Posted on February 21, 1994 in Washington Watch
Once again a storm is brewing around Louis Farrakhan and his controversial Nation of Islam (NOI) movement.
The most visible component of the latest storm was a full page advertisement that appeared in a number of newspapers across the country. Signed by more than 100 U.S. religious, ethnic and civil rights leaders, the advertisement denounced the leadership of the NOI for “verbal attacks on whites, women, Jews, Catholics, Arabs, gays, and African Americans who criticize their persistently divisive message.”
This recent round of attacks against the NOI were prompted by a speech given by Khalid Adbul Mohammed, the national Spokesman of the NOI, on November 19, 1993. In that speech, among other things, Mr. Mohammed:
Â· denounced Arabs and Jews as “white imposters” who are “sucking the blood” of the “black nation and black community;”
Â· called for killing all South African whites including women, babies, the crippled and the elderly. “We will,” he said, “kill everything white that ain’t right;”
Â· and referred to the Catholic Pope as an “old, no-good …[white] cracker.”
After a national outpouring of denunciations, including strong criticism from other African American leaders, Farrakhan rebuffed his national spokesman and stripped him of his position, saying that his speech was “vile in manner, repugnant, malicious… and against the spirit of Islam.” But Farrakhan went on to “stand by the truths that he (Mr. Mohammed) spoke,” and then attacked those who had attacked the NOI.
Far from quieting the storm, Farrakhan’s rebuttal/reaffirmation of Mr. Mohammed’s remarks gave new life to the controversy.
The most troubling aspect of this new conflict for Mr. Farrakhan is the threat it poses to his efforts to gain acceptance from mainstream African American elected officials. That effort has been underway for about six months now, but achieved its high point last fall through a key public embrace of Mr. Farrakhan by the Congressional Black Caucus and respected African American civil rights leaders like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, President of the NAACP (the nation’s largest civil rights organization).
The embrace was part of a larger strategy by mainstream African American leaders to bring together all leadership elements in their community together in an effort to fight the problems of crime and drugs which disproportionately affect the African American community.
But for Farrakhan the embrace was the public relations coup he had long awaited. After years of being relegated to the sidelines of African American politics, the embrace represented for Farrakhan an unprecedented level of acceptance from mainstream leaders and came because of his NOI’s work in fighting crime and drugs, and promoting black self-help projects.
While Jewish organizations, long-time foes of Farrakhan’s, reacted angrily to the African American leadership’s agreement to work with Farrakhan, the African American leaders insisted on their prerogative to heal their community’s internal rifts and to work for self-improvement.
The controversy that erupted over Mr. Mohammed’s speech and Farrakhan’s seeming endorsement of some of it’s “hate-filled” message once again left Farrakhan in an isolated position as mainstream African American leaders were forced to publicly criticize his message and shun the NOI.
To understand the origins of this current conflict and why it has become so great, it is useful to examine the historic role played by the NOI in the African American community.
The History and Role of the Nation Of Islam
The Nation of Islam was founded in the 1930’s by an African American who changed his name to Elijah Muhammad. Elijah claimed to have received a revelation to begin this faith from a person he called Fard Muhammad, whom he asserted was a messenger of God. Fard’s message to Elijah was simple: He was to awaken “the black nation to the full range of the black man’s possibilities in a world temporarily dominated by the blue-eyed white devils.”
While the NOI uses the Qur’an and a great deal of religious terminology derived from Islam, its theology is quite unique and by any standard heretical.
Like other black separatist movements which emerged in the same period (and were apparently also inspired by Fard Muhammad), the NOI preached racial hatred and division. In fact, to justify their beliefs, the NOI teaches that all men were originally black until the evil scientist Yacub broke the will of God and created the mutant white species. The evil whites then came to dominate the earth and enslave blacks.
According to the theology of the NOI not only Jews, but Arabs also are part this evil white race which has usurped all the world’s wealth and power – and even Islam – from the black race. The “call” of the NOI is, therefore, simple: Blacks should wake up, recognize their true power, separate from white society and work to regain their rightful power and place in God’s plan for the world.
Elijah’s message proved quite attractive to many dispossessed blacks because it had both economic and political themes. The religion grew to include more than 250,000 believers in the late 1950’s.
As the NOI grew, so did the mystique around Elijah. Reading the literature of the NOI suggests that Elijah himself was claiming to be a prophet of God and there are even intimations that he might be the messiah.
Because the NOI’s message was racial separation, it never supported, and even actively opposed, the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. The NOI did not want equal rights; it wanted power and black separation, so it inspired and allied not with the civil rights movement but with the many black separatist, African cultural nationalists and militant black liberation groups (such as the Black Panthers) during the ferment of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
While the NOI never grew to the size of the NAACP or other civil rights groups, its influence among angry African American youths was considerable.
When Elijah died in 1975 the movement underwent a dramatic shift. The NOI’s national spokesman Louis Farrakhan was passed over for the group’s leadership in favor of Elijah’s son Warith Deen Muhammad. Warith Deen changed the name of the group to the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, sold off most of the group’s economic assets that had been built up by his father, and moved to integrate the movement’s followers with Sunni Islam.
Warith Deen was largely successful in his efforts to bring his community into the mainstream. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans joined his call and began to practice orthodox Islam and integrated themselves into the larger Muslim communities in the U.S. Today African Americans make up 40% of the U.S. Muslim community.
After watching this change for close to three years, Farrakhan finally broke with Warith Deen in 1978 and restarted the NOI, declaring himself to be the true descendant of the racial separation theology of Elijah Muhammad. While Warith Deen can point to over 1,000,000 African American orthodox Muslims, Farrakhan’s movement numbers only about 25,000. But these numbers do not tell the entire story.
Farrakhan’s appeal, like that of Elijah’s, extends well beyond those who convert, join the movement and accept its discipline. With its message of black pride, anti-white anger combined with self-help and economic power, the NOI strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of millions of African Americans.
One prominent African American political scientist has described Farrakhan as “a measure of the depth of black alienation from white America.” The more angry blacks are, the more successful Farrakhan will be. Ironically, the more that white leaders attack him the more popular Farrakhan becomes in some quarters of the African American community.
From 1978 to 1983 Farrakhan continued hostility toward black civil rights leaders. But in 1983 Farrakhan asked black leaders to allow him to speak at the March on Washington to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 march. While many Jewish and white leaders were outraged, the African American civil rights leaders were delighted by the prospect that Farrakhan might be changing his tune and welcomed him to the march, hoping that in so doing they would achieve an unprecedented unity in the ranks of the African American community.
But Farrakhan’s appearance at the march and his brief involvement in 1984 in Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaign turned out to be no more than a tactical ploy to expand his audience.
Once he revealed that his theology of racial hatred had not changed, the pressure from Jewish leaders and the anger and disappointment of black leaders resulted in a renewal of Farrakhan’s political isolation. But while Farrakhan was isolated from the elites and political mainstream, his appeal among disaffected African Americans increased.
So it is with the current controversy. As before, Farrakhan’s latest effort to gain access to the mainstream of African American leadership has been thwarted; and, as before, Jewish and white Christian groups have denounced his message of racial separation. But it is equally true that the controversy itself and the massive outpouring of public denunciations by elected officials and other leaders has only served to increase Farrakhan’s appeal – and not only among the most dispossessed in the African American community. The treatment of the NOI also creates resentment among even middle class and professional blacks who, while they reject Farrakhan’s message, are also in a rage at the way the white media and political leaders have relentlessly attacked an African American.
Other issues that could be explored with respect to the NOI include the role that the group has played in distorting the view that some Americans have had of Islam as a religion with a universal message and the role that the NOI has played as both a symptom and aggravator of the black-Jewish split in U.S. politics.
With regard to the first issue, it is important to note that Warith Deen Muhammad was prominent among the 100 U.S. religious leaders who joined the denunciation of the NOI. The mainstream and orthodox African American Muslim community has gained increasing prominence and has been able to define Islam in its true form. With an African American Muslim chaplain in the U.S. military, an African American Muslim invited to speak before the U.S. Senate and at President Clinton’s Inauguration, orthodox Muslims are emerging as a force able to correct the image of Islam that has long been distorted by the followers of Elijah Muhammad.
The history of the Black-Jewish tension is a long and complicated one which I may treat in another article, but it would be important to note that the overwhelming and, at times, excessive reaction of American Jewish leaders to Farrakhan’s racism only seems to create a deeper resentment among many in the African American community. In response to pressure from Jewish American leaders, African American elected officials will denounce Farrakhan’s message, but they resent being forced to do so.
So long as tension and inequality remain a prominent characteristic of U.S. political, economic and social life, the anger that breeds the NOI will remain and there will be those like Elijah, Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad who will find an audience receptive to their message of frustration and bitterness.
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