It’s not easy to muster sympathy for liquor store owners who make their living selling booze to an impoverished inner city community, but when Muslim nutcases start pulling Carrie Nation-style temperance raids, I can always make an exception. The twist here is that while the thugs involved are Muslims (albeit a fairly bizarre and cultish version thereof), so are the owners of the liquor stores they're smashing up.
I remember when the group blamed for these assaults first made its appearance in the Bay Area in 1968, selling awful bean pies from “Your Black Muslim Bakery” and passing out political and religious tracts to passersby. They had a very aggressive, almost menacing sales pitch: if you didn’t buy something from them, it suggested, you must be some kind of racist. Although they would sell their products to white people, they usually wouldn’t interact with them, sometimes refusing to answer even the most basic of questions. But then this was at a time when Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Black Muslims, was teaching that white people were the earthly embodiment of the devil, so you can perhaps understand their caution.
Still, as a dutiful young hippie and radical, I bought their pies and tried to eat them, thinking perhaps that I would thereby be elevated to the level of consciousness necessary to understand why it was “progressive” to support a religion based on racial hatred and medievalism. Eventually – thankfully – I outgrew this need, and didn’t give much more thought to Oakland’s homegrown band of Muslim extremists. From time to time I’d read that they were growing rich and powerful, and that they were being accused of strong-arm tactics, but that’s hardly unusual: the Bay Area’s much-vaunted tolerance frequently extends to groups that might be considered criminals or terrorists in more conventional climates. A borderline fascist group called BAMN (The Coalition To Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary) made a practice of stealing and destroying copies of Berkeley’s campus newspaper whenever it printed something they didn’t like. Nothing ever happened to them. Hell, Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley, tried the same thing when he was campaigning for office. He got elected anyway.
Yusuf Bey, the founder of the Black Muslim Bakery, took advantage of this extra-tolerant attitude, and prospered for several decades before shuffling off this mortal coil just ahead of a child rape charge. But even then, he had his defenders, who said his actions needed to be viewed through the lens of cultural relativity:
"He was a born leader in the sense of an African chief or a Muslim caliph," said Maleek Al Maleek, a 62-year-old mathematician who attended Bey's memorial. "What is prohibited here is not prohibited in East India, where there are child marriages. I can show you chiefs in Africa who have 30 wives ....The ways of the high priests are not shared by the commoner."
One trouble with that theory was that Yusuf Bey wasn’t an African chief or a Muslim caliph, he was plain old J.H. Stephens from Greenville, Texas, an air force veteran and onetime beauty parlor operator. But in California, especially in the Bay Area, you are who you say you are, and you can say you’re just about anyone. His son, Yusuf IV (and how the son of the first Yusuf Bey could suddenly acquire an IV bewilders me, too), is facing some charges over the West Oakland liquor store attacks, but something tells me we haven’t heard the last of Oakland’s own Taliban.