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Theology Thursdays: Brooklyn’s ‘Kosher,’ And Now ‘Halal,’ Too - Growing Muslim Community Brings New Traditions To The Neighborhood by Melissa Castro

Belligerent birds and rustling rabbits peer out from wire cages lining the wall. Fattened fowl peck and squawk, waddling around each other in their three-foot by three-foot cages.

The flock shrieks when a 17-pound turkey is plucked from their cage and hung upside-down from the scale, wings spread wide. The bird cocks its head from side to side as the Russian couple sizes it up. The husband nods his approval to the Latino butcher, who hands the turkey to a Moroccan waiting in the back room of the Sunset Park, Brooklyn, halal butcher.

“Bismillah, allahu akbar,” Yousef el Gnaoui whispers. In the name of God, God is great.

With a quick stroke of his right hand, the Moroccan slits the turkey’s throat. The turkey is now considered “halal,” meaning an observant Muslim may eat it.

Across town on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, no fewer than 16 halal restaurants and grocery stores have sprung up to feed the neighborhood’s burgeoning Muslim population.

American-style fried chicken, Chinese, West African, Middle Eastern and American halal restaurants compete to serve the increasingly diverse – and increasingly Muslim – population of the historically African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The demand for halal food has even pushed the state legislature to step in as a referee, mandating a halal food certification process that mirrors the state’s kosher regulations.

While Harlem may trump Bedford-Stuyvesant as the center of African-American culture in popular lore, Bed-Stuy is actually New York’s largest African-American neighborhood, according to New York City’s planning department. It has been home to such African-American legends as baseball great Jackie Robinson, jazz pianist Randy Weston and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

At the same time, almost 19 percent of Bed-Stuy’s population is foreign-born, according to a 2005 census update of Community District 3, which encompasses this part of Fulton Street. Community District 8 also butts up against this area, and is nearly 31 percent foreign-born. The immigrant numbers have ticked up slightly since the 2000 census, but the statistics may not accurately reflect immigration patterns because the census undercounts illegal immigrants and others who simply choose not to participate.

Because the U.S. Census Bureau does not tabulate religious affiliations – and because the Islamic faith is not exclusive to any country – it is difficult to estimate the number of Muslims in this traditionally African-American enclave.

Estimates of the Muslim population overall, both in New York and in the U.S., vary wildly. The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted in 2001 by researchers at the City University of New York, concluded that 1.1 million Americans identified themselves as Muslim, more than double the number of self-identified Muslims in 1990. In contrast, the Council on American-Islamic Relations puts the U.S. Muslim population at 7 million.

Despite the lack of official numbers, locals consider the Fulton Street neighborhood to be almost entirely Muslim, in part because of the number of mosques in the area. In fact, the New York Muslim Guide lists “Fulton Street” as a separate category, right along with the entire borough of Manhattan. The neighborhood boasts nine mosques, according to the directory. One long-time resident, Hakem Abdel, a 35-year-old Palestinian, said that he counts 25 mosques throughout Bed-Stuy.

The well-known Masjid At-Taqwa mosque is at the epicenter of the Fulton Street Muslim community, and it draws more than 2,000 members to its Friday afternoon prayer services, according to its secretary, Hujrah Wahhaj, a garrulous 25-year-old African-American woman.

The mosque was founded by a small group of African-American men in 1980, originally holding services in one of the men’s apartments.

Today, at least 25 percent of At-Taqwa’s congregation, or jamaah, are something other than African-American, Wahhaj said. When a person decides to convert to Islam, a process called “taking shahadah,” Wahhaj meets with them to discuss the process. Members of every race, gender and age have converted at At-Taqwa, she said. In the past year alone, she estimates that she helped four Latinos, four Caucasians, two Asians and four African-Americans take shahadah.

Wahhaj’s father, Imam Siraj Wahhaj was one of the original founders of At-Taqwa. A prolific Islamic lecturer, he was the first Muslim to give the opening prayer at the U.S. House of Representatives.

Imam Wahhaj’s presence has been a magnet for Muslim businesses of multiple ethnicities, according to Shah Ali, the Indian-Trinidadian owner of Ali’s TnT Roti Shop, which he said was the first halal restaurant to open on Fulton Street.

“I came [to Fulton Street] ten years ago because all my country people live here, and because the imam here is known by kings and paupers all over the world,” Ali said.

Throughout Bed-Stuy, the face of the community is changing. “Bed-Stuy is historically African-American, but it is no longer African-American,” Charlene Phillips, district manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 3, said. “It is now an extremely diverse community. Up from Franklin, it’s a heavily Muslim neighborhood. Within the next five to 10 years, you won’t recognize it. It might look more like Park Slope, where everybody is of different nationalities.”

Of the foreign-born population in Community Board 3’s neighborhood, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 55 percent are Caribbean, 29 percent Latino, 7 percent African, and 6 percent Asian.

The owner of Alamanah Halal Restaurant (formerly known as Crown Fried Chicken), Hassan Fathy, hears the diversity in the chatter in his restaurant. Although he is Egyptian, he can pick out strains of French, English and Arabic, but the African dialects are harder for him to discern, he says.

Many of the African restaurants and stores in the Fulton Street corridor are recognizable by the word “Fouta” in their names. Fouta refers to the region in West Africa surrounding the Fouta Djallon, a highlands region that is considered an Islamic stronghold. At Alamanah, Fathy said he has met African customers from Guinea, Senegal, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and the Sudan.

Besides religious and cultural diversity, the growing Muslim presence in Bed-Stuy has changed the face of the community in other ways. The NYPD and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives hailed Wahhaj as a hero for helping close down 15 Bed-Stuy drug houses in 1988, by organizing citizen foot patrols for 40 days and 40 nights. [The U.S. Department of Justice also identified Wahhaj as a possible unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing when the investigation revealed that two men convicted in the plot had worshipped at At-Taqwa. In press interviews at the time, Wahhaj denied that he was tied to terrorism, and in 2001 he provided testimony against four terrorists for their role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.]

“Before [At-Taqwa] moved in, that corner was filled with drugs,” Phillips said. “They just cleaned that up, and it’s now a safe and nice place to be. And they do that everywhere they go,” Phillips said of the Muslim community.

On a day in the middle of Ramadan, during which observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, business was light at Alamanah Halal restaurant at 1178 Fulton St.

Fathy has been serving halal food at Alamanah since he opened the restaurant, as Crown Fried Chicken, eight years ago. He abandoned the Crown franchise a few years ago (but kept the Crown sign up) and began serving a broader array of food at his buffet – including Egyptian, West Indian, African-American and American food. He still serves fried chicken, with birds slaughtered at a halal butcher in Newark.

Given the tight competition with other halal restaurants, Fathy said he feels his profits squeezed more each year. The cost of his food has gone up at least 30 percent since he opened the restaurant, but his prices remain the same, Fathy said. “You can fill up your plate with vegetables, lamb, fried chicken, potatoes – and it costs you just $5,” he said.

Halal chicken costs him $1 a pound, while non-halal chicken would cost him as little as 12 cents a pound, Fathy said. “When you have five or six other halal restaurants, your prices are stuck,” he said.

Some suspect that halal restaurants cut corners to stay afloat in the competitive market. Yaser al Deen, the 46-year-old owner of al Noor halal butcher shop in Sunset Park, says he does not believe most restaurants are serving true halal food. “Restaurants can’t buy from us,” he said. “Each chicken costs me 70 to 80 cents each pound alive. Then it costs over $1.20 each pound to kill and clean it. It’s too expensive,” al Deen said, shaking his head.

Recognizing the potential for abuse and the broadening appeal of halal foods, the New York State legislature passed the Halal Foods Protection Act last year. The law requires halal restaurants to register with the state and to post a halal certification form in their restaurant. If a halal establishment also sells non-halal foods, the law requires the establishment to post a sign disclosing that.

New regulations implementing the law were just finalized, according to Mike McCormick, counsel to the department. The new regulations are virtually identical to the state’s kosher regulations, and will allow halal establishments to use private inspectors of their choice, McCormick said.

This article was published in The Brooklyn Heights Courier.

Melissa Castro

Thursday, March 1, 2007

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