Fruit’s role in a Muslim dilemma

My minivan was running on empty Sunday morning, so I stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy gasoline on my way to church. Usually, I pay at the pump with my Visa check card, but this time I had cash, so I went inside to hand $40 to the clerk.

The woman in front of me was buying cigarettes from a cheerful young cashier who was talking about her Christian faith.

“I’d be at church right now if I didn’t have to work,” said the employee, who was not shy about sharing her testimony even as she rang up tobacco and alcohol sales.

I thought about the 7-Eleven crew member, working at a job that probably would not be her first choice, when I read a Chicago Tribune story this week about Muslim liquor store owners. Reporter Manya A. Brachear’s piece explores the dilemma faced by store owners trying to balance their faith with the necessity to make ends meet. Here’s the top of the story:

Prescribed by his Islamic faith to pray five times a day, Mazen Materieh often prostrates himself on one of the prayer rugs in the basement of his corner store. When he is done, he returns to his perch behind the counter, where he sells liquor, lottery tickets and pork skins — all forbidden by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

“I’m not justifying what I’m doing. I know it’s wrong,” said Materieh, 52, of Orland Park. “I’m an honest person. I don’t like to be a man of two faces.”

Materieh’s conflict is common in corner stores across Chicago’s South Side. On one hand, store owners cannot make ends meet without selling what customers demand. On the other, consuming or profiting from products forbidden by their faith is considered sinful. What’s more, neighbors blame the stores for perpetuating violence, addiction and obesity in low-income neighborhoods.

After that introduction, the story gets to the news peg:

Now, a coalition of Arab and African-American Muslims is offering Muslim merchants an opportunity to improve their reputations and renew their religious principles by selling fresh produce and healthy foods, especially in neighborhoods without major groceries. Along the way, they hope, store owners will think twice about selling forbidden products. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has provided a grant that will serve as seed money for pioneers in the campaign.

What do you think so far? Read the whole thing, and then I’ll tell you what I thought.

Personally, I really liked this piece. It’s a meaty subject (get it, pork?). And it’s a fresh angle (get it, fruit?). OK, end of my attempt to be punny.

Let’s get serious …

Too often, news stories portray people of faith at extremes. They’re either totally righteous or totally hypocritical. In most cases, I think all of us fall somewhere in the middle. Brachear manages to highlight contradictions in what people believe — and what they practice — in a way that just seems, well, real.

Take this section:

Materieh and a partner opened Sharif Food & Liquor at 5659 S. Racine Ave. after arthritis prevented him from working in construction and a halal restaurant venture didn’t work out. “Sharif” is an Arabic word for “honorable.”

He doesn’t allow his children to help in the store, and he regularly argues with his wife, who doesn’t understand how he can rationalize selling alcohol. He admits a sense of shame came over him after taking religious education classes at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, where his family worshipped.

“In our religion, God loves believers and repenters,” Materieh said. “If I have good trust in God, I should go and do the right thing and not feed my kids with this money. But we are human beings, and we are weak. I pray to God to get me out of it.”

I like that Brachear explained the store name. That’s a nice touch.

Another nice touch is that the piece delves into Muslim theology. Now, you’d think that would be a given in a story such as this. But GetReligion readers know how often that does not occur. Here’s the relevant section:

Sheikh Kifah Moustapha, imam and associate director of the Bridgeview mosque, preaches against haram (forbidden) business practices regularly. He bases his sermons on a verse in the Quran that implores the faithful to avoid intoxicating temptations.

“Believers, wine and gambling, idols and divining arrows are abominations from the work of Satan,” the Quran instructs.

Though many Muslims defend their business practices by arguing that scripture forbids only consumption, not the sale, they are wrong, Moustapha said.

I do have a quibble with that last paragraph. Any time I see a phrase in a story such as many Muslims defend, I expect that I’ll hear from at least one of them. However, the writer does not include any Muslims who make the argument cited.

I almost forgive that omission, however, because of the excellent sources who are included, from a Muslim neighborhood activist to Muslim store owners who never have sold pork or alcohol — despite the economic challenges.

The ending section highlights what’s at stake in the effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the neighborhood:

Others are eager to follow suit, including Ida Rihan, 48, owner of Delta Foods, 1158 W. 51st St., who has not yet received a grant. Rihan declines to sell alcohol or pork. Her husband was shot 10 years ago by an intoxicated gunman who stole $65. Sitting on a stool behind bulletproof glass, with a mosque prayer schedule taped next to the cash register, she cheerily greets her customers, many of whom call her Mom.

Two doors down on 51st Street, Nasheet Salah, 29, owner of K&K Foods, advertises discounts on vodka, cognac and beer. “That’s a living. You’ve got to do it to prepare the table,” he said.

Rihan doesn’t judge her neighbor. She said people must decide how to balance belief with business.

She would prefer to offer fresh meat and produce regularly, but it’s a choice she can’t afford. She said she would welcome a grant that would enable her to upgrade her merchandise.

“It’s a hard neighborhood here,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for everybody, and everyone has respect for me. You have to do what you believe is right.”

This is a real story from a real Chicago neighborhood — see the specific addresses for proof. Kudos to the Tribune for a compelling local story that gets religion in a real way.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Kate Shellnutt

    I went to a series of meetings by the group running these efforts. What makes this issue especially sensitive is how racism also comes into play in South Side food deserts: stereotypically, Muslim/Arabs store-owners look down on their African-American customers as drunks and deadbeats and African-Americans resent the store-owners for exploiting them, making money off their neighborhoods and sending their profits to their home countries.

    Glad Manya was able to cover the story with such depth and grace.

  • Jerry

    I also liked the story and feel as you do about the kudos due. As I’ve expressed here before, I’m tired of celebrity religion and political religion.

    A real story about real people who face real issues living out their faith is thus very compelling to me and I hope to anyone who has ever faced a choice between what they believe is right behavior and worldly concerns. So I was pleased to read this story.

  • Bobby

    That’s interesting, Kate. Thanks.

    Glad you liked the story too, Jerry.

  • Matt

    This made me think of last year’s GR item on the Washington half-smoke guy. In fact, commenter FrGregACCA mentioned the issue at hand here.

  • Bobby

    Thanks, Matt. Very relevant link.

  • Jerry N

    Good stuff. By their fruits you shall know them indeed.

  • Ira Rifkin

    I wonder:

    Jewish immigrant shopkeepers in the early-mid 20th century often found themselves having to keep their stores open on Saturday for economic reasons. Since most came from traditional backgrounds this was the first time they so openly violated the Sabbath.

    Over time this became a major contributing factor to the decline of Sabbath observance among American Jews (and elsewhere in the Diaspora).

    Could a similar social dynamic now be happening in the American Musim community?

    I would have liked the story to at least touch on this point, if only by asking those opposed to the sale of alcohol, pork etc. whether they wonder about the example being set for younger Muslims dealing with a host of assimilation issues.

    It might have broadened the story considerably.

  • Bobby

    Excellent question, Ira. I agree that it would have broadened the story. At the same time, I know that a reporter can include only so much in a 1,000-word article.

  • Peterk

    there is an easy solution for the Muslim store owners, don’t sell lottery tickets, alcohol or tobacco products. this is just like the grocery store owners in the South who don’t open on Sundays, don’t sell alcohol or lottery tickets. Now that is putting your beliefs into action. Many Christian business owners put their beliefs into action, but don’t whine to the press about the problems it causes them. For them putting their faith into action is more important.

    now what I would like to see is a story about how Muslim communities try to impose their beliefs on their non-Muslim neighbors.

  • AmaniS

    The story was good, but I was a little confused. Is this a government program or are they looking to have the government sponsor a program they already have?

    As a person who comes from an area with very few supermarkets(1), I can not see the logic. Did the report visit the small stores in the area to check that no one sold produce? You put some fruit in a basket and sell it. It is not that hard. I am from East Orange, NJ. Most of the small store sold fruit, deli sandwiches, meat, cheese, tobacco, lottery tickets, and liquor. I really bought their because it is more expend than at a supermarket. You buy once a month at the supermarket and take a taxi home.

    I fail to see how selling more “wholesome” things are going to push anyone to stop selling “non-wholesome” things.

    And if the idea is to improve the image of the stores and their owners, asking tax payers to fit the bill for a private store upgrade doesn’t sound like a good idea.

    They story give us a lot of information, but I not sure if it is saying what it is trying to say.

  • AmaniS

    really bought-rarely bought