by Dax-Devlon Ross
Special guest commentary by Sean Touhey
Across the Anacostia River, out of sight and out of mind from the Washingtonians that run this country, an Islamic tide strengthens its swell. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of teenagers have converted to Islam. For these converts, mostly male age 15-24, announcing Allah as their one true savior is an act primarily in words. While some change their names and stop eating pork, many refuse to change their behavior; continuing the robbing, smoking, and fighting they’ve grown accustomed to. Identifiable by their knit cap “kuffis,” these teenagers claim allegiance to a new gang, a gang that offers protection and a newfound hope in the afterlife. Teachers, police, and community leaders familiar with the situation are quick to label Islam a fad, “like buying a pair of Jordans.”
On a soft afternoon this past August, I was tossing a football with a group of kids when the sound of gun fire crackled. Three shots followed by three more. I dove behind a mature maple yelling at kids to get down. All too common a noise in their young lives, they ran towards the sound of the shots to get a closer look. Four teenagers broke through the foliage in the field separating us from the Anacostia Metro. Two of the four teenagers carried visible weapons. Each wore Muslim kuffis. As they ran past me and into the center they scrambled to pull up their tight, low hanging jeans.
Barry Farms, an old and under-served DC housing project just across the bridge from Nationals Stadium, sits in between two highways, making it a prime drug dealing spot. The neighborhood consists of three streets filled with two up, two down terraced housing, connected by a labyrinth of back alleys. The Barry Farms Rec Center caters to about two dozen children, ages 10-18 many of whom hang out in the center during non school hours.
On that day I froze only a couple feet from the door, wondering what to do. The center was packed to capacity and the kids inside were my responsibility. My greatest fears, bloodbath, hostages, teenagers firing wildly into the children tucked safely inside. A crushing sense of responsibility flooded my conscience. Visions of having my deepest thoughts blown out the back of my skull into a nearby tree raced through my mind. As I reached for the door all I could think was, “Oh please, oh please don’t murder me.”
The door opened. Coach Wade Taylor’s voice bellowed from inside: “Y’all can’t be coming in here and scaring these kids like that! Now get up out of here right now!” On command the four teenage Muslims walked right past me into the arms of the police who had arrived outside.
Before leaving the scene one cop opened the lid to a nearby trash can and pulled out a pistol. A bare-chested teen in handcuffs turned to me. He mean-mugged me up and down. “You’re a dead man.”
The next day I paid a visit to to the Seventh District Station. I was curious about the growth of Islam in Washington, D.C. and figured the best resources was the people closest to the ground. 7D, as its known by D.C. residents, covers the bottom lip of city skirting along the Prince Georges County border, a patch of disinherited land that stretches east to Good Hope Road, west to Southern Avenue and is bisected by I-295.
After a brief wait, I was shown to the office of one Detective Briscoe. How could he help me, he asked. briskly. Sensing his time was short, I cut straight to the chase.
“You mean Prislam,” he replied to my question. A slight chuckle rippled out of belly; he wasn’t smiling, though. “These kids are faking.”
Couldn’t it be viewed as a good thing, I wondered? A way for teens to combat the social problems they face at home? I’d seen first-hand the harsh realities of these kids lives: these confusion, anger, nihilism.
I asked the detective if he believed Islam could fill the void.
“Maybe. If they believed in the afterlife, and stayed true to a moral code of conduct.” Briscoe continued and I listened. “You know, part of me likes the fact that these kids have become God conscious, but Islam is a religion of discipline, and DC kids have no discipline. Until you get parents interested in these kids’ lives they will fall for anything. Last year we saw an increase in females experimenting with lesbianism. Islam is just another fad that will soon die out and get replaced by whatever is deemed cool.”
Unfortunately, Detective Briscoe wouldn’t be the only cynic I encountered. In fact, one community leader I spoke to (on condition of anonymity) suggested I leave the situation alone. “It’s Islam’s problem,” he bluntly said. “Let them deal with it.”
Just up the road from Barry Farms sits another under-served community. This one is called Malcolm X. The community’s recreation center doubles as primary school cafeteria. Inside a broken ping pong table is complimented by uncomfortable Mcfurniture. Still, it’s a place to be and the Congress Park teens often hang playing dominoes, smoking weed and making fun of each other as a means of killing time and staying out of trouble.
On the day I visited the center the recreation site manager, a man known simply as “Roach,” who converted to Islam in prison, was hovered over a 17 year old named Diangelo, yelling into his ear.
“I oughta rip that kuffi right off yo’ head,” Roach barked, “You giving all of us a bad name.” Roach had converted to Islam during a prison stint. “Tell me why you became a Muslim then if you gonna go on fightin? That ain’t Islam!”
Several silent seconds passed before one of Diangelo’s friends broke into an awkward laughter undoubtedly meant to thaw the quiet chill. Unfazed, Roach continued to hover. His dreads spilling loosely out of his kuffi, Diangelo sheepishly stole a glance at his tormentor. The words, “There’s a Heaven for a G,” were scribbled across the boy’s t-shirt. Below the familiar refrain sat a portrait of his cousin, Darius. Two weeks earlier Darius had been murdered.
“Tell me why you became a Muslim?” Roach demanded a second time.
Tears had welled up in Diangelo’s eyes. “Cause I want to change my life,” the boy announced.
Diangelo’s friends, all of whom were also wearing kuffis held back their laughter. Still on probation after serving two years for armed robbery, Diangelo will return to court in a week. The Barry Farms fight could land him back in prison.
New York Times journalist David Rhodes, who was kidnapped by the Taliban, described his captors as, “twenty-something men with limited exposure to the outside world. All of them had family captured or killed by American forces. They inhabit a culture where boys become men through fire fights. War is their sport, human relationships matter very little and death is their constant companion.”
In many ways Diangelo’s life mirrors that of a young Pakistani and Afghan teen recruited into the Taliban. By in large, Anacostia youth do not have the opportunity or inclination to travel. Many have family members in jail or who’ve been murdered. Alienated and angry, many see their situation as hopeless—no ladder up and no ladder out. I have to believe they want their lives to mean something and that they gravitate to Islam in search of a faith and culture that can provide some sort of discipline to help them navigate a world where death is their constant companion.
What did the leaders of Islam think about the flood of teenagers converting in name but not in ethic? That was my next question, what led me into several of the street corner mosques – “Mass Jiggs,” as they’re known – dotting southeast D.C. Among other things, my visits revealed to me that these Mass Jiggs are presided over by ungoverned Imams who preach and gain followers. The Islam that I encountered in the makeshift mosques had no seminary, no councils, no internal policing and no process to legitimize these Imams. Fact is in southeast at least, most leaders were ordained in prison.
When I asked Imam Jihad why this was the case he angrily retorted: “Cause we don’t monopolize our churches the way y’all do.” Jihad had just returned from a trip to Iran when we met him in front his mosque. He seemed to take peculiarly stubborn pleasure in espousing his anti-American views. As far as he was concerned I – a white man – was the problem. If he and his followers were all dying of thirst in the desert and I had the last cup of water, he still wouldn’t take it.
“The best way to destroy Islam is with Islam,” Jihad said, diving into his conspiracy-laden, anti-American rhetoric. I braced myself. “The Feds give leaner sentences for those who convert in prison, so of course people are going to convert. Then when they get out they continue with stuff that got ‘em locked up in the first place smoking, drinking, robbing people and say, ‘That’s Islam.’ But it’s not. It’s not Islam.”
Without clear guidance from the Islamic community or from the leaders in their own community, these youth will continue adapting Islam to suit their needs. As Prislam grows in our underbelly, we cannot afford to turn away. This movement rose out of our neglect; the only solution is engagement.