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Gary Younge
A nation expects

“In the name of Allah, the merciful and the beneficent, will all FOI members please step out,” barks a megaphone. Around 20 men, all members of the Fruit Of Islam, emerge from a long queue and stand a few strides apart from the crowd. It is a military step - exact, abrupt and self-conscious. These are the foot soldiers of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam - self-declared warriors in a century-long battle for black nationalism. Their hues range from latte to espresso, but their uniforms are identical - bow ties, short hair, crisp suits and the French foreign legion-style hat bearing a crescent, stars and the initials FOI.

They move where the megaphone directs them. Struggling against the harsh gusts of Lake Michigan, they soon become a blur of chapped noses and sharp tailoring breaking into a canter on Chicago’s Southside. Back in the queue, the crowds keep coming. Entire families, dedicated to the Nation, arrive together and stand separately. Women and young girls dressed all in white, their long dresses and headscarves billowing behind them, in one line; small boys, lost in suits they will doubtless grow into, clutch their fathers’ hands and wait in another.

It takes an hour and a half to get to the front, where a human tunnel of around 12 security guards is waiting - frantically patting, frisking and searching, with not a smile between them. This is Saviour’s Day, the most important in the Nation’s calendar, when shifts in the organisation’s political and spiritual direction are often floated before the faithful. Inside, the hall is packed with thousands. Many more are watching as the service is beamed by satellite to mosques throughout the country. To a chorus of amens, two women warm up the audience with tales of their own near-death experiences - recent car crashes, which tested their faith, spirit and body. The message from the rostrum is simple: health is precious, life is fragile and death an unrelenting and unforgiving stalker.

Farrakhan takes to the stage appearing in fine form. To sustained applause, his tall sturdy frame parts the seas of his entourage, as he turns semicircles en route to the microphone - nobody in the audience will leave without at least one glimpse of his impossibly broad grin. But, despite his performance, he is seriously ill. This is his first public appearance for five months after treatment for prostate cancer resulted in “life-threatening complications”. Farrakhan, 67, only decided to speak at the keynote event two days earlier, against the advice of his doctors. His absence would have been equivalent to Tony Blair not turning up to the Labour party conference. Farrakhan’s daughter, Fatima, who is also his nurse, described his most recent surgery as like being “hit by a Mack truck”. And he has at least one more operation to go.

His health is no mere personal matter. As the unrivalled leader of the Nation Of Islam, which has been one of the most potent forces on America’s racial landscape, it could have far-reaching political consequences. “Minister Farrakhan is the Nation Of Islam,” says Arthur J Magida, the author of Prophet Of Rage: A Life Of Louis Farrakhan And His Nation. “The Nation relies on his charisma, his organisational skills and his image as perhaps the most courageous and defiant black man in the United States. If he is sick, then the Nation is sick.”

The Nation, like Farrakhan, has indeed been in a bad way recently. Since its high point of the Million Man March in 1995, it has struggled to assert itself as a powerbroker in black American politics. A meeting to elaborate a political strategy, held in St Louis, Missouri, the year after the march, was supposed to attract 30,000; a few hundred came. Last year, at the Million Family March, Farrakhan promised to join 10,000 couples in matrimony. Less than a hundred showed up. Meanwhile, leading members of the Nation have been accused of both financial and sexual impropriety.

Confronted with his own mortality, Farrakhan is anxious to establish a more flattering legacy. He has no wish to go down in history as a Jew-baiting, race-hating firebrand, as many now think of him, who led a separatist movement to one great march. And while he contemplates the organisation he will leave behind, potential successors are waiting in the aisles. But movements like the Nation are not well equipped for change. Demagogic in style and undemocratic in nature, there is no percolation of political ideas from the membership to the leadership. Nor is it prone to the glacial shifts in tone and tenor that occasionally emanated from the Kremlin during the Soviet era. Change, when it has come to the Nation Of Islam in the past, has been abrupt, fundamental and often violent.

Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation Of Islam, sold silk and salvation in Paradise during the Great Depression. A run-down section of Detroit’s Hamtramck area, Paradise Valley was home to the thousands of African-Americans who had fled the rural racism of the south for the urban poverty of the north. Clara Poole was one of them. She had left Macon, Georgia, with her husband, Elijah, in search of better times. But with low pay and little self-esteem, Elijah soon turned to drink for solace. Clara, meanwhile, turned to Fard for salvation. Fard’s message proved so potent it woke her husband from his inebriated state and made him Fard’s most devoted student.

It is here that the story - and Farrakhan’s problems - begin. It is in Fard’s memory that Saviour’s Day is held. And it is from Fard’s legacy that Farrakhan is desperate to distance himself. For Fard was not a theorist but a fantasist: a man of many disguises, an uncertain background and some very idiosyncratic ideas. He was a door-to-door salesman who claimed to be Allah’s messenger on earth, sent to save his “lost uncle in the wilderness of North America”, by which he meant African-Americans. His complexion was so light that he could pass for white, but he said he was in a permanent state of camouflage. God, he said, wanted “a son to live more like this civilisation of the whites so as to be able to get among them”.

He told his followers he was a son of the tribe of Qurayash, and an Oxford graduate, born in the Holy City of Mecca and destined for a career as a diplomat in the kingdom of Hejaz before he was sent to rescue the black diaspora. But according to Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise And Fall Of Elijah Muhammad, his real name was Wali Dodd Fard, “a mulatto who immigrated to the United States from New Zealand in the early 1900s”. A drifter, he meandered from city to city, in and out of prison, before arriving in Paradise, where he founded the first branch of the Allah Temple Of Islam in 1930 and set himself up as a black Messiah. It was the first temple of what is now known as the Nation Of Islam.

When Fard disappeared a few years later (the last anyone heard from him was a postcard from Mexico), Elijah Poole claimed his mantle. He changed his name to Elijah Muhammad - no longer a poor man from Macon but a messenger from the prophet and the new leader of the Nation. The fact that Fard had set up a religious institution for black people is not remarkable. Religion remains the most racially segregated aspect of American life - more divided than housing, work or socialising. One of the country’s largest churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was formed after white Methodists excluded fellow black believers. Even today, an integrated church would be far more noteworthy than a segregated one.

Nor is it remarkable that a religious institution would emerge from an alienated African-American community. Racism, at that time, was rampant and blatant, and the church was one of the few places that black people could congregate outside work without attracting suspicion. “The principal social institution within every black community was the church,” writes the African-American intellectual Manning Marable in his book Black Leadership. “As political leaders, the black clergy were usually the primary spokespersons for the entire black community, especially during periods of crisis.”

The roll call of 20th-century African-American leadership, from Adam Clayton Powell, through Martin Luther King to Jesse Jackson, shows that only a handful of prominent figures emerged outside of organised religion. What makes Farrakhan and the Nation different? First, its attachment to Islam in a country - and even more specifically, a racial group - that is overwhelmingly Christian. Second, the fact that its racial exclusiveness is central to both its message and its meaning. It is rooted in black nationalism - a political tradition that gave up seeking equal rights with whites in America as a futile pursuit and strove, instead, to establish a political, economic, social and in some cases even geographical, independence from white America. This locates the Nation in a vulnerable position. For while its attachment to Islam leaves it set apart in a land founded by pilgrims and among a racial group devoted largely to Protestantism, its belief in racial separatism left it with few allies in the Islamic or white world. Its isolation was most recently exposed following the terrorist attacks on New York. Farrakhan was eager to assert his patriotism, condemn the attacks, slam American foreign policy and maintain his already somewhat strained links with the rest of the Islamic world - a lot to accomplish in just one speech. He is the leader of both a nation within a nation, and a faith within a faith.

“It stands to reason that we would find ourselves in a particular place where religion is concerned,” says a long-standing member of the Nation who refused to be named, “because no other people has been through what we’ve been through. Our religious expression is unique because the experience of Africans who were brought here as slaves has been unique.”

At the core of all religious instruction lies the metaphor - the symbolism through which believers make narrative sense of their faith. Every Sunday, Catholics are supposed to drink the blood and eat the flesh of Christ. Christians and Jews are taught that Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites to the promised land. Hindus have Hanuman, the monkey god who carried an entire mountain covered with the sanjivini herb to save the life of Lakshmana. From the loaves and fishes to the creation story, religion is filled with tales of the fantastic.

The Nation is no different. Most fantastic is the story of Doctor Yacub. Yacub, according to Nation lore, was born 20 miles from Mecca in the year 8400BC. From childhood, he had a rebellious streak and was eventually imprisoned and then banished into exile. Leading 59,999 of his disciples to the island of Pean in the Aegean Sea, he grafted a new race from the germs of black people. They had fur, were born with tails and walked on all fours. They were white; and they were devils. But they were not that bright and so, in order to dominate black people, they resorted to “tricknology”.

Fortunately for black people, help was at hand. Ezekiel had seen a wheel in the sky that would rain fiery coals upon evil. With it would come “the Mother of Planes, which would hover over space for up to a year and then swoop down to rescue righteous black Muslims from the great white wasteland”.

Along with the Nation’s tailor-made theology came its particular code of conduct, covering everything from diet to personal rela tionships, differing in many ways from orthodox Islam. In his book How To Eat To Live, Elijah prescribes “one meal a day and nothing in-between” as a recipe for health and long life. Obesity is frowned upon since it places a primacy on food over worship. “There are a lot of people who think their appetite is their God; but we, by nature, have been made to control ourselves if we want to.” He warns of the perils of pancakes and hot biscuits. “No bread cooked the first day should be eaten the same day - there is no such thing as stale bread.” And, unlike the rest of the Islamic world, African-Americans should observe Ramadan in December, “because it was in this month that you wasted your money and wealth to worship the [Christmas]”. When it comes to marriage men are advised to marry a woman who is half their years plus seven. This, it is argued, will maintain male dominance in the relationship without it becoming too oppressive.

Within the Nation the obligations are many. Members are expected both to sell copies of the Nation’s paper, The Final Call, and submit tithes. Male members of the Fruit Of Islam are required to learn martial arts. All are required to adhere to the dress code. If a member of the Nation wants to start a relationship with another member, they must make it known to their squadron leader, who will then pass the message on. They may then go on chaperoned dates until they are ready to commit, at which time they can marry.

Farrakhan wants to say goodbye to Dr Yacub, the flying saucers, Ezekiel’s wheel, stale bread and most of the other more extravagant elements of the Nation’s doctrine. These are metaphors that do not mix well with his attempt to gain the kind of status within mainstream black America that he wishes to bequeath to his organisation. As African-Americans are set to become numerically eclipsed by Hispanics, the need to make alliances with other minorities and progressive whites becomes more urgent and, the logic goes, the demand for a separate black organisation becomes more obsolete. “Elijah Muhammad came to us and he spoke to a special condition in us that white supremacy gave birth to, which is white superiority and black hate that created feelings of black inferiority and self-hate,” he said in an interview with the Chicago-based magazine, In These Times. “So he preached a message of blackness as a medicine for our ills. Whenever you are ill and a medicine is prescribed for you and you take the medicine until balance is achieved in you and then you put that medicine down.”

Farrakhan does not dismiss the doctrine of the past, but believes it is no longer appropriate for the present. “What I’m suggesting is that the Honourable Elijah Muhammad knew that the message that he gave us was a ‘wake-up message’. Well, I woke up. After you wake up, you need something to carry you now in the day.” (It is these changes that lawyers explained to the High Court in this country as they successfully argued that the ban on him entering Britain should be lifted, although it is not yet known when he plans to come.) However, remove Dr Yacub and you start to unpick black nationalism and the unique place the Nation holds in the spectrum of black American politics. As any Labour party member will tell you, one person’s modernising is another’s betrayal. Farrakhan knows this only too well, because he has spent most of his life obstructing change in the Nation.

When Malcolm X, once a devout separatist and leading spokesman for the Nation Of Islam, argued for a shift away from black nationalism to mainstream Islam, Farrakhan said he was worthy of death. A few years later, Malcolm was murdered in Harlem. When Elijah Muhammad died, his son, Wallace, took over and followed the same ideological path. “We are not a people who harp upon colour or race,” he said. It was Farrakhan who eventually broke with Wallace and set up a rival organisation preaching the old creed of black nationalism. Farrakhan’s message proved more popular and what started as a breakaway group became the Nation Of Islam we now know. Today Farrakhan questions not the content of Wallace’s message, but the pace at which he tried to enforce change. “He began a process of tying us to the Muslim world, but in so doing, maybe in the way it was done and the quickness with which it was done, many of the old followers of Elijah Muhammad felt disillusioned, they felt betrayed.”

Now he risks being branded a traitor himself, which can be a dangerous place to be. The Nation is an incredibly authoritarian organisation, which does not tolerate dissidence or accept criticism lightly. When Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman reported Jesse Jackson’s off-the-record description of New York as “Hymietown”, the Post had to hire a bodyguard to protect him. Farrakhan had vowed to make an example of Coleman. “One day soon, we will punish you with death! - this is a fitting punishment for such dogs,” he said. Elijah Muhammad excommunicated his own son, Wallace, no fewer than three times.

Following Malcolm X’s assassination, the Nation developed a reputation for brutal retribution. In 1973, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis left the Nation, branding Elijah Muhammad a false prophet. Not long afterwards, seven members of his breakaway group were murdered in their home in Washington DC. Khaalis wasn’t at home, so the assailants drowned two of his toddlers in a bath, a nine-day-old boy in a sink and murdered a 10-year-old with two bullets to the head. “Those cats were serious,” says Salim Muwakkil, who covered the feud for the Associated Press. “There were beheadings and all kinds of medieval, crazy stuff going on. It was a very scary time.” Muwakkil still covers the Nation Of Islam and, despite being accorded several interviews withFarrakhan, continues to find himself the subject of physical threats.

“I hear a lot of people who are very nervous about what Minister Farrakhan is doing,” says Cliff Kelly, the host of a popular talkshow on WVON, a black-owned Chicago radio station. “Among the black community at large, some express concern at Farrakhan’s attempts to shift the direction of the movement. My listeners aren’t sure that we’ve got ourselves together enough yet to begin reaching out to others. It seems to me that we will continue to lose in any coalition where we have nothing to bring to the table.”

Within the organisation, the tensions are arguably greater. According to one insider, at a meeting in 1999, Farrakhan floated the idea of allowing whites to join the Nation. In such situations the supreme captain and his lieutenants would usually physically come to his side to show support. This time none of them did. “He couldn’t find any of them,” one member told the Village Voice newspaper. “He kept calling for them to join him on the stage.” After the captain and his men eventually took up positions alongside their leader, Farrakhan lashed out at them, charging that he was surrounded by hypocrites.

Whether his conversion would be trusted by those outside the organisation is also a moot point. Farrakhan has made overtures before, particularly to Jews, only to be criticised for cheap PR stunts. Most famous among them was his hiring of a Jewish violin teacher who coached him for a public concert in which he played a piece by Jewish composer Mendelssohn. Within months, leading members of the organisation were back to the old anti-Semitic diatribes. Others, however, have been prepared to take him at his word. In the run-up to last year’s election, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman responded positively to requests for a rapprochement. “I would welcome a meeting . . . it could be a bridge between the black community and the Jewish community,” he said.

However the proposed shift is perceived, the relationship between the Nation and the wider black community will remain complex. While most do not support everything Farrakhan says, neither do they regard him as beyond the pale. In Black Metropolis, a book about the Chicago ghetto published in 1945, St Clair Drake and Horace Cayton wrote, “Negroes tend to admire an aggressive Race Man even when his motives are suspect. They will applaud him, because, in the face of the white world, he remains ‘proud of his race and always tries to uphold it whether it is good or bad, right or wrong’.” More than half a century later, there is still some truth in that. Although Farrakhan’s message is often crude, many admire his candour. The year after the Million Man March, 70% of blacks said Farrakhan was saying things the country needed to hear, 63% said he spoke “the truth” and 53 % called him a model for black youth. Only a third considered him “racist or bigoted”. With Jesse Jackson’s credibility still suffering from revelations of a love child from a campaign worker, and Colin Powell ensconced in one of the most conservative administrations since the war, Farrakhan remains one of the most popular black political figures in the country. Among the supporters of the Million Man March was the elderly Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery in 1954 sparked the most dramatic phase of the civil rights movement.

While recent attempts to replicate the glory of the Million Man March may have failed, Farrakhan’s independence from the white power structure secures him a defiant cachet. He has no pretensions to taking office and cannot be rebuffed by the white power structure because he has not sought to make alliances with it. Voluntarily consigned to the margins, he is ideally placed to embrace the marginalised.

When black leaders are laid low by scandal and no one else will touch them, Farrakhan awaits with open arms. Take Benjamin Chavis. In 1994, he was a fierce critic of the Nation. Following a particularly vile anti-semitic speech by a prominent member of the Nation, Chavis, then leader of America’s oldest and most conservative civil rights organisation, the NAACP, said, “Our struggle for racial justice must never be diverted or derailed by the senseless expressions of anti-semitism and other hatred.” Chavis was subsequently fired from the NAACP after diverting more than $300,000 to settle a sexual harassment charge. Seven years later, he is Benjamin Muhammad - one of the pretenders to succeed Farrakhan. While he once had a national profile he also has much going against him. As a convert late in his political life he is regarded by many members as an opportunist with nowhere else to go. And he has again been accused of sexual harassment, this time by a former member of the Nation.

A more likely successor is Ishmael Muhammad, Farrakhan’s assistant minister at the strategically vital Mosque Maryam in Chicago. Ishmael, the son of Elijah Muhammad, has been groomed determinedly by Farrakhan. Other contenders include Farrakhan’s son, Mustapha, the assistant supreme captain of the Fruit Of Islam. Mustapha has both the ambition and the pedigree, but is thought to lack the vision or leadership skills. Leonard Muhammad is another - he is married to Farrakhan’s daughter, Donna, who would herself be a great pretender in the unlikely event that the Nation would overcome its patriarchy and have a woman at its helm. A canny power-broker within the organisation, Leonard has been the subject of numerous lawsuits following failed business deals.

Back at the Christ Universal Temple on the deep south side of Chicago, Farrakhan is playing with his audience like a cat toying with a ball of string. In his youth, when he was a Boston-based calypso singer, they used to call him The Charmer. At times he talks with a soft, cooing seduction, mellow in voice and avuncular in manner. At others he scowls, pounding the lectern with a ferocity that brooks no opposition. He draws you in with reason and sends you away with indignation. “When I said I had a near-death experience, they said, ‘Well, this is a kinder, sweeter, gentler Farrakhan’,” he purrs, with a smile the width of Lake Michigan. “The hell he is,” Farrakhan says to rousing applause, the crowd jumping to their feet yelling “Allah Uhakbar”. The response may be of Islam, but the message is framed within the Christian traditions of black America. Throughout the speech, individuals punctuate Farrakhan’s pauses with words of support - “That’s right”, “You preach it”, “Go on now” - as they would in a Baptist church. Farrakhan is a master of what Marable calls the “black messianic style”. To some extent, this tradition has been characterised by a charismatic or dominating political style. “Those whose understanding of Farrakhan goes no further than his anti-semitism and distaste of whites are doomed to misunderstand and misinterpret his role and importance. Not because those issues are irrelevant, but because they say more about what repels whites and Jews from the Nation than what attracts black people to it. He’s said a lot of things that are anti-semitic, but the question is, does it represent anything significant about black politics? The answer is no. It may be central to his message but not to his meaning,” said David Bositis, a Washington-based academic.

Farrakhan is addressing the lost sheep: those who, for whatever reason, have no shepherd and belong to no flock; the vast human debris of urban, black America who live in areas which look as though they have been bombed - not quite the suburbs but way out on the fringes of city centres. He is addressing the outsiders and outcasts that the rest of the country tries its best not to see. He is telling them that it is not their fault but that they can do something about it. He is finding scapegoats for the scapegoated and demands retribution for their suffering. He is saying for public consumption what most of them would only dare say in private. He is the only one talking about them, and the only one talking to them. Like Malcolm X, many members are recruited in prison; like Elijah Poole, many others are snatched from the jaws of drink and drug addictions.

Eric Muhammad is one of them. Eric, who lives near Chicago, was a petty thief, drug user and burglar who found himself in and out of penal institutions before he joined the Nation in his early 20s. “I was at a time in my life when I knew there had to be something else, but nothing else was really speaking to me.” The Nation, he says, gave him the answers he was looking for. “It taught me self-respect and self-reliance as a young black man in America. It taught me self-discipline. Since I have joined, I have not been in trouble with the law, taken drugs, drank alcohol or abused women.” He is an intense, intelligent, good-looking young man. He talks almost completely without reference to white people or white society. Yes, he says, there are good individual white people but, as a group, whites in America have oppressed blacks and it is white supremacy he is against. While he understands the use of metaphor and parable in religious teaching, he believes that the story of Dr Yacub is a true one.

To understand the Nation you must first understand Eric. He is the core of the Nation’s target audience - an articulate, working-class black man who sees little prospect for his own progress within white-dominated American mainstream. Recruited in prison, he turned to the Nation when there was nowhere else to go. There are no other African-American politicians who speak to him or his experience. Those who tried to do so in more moderate tones, like Jesse Jackson, were very publicly and cynically sidelined by the political establishment. He is not seeking political rebellion but social stability. “Everybody who is able-bodied and wants to work in this country can work. There’s no reason for anyone to be unemployed.” Like the Nation, if he is radical on race, he is conservative on just about anything else

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