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No Moor-ish

By Waris Banks | Posted 5/7/2003

Ever since Sept. 11, especially during the recent war in Iraq, members of the media have said they are taking great pains to portray Muslim communities as fairly and accurately as possible. But one thing that most reporters--including the local media--have failed to do is make it clear that not all Islamic groups are one and the same.

So when Northeast Baltimore native Kendall Waters-Bey, a 29-year-old Marine staff sergeant, became one of the first war casualties when his helicopter crashed near the Iraq-Kuwait border, the public was reminded by nearly every media outlet, including The Sun, that he was affiliated with the Moorish Science American religion, a branch of Islam.

"During the recitation of the Muslim prayer by Sheik Eugene Martin-El, associate minister with the Moorish Science Temple of America, Sergeant Waters-Bey's father and several other Muslims stood and faced east," The Sun's Eric Siegel reported on April 5, the day after Waters-Bey's funeral.

Vernon Jones-Bey, grand sheik of Temple 78 at 380 W. North Ave., says this and other local news stories were quick to point out that Waters-Bey was a member of the Moorish Science Temple. However, most media consumers never read that Waters-Bey's faith was completely different than that of most Middle Eastern Muslims.

"They didn't do any real in-depth investigation," Jones-Bey says. "People don't understand what our organization represents. It is lack of knowledge that caused it to be incomplete."

According to one follower, Russel Roberts-Bey, adherents to the Moorish Science Temple don't use the Arabic reference "Muslim," as Siegel did in his story. They prefer "Moslem," an Anglicized derivative of the word.

The Moorish Science Temple differs significantly from Sunni Muslims, the largest branch of Islam worldwide. And the group should not be confused with the Nation of Islam, founded in the 1930s by Elijah Muhammad, Baltimore resident Jeffrey Scott-Bey explains, who attends the Moorish Science temple on Homestead Street in Northeast Baltimore.

"[Nation of Islam] Muslims practice their traditions according to the customs according to the East," Scott-Bey explains. "They make pilgrimage to Mecca. It's not mandatory for us to pray five times a day. It's not mandatory that we go to Mecca. They [Nation of Islam followers] consider themselves Black Muslims. We consider ourselves Moorish-American Moslems."

Whereas the Nation of Islam is often heavily involved in politics, Roberts-Bey says, members of his religion try to stay clear of them. "We aren't really given to making a lot of radical statements," he says.

The Moorish Science Temple of America was founded in 1913 in Newark, N.J., by Noble Drew Ali, a black man to whom followers refer as a prophet. Drew believed that American blacks descended from Moors and that their true home is in the North African country of Morocco. Unlike Middle Eastern Muslims, members of the Moorish Science Temple don't pray in Arabic. It is also typical, Roberts-Bey says, for believers to add "Bey" or "El" to one's name.

"It's a proclamation of a free national name," Roberts-Bey explains. "A Moorish-American is one who is a descendant of Moroccans and born in America. We teach nationality and birthrights. All members must proclaim their nationality. Negro, black, African-American are not nationalities. They're slave names."

Unlike other Islamic groups, says Roberts-Bey, Moorish-Americans feel a strong sense of identification with the United States rather than with Islamic countries in the Middle East. For that reason, he says, men such as Waters-Bey who join the U.S. military generally don't feel a conflict between religion and politics because of their attachment to this country.

"We generally see ourselves as part and parcel of the government and as American citizens," Roberts-Bey says. "We don't rock the boat a lot."

"[Waters-Bey] was over there serving his country," Scott-Bey says. "We think that the American people are doing what they have to do."

Rather than providing an opportunity to highlight this unique branch of Islam, Scott-Bey says, the media simply pegged the Moorish Science Temple as another Muslim group. He says this made the community feel like outsiders rather than Americans. "People don't understand what our organization represents," he says.

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