including Black Panthers Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Fred Hampton.

"Maybe they're looking at us the same way," he says.

Ali is a young small-framed individual who wears knitted caps and scarves and really thick, black-framed glasses. He's a congenial young man who smiles easily and never seems to lose his cool, even when discussing things that seem uncomfortable. He comes from a well-educated family and holds bachelor's and master's degrees, in speech and communication. He came to Pittsburgh from Florida to study at Sankore.

This is why he's been singled out by the FBI, he says.

The last time he was stopped, as he tells it, is when he was walking home, along Penn Avenue, from work at the Community Empowerment Association sometime last fall. He noticed a dark SUV drive past him, then pull over in a lot. After walking a few yards he turned around to see a white guy dressed simply in jeans, jacket and baseball cap walking up on him. Ali says he recognized him from a few months earlier when he was pulled over with his friend Muhammad Abdullihi and questioned.

"He said, 'This group that you're with, they're a bunch of bad guys. I don't know why you're hanging with them, we know you're a highly educated person and you normally wouldn't be with these kind of people.'"

Ali says he doesn't know how the man knew he was "highly educated." When Ali refused to talk, he says, the stranger told him, "Either you're ignorant and you don't know what's going on with this group, or you're stupid because you do know what's going on and you're not doing anything about it." The guy offered his card, but Ali says he refused to take it.

The first time he was pulled over and questioned by the same investigator, Ali says, his questions were more general. According to Ali, and also Muhammad Abdullihi, who was driving, the questions asked were "Where are you guys from?", "Why are you here?", "Are you in school?", "Have you been overseas?" and "What is Sankore?"

"After I got an idea of who they were, I tried to assuage a lot of their fears," says Ali. "I figured the more I share with them the more I'd let them know that we're not terrorists and then they'd leave us alone." Sankore is a school, he told the agent; they translate African and Arabic texts; they were grass-roots community servants and no, they're not linked to any Muslim organizations overseas.

If the strategy is to play on the weaknesses of certain individuals in order to weaken the group, says Ali, it won't work.

"We're constantly trying to train ourselves to abstain from sex, drugs, alcohol, certain foods, and then also internally training ourselves to remove arrogance from our hearts and take on humility -- that's the crux of Sankore."

Pointing out the criminal pasts of his brethren won't work either.

"I know I'm with ex-offenders and I pray next to brothers who in the past were robbers, killers, thieves, pimps, but it doesn't matter now. I've thrown my lot in with them."

If investigators are looking for a smoking gun in this case, they don't have to look far: Several are depicted in a picture inside the CD case of Hamza Perez's new recording, Clash of Civilizations. The album art shows multiple hands gripping Beretta 9s and Glock automatics pointed to the sky. Perez and his brother, rap name Doc Zhivago, have a group called the Mujahideen Team, or the M-Team. The CD lists songs such as "Amerikkkan Me," "Gun Fire Sound," and "Day of Retribution." The last features spoken-word artist Amir Sulaiman, who wrote on his Web site that he and his family have been questioned and harassed by the FBI for a poem he performed on HBO expressing "anti-American" sentiments.

Such expressions and imagery could be a reason why the FBI is paying attention to Sankore members. But it's rights like these that Shareef believes Muslims should be struggling for.

"You can speak freely in America but only because of the slaves, and the freed Africans and Indians and the whites who were part of the abolitionist movement who dared to speak out in spite of the laws that were against them," says Shareef. "We believe that until Muslims have their rights here in the U.S. then the American Revolution is not finished."

Indeed, some believe that the rights of many others are at stake as well.

"Wherever there are two or three black people together organizing around any type of social affair you're gonna have intelligence gathering, brother," says Rashaad Byrdsong, a local Muslim leader and grass-roots activist. "Whether they are Muslim today, Christian tomorrow, gang members or whatever, they are going to justify the need to do intelligence gathering on ... young black males."

While Shareef doesn't approve of his members being pulled over or stopped for questioning, he says he welcomes the investigation.

"Let's give them the benefit of the doubt," says Shareef. "Maybe they're investigating us to see how well we're doing in the community, and this will lead to a grant. Because we need money; there's work we have to do."

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