The international market in antique Islamic art is booming, with London and Paris the centers of the trade. A recent sale of a single page from an ancient copy of the Quran made 200,000 euros. But such prices have also brought the unwelcome attention of criminals.

Cuma Atabay, the chief of Turkey’s Historical Foundations, lists the recent thefts of Islamic art. Among them are carpets hundreds of years old and even a mosque door dating back to the 14th century.

Atabay is speaking at an international meeting in Istanbul aimed at combating the growing problem of Islamic art theft.

Listening is William Robinson, director of the Islamic and Carpet Departments of the London-based auction house, Christies. He says with the Gulf States entering the market, prices for Islamic art have gone through the roof.

“The overall turnover in the market has risen hugely. I would take it back to 1997, which is when Qatar entered the market. And since then, the overall trend has been very strongly upward, particularly in the last two or three years. I thinking it could be even 30 or 40 percent a year increase, which is huge,” said Robinson.

Stolen artifacts

Such high prices are fueling an increasing market in stolen artifacts, many of which end up in Istanbul’s famous and historic Grand Bazaar.

For centuries, the bazaar, with its maze of narrow streets and thousands of shops, has been the place to buy the finest jewelry and carpets and much, much more. But, says Police Chief Ismail Sahin, it also remains a center for illegal activity as well. He heads the city’s efforts against the theft and smuggling of Islamic art, most of which he says is destined for Europe.

Sahin says typically, gangs of three or four people steal items from museums or mosques and take them to the Grand Bazaar where there are dealers who have contacts in Europe. He says it is very difficult for to stop because most mosques and even some museums do not have inventories or adequate protection.

Sahin says Istanbul is an international transport hub for the West and Middle East.  Thus, he says, the city is a center not only for Turkish stolen artifacts but also for items coming from strife-ridden areas across the Middle East.

Information key to combating crime

Joachim Gierlich is a former curator at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. He says information is the key to combating the growing trade in illegal artifacts.

“I believe one only can win the fight if one uses modern technologies, having a very good and complete documentation to know what actually is in the museums and what is in the foundations and so on, and make this accessible,” he said.

Powerful tool

William Robinson of Christies agrees. He says the appearance of auction catalogues on the Internet is proving to be a powerful tool in curtailing the sale of stolen artifacts.

“Oh it’s a very serious issue because it’s completely against our interests for illegal things to appear on the market, let alone with us.  Because it knocks the whole market. But if we are not aware of theft we are in a much more difficult position. We want owners to have confidence that something they buy from us is not going to be claimed in 30 years,” said Robinson.

Robinson draws a parallel with the 1990′s, when the growing public awareness finally brought an end to the sale of art taken by the Nazis during World War Two. The battle against this latest illegal trade in Islamic art is expected to be no less intense, especially as the market becomes more lucrative.


CHRISTIANS in Sydney will have their core beliefs challenged by provocative advertisements due to appear on billboards and buses in the next month.

The ads, paid for by an Islamic group called MyPeace, will carry slogans such as ”Jesus: a prophet of Islam”, ”Holy Quran: the final testament” and ”Muhammad: mercy to mankind”.

A phone number urges people to call to receive a free Koran and other Islamic literature. 

The organiser of MyPeace, Diaa Mohamed, said the campaign was intended to educate non-Muslims about Islam. He said Jesus was a prophet of Islam, who was to come before Muhammad. ”The only difference is we say he was a prophet of God, and they say he is God,” Mr Mohamed said. ”Is it thought-provoking? Yes, it is. We want to raise awareness that Islam believes in Jesus Christ,” he said.

Mr Mohamed said he hoped the billboards would encourage Christians and Muslims to find common ground. They were not intended to downgrade the significance of Jesus. ”We embrace him and say that he was one of the mightiest prophets of God.”

MyPeace plans to extend the campaign, funded by private donations, to television.

The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Rob Forsyth, said it was ”complete nonsense” to say Jesus was a prophet of Islam. ”Jesus was not the prophet of a religion that came into being 600 years later.”

But the billboard was not offensive, he said. ”They’ve got a perfect right to say it, and I would defend their right to say it [but] … you couldn’t run a Christian billboard in Saudi Arabia.”

The bishop said he would pay for billboards to counter those of MyPeace if he could afford it, and ”maybe the atheists should run their billboards as well”.

A spokesman for the Australian Islamic Mission, Siddiq Buckley, said the campaign would increase awareness of the positive facts of Islam. ”I would be looking at this as a good opportunity to explain what we mean.”

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The Iranian government has allowed people in Tehran to protest in support of the democratic uprising in Bahrain, on the other hand, it has supressed protests which call for change within the Islamic Republic [EPA]

Much has been made of the link between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Shia of Bahrain. Both the ruling regime in Bahrain and the Saudi invading force – leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to keep the ruling elite in power – accuse the Islamic Republic of fomenting revolt in the tiny but strategically significant Bahrain.

“The Sunni royal family in Saudi Arabia,” according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “fears the growing influence of Shiite Iran in the Middle East, and is helping Bahrain’s Sunni rulers retain power.” The clerical rulers of the Islamic Republic deny any involvement. The same Telegraph report indicates that “the [UK] Ministry of Defence has now admitted that members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard sent into Bahrain may have received military training from the British Armed Forces in Saudi Arabia”.

In the crossfire between these charges – the Bahraini ruling regime accusing the Islamic Republic of interference and support for the democratic uprising in their country, while the British army is in fact training the Saudis to go and crush that very uprising, Bahraini democracy activists are being brutally suppressed.  “After severely curbing news coverage of its crackdown on opposition groups by foreign reporters,” reported Roy Gutman of the Miami Herald from Dubai, on 25 May 2011. “Bahraini authorities have begun an assault on local journalists working for international news agencies – with arrests, beatings and, apparently in one instance, electric shock.”

Clearing through all the hypocrisies and duplicities that cloud the vision, the influence of the Islamic Republic in Bahrain is not what the ruling regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and their supporters in London and Washington DC, wish you to believe: That the ruling clergy in Iran is supporting the democratic uprising in Bahrain. That would be very odd indeed. Why would the Islamic Republic help a democratic uprising in Bahrain, while viciously suppressing one of their own? Just because the protestors in Bahrain happy to be Shia? That would be the bizarrest thing ever.

All these protestations notwithstanding, the Islamic Republic and Bahrain are in fact identical – not just in the majority of their population being Shia but in being ruled by two identically brutal and intolerant dictatorships. The Islamic Republic is frightened out of its wits by the Arab Spring, especially on its own back door, in Bahrain: for the more this Spring blooms and flowers the more it exposes the criminal atrocities of the Islamic Republic over the past thirty years, including, most recently, its own homegrown Green Movement – which one might in fact consider an early blooming of the Arab Spring.

Hijacking revolution

The Arab Spring is the return of the Islamic Republic’s repressed; the exposing of the universal euphoria more than thirty years ago in the magnificent Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 – which the militant clergy hijacked and turned into a vindictive theocracy. So, yes the Islamic Republic does indeed have a direct influence in Bahrain – but not on the massive democratic uprising in the tiny archipelago, home of the US Fifth Fleet. It is this geo-strategic military asset which makes “the great advocate of democracy” turn a blind eye to the murderous regime in Bahrain, while the UK is in fact training the Saudi military how to crack down on the uprising. The influence of the Islamic Republic in Bahrain is on the ruling regime: teaching it, by example, how viciously to quell a democratic revolt.

By way of yet another distraction, by which stratagem it has managed to stay in power over the past thirty years, the custodians of the sacred terror in the Islamic Republic had dispatched two ships, as reported by Al Jazeera, to Bahrain in order to put up a show of solidarity with the brutalised people of Bahrain. But the assumption that this is a sign of support for the Bahraini Shia is completely flawed. The Islamic Republic mercilessly represses its own Shia population – why would it care for the Shia population of another country?

In a revealing piece in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn reported the atrocities that the ruling regime in Bahrain is committing to murder its own citizens, identifying the victims as Shia. The government says the Shia were working on behalf of the Islamic Republic, dissociating their democratic will from the rest of the Arab uprising.

“The repression,” Patrick Cockburn reports, “is across the board. Sometimes the masked security men who raid Shia villages at night also bulldoze Shia mosques and religious meeting places. At least 27 of these have so far been wrecked or destroyed, while anti-Shia and pro-government graffiti is often sprayed on any walls that survive.” He further reports, “Nurses and doctors in a health system largely run by Shias have been beaten and arrested for treating protesters. Teachers and students are being detained. Some 1,000 professional people have been sacked and have lost their pensions. The one opposition newspaper has been closed. Bahraini students who joined protests abroad have had their funding withdrawn.”

Learning from Iran

These and other atrocities committed by the ruling regime in Bahrain are straight out of the handbook of the Islamic Republic, crushing its own overwhelmingly Shia opposition, its own citizens – men and women, young and old, religious or not. Are Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, two of the principal founders of the Islamic Republic and now the leaders of the Green Movement – now incommunicado and under house arrest – not Shia? Were Neda Agha Sultan, Sohrab A’rabi, Amir Javadifar and scores of other innocent demonstrators, cold-bloodedly murdered by the security forces of the Islamic Republic, not Shia?

Young men and women, peacefully exercising their constitutional rights under the very constitution of the Islamic Republic, in peaceful demonstrations, have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and murdered while in custody. They were all Shia. All major human rights organisations have widely reported systematic torture of (Shia – if that is how we are to identify the citizens of a republic) protestors in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic. Mahdi Karroubi, one of the revolutionary founders of the Islamic Republic and a former Speaker of the Parliament, has reported of the widespread rape of young Shia men and women in the same torture chambers.

Why would the Islamic Republic, doing this to its own Shia citizens, care more about the Shia population of Bahrain? The ruling regime in the Islamic Republic is indeed a role model for the rulers of Bahrain and all other repressive regimes as to how brutally to repress a democratic uprising – not how to launch them.

The democratic uprising in Bahrain is integral to the rest of Arab Spring – and the Arab Spring is identical in its aspirations and demands to the Green Movement in Iran. Neither a Sunni-Shia divide in Bahrain nor a Muslim-Christian divide in Egypt mars these dramatic unfolding in the Arab world and beyond. From identical economic malaise, social anomie, political stalemates, and cultural alienation, these social uprisings extend into the two continents – Asia and Africa, and now even into Europe, as perfectly evident from Greece to Spain. These uprisings have nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia, Christian-Muslim, religious-secular divides.

The ‘Shia factor’

It is imperative to remember how was this supposition of the Shia factor entered in the current geopolitics of the region. It was soon after the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, when tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians were murdered, and millions became refugees in and out of their own homeland – indeed the wholesale destruction of the entire infrastructure of a sovereign nation-state – that such some US military strategists began to distract attention from the principal culprit responsible for those atrocities and introduced the idea of the Sunni-Shia conflict as the principal problem. These military strategists, employed by the US army, began to offer the pernicious idea that much of the violence in Iraq had to do with the Sunni-Shia divide, and that it was the sign of an emerging geopolitics spearheaded by the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance. It was also at this time that the King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke of a “Shia Crescent” as a threat to the stability of the region.

Whether initiated by US military strategists to distract attention from the inflicted pain on the national sovereignty of Iraq and the Iraqis, or imagined by historically outdated Arab rulers afraid of their own people, the fact is that as perfectly evident from one end of the Arab world to another, Shias or Sunni, Muslim or Christian, religious or not, Asians or Africans – or now even Europeans – have now all revolted against identical sets of economically dysfunctional and politically alienating circumstances. People in Spain are now coming out and calling for their own Tahrir Square. Are they also Shia? Iran and Iraq – two Shia nations – were at each other’s throat for eight bloody years (1980-1988), killing hundreds of thousands between them. The Sunni-Shia factor, the favorite schism of US military strategists and the ruling regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, is a red herring.

Bahrain exposes two identical hypocrisies of the United States and the Islamic Republic. The US ignores the atrocities in Bahrain and the British advisors train the Saudi military to suppress the uprising – while they go to war in Libya; at the same time, the Islamic Republic pretends that it cares for the Shia of Bahrain, while brutalising its own Shia population, and dismisses the Syrian uprising as a plot by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The fact, staring the whole world in the eyes, is that Iranians, Bahrainis, Syrians, Libyans, and the rest of the region are identical in their transnational uprisings against identically brutal and corrupt powers.

The abuse of the Shia-Sunni divide also points yet again not just to the false sectarianism that seeks to discredit these democratic uprisings but also to the banal racialisation of these transnational, revolutionary movements that cross all such colonially manufactured hostilities. The fact remains that the Arab Spring cannot turn a blind eye to the brutalities of the Islamic Republic just because the US is its enemy. It is imperative that the criminal atrocities of the Islamic Republic be brought fully into the opening picture of the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring will not fully blossom unless and until the green pastures of Iran are included in it. Labour unions, women’s rights movements and student organisations are identical in their demands and aspirations for their civil liberties in both Iran and the Arab world. Enduring thirty years of a corrupt theocracy has given Iranians much to teach their Arab counterparts; these magnificent revolutionary uprisings from one end of the Arab world to the other has already galvanised the Green Movement in Iran. As the tyrannous regimes in both Bahrain and the Islamic Republic earn from each other how to suppress democratic uprisings, these democratic uprisings must also learn from each other how to topple their corrupt leadership – for in whatever language you learn it: al-Sha’b yurid isqat al-Nizam!

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  He is the author, most recently, of Iran, the Green Movement, and the US: The Fox and the Paradox (Zed, 2010).


KINGSTON, Jamaica — U.S. diplomats have expressed concern that an Islamic cleric convicted of whipping up racial hatred among Muslim converts in Britain might do the same thing in his homeland of Jamaica, according to a leaked cable from the island’s U.S. Embassy.

The dispatch, dated February 2010, warns that that Jamaica could be fertile ground for jihadists because of its underground drug economy, marginalized youth, insufficient security and gang networks in U.S. and British prisons, along with thousands of American tourists.

It says Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, who was deported back to Jamaica in January 2010, could be a potential catalyst, and it noted that several Jamaican-born men have been involved in terrorism over the last decade.

Another memo says an associate of el-Faisal was suspected of involvement in a previously unreported terror plot in Montego Bay, a tourist centre near where el-Faisal now lives. A second associate was allegedly suspected of threats against a cruise ship in nearby Ocho Rios. No details of the alleged schemes were provided in the cables and both U.S. and Jamaican officials declined to comment on them.

U.S. diplomats and law enforcement officials have expressed concern in the past that Middle Eastern terror groups might forge alliances with drug traffickers or take advantage of general lawlessness in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The January 2010 return of “extremist Jamaican-born cleric Sheikh el-Faisal raises serious concerns regarding the propensity for Islamist extremism in the Caribbean at the hands of Jamaican born nationals,” said the secret cable, apparently from Isiah L. Parnell, the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Kingston.

“Given the right motivation, it is conceivable that Jamaica’s disaffected youth could be swayed towards organized crime of a different nature through the teachings of radical Islam,” said the dispatch dated February 25, 2010.

The cable is one of the quarter million confidential American diplomatic dispatches first obtained by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and separately obtained by The Associated Press.

There is no hard evidence that Jamaica has a burgeoning problem with extremism, though some of the embassy dispatches list suspected associates of el-Faisal, several labeled as radical Muslims and believed to be involved in drug and human trafficking. One is a 31-year-old Jamaican suspected of involvement in a Montego Bay bomb plot and another man suspected of threats against a cruise ship.

Other Jamaicans involved in terrorism include Germaine Lindsay, one of the four men behind the 2005 suicide bomb attacks on London’s subways, and Lee Boyd Malvo, who was convicted in the deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in 2002.

Jamaican police say they are monitoring el-Faisal but note that he has no criminal record in the country.

“To the extent that he was living abroad and was convicted of offences, we do have concerns. But he is a Jamaican and we had to take him back,” said Deputy Police Chief Glenmore Hinds.

One of the leaked U.S. cables said Jamaica’s Ministry of National Security has established a special unit to collect information on Islamic extremism, but it voiced concern about whether the unit would be able to “react rapidly to actionable intelligence and to effectively prosecute an anti-terrorism case in the courts.”

El-Faisal, who is known as “al-Jamaikee,” or “the Jamaican” in Islamist circles, has been living in a rural town outside the northern city of Montego Bay, not far from where he grew up. He has several children.

He declined through a spokesman repeated requests for an interview with the AP.

Mustafa Muhammad, president of the Islamic Council, said el-Faisal’s angry rhetoric and conspiracy theories may attract some young and disenfranchised people, but he doubted it would have much traction among Jamaica’s roughly 5,000 Muslims.

“Faisal has always been very eloquent and the moment he speaks he captures your attention,” Muhammad said in the library of a whitewashed concrete mosque in Kingston. “That is why it’s so sad, so very sad, about what he has come to believe.”

Jamaica’s Islamic Council has banned el-Faisal from preaching in the country’s mosques because he of his past. He now preaches in informal prayer sessions and conferences.

“He told me that he didn’t think he had ever done anything wrong,” Muhammad said. “That’s a concern to me.”

Born Trevor Forrest in 1963, he was raised in the rolling hills of northern Jamaica. His parents belonged to the Salvation Army, the Christian evangelical group. He converted to Islam after being introduced to the faith by a school teacher at about 16, Muhammad said.

Shortly after his conversion, el-Faisal’s global migrations began. In the early 1980s, he travelled to Trinidad for a Saudi-Arabian-sponsored course in Islamic and Arabic studies. He then went to Guyana for similar studies, according to terrorism researchers.

El-Faisal, now a compactly built 47-year-old man with receding hair, was deported to Jamaica for the second time last year after being arrested in Kenya, where he reportedly encouraged young men to join an extremist Islamic group in Somalia.

Before that, he preached in a London mosque attended by convicted terrorists and was imprisoned in Britain for nearly four and a half years for inciting murder and stirring racial hatred with sermons titled “No peace with the Jews” and “Them versus Us.” In one recorded sermon, he told followers that “the way forward is the bullet.” On another, he said jihadists should use “chemical weapons to exterminate the unbelievers.”

“Faisal’s popularity remains strong with online jihadist supporters, particularly American jihadist groups. His sermons are widely published across the Internet,” said Jarret Brachman, a former CIA analyst who is now an independent terrorism researcher.

Some experts in militant Islam said his isolation in Jamaica may create a mystique that could draw alienated people into his circle.

“There is a danger that Abdullah Faisal will radicalize individuals in Jamaica, just as he has previously done in the U.K. and elsewhere. He is a powerful, charismatic speaker who is easily capable of presenting Islamist extremism as a rational choice,” said James Brandon of the Quilliam Foundation, a British anti-extremism think-tank .

Source: canadianpress

CAIRO — Protesters took to the streets on Friday for nationwide rallies against the ruling military council’s handling of post-Mubarak Egypt, in a call that has exposed political rifts.

In Cairo, tens of thousands of protesters packed into Tahrir Square — the symbolic heart of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February — for the Muslim weekly prayers.

Demonstrations were also held in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the canal cities of Ismailiya and Suez, and in the Sinai peninsula.

Hundreds protested outside the hospital where ousted president Hosni Mubarak is being held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, demanding his transfer to prison, an AFP reporter said.

Mubarak is currently in custody in hospital as the authorities mull his transfer to prison amid health concerns.

In Tahrir Square, the protest dubbed “day of anger” took on a festive mood, with protesters singing, chanting and taking the light rain as a good omen, demonstrators told AFP.

But the absence of Islamist groups was noticeable, with some protesters saying they felt betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to stay away from the rallies.

“Where are the Brotherhood? This is Tahrir,” chanted the protesters.

“During the revolt, we were all here together, left wing, liberals, Islamists and secularists. But now that the Brotherhood are recognised, they are not joining the protests anymore,” said Dina Ahmed, a protester.

The Brotherhood, the country’s best organised opposition movement which was banned under the Mubarak regime, said it was “very concerned” by the protest.

In a statement, it asked “who are the people angry with now?”

After Mubarak’s ouster, the call to protest can “only mean that the anger is directed at the people themselves or at the army,” said the Islamist group, urging protesters not to drive a wedge between the people and the military.

Youth groups that helped to launch the uprising posts calls on Facebook urging Egyptians to take to the streets on Friday to rally for “an end to political corruption.”

Three months after the revolt, they are frustrated by the slow pace of democratic change, and are this time directing their anger at the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

While the revolt achieved its aim of ousting Mubarak, the unelected military retains absolute power in Egypt.

Protesters want a civilian government, a new constitution, the acceleration of trials of former regime figures and their removal from top jobs in the police, universities and other public institutions.

They are also calling for a return of security forces to the streets, amid weeks of insecurity and sectarian clashes blamed on remnants of the old regime.

“I am against military trials of civilians, and the Supreme Council issues laws and then holds national talks, rather than consulting with people first,” said Rahma Hassan, 18.

“There has to be a serious national dialogue, not one including people we revolted against,” she said.

Activists say the military council only agreed to put Mubarak and his sons on trial after intense street pressure, arguing that the momentum must be kept up for a transition to full democracy.

“The prevalence of the law is the most important thing, and we need a new constitution before elections,” said Randa Gohar, 33, in Tahrir Square.

“I want a presidential council. The military council is not doing anything,” said another protester, Muhannad Galal, 27.

He cast doubt on the ability of military council chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi — Mubarak’s long-time defence minister — and military chief of staff Sami Enan to pave the way for reforms.

“Tantawi and Enan were with Mubarak for two decades, we are the ones who removed him, not them,” Galal said.

The military said in a statement on Thursday that it will steer clear of protests in an effort to avert any unrest.

It warned in a statement on its Facebook page of “suspicious elements who will try to pit the military against the people,” and said it “decided to have completely no presence in areas of protests to avert these dangers.”

But many activists read the statement as a sign that the army would turn a blind eye to any confrontations between protesters and old regime remnants, blamed for post-revolution clashes and sectarian violence.

Imam teach islam 480x400 Imam teaches Islam with a distinct U.S. style

At the pulpit of an inner-city Chicago mosque, the tall blond imam begins preaching in his customary fashion, touching on the Los Angeles Lakers victory the night before, his own gang involvement as a teenager, a TV soap opera and then the Day of Judgment.

“Yesterday we watched the best of seven…. Unfortunately we forget the big final; it’s like that show ‘One Life to Live,’ ” Imam Suhaib Webb says as sleepy boys and young men come to attention in the back rows. “There’s no overtime, bro.”The sermon is typical of Webb, a charismatic Oklahoma-born convert to Islam with a growing following among American Muslims, especially the young. He sprinkles his public addresses with as many pop culture references as Koranic verses and sayings from the prophet. He says it helps him connect with his mainly U.S.-born flock.

“Are we going to reach them with an Arab message or with a Pakistani message? Or are we going to reach them with an American message?” asks Webb, 38, of Santa Clara. He is a resident scholar and educator with the Bay Area chapter of the nonprofit Muslim American Society, but reaches others in lectures and through his popular website, which he calls a “virtual mosque.”

Webb is at the forefront of a movement to create an American-style Islam, one that is true to the Koran and Islamic law but that reflects this country’s customs and culture. Known for his laid-back style, he has helped promote the idea that Islam is open to a modern American interpretation. At times, his approach seems almost sacrilegious.

Although the call to prayer at a mosque is always issued by a man, Webb once joked about it being made by one of his favorite female R&B artists: “If Mary J. Blige made the call to prayer, I’d go to the mosque; I’d be in the front row.”

At a Muslim conference in Long Beach last year, he suggested that mosques adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays. Afterward, he was accosted by a local imam who accused him of poisoning Muslim youth. “I told him, ‘Quite frankly, you’re going to be irrelevant in 10 years,’ ” Webb says.

He is fluent in Arabic, the language of the Koran, and studied for six years at one of the world’s leading Islamic institutes, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University. His time in the Middle East convinced him that not all religious practices there make sense for Muslims here.

As recently as a decade ago, U.S. congregations readily accepted immigrant imams who had arrived straight from Islamic universities, often with a traditional approach to preaching. Many spoke little English and were unable to communicate with non-Arab congregants or connect easily with youth.

But increasingly, U.S. Muslims expect their religious leaders to play a broader, more pastoral role, says Hossam Aljabri, executive director of the Muslim American Society, a national religious and education group. “Communities want imams who can come in and go beyond leading the prayer and reading Koran. They want them to fill the social role of counseling and dealing with neighbors.”

Religious scholars say the faith’s basic tenets would not change but much of the law that governs Islam may be interpreted differently in various communities.

Webb believes, for example, that barriers between men and women in U.S. mosques are not necessary, although they continue to be used in many traditional congregations. Unlike some imams, he does not object to music and believes Muslims here should be free to celebrate such secular holidays as Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving.

But given the ethnic diversity of U.S. Muslims, finding a consensus for a single American Islam could be difficult. Some favor major reforms that would alter the faith’s core beliefs. Others oppose any change.

In 2007, Webb stopped teaching at SunniPath, an online academy of traditional Islamic education, tussling verbally in the process with a few of its scholars, who are critical of what they term “modernist Islam.”

“Modernists are doing a disservice to Islam…. They validate things that are slack in Islamic practice,” Sheikh Nuh Keller, a teacher at the academy, said at the time. “We say to the modernists, nothing needs to be modernized.”

Although Webb has spent much of his time in Egypt in recent years, his U.S. following has grown. His website, where he posts writings on such topics as relationships, personal development and Islamic studies, gets more than 10,000 visitors a day, and sparks extended conversations.

In November, one reader asked if it was OK for Muslims to celebrate Thanksgiving. Webb’s response that the holiday was allowed upset some who thought that could lead to more questionable practices.

“Soon it will be [permissible] for me to take that ‘Santa Claus’ gig at the mall…….or it is already????” asked one commenter, Ahmed.

Others appeared to appreciate Webb’s effort to balance Muslim teachings with life in the West.

“We prefer to dismiss all culture as the antithesis to Islam,” wrote Tricia. “We lack … indigenous scholars who can give us a refined view of culture that distinguishes blameworthy from admirable cultural practices.”

Imams need to be culturally relevant, Webb says. When young men ask his advice on becoming religious leaders themselves, he tells them, “Go watch ‘Nick at Nite’ for a year.”

“He’s the most approachable imam in the U.S.,” says Nour Mattar, founder of the country’s first Muslim radio station. “And he’s not boring to listen to, that’s huge.”

Christened William by his parents, Webb grew up in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond. His father, David, is a professor of American history at a local college, and his mother, Mary Lynn, worked as a human resources director.

Webb attended a local Church of Christ twice a week throughout childhood. “In my family, on your birthday you got a Bible with your name on it,” he says. But even at a young age, he questioned some Christian beliefs, including the Trinity.

When he was a teenager, he and several friends became immersed in a burgeoning hip-hop scene. After the others joined a local street gang, Webb, then 17, did too.

But his participation in the Bloods Pomona 456 was relatively minor, he says. He didn’t sell drugs and mostly hung out with other members looking for fights; at 19, he spent a week in jail for stealing hubcaps. In one serious incident, Webb says, he was the driver in a drive-by shooting, although no one was hurt or charged with a crime.

His teenage time in the gang and as a DJ at house parties figure prominently in his speeches and public persona, as a way to gain traction with young Muslims. That appears to work, at least with some. After his sermon in Chicago, a boy of about 12 turned to his mother, asking, “Did you hear his speech? He said he’s from the ‘hood.”

Webb was introduced to Islam at 19. He was selling music tapes at a swap meet when he met a Muslim man selling incense and handing out Korans. Webb took one home and read it in secret for several months.

He converted during his freshman year at the University of Central Oklahoma and broke the news to his parents at Thanksgiving dinner that year — when his mother had cooked a turkey and a ham, the latter forbidden by Islam.

Mary Lynn Webb says she was not happy at the time about her son’s conversion, but is pleased today when she sees him preaching to eager audiences. “I’m proud of him. It’s amazing, really, when you think that he doesn’t have that background” in Islam, she says. “I think it may have saved him from something had he stayed in the rap world.”

In college, Webb met Asma Ayoub, a Muslim Malaysian immigrant who was studying anthropology. They married in 2000 and have two children. Webb calls his wife his “greatest teacher.”

As he worked toward his bachelor’s degree in education, he also studied intensively with a local Muslim scholar. He later became imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City before moving to Santa Clara in 2002 at the behest of the Muslim American Society there.

The group sponsored Webb’s formal Islamic education at Cairo’s Al-Azhar. He returned to the Bay Area full time last summer.

Since then, he has worked on an educational curriculum that will focus on the experiences of young Muslims in the West. He is contemplating turning it into his own institute.

Webb hosted a town hall on his website last year where Muslim leaders debated the issue of youth radicalization. He reposted it during recent congressional hearings by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on militancy among U.S. Muslims.

But only rarely is Webb approached, he says — in person or by email — by anyone tempted by calls to violence from extremists. Young Muslims more often ask him about Darwinism or student loans.

When he does get such questions, he directs the youth to what he says their true jihad should be, including assimilating into American society and supporting their families.

“You see people who come to listen to him that wouldn’t listen to anyone else … people they were never able to reach out to,” says Imam Khalid Latif, Muslim chaplain at New York University.

On a hot day last year, Webb walked into Chicago’s Marquette Park, where dozens of artists were gathered for a Muslim music festival. He had been invited to speak and felt it was a good way to ease back into U.S. culture after his time away.

“I don’t think you’ll have a lot of clerics showing up here,” he said. “I know I’m going to see some things I’m not going to like.”

The festival was a departure from another conference he had just attended, where most women wore the hijab and the audience was divided into sections — for women, men and families. At this one, called “Takin’ It to the Streets,” women in shorts, tank tops and tattoos mingled with men in traditional robes. During the headlining performance by Grammy-nominated rapper Mos Def, Webb watched as couples danced and people near him smoked pot.

As he walked among the stages and booths, he was stopped often by admirers — at 6-feet-4, the blue-eyed imam stands out at Muslim events. Some asked for on-the-spot advice, as if he were a walking confessional: What should I do about this guy I broke up with? Where should I study Arabic? Is what I’m doing as a Muslim rapper OK?

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, the event’s organizer, said not many scholars would accept the group’s invitation.

“It means a lot when people who represent scholarship and … authenticity within the Muslim community are present,” he said. “Even though they are not necessarily saying, ‘I condone wholesale what’s going on.’”

After Mos Def’s performance, Webb hugged him, saying, “Don’t let the community make you feel guilty about what you do.”

“Man, thanks,” said the rapper, a convert to Islam.

But for some, even this imam, despite his talk of gang life and near-encyclopedic knowledge of rappers, is too conservative. His invitation to the festival stemmed from a heated discussion on his website about the negative influences of Muslim hip-hop. Some artists initially had mixed feelings about his attendance.

And that is the challenge Webb faces, Nashashibi says. “He is trying to speak to multiple audiences in what is perhaps the most diverse subsection of the Muslim community across the world.”

After the panel, a man handed Webb a flier for a party after the festival.

“I can’t go to that; smoking weed, dancing with girls and wet T-shirt contests,” the imam said of the event, which promised none of that. He added with a grin, “I gotta draw the line somewhere.”

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