November 29, 2008
Legendary Songwriter Now Marches to an Islamist TuneBy David J. Rusin
Music and real estate mogul Kenny Gamble, alternatively known as Luqman Abdul Haqq, is one of the most powerful men in Philadelphia -- and also among the most controversial. His effort to revitalize dilapidated South Philly neighborhoods stands at the center of the storm. While he grandiosely links his projects to "the saving of America," others have accused him of constructing a "black Muslim enclave."
Gamble's story encompasses several themes that define the Islamist enterprise in the West: Muslim lobby groups steeped in radicalism, highly motivated individuals with two-track agendas, and feckless governments that unwittingly enable them. Therefore, Gamble provides an important case study -- if not a warning -- for cities desperate to hand off the problems of urban decay to anyone with resources who comes along.
Kenny Gamble rose to notoriety as an influential songwriter and producer in the 1960s. Credited with bringing the sounds of Philly soul to the world stage, he and his partner Leon Huff founded Philadelphia International Records in 1971 and were the creative engine behind countless hit singles, including "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Love Train," and "If You Don't Know Me by Now." In 2008 the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A personal rough patch in the mid-1970s inspired Gamble to reexamine his faith. With his marriage failing and his label embroiled in a payola scandal, he found himself drawn to the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Though he became a Sunni Muslim, Gamble apparently retains warm feelings for NOI's leader, noted racist and anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. In January 2007, the NOI newspaper Final Call reported that Gamble said "he was praying for the minister before he went into surgery and asking Allah to bless him with a successful and a speedy recovery." Gamble has also acted as local chairman for the Farrakhan-led Millions More Movement and participated in other NOI-sponsored initiatives.
A central figure with the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), Gamble sat on the organization's inaugural diwan (executive committee) and now serves on its policymaking majlis ash-shura (consultative council). MANA was launched in 2001 and purports to speak for the country's "indigenous Muslims" -- that is, mostly African-American converts. A driving force behind MANA was Jamil Al-Amin, previously H. Rap Brown, the Black Panther famous for warning that "if America don't come around, we're gonna burn it down." On March 16, 2000, he topped off four decades of violence by murdering a sheriff's deputy. Al-Amin's arrest, following another shootout, further catalyzed the formation of MANA, which continues to embrace him and rail against the supposed injustice of his life sentence.
Gamble's colleagues on MANA's governing body include a number of Islamists:
As-Sabiqun offers a bottom-up strategy for advancing these Islamist objectives: assemble self-contained strongholds that feature a mosque, Islamic school, Muslim-owned businesses, social welfare institutions, and housing. Coincidence or not, this is the blueprint that Kenny Gamble has followed in Philadelphia. Indeed, Gamble explicitly outlined his aims in a recent interview: "One of the intentions that we had from the beginning was to create a model," he told Saudi TV, "so that, in the coming years, Muslims would be able to live close to each other, that they would live closer to the masjid [mosque], that they would eventually be able to open up businesses so that they would be able to employ each other and develop community life."
Three Gamble-run entities have helped realize this dream. Founded in 1994, the United Muslim Masjid at 810 South 15th Street -- only about eight blocks from City Hall -- resides at the core of his empire. Gamble's Universal Companies, which specializes in urban renewal projects, is headquartered on the same block and dominates area business and real estate. In addition to managing hundreds of properties, Universal operates a construction firm, financial services division, charter school, employment center, and medical facility, along with numerous retail stores. Finally, the United Muslim Movement, which dedicates itself "to establishing the religion of Islam," is described by MANA as the da'wa (proselytization) wing of Universal Companies. As Gamble has explained, "We are not just here for Universal; we are down here for Islam."
Flying the flag of community redevelopment, Universal has benefited from a healthy dose of government support -- despite the murky separation of its business and religious functions. For years Philadelphia has transferred "blighted" property to Universal at rock-bottom prices, expecting the company to renovate it. According to one deed from October 1999, "31 parcels of land (92 properties) assessed at $147,284 were sold to Universal for $27."
Many longtime residents of South Philadelphia have objected to the city's liberal use of eminent domain laws to seize private real estate and hand it to Universal for pocket change. A 2003 article in City Paper documents nightmares encountered by displaced owners. Some suffered financial ruin after being offered compensation well below the market value for their properties. Others returned home one day to find their buildings leveled. An elderly pastor who had failed to sell on time was even billed for the demolition costs.
Incredibly, the push to shower Universal with cheap property appears to have reached high into the Bush administration and hastened the downfall of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who announced his resignation in March. A "business friend" of Gamble's, Jackson was accused of orchestrating a campaign of retaliation against the Philadelphia Housing Authority because its director had refused to award Gamble a lot appraised at $2 million. Internal HUD emails bolster these charges.
While Universal's revitalization work undoubtedly has done some good for a long-abandoned and deteriorating part of the city, a profile of Gamble by Philadelphia magazine cites area residents who "fear that Gamble's real-life aims aren't as inclusive" as his company's name suggests. "They fear that Gamble, a convert to Islam, is inclined toward racial and religious segregation" and intends to turn the neighborhood into a "black Muslim enclave," similar to the ones promoted by As-Sabiqun.
Gamble's reengineered blocks are not (yet) like the British no-go zones alleged to exist by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. However, a very strong Islamic character is evident, as described by an earlier article in City Paper: "There is a large man in traditional Muslim clothing at the corner of 15th and Catharine chanting prayers in Arabic. Dozens of kids from the Universal Charter School spill out onto the sidewalk after school, dressed in their green school uniforms with traditional Islamic head scarves. Minutes later, the large man on the corner and several others pull out prayer mats, face east, and pray on the sidewalk."
Philadelphia magazine asked Gamble about these worries. Instead of a straightforward denial of any Islamist agenda, the reporter received a de facto endorsement of segregation. "It's like cats," said Gamble. "They're all cats. But you don't see the lion with the tiger. You don't see the tiger with the panther." After helpfully offering examples of interspecies copulation, he returned to the structure of urban societies: "You don't have people selling goods and services in the Irish community from some other community. In the Russian community, you don't have people from other communities. In the Puerto Rican community, the Puerto Ricans have their own economy, they have their own stores." The article notes that "it's illegal ... to sell land or businesses based on race. So chances are slim that he'll build an exclusive ‘Africatown' to rival Chinatown. But he does seem to hope for it."
Gamble's vision actually bears little resemblance to the more familiar and benign ethnic enclaves he invokes. First, today's Chinese or Russian or Puerto Rican neighborhoods are not cultural exclusion zones to the degree that Gamble apparently believes and admires. Second, Chinatown and similar areas were neither the result of comprehensive social planning nor the beneficiaries of massive government largess. Finally, districts like Chinatown evolved as places of refuge for immigrants, while the As-Sabiqun-type model looks to segregate a native-born and previously integrated population.
Gamble says that his work involves "the saving of America." But if his goals are as disturbing as some have suggested -- and as his own words, deeds, and associations give reason to suspect -- it is the American values of pluralism and inclusion that would need to be saved from Kenny Gamble.