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From inside an old house in a bleak patch of the east side, Bilal Hajj delivers a message that proposes to transform the lives of the downtrodden. Whether or not anyone's listening, or will ever listen, is another matter.
He runs the Zakat Institute, on Willis Street near Mount Elliot, a house-turned-school-turned-grass-roots-Islamic-organization, named for the Muslim concept of alms and tithing — purification and growth through offering your possessions to those in need. It stands out because hand-painted signs sprout from the front yard like weeds after a rain, about the only lively sight in a drab neighborhood where drugs are sold openly and houses are crumbling.
Hajj has been here about 15 years. "This east side is so badly hit," he says. "I mean, even since we've been here it just looks like a bombed-out shell. Just go down five, 10 houses on the block — gutted out, man. Burnt down. Who's doing that? Everybody's smoking in bed? No, someone is planning that, someone is doing that. Urban renewal wants this area."
At Zakat, government is the enemy, an oppressive force that stomps on people's rights and locks others in poverty. The institute claims to offer a way to opt out of its control. Those at Zakat identify themselves as part of the Moorish Sovereign Nation, a loose collection of individuals who consider government illegitimate and who claim to constitute their own borderless nation of sovereign citizens.
Its office is inside a defunct, 1970s aluminum Concord motor home, parked on the side grass. A yard sign warns of a $5,000 fine for trespassing. Another says "Knowledge is Power."
Hajj, who says he's near 60, was born in Kansas City, Kan., and raised a Baptist.
"We practically could say we lived in the church," he says. "My mother was an organist for the church, and my father was a preacher."
Hajj became a Muslim in his early 20s, and made his way to Detroit, the birthplace of the Nation of Islam. "I heard so much about Detroit that I really thought Detroit would be a cool place to live."
He began publishing a newspaper called Dignity, which has run for 22 years in different forms, espousing a blend of Moorish Science and Nation of Islam tenets. It's now a zine, available at the institute. "I have a sincere desire to speak to people," Hajj says. "I had a bullhorn in Kansas City. I would speak to people through a bullhorn at the bus stop."
As host of an Islamic radio show on Highland Park's 88.1 FM years ago, he interviewed the then-head of the Zakat Institute, which was initially located in a closed school building and later, this house, where it home-schooled children in Islamic-centric principles. Hajj came by to learn more. "The girls were out here drilling right here on the sidewalk," he says. "They were marching and doing different things. There was a bunch of them, looked like a little, small army."
After the original owners left the state, Hajj took over the property. He shares duties with, among others, Ahmad Rashid. Rashid speaks in a deep bass voice and a slow, rolling cadence, in contrast to Hajj's animated phrasing.
"We're definitely not black, were not Negroes or colored or African-Americans," Rashid says, echoing Moorish Science dogma. "We are Moors and we have history from our people before this was even a country. And we want to make that perfectly plain. That's who we are. We're not any kind of black anything, no African anything."
They espouse freedom from government, and lives of self-discipline and self-sufficiency. "Love yourself 'cause we hated ourselves," Hajj says. "Do for self 'cause we wouldn't do it for self. We was doing it for everybody else, but we wouldn't do it for ourselves." They compare the institute to the Freedmen's Bureau, which taught former slaves self-reliance after the Civil War.
"Our property, our children are all up under government," adds Ahmad Rashid. "They have taken over our rights with our own family and our property; you don't really own any property out here."
Down the street, young guys hang out near battered houses and tricked-out cars. "This is a drug-infested area," Hajj says, standing next to a sign prohibiting smoking, alcohol and profanity on the premises. "We're the positive force, along with the church here on the corner, for stability and common sense and decency."
The institute offers lessons in Arabic and sovereignty legal issues. For a while, they distributed food to the needy. Their beliefs, like radical philosophies often do, find an audience among the desperately poor of the inner city, offering a way out of hopelessness — if not physically, then mentally — by transforming one's outlook. By declaring yourself a sovereign citizen, Hajj and Rashid agree, you can in theory be free of all the burdensome laws, taxes and regulations that make escaping poverty all that much more difficult.
"We've been duped into playing a corporate, commercial game, and we can't see any light behind it no time soon, so we've got to take our lives into our own hands," Rashid says. "That's the basic thing, and that's what we're doing over here, using all the tools we can."
The Zakat Institute is located at 3677 E. Willis, Detroit. For more information, call 313-942-0302.
Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.