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Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street Katie Day

Print publication date: 2014 Print ISBN-13: 9780199860029 Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014 DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199860029.001.0001

Muslims on the Block: Navigating the Urban Ecology

Katie Day Edd Conboy

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Abstract and Keywords This chapter explores the Muslim presence on Germantown Avenue, and how they have found their place in the urban ecology. It particularly focuses on two very different Sunni mosques. Reflecting national trends presented, both have grown in numbers, visibility and engagement with their contexts. Ethnographic research reflects how each has transcended cultural boundaries with other religious and social groups through agency grounded in religious values of community building of both bonding and bridging social capital. Both have been significantly involved in local economic development and community improvement. One of the mosques, Al Aqsa Islamic Center, underwent a dramatic physical transformation through interfaith collaboration and, as a result, is now a center for interfaith dialogue. There are also four other syncretist groups described which bring together elements of Black nationalism with Abrahamic faith traditions and reflect the same tensions of identity building, resistance and assimilation.

Keywords: American Muslims, U.S. Mosque Study, social capital, interfaith relations, faith-based economic development, Hurleyites, syncretist religions

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).

—Qur’an 49:13

A crowd gathers at Al Aqsa Islamic Center on Germantown Avenue to begin the Interfaith Peace Walk, as they have every year since 2003. It is a walk, not a march, organizers insist. There are no signs or chants, just a sea of white clothing, signifying peace and unity among the wide

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diversity of faith traditions represented—Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Quaker, Hindu, Native American (Lenapi), and others. After Muslim prayers they walk for several hours to various sacred sites—a synagogue, a church, a mosque, and, one year, the Liberty Bell—for short prayer services from a variety of faith traditions. On a Sunday afternoon each May, 500 to 1, 000 people join in this “walking dialogue,” encountering those from different traditions, often for the first time. Here they can share their beliefs and ask questions in a safe context.

“Why do you identify yourself as a Jew if you don’t go to synagogue?”

“Because I would be Jewish enough for Hitler.”

“Why do you choose to wear a veil?”

“It is a sign of modesty…and I am proud to be identified as a Muslim.”

“Does your church teach peace or support the wars?”

“That’s complicated…”

The annual event is a 21st-century expression of William Penn’s Holy Experiment—the designation of space as a safe haven for those escaping religious persecution, “where lion and lamb could (p.160)

lie together” in a diverse and tolerant community. Could Penn have imagined the religious diversity of this group walking down Germantown Avenue? After all, his utopian vision stopped short when it came to true egalitarianism—only Protestants were allowed to vote and hold office in early Pennsylvania. The Interfaith Peace Walk is but one example of the increasing visibility of faith groups, particularly Muslims, in Philadelphia and on the Avenue. The American Muslim community has experienced exponential growth in the first decade of the century. The number of mosques increased by 74% between 2000 and 2011, from 1, 209 to 2, 106 (U.S. Mosque Study, 2011). Pennsylvania ranked seventh among states with 99 mosques; the Philadelphia area has the fourth-largest number of mosques among US metropolitan areas. In the city itself, there are 40 mosques. It is estimated that 2.6% of the city’s population (39, 540 people) is Muslim—and that number is growing (ARDA, 2010). Not long ago Muslims were seldom seen on some parts of Germantown Avenue, particularly in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. That has changed in the last decade.

Figure 6.1 The annual Interfaith Peace Walk.

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There are two mosques on the Avenue, which are quite distinct from one another.1 Yet both are Sunni, both have acquired and adapted former commercial properties, and both are relative newcomers in the religious ecology and have had to learn to navigate it carefully. (p.161)

Masjid as Sunnatun-Nabawiyyah (“The Germantown Masjid”) The neat red awnings of the Germantown Masjid, a former furniture store, designate the separate entrances for men and women. Prayer is offered five times daily, but it is on Fridays, at the Jum’ah, that the largest crowds gather. After the prayers, a throng spills out onto the Avenue where vendors sell wares—oils, books, foods—creating a festive atmosphere that lingers into the afternoon. National data show that the average attendance at Jum’ah has increased from 150 in 1994 to 353 in 2011. Almost two thirds of American mosques reported an increase of 10% or more in Jum’ah attendance, according to the U.S. Mosque Study (2011). “Membership” is defined in the study as the total number of mosque participants, which has also grown—from 485 in 1994 to 1, 248 in 2011. The median membership per mosque is 400. The Germantown Masjid has experienced growth as well. In 2004, it reported that 300 people were associated with the mosque. By 2012, according to Brother Saadiq, a leader in the mosque, there were 1, 000 participants, which is about average for the city’s mosques. The growth does not surprise Brother Saadiq. “It’s one of the fastest growing mosques in the area….It galvanizes people into a community.”

Brother Saadiq is representative of those who gather at the mosque: he is African American and was raised in a Christian church, as were all the mosque participants interviewed for this study at the Germantown Masjid. His beard is long and tinted with red at the end, and just barely touches his long ivory tunic. A large photograph of Mecca dominates the wall beside him and he refers to it often. Although he struggles with Arabic, he has made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, 15 times.2 The sense of community he finds in Mecca, a dense gathering of people from all parts of the globe who are able to communicate and to get along, is holy to him and shapes his vision for community back home.

The men from the Germantown Masjid were always polite and open to talking with us. While Christianity had not been satisfying for them personally, they were not critical of it. But they were eager to share their Islamic beliefs. One of the men in the shop near the mosque, who was selling books and tapes about the faith, came closest to a criticism of another faith. The young man explained why he had left the church: “Why would I worship a God who let his son be killed?” Islam, he felt, provided more structure and (p.162)

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safety, and a stronger deity. The streets of Philadelphia claim the lives of too many African American men each year; seeking a strong, protective God makes sense. Founded in 1993, the Germantown Masjid is middle-aged among American mosques, more than a quarter of which have been founded since 2000. The attacks of September 11, 2001 did not have a chilling effect on the spread of Islam in the United States despite the spike in hate crimes against Muslims.3 Only 3% of mosques have only one racial or ethnic group, making Islam more diverse than other American religions. Predominantly African American mosques, which represent a small fraction of mosques in the United States, are more dependent on conversions than those that attract immigrants from South Asian or Arab countries. And they are better at recruitment: African American mosques average 20.3 conversions a year compared to 15.3 for other mosques (U.S. Mosque Study, 2011). As in other faiths, sharing one’s own story of salvation can be compelling. The men of the Germantown Masjid engage in theological conversation easily and unselfconsciously. They explain their faith in passionate and sincere language. (p.163)

The women are more guarded in conversation. They often have children in tow and are segregated not only in the mosque but elsewhere. The local Halal Pizzeria has separate booths for “sisters and children.” Gender roles are clearly delineated at the masjid. Women who are completely covered by their hijab and veil, and stay covered outside the mosque, are referred to as the muhajjabah. The covering is intended to preserve their modesty and prevent them from being enticing to any man except their husbands. Most, but not all, of the sisters were muhajjabah. Watching these women walking down the street in the dark clothing on an August day in Philadelphia makes one wonder why African American women who had not been raised as Muslims would choose to affiliate with such a religious community. (After all, Catholic nuns gave up their distinctive but heavy “habits” and veils in favor of modest clothing that affords more comfort and freedom of movement.) The social relations at the Germantown Masjid are patriarchal in structure, compounding the curiosity of outsiders. Men may marry up to four wives and can have wives from the other Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Judaism), whereas intermarriage is forbidden for Muslim women. This question of the conversion of African American Muslim women is the subject of an excellent ethnography by Carolyn Moxley Rouse (2004), who was able to tease out the nuances and complexity to address the question of converting into a patriarchal community, which seems to work against the interest of women. Or does it?

On Germantown Avenue, Fadwa, a woman in her late 20s with eyes that pierced through the narrow slot in her veil, identified her motivation in pragmatic terms. She had encountered what sociologists have identified since the 1980s as the “shrinking pool of marriageable males” in urban African American communities (Wilson, 1987). The streets and the prison system have

Figure 6.2 The Germantown Masjid.

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taken a huge toll (Alexander, 2010). Those men still in the community are disproportionately unemployed and under-educated. Many are self-medicating with various substances. For Fadwa, the mosque offered a structured community with strong, disciplined men who are part of a system of accountability. Donning the hijab was a small price to pay to be able to fill out a marriage application and find a good man.

Rouse was able to explore the complexity in the lives of the muhajjabah and found that the hijab enabled the women to “use their bodies as sites of resistance” to racism, the exploitation of women, and economic disparity. “Before their conversions, most lacked the language to express their anger and resentment at a racist and sexist social system….Islam gave them a language (p.164) and methodology for challenging those systems of oppression” (Rouse, 217). Rouse found varying levels of ambivalence about the faith and about social relations among the women —the very act of questioning in itself signified individual agency.

Although more African American men convert to Islam, the proportion of women coming into the faith is increasing. By 2011 women accounted for 41% of all converts (U.S. Mosque Study, 2011). The reasons for any religious conversion are complex. But in the case of African American women making such a dramatic conversion, certainly the search for a partner and co- parent, as well as the attraction to a community that lives in resistance to social systems that oppress, moves toward an understanding of the gender dynamics around affiliation.

The Germantown Masjid can be seen as countercultural and embodying a discourse of resistance to the dominant culture. Adherents are forbidden to vote or enter the military, for example. The cluster of shops around the mosque has created an economic and cultural enclave. The discourse of resistance is also verbalized in critiques of the dominant culture and its institutions. This too is reflective of African American Muslims nationally, who are much more likely than other Muslims to agree with the statement that “America is an immoral society.” Overall, the proportion of all Muslims who agreed fell from 56% in 2000 to 24% in 2011, but African American Muslims stayed near the 50% mark (U.S. Mosque Study, 2011). It might first appear that the participants in the Germantown mosque are constructing a moral community in opposition to the dominant society, and are in spatial and cultural withdrawal from it. For example, sermons can focus on the immorality of pornography, the need to keep the fast during Ramadan, and calls to remember that Islam is the one true religion.

However, the principles of Islam, as they interpret them, lead members of the masjid to transcend their particularity, even as their identity as African American Muslims is reinforced. Brother Saadiq is not only involved as a co-chair with the interfaith health fair in Germantown but also serves as a commissioner with the city Human Rights Commission. When he first joined the commission, he went to a retreat where members were asked to bring an artifact that represented their motivation for serving. Brother Saadiq brought his Qur’an because his impulse to work for the whole community is rooted in his faith. “You want to do things that benefit people and get you your reward from the Lord. I like those types of things and sometimes they’re not just for (p.165) Muslims…but for humanity. Because the real message of the Prophet (may the peace of blessings of Allah be upon him) was for humanity, it wasn’t just for Muslims.”4 Consequently, Brother Saadiq said that he works with public officials for programs and policies that will bring “safety and security for the whole environment, not just for

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Muslims.” Creating a sense of safety and security is a recurring theme for him and for the masjid. Two years earlier, a student at the Germantown High School had attacked a teacher, breaking the teacher’s neck. Despite the presence of security officers and metal detectors in the school, it remained a dangerous place for those who came to teach and learn. Brother Saadiq then organized a cadre of 24 brothers from the mosque, which is a mile down the Avenue from the high school. They came in and stayed for two and a half months, providing discipline and security, acting with firmness but not physical force. They were able to stop a lot of drug dealing and harassment, restoring safety by the end of the school year.

The Germantown Masjid has been increasingly engaged in venturing outside of the “9 block radius” (the geographical area for which they feel primarily responsible) whether celebrating the end of Ramadan by holding their their Eid al Fitr prayers in the nearby public park or participating in the health fair. This higher public profile and engagement follows national trends for American Muslims. Almost all mosque leaders (98%) agreed in 2011 that “Muslims should be involved in American institutions.” Ninety-one percent

(p.166) agreed that they should participate in the political process as well. Both percentages had increased slightly since 2000. Although African American leaders showed somewhat lower support for political participation, there was still strong support for engaging the political system— 84% (U.S. Mosque Study, 2011). Even if not through the electoral process, African American Muslims, like Brother Saadiq, are able to engage the system and improve the quality of life in communities. The Germantown Masjid is located in a crowded religious district. Across the street is the New Redeem Apostolic Church, a congregation of 300 that was founded in 1865 and is housed in a former Episcopal church. On the other corner across the Avenue from the mosque is the New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ, also well established. Down the street is Victory Baptist, with a spiffy new banner outside. Right beside Germantown Masjid is Overcoming Church of Jesus Christ, with the smallest congregation on the block. The founder, Reverend Enwright, left New Redeem over a theological dispute. He firmly believes churches compromise their integrity when they become involved in “buying and selling,” which includes most fundraising. If clergy are dependent on the offerings of others, they will cease to preach the truth, he feels. Therefore, to prevent hypocrisy, he is self-supporting, although his small congregation does contribute several thousand dollars during a year, which helps offset his expenses in the house/church.

All four of these churches are within a few steps of the mosque and have their own histories, cultures, and faith commitments. Like their Muslim neighbors, these faith communities have core beliefs and make strong, if not exclusive, truth claims. Sharing limited urban space, passing on sidewalks, hearing the music, and seeing the dress of people of other faiths requires a daily

Figure 6.3 Women set up small kiosks outside the masjid.

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negotiation for all of these true believers. Rhys Williams, in a review of writings of urban religion, observed that faith groups in densely populated urban neighborhoods cannot avoid confronting religious pluralism: “And no matter how sealed one’s theology—how bright the line between the saved and the damned—one must see the nonelect every day and decide on a practical response to them (even if not a theologized response).”5

The potential for conflict in such close quarters was great—there is no avoiding the “nonelect.” Reverend Enwright in particular was privately critical of the habits of his neighbors next door (“too messy”). All the congregations had a number of services and meetings during the week and parking was limited. All believed in evangelism—that is, presenting their faith claims to (p. 167) others, including strangers, in the hope of conversion to their understanding of truth. And yet the only real conflicts anyone could remember were about trash after Friday prayers and a dispute over parking when the mosque first moved in. Apparently the priority of clergy parking conflicted with the need for the street space after Jum’ah, which became framed as a lack of reciprocal respect. The parking authority was called in and the conflict was resolved.

Since then there has been a kind of religious “code of the street” (Anderson, 1999), which has allowed the five religious groups to negotiate the sharing of urban space. In his ethnographic research on Germantown Avenue, when crack dominated some local economies and redefined neighborhood life, Elijah Anderson was looking particularly at social “codes,” which he defined as “a set of informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior.”6 “At the heart of the code,” he wrote, “is the issue of respect.”7

On these blocks on Germantown, crack is not the currency, but it could be said that truth is. Communities of faith are organized around their understandings of ultimate truth. Rather than “deal,” they meet, and urban space is negotiated through (usually) non-verbal codes that signify mutual respect. After the parking dust-up, which was very much about perceptions of respect, communication in this local ecology has been encoded. Scheduled times for worship services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies are staggered throughout the week to allow each congregation to have access to parking and sidewalk space. Fridays belong to the mosque. There is even a spatial differentiation of evangelism turf, with the Christian congregations going in different directions for “witnessing,” and the Muslims relying on the self-selection of those who are interested in discussing the faith to approach them on the Avenue. Individuals of all the congregations share their faith in conversation with those they meet in everyday life, but there is no apparent competition for converts on the Avenue that they share. While the relationship among the congregations falls short of the engaged, even celebratory, pluralism of the Interfaith Peace Walk, there is a detente negotiated through a religious “code of the street,” which enables each group to focus on its own congregational life.

The accommodation of others does not come from a passive resignation to realities beyond one congregation’s control—that is, “They’re here, like it or not. Let’s just live with it.” There is an active mental engagement in creating space—physical and theological—for others. Three themes emerged in conversations with the believers on the block, both Christian and Muslim. First of all, there was a respect for the “other” faith, particularly in terms of (p.168)

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racial politics. In conversations throughout the project, the Muslims avoided criticizing other religious groups, both within and outside Islam. Even though most had left their Christian upbringing, they respected, for example, the role of black churches in the civil rights movement. Similarly, church members did not dismiss Islam out of hand, particularly as they observed it being practiced on their block. They did not agree with many of the practices and theology, but they did respect the strength and clarity of the African American Muslims in their clear witness against the dominant culture. They appreciated the role that Islamic chaplains played in the prisons and the role of mosques in enabling men to re-enter society with a supportive community to help in the transition. Second, almost everyone had members in their family from the other faith tradition. They had had practice in trying to understand the other faith, to negotiate holidays and marriages, and to accept the members nevertheless as family. Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell documented the social impact of the increasing religious diversification of extended families (Putnam and Campbell, 2010). They found that two thirds of Americans have at least one (p.169) extended- family member of another religion.8 The presence of an “Aunt Susan” can create a cognitive dissonance for a Christian believer:

We call it the “Aunt Susan Principle.” We all have an Aunt Susan in our lives, the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own….But whatever her religious background (or lack thereof), you know that Aunt Susan is destined for heaven. And if she is going to heaven, what does that say about other people who share her religion or lack of religion? Maybe they can go to heaven too.9

In fact, they did find that such cognitive dissonance did result in a change in one’s thinking. Almost two thirds of African American Protestants (62%) agreed with the statement, “People not of my faith, including non-Christians, can go to heaven.” Such an inclusive theological perspective would have been unthinkable in previous generations. The theology espoused at the Germantown Masjid is more inclusive of the other Abrahamic faiths; Jesus is acknowledged as a prophet for Muslims in a way that Mohammed is not for Christians. The church folk are traveling a long theological distance to be able to bridge a short physical space on Germantown Avenue. But bridges also need to be built between the Christian churches. Interfaith understanding and cooperation is desired by the Muslims, even though the lack of unity among Christians surprises them. Brother Saadiq was caught off guard by this:

Everybody has their congregations. One of the things that amazed me the most when I started getting involved (in the health fair) was…I was under the impression that there

Figure 6.4 In this crowded religious district, five faith communities share one block.

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was more connection among the Christian churches. But then when I started working on the inside I started seeing that it’s the same thing. Everyone still just represents and does what they do in their respective areas and the other people do what they do over there— it’s sort of their business and we’re not doing that. Forget about Muslims. It’s that church there and that church over there….You start learning that there’s still some human healing that needs to happen.

Certainly, part of the lack of conflict among the Pentecostals, Baptists, and Muslims can be attributed to insularity—the focus on maintaining their own (p.170) congregations. But besides a mutual respect for the other, and learning habits of interfaith tolerance within families, the Christians interviewed were conscious of another reality, which made them even more appreciative of their Muslim neighbors: these residents of this section of Lower Germantown had all benefited from the presence of the Germantown Masjid. However exotic the Muslims might have seemed when they came in 1993, it became apparent over the years that “all boats had risen,” all had benefitted from their presence: the streets were safer and cleaner. Their establishment of some businesses encouraged others to open. This was just a nicer neighborhood to live in or come to, to worship or shop. The numbers bear this out. Mapping out an approximate nine-block radius around the mosque, there are some hopeful signs of a neighborhood coming back to life. Between 1998 and 2006, the overall number of crimes, both against persons and property, decreased in this area by 26.5%.10 The crime index for the city as a whole was also falling during this time, but only by 9.8%. Although not every crime category in the area around the mosque declined, there were positive indicators in robberies, for example, which were down by 18%, and car theft, which decreased by 43%. Prostitution saw a dramatic decline, dropping 86% during this time period, and there was a 30% increase in drug arrests (which could be due to increased drug activity or improved policing). Burglaries were down 28%—particularly in commercial establishments. Aggravated assaults with guns saw a slight decline of 5%. The neighborhood was getting safer.

As new businesses opened—a fashion shop, two Halal pizzerias, a deli, and a book shop among them—home sales started increasing as well. The number of home sales more than doubled from 1998 to 2006. Arsons were down (by 24%) as were the numbers of vacant properties. Physically, the area around the masjid improved, which is remarkable since poverty increased from around 29% in 2000 to 42% by 2009.11 One longtime resident of the area looked down the Avenue toward the Germantown Masjid and exclaimed, “You could eat off these sidewalks now!”—not something often heard in Philadelphia.

Al Aqsa Islamic Center Moving down Germantown Avenue for more than 30 blocks, through two commercial districts, passing blocks that are blighted and blocks showing signs of improvement, a distinctive building appears—a welcome display (p.171) of color amid the drabness of crumbling brick, boarded-up row houses and weedy lots. Al Aqsa Mosque commands a block with its gleaming building, school, store, parking lot, and playground. On any given day, its true color, though, is the buzz of human activity.

Al Aqsa began as a mosque serving Palestinian immigrants in Center City Philadelphia in 1991. At first hosted by an Albanian mosque, it soon relocated on the edge between struggling South

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Kensington and the longtime up-and-coming Northern Liberties neighborhood. The mosque moved into a former furniture warehouse—a large, nondescript red brick box without any indication that it was a house of worship. When I began this project, 500 people came to prayers each week. The school on the upper floors had an enrollment of 300 students. For a largely immigrant Muslim congregation, the industrial exterior enabled them to maintain a low profile, lending a sense of security. And yet Al Aqsa was well known in the Muslim and Arab communities. Many were drawn to it because of its Academy (Pre-K through 12), and because the mosque offered services such as marriage and funeral rituals in the Sunni tradition. It maintains its own cemetery as well. The membership, as well as the leadership, became much more multinational—immigrants from northern Africa and throughout the Middle East were drawn to the mosque, while it maintained its base of Palestinians. Since its inception, Al Aqsa has grown exponentially. By 2012 there were 3, 000 families participating in the mosque, with 1, 500 coming to Friday prayers. Many come from throughout the region, including New Jersey, but 100 families live close enough to walk to it.

The student body of the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy reflects the same diversity. Sixth graders enthusiastically described their school as a “United Nations,” with children coming from 12 different countries and cultures, not all of them Arab. Almost half of the students are African American Muslims, whose cultural experience here is different from that of students in the academy at the Germantown Masjid. Interestingly, the principal at Al Aqsa, Abdur Rahman, is from the more mystical branch of Islam, Sufism—and is also a former Lutheran pastor.

The ethnic variety of the student body reflects a diversity of practices and, to a certain degree, beliefs. Girls wear a variety of headscarves of different styles and colors, but all expose their faces and reflect a rainbow of fabrics and complexions. One girl, from a bi-cultural family, wears a blue denim veil that she takes off when she goes back to her Latino neighborhood. Another sports (p.172) a Phillies cap on top of her veil. Rather than eschewing attention, these girls mug for the camera, draping their arms over each other or striking a more sophisticated pose in their long skirts.

The school buzzes with the energy of any middle school in an urban area—lockers slam, there is laughter in the halls and on the playground, and students put their heads together, working intently on a shared assignment. The policy is that girls and boys are to be kept separated in the school (to the degree that that is possible) but there is a lot of interaction nonetheless.

Farah, a 17-year-old senior, reflected on putting together her identity as both a Muslim woman of Palestinian descent and an American. Beneath the hem of her hijab, blue jeans and fashionable shoes signify the hyphenated identity. Her sleeves do extend to her wrists, but her nails are neatly painted. Farah wants to attend nearby Temple University. She explains, “Ladies need the weapon of a degree because you never know what will happen.” She wants to study public speaking and have a career in real estate. Marriage is also on her horizon. She and her family do not believe in forced marriages, but there will be a pre-nuptial agreement with an education clause so that she can pursue advanced degrees, if she chooses, as a married woman. In the meantime, she prepares for college but takes time to go to movies or to stay in touch with friends on Facebook.

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Farah feels comfortable in her identity and safe in the world. Once, a drunken man on a bus asked her, “So are you going to bomb us now?” The driver immediately kicked him off the bus, and she did not really feel threatened, then or now. The constant interaction across cultures within the school prepared her for crossing boundaries outside of it. Every year she participates in the citywide Day of Service on Martin Luther King Day, along with her classmates. During her upper school years she participated in an interfaith youth group, Walking the Walk.12 In the program, youth from clusters of churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples meet regularly for sacred text study and a service project. Farah believes that by participating in Walking the Walk, “I have fulfilled one of my duties as a Muslim woman to give dawah.13 Hopefully I can touch others, like when I explained why we don’t eat pork.” But others had also touched her. In a discussion of homelessness, Farah was particularly moved and inspired by the “loving response of a Jewish girl” who identified the humanity of a person on the street whom other students had found scary. It was kind of an epiphany for her to see such “noble values” in someone of another faith. She began to see the commonality of beliefs and ideals, such as the call to charity. (p.173)

At Al Aqsa—both the school and the mosque—there is a culture of crossing boundaries. Al Aqsa’s diversity gives members daily opportunities to transcend the particularities of race/ethnicity, language, national background, and gender. Certainly, for the many immigrants at Al Aqsa settling into American society, this is a valuable skill.

In the mosque, there is the traditional separation of prayer space by gender. However, the independence demonstrated by Farah is true of many of the adult women in the mosque. In fact, women maintain leadership roles in the administration of the mosque and in community organizations they participate in. Although the imam (an Ethiopian) does not shake hands with women, all of the men of the mosque interviewed for this study did. (The imam does greet women with a warm, wide smile.) There is flexibility in the construction of gender roles and interaction between the sexes.

Al Aqsa has worked pro-actively on developing good relationships with the neighborhood of Kensington rather than becoming an ethnic or religious enclave. By 1997, members of the mosque organized an Arab-American Community Development Corporation. Its purpose is to “to empower the Arab-American community in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, promote its economic development, and combat racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination.”14 The community development corporation (CDC) began as many CDCs do—developing some of the abandoned land in the neighborhood.

At Al Aqsa, 9/11 (the date of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001) hit hard. Despite the fact that they had a mosque culture that enabled participants and students to develop relationships across the boundaries of nationality, gender, and religion, all of this social capital did not prevent them from feeling a sense of vulnerability. Part of the outcome from 9/11 was the social reconstruction of Muslim as “other,” as evidenced by the increase of hate crimes and hate speech at this time, like that directed at Farah. Of course, what became known as Islamaphobia was not universal in the United States—media and leaders of the dominant culture also demonstrated fairness, equality, and an individualistic perspective that tempers stereotyping. Still, it was hard for members of Al Aqsa to feel entirely safe. Marwan Kreidie, a

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leader at Al Aqsa and the CDC, said that they had been involved in more traditional development projects, “And then 9/11 happened,” forcing them to redirect their efforts toward taking care of Arab Americans, many of whom were new to the United States. For the next decade, they focused on food distribution, English as a second language (ESL) (p.174) classes, “citizen training,” legal services, and a benefit bank that gets people connected with needed public services. Only by 2012 were they able to move toward developing low-income housing across the street from Al Aqsa. This will provide 40 to 54 units of housing for low income families, regardless of religion or national origin. Part of giving immigrants from Arab countries a sense of safety has also meant cultivating bridging social capital —those connections with people or agencies outside one’s community.15 Administrator Chukri Khorchid, who had come from Syria, has worked on developing good relations with civic authorities—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the police, and the city government. The mosque serves as a neighborhood polling place. A picture of the staff with Mayor Nutter is featured on their website’s home page.

In these first few years after 9/11, Al Aqsa continued building social capital, both among its multinational membership (bonding) and with institutions outside its walls (bridging).16 Al Aqsa is not surrounded by the density of communities of faith as is the Germantown Masjid. There are two independent storefront churches a block and a half away, and a COGIC congregation and a Catholic parish are located off the Avenue, three blocks in either direction. Interfaith relationships in the immediate vicinity are unproblematic. But because of its public profile, Al Aqsa was known in the wider interfaith community. After 9/11, clergy from Christian and Jewish congregations contacted Al Aqsa to offer support. The mosque responded, engaging the broader religious ecology, a process that relies on social trust.

Members of the mosque soon began to talk more seriously with their friends from other traditions about building up the interfaith community at this moment when Muslims in the United States, including those coming to prayers in Lower Kensington, were feeling especially vulnerable. One of their first actions was to organize a commemorative interfaith service on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

During the course of those early conversations, Jewish and Christian members pointed out that Al Aqsa did not look very mosque-like on the outside, so together they imagined a “beautification” project. In 2003, through the initiative of the Arts and Spirituality Center (now called Artwell), an interfaith collaboration was developed that soon brought new partners into the venture, including Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program. The participants from Al Aqsa were eager to strengthen their relationships with their neighborhood and to have a building that would reflect the beauty of their faith. (p.175)

The renovation became an exercise in cross-cultural relationship-building. Two women emerged as primary organizers of the effort: Adab Ibrahim of Al Aqsa and the Reverend Susan Teegan- Case, director of Arts and Spirituality. Joe Brenman, an artist and longtime resident of the neighborhood, as well as a member of the Mishkan Shalom Synagogue, joined the effort and eventually oversaw the artistic installation. Sitting in his row home two blocks from Al Aqsa, Joe remembered those early conversations. “Everone wanted to have it look like their mosque back home in Pakistan, or Palestine, or Egypt.” Surrounded by his sculptures—many of which are variations of Jacob wrestling with the angel—Joe admitted that he did not even realize that there

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was a mosque was in the old, familiar furniture warehouse he had walked by so many times. Cathleen Hughes, a Catholic artist with Mural Arts, was brought into the project and together, for over a year, they worked with members of the mosque, researching Islamic architecture and graphic design. Joe even took a course in Islamic art.

Then a transformation began, both architectural and social. Volunteers from Joe’s synagogue and from St. Vincent’s Catholic Church worked first on stuccoing and painting the facade. Later, members of St. Michael’s Catholic Church became involved. This was particularly poignant for them since their church had been torched by anti-Catholic mobs in the mid-19th century. Joe started to work with a multifaith cadre of children from public and parochial schools, local churches and synagogues, to design tiles depicting their ideas of peace. For most of the non- Muslim children who created the tiles, it was the first time they had entered a mosque. The tiles were incorporated into the design, framing “doorways to peace” along the side of the building. A Muslim artist, Fadwah Kashkash, designed and produced more tiles representing the “99 Names of Allah.” Joe created a glass mosaic of Mecca, which was installed over the front entrance. Neighbors strolled over every day throughout the summer of 2004 to watch the unlikely collection of volunteers on the scaffolding gradually transform the furniture warehouse into a colorful mosque. Finally it was dedicated on Eid al Fitr, November 14, 2004.

Along the way important relationships were built. Joe and Adab became close friends. “Her family treated me like a brother. She even came to Mishkan (Shalom Synagogue) and participated in the High Holy Day services….Toward the end of the project, I was working with three Palestinians on some tiles. They asked me why Israelis treated Palestinians (p.176) the way they did. We could not have had that dialogue if we had not worked together for months on this project.” This narrative—of individuals from groups isolated from one another, engaging an entrenched and divided social dynamic—continues to inform the identities of the participants. The story of the transformation of the mosque is described prominently on Al Aqsa’s website:

The disparate groups overcame their initial wariness to make the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society building into a living symbol of interfaith community and cooperation, humanizing the Muslim community and forging lasting relationships in the process.17

The renovation was completed in 2004 and remains unviolated by graffiti, an indicator of sacred space in many urban neighborhoods like Kensington. Al Aqsa has continued as a center for interfaith dialogue. The Interfaith Peace Walk was launched the following spring. Each year since 2005, the Walk begins with prayers at Al Aqsa. The mosque hosts the monthly planning meetings year round which are, in themselves, occasions of interfaith dialogue.

(p.177) (p.178)

Figure 6.5 Al Aqsa Mosque, in a former furniture warehouse, before its transformation.

Figure 6.6 Designers Kathleen Hughes and Joe Brenman observing the colorful painting in the summer of 2004.

Figure 6.7 Joe Brenman, an artist in the neighborhood and active member of his synagogue, oversaw the production of the project.

Figure 6.8 Artist Fadwah Kashkash produced tiles reflecting the 99 names of Allah.

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Layers of Navigation Germantown Masjid and Al Aqsa share a street and are separated by only 34 blocks, but they represent two very different sets of social and religious dynamics. They reproduce meanings about their place in the world, and participate in the urban ecology differently. Each has to balance the construction (p.179)

of its own group identity with the need to make connections outside their walls in the neighborhood, city, nation, and, in fact, world. Although it can be argued that all communities of faith are engaged in similar processes, it becomes especially complex for Muslims, whose presence in American society has been regarded with suspicion and, at times, hostility. How do they cease being the “other” while maintaining a clear sense of religious identity? How do Muslims locate themselves within their social contexts—engaging the ecology and maintaining their integrity? As with the neighborhood around the Germantown Masjid, nothing does more for building positive neighborhood relations like contributing to the quality of life for everyone. In the years between 1999 and 2006, the neighborhood around Al Aqsa stabilized. Despite the hulking shell of the former Gretz beer brewery across the street, there were indicators the neighborhood was holding its own, perhaps even looking up a bit. The Kensington neighborhood as a whole was not in great shape: there was a slight decline in population (2.8%) and property values had declined a bit (5%).18 Kensington maintained a poverty rate of 41% in 2009— well above the 25% rate citywide. (p.180) But in the census tract around the mosque, the poverty rate had dropped from 34% to 30% (U.S. Census, American Communities Survey, 2009). Real estate sales multiplied

Figure 6.9 Volunteers, including children and those from many faith communities, helped design and create tiles for the exterior.

Figure 6.10 Al Aqsa is now the aesthetic focus of its neighborhood, and a symbol of interfaith collaboration.

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during this time and lien sales for properties with delinquent taxes dropped by more than two thirds.19 Fires and arson fell from 15 to 0 during that time period.20 Although there are many variables in play, the aesthetic transformation of Al Aqsa no doubt had an effect on the immediate context. The neighborhood still faces big challenges but the social capital generated locally is something to build on in the future. In the process of the renovation, the mosque built connections with schools and congregations in the neighborhood and beyond. As the CDC moves forward into developing low income housing, Al Aqsa will be even more firmly rooted in the local ecology.

Al Aqsa reflects the Islamic principle of ummah, which encourages the transcendence of parochial and kinship networks—particularism—to cultivate links with other peoples in a universal Islamic community. Scholar Aminah Beverly McCloud explains the principle:

The ummah (larger community) is composed of many particular groups who can put aside their individual identities and mutual suspicions in order to uphold what is right, forbid injustice, and worship Allah in congregation. Ummah is thus a general concept…unifying Muslims across specific national, ethnic and cultural boundaries.21

At Al Aqsa, the conscious and ongoing crossing of boundaries in identifying with the global Muslim community spills into social relationships outside the faith. The lay leader of the mosque described the basis for such movement: “Islam is a faith of openness….It is important that the tribes know one another….Mohammed also instructed us to speak to all people in the best way.” Ummah undergirds their bridging activities. There is still occasional reticence on the part of some members to collaborate with those of other traditions, particularly Jews. However, that fear and distrust becomes fodder for interfaith conversations. Those interviewed believed that the openness to interfaith relationships has defused potential suspicion and aggression against the mosque and its members. The spike in hate crimes against the Muslim community nationwide after 9/11 was not reflected in Philadelphia—a reality that baffles yet relieves the Human Relations Commission. There was a (p.181) whispered concern about whether the new high profile façade of Al Aqsa might attract hate-based vandalism but it has not. Ummah, as practiced within this multinational mosque, and outside in deep connections with other faith traditions, has contributed to creating social trust and finally to security for Al Aqsa. Indeed, there has been an astonishing increase in the sense of comfort Muslims feel in this country: in 2000, prior to 9/11, 56% of Mosque leaders agreed with the statement that American society is hostile to Islam. By 2011, that number had dropped by more than half, with only 25% of Muslims agreeing.22

African American Muslims face a different social reality. There is a tension between ummah and another Islamic principle, ‘asibiya, which refers to the central importance of social solidarity within the tribe, or congregation. McCloud argues that ‘asibiya was, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, the predominant organizing principle for African American Muslims, who needed to create community identity apart from the dominant culture. McCloud asserts that “the history of African American Islam can be viewed as a history of a people attempting to create ‘asabiya in a hostile environment.” Through ‘asibiya, they could construct an identity that, in the words of another faith, is “in the world but not of it.” African American Islam allows believers to craft their own identities, apart from those ascribed to them by the history and

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legacy of slavery. Yet, since many slaves were Muslim when they were forcibly brought to America, the reemergence of the faith has also been a way to claim their African origins.23

This same impulse has led to the development of other religious groups whose Afro-centric organizations are marked by narratives of resistance and self-definition. There are four such groups on Germantown Avenue, all unique, which contribute in interesting ways to the mix of faith groups. For example, Universal Hagar Church sits on a corner across from the Fair Hill Burial Ground. It is part of the spiritualist sect known as the Hurleyites, founded by Father George Hurley in 1923. During the 1960s there were 41 Universal Hagar Temples in 11 different states, with the heaviest concentrations in Michigan and New York.24 This spiritualist movement is an amalgam of religious sources, incorporating elements of Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as borrowings from Masonic rites and the spiritualist and black nationalist movements of the early 20th century. Father Hurley, who died in 1943, eventually claimed to be the messiah; his picture is on (p.182) the altar in the modest sanctuary on Germantown Avenue. He taught that Africans (Ethiopians) were the original peoples and connected Jews to that heritage as well. White Christianity, he argued, had corrupted the African people, creating slavery and Jim Crow. He wrote that the “black man at one time reigned supreme and is bound to reign again.”25 Although Father Hurley opposed intermarriage, he did not call on his flock to go back to Africa, but to claim a rightful stake in the American political economy. His rhetoric was highly political in its public critique of religious institutions and racism.

Hurleyites retain their own holidays, dietary regulations, and version of the Ten Commandments, but the political language has been tamped down. A small congregation gathers each week at Universal Hagar across from Fair Hill Burial Ground. It is largely made up of women and is led by a woman, reflective of Hurley’s legacy of elevating women to positions of authority. Donning white and black robes, members sing tunes that would be familiar in African American churches, but substituting the name of Christ Hurley for the deity. There is a time of silent meditation, as in a Quaker meeting, accompanied by chanting “peace, peace, peace.” A sermon emphasizes God’s presence and mercy; prayers are offered for strength and healing, “in the name of Christ Hurley.” Although spiritual mediums have been part of the movement, today a brochure stresses the potential of the inner soul: “We believe that whatsoever good we need is within us at all times. We believe that when we have realized Christ we can draw all good from within us.” The congregation is in tune with the Quaker values represented by the burial ground across the street and is excited about the transformation of that space and what it has meant for their neighborhood. Ironically, the few drug dealers seen on this block, which was once an open- air market, often hang out on the steps of Universal Hagar.

Although they are very different from the Hurleyites, there are three other groups on the Avenue that combine racial consciousness and connection to Africa with elements of Judaism and Islam.

A modest sign in the window of a row house in the Mt. Airy section incorporates a Star of David and a crescent and star, identifying the space with the Islamic Hebrews. Brother Kenyatta is the priest of this small group, which has Sabbath service each Saturday afternoon. The connection with Africa is through lineage: his great–great- grandfather, from a royal family (p.183) in

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Ethiopia, was brought to this country as a slave but died as a free man at 99 years old, and was the first black man to vote in his county in Virginia. He had come from the Ashanti people, who are from the tribe of Judah. Brother Kenyatta’s Islamic Hebrews do believe in Jesus, “just like the Old Testament says and just like the New Testament says.” But the emphasis on the ancestral origins locates their religion in Africa and Israel, putting a distinctive spin on black Christianity. The Islamic Hebrews believe a fusion of the Abrahamic faiths is the authentic religion for all diasporic Africans.26

Farther down the Avenue in Germantown is the Beth Hephizibah Philadelphia Extension of the Kingdom of Yah, which is part of the African Hebrew Israelite community. Its members believe that the original Hebrew Israelites were displaced by the oppression of Rome. Many of those who scattered to Africa were then brought to America as slaves. In the 1960s a group of 400 African Americans, led by Ben Ammi ben-Israel, Messianic Leader of the Kingdom of God, returned to the continent, also claiming a connection to the Ashanti tribes and Israel. After spending two years in Liberia, attempting to purge themselves of negative thoughts, they moved to Israel, where a community of 2, 000 now lives in three communes, fulfilling, they believe, the dream of Martin Luther King to get to the Promised Land.27 By adopting a vegan diet, observing an environmentally conscious lifestyle, and following Jewish customs based on the ancient texts of the Hebrew scriptures, they believe they can be vehicles of change in a world that is corrupted and ecologically endangered. In Philadelphia, a small congregation holds Shabbat services on Saturday and maintains a vegan catering service called “East of Eden.” Through this they carry the message of vegan eating through menu offerings that are both tasty and affordable (such as their scrambled tofu for $2.00).

The most distinctive, and most closed, of the syncretist groups on the Avenue is the Ha Yasharahla Kanas. Based on their reading of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), they believe that Christ was a dark-skinned man; that slavery was predicted in the Bible because of disobedience to God; and that the chosen people of God are the Afro-Carribbean peoples, who are each identified as one of the 12 tribes of Israel. As such they are to live in strict accordance with the biblical laws. They do not consider modern Jews to be authentic people of God, (p.184) but this sect does observe traditional Jewish practices, such as beginning the sabbath at sundown on Friday through sundown Saturday. The Ha Yasharahla Kanas further distinguish themselves from the dominant culture through elaborate dress incorporating detailed color symbolism. We were not able to interview in this community: numerous messages were not returned and no one appeared for classes and worship at the times advertised although the space was clearly in use, so most information was gleaned from their website and YouTube postings. One of the members of the African Hebrew Israelites offered his evaluation: “Those are some angry brothers.”

All four of these groups are different from one another. In fact, they would probably be insulted to be considered together. But there are common threads. In different ways all are engaged in self-definition, particularly as African Americans. As such they resist identities ascribed to them by a racist society and by religious groups, which they see as extensions of oppressive power. In constructing their own religious identities, African origins become prominent. Like African American Muslims they are able to appropriate a cultural identity not dependent on slavery. Their narrative of resistance also affirms their sense of chosen-ness in the world, as mediated

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through spiritual leadership. In the scholarship on African American religion, a continuum stretching from accommodationism to protest is often used as an analytical tool. In that vein, it might be said that the Universal Hagar church now has a more therapeutic approach that enables its adherents to cope with, or adapt to, a racist society, which is accommodationist. Those such as Ha Yasharahla Kanas—and, to a lesser degree, the African Hebrew Israelites and the Islamic Hebrews—have utopian goals and create places where religion enables the development of an ideology of protest and ongoing resistance to the dominant culture. But it is not always so clear-cut. A scholar of African American religion, Hans Baer concludes, for example, that the Hurleyites can be seen in both lights.28 Any group that establishes an independent identity as separate from the predominant social norms can be seen as having agency in opposition to the wider culture, even if they are not trying to change that culture but create a separate space within it.

The principles of ummah and ‘asibiya do not perfectly align with the poles of accommodation and protest. But they do identify an internal tension for all Muslims, particularly those who are African American. There (p.185) are competing incentives at work: first to build up the social solidarity of the group (‘asibiyah) as a distinct racial group. In this sense Muslims share the same impulse as the other Afro-centric groups on the Avenue, which are appropriating their own religious identity. But the principle of ummah also pulls Muslims to build connections with the broader family of Islam and to expand moral agency outside the faith. The Germantown Masjid has been increasingly drawn into engagement with the wider communities of Islam as well as other faith traditions. An important public indication of this came in 2008, when the mosque was asked by a family to have the funeral of their son, a Muslim, who had killed a police officer with a semi-automatic weapon. The managing director of the Germantown Masjid said in a public statement, “No, we will not bury him at Germantown Masjid. We don’t want one slight scintilla hinting that we condone his behavior.”29 Public response was positive—the mosque had chosen to identify with all Philadelphians, who were grieved and angered by the murder of the police officer.

The Germantown Masjid and Al Aqsa are very different mosques, particularly in how they have navigated their presence within the urban ecology. These differing dynamics should not be attributed to theological commitments alone without considering social location—particularly race and class in the United States. The strong identity construction at Germantown Masjid —‘asabiya—echoes other Afro-centric strains in the history of African American religion. Strict adherence to Islam provides resistance to the dominant culture from a position of strength rather than marginalization. Yet as that identity is secured, the congregation is able to broaden its vision and develop relationships outside of the mosque, including partners from other faiths, in working toward shared goals of improving the quality of life for the whole community.

Muslims who have immigrated here, such as many at Al Aqsa, are seeking to establish a home in American society while maintaining their ethnic and Muslim identity. Given the diverse makeup of both the congregation of Al Aqsa and its academy, members and students cross boundaries of language and nationality every day. Their community life depends on the cultivation of a lived pluralism, rooted in ummah. Indeed, during a period in which they felt vulnerable, they found their safety and security in being part of broader networks, both within global Islam and in the region, as part of an interfaith community. (p.186)

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As religious communities participate in the pluralistic faithscape, theological beliefs become less important than public practices in establishing religious identity. Exclusivist convictions might reinforce congregational bonding, but they fade in prominence; it is religious practice that has currency in establishing distinctive identity in the urban ecology, and in building connections across social boundaries to work for a common good.

Notes: (1) . There was a Nation of Islam congregation which was temporarily meeting in a Montessori School after a fire in their masjid. They rebuilt and relocated to their permanent home on another street, and are not included in the census of faith communities on the Avenue.

(2) . Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. It is one of the “five pillars of Islam” guiding the religious life of Muslims.

(3) . The FBI reported a 1600% increase in hate crime incidents against Muslims in 2001 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011).

(4) . This phrase is normally repeated after speaking the name of the Prophet. In print, it is indicated by the letters PBUH.

(5) . Rhys H. Williams, “Review Essay: Religion, Community, and Place: Locating the TranscendentAuthor(s),” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 12(2) (Summer, 2002): 259.

(6) . Elijah Anderson , Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), p. 33.

(7) . Anderson, Code of the Street, p. 33.

(8) . Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), p. 523.

(9) . Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, p. 526.

(10) . All data are taken from the crimebase and neighborhoodbase of the Cartographic Modeling Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

(11) . The mosque sits on the border between two census tracts, so the poverty rates were combined and the mean taken. In 2000, the rates were 29.06 and 29.04; by 2009 they were 37.07 and 46.53, according to the U.S. Census and American Communities Survey.

(12) . Walking the Walk is a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia. It was organized in 2005 and is related to the work of Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core, a national organization that develops programs to advance interfaith understanding and respect among young people.

(13) . A witness to the faith.

(14) .

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(15) . Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

(16) . Putnam, Bowling Alone.

(17) . Al Aqsa Islamic Center website:

(18) . Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia 2011: The State of the City (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Research Initiative, 2012).〈yes, this is a publication published in 2012 about Philadelphia in 2011

(19) . Real estate sales went from 29 in 1999 to 66 in 2006, lien sales from 243 in 1999 to 76 in 2006.

(20) . CML (Cartographic Modeling Lab, University of Pennsylvania), nbase data.

(21) . Aminah Beverly McCloud, African American Islam (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 4.

(22) . Ihsan Bagby, “The American Mosque 2011, Reports 1 and 2,” Report 1, p. 23, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), bagby.

(23) . McCloud, African American Islam.

(24) . Hans A. Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism (2nd ed.) (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001).

(25) . From Aquarian Age, June 1942, as quoted in Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement, p. 96.

(26) . This is theologically close to the “Black Hebrews” sect, founded by William S. Crowdy in 1896. In the early 20th century his congregation in Philadelphia had 3, 000 members and still survives today on Broad St. There does not seem to be an institutional relationship with the Islamic Hebrews, however.

(27) . For a history and explanation of beliefs, see the website, http://

(28) . Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement.

(29) . +Refuses+Bury+Bank+Robber.

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Customer 453285, January 22nd, 2020
Good job.
Customer 456823, April 2nd, 2022
Political science
Avoid minor revisions; be sure of instructions.
Customer 454483, April 6th, 2022
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