The Slate Gist

The Nation of Islam

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has asked all African-Americans to observe Thursday, Oct. 16, as a “day of atonement,” and to stay home from work or school to fast and repent. His appeal was largely ignored, in contrast to his call to the Million Man March two years ago, which drew an estimated 400,000 black males to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Many predicted the sect’s political power and membership would burgeon after the march. Has this happened? What sort of cultural and political influence does Farrakhan currently wield?

The nation was founded in the late ‘20s by traveling salesman Wallace D. Fard, whose preachings combined Islam with an Afrocentric cosmology. He taught that blacks are descended from Shabbaz, a tribe that came from the moon 66 trillion years ago, and that whites were the laboratory concoction of Yakub, an evil scientist. Elijah Muhammad assumed leadership of the sect after Fard’s death in 1934, proclaiming Fard an incarnation of Allah and himself Fard’s prophet. The nation, headquartered in Chicago, grew rapidly during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s thanks largely to proselytizing by Malcolm X. Temples appeared in major U.S. cities, drawing mainly the young and the poor. Heavyweight champion Cassius Clay joined the group in 1964 and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son Wallace Deen was named his successor. The very next year, Wallace Deen disbanded the nation; rescinded most of his father’s teachings; became an observant Sunni Muslim; and set up a new organization, which he still leads, the World Community of al-Islam. Soon after, Farrakhan, a Nation of Islam stalwart and former calypso singer, re-established the nation in line with its original tenets. With his provocative speeches, Farrakhan receives more attention than Wallace Deen–most notably his reference to Judaism as “a gutter religion” and his declaration that Hitler was “a great man.” Most members of the former nation remain loyal to Wallace Deen’s organization. The two groups squabble over the legitimacy of Farrakhan’s claim to be Muhammad’s true heir.

The nation closely guards the scale of its operations. Estimates fix membership between 20,000 and 200,000. Close observers agree that the sect’s membership has not grown in the last two years. And according to the best guesses, the nation runs nearly 50 mosques and 25 student associations on college campuses. Nobody is sure how much real estate or how many corporations it owns. Court papers confirm that the nation runs a newspaper (the Final Call), a toiletry company, a Chicago restaurant, a Georgia produce farm, and a private securities firm. According to the Washington Post, 74 lawsuits were filed against the nation between 1986 and 1996 demanding $1.9 million in back payments.

The nation received unprecedented attention in 1994 and 1995 following a publicized speech by nation spokesman Khalid Muhammad about a Jewish cabal. Nation speakers soon appeared on major college campuses, grabbing headlines and sparking confrontations between black and Jewish students. The strident defense of Farrakhan by middle-class students bespoke Farrakhan’s growing popularity with the black bourgeoisie.

Interest in the nation seems to correlate with the negative media it generates. Following Mike Wallace’s 1959 television documentary on the nation, The Hate That Hate Produced, and denunciations of 1984 presidential candidate Jesse Jackson for failing to repudiate Farrakhan, membership in the nation rose.

Upon re-creating the nation, Farrakhan repealed Elijah Muhammad’s prohibition on the group’s participation in electoral politics. Aside from maintaining relationships with black politicians like Jackson and perennial New York candidate Al Sharpton, he has announced grander designs. Farrakhan says he is interested in becoming a presidential adviser and that the nation will begin fielding its own candidates.

A paucity of charismatic black leaders has helped focus attention on Farrakhan; and the nation’s brand of black nationalism, which emphasizes self-help, jibed with growing black frustration with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Yet the nation failed to parlay its biggest public-relations success–the October 1995 Million Man March–into greater influence and membership. The march is credited with having boosted black self-esteem, but Farrakhan’s three-hour, meandering speech at the march alienated potential followers. Especially disconcerting was said to be his lengthy disquisition on numerology. Many accounts of the march downplayed the nation’s presence. For evidence, see Spike Lee’s docudrama about the march, Get on the Bus, which contains few references to Farrakhan.

A recurring battle with prostate cancer has debilitated the 64-year-old Farrakhan. (He markets his own remedies, which include a controversial, developed-in-Africa AIDS medication, through Nation of Islam grocers.) Though he continues to tour regularly, his speeches are said to have become less charismatic and less appealing. Rally attendance is much scantier today than in 1994 and 1995, and he wins far fewer headlines than he did then.

Farrakhan’s foreign-policy adventures in the months following the march also discredited him. Especially damning is Farrakhan’s close relationship with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. In January 1996, Qaddafi promised the nation a $1-billion gift, which has not been received because of U.S. sanctions against Libya. Black newspapers have editorialized against Farrakhan’s visits with African dictators.

The nation has recently considered leaning toward the mainstream right to expand its influence. Columnist Robert Novak, supply-side evangelist Jude Wanniski, and Jack Kemp have all praised Farrakhan’s self-help program, noting the similarities to their own conservative urban policy. Wanniski, who invited Farrakhan to a conference last spring, argues that a Republican-nation alliance could guarantee an unbeatable electoral majority for the GOP. Wanniski and company have been drubbed by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal, and other conservatives for their flirtations with Farrakhan.

Taking an ecumenical tack, nation officials in Chicago recently issued edicts commanding preachers to back off their anti-Semitic rhetoric. Last spring, the group also recruited Benjamin Muhammad (a k a Benjamin Chavis), an ordained United Church of Christ minister and former head of the NAACP. Chavis was ousted after revelations that he used NAACP funds to settle sexual-harassment suits filed against him by former employees. Chavis and Farrakhan both argue that Christianity and the nation are incompatible, and many predict that the 49-year-old Chavis will ultimately succeed Farrakhan.

The nation’s promotion of black capitalism has not translated into financial success. Many of its companies are deep in debt and owe the Internal Revenue Service millions. Other nation products–its purported AIDS cure, for instance–have undermined their claim that black businesses are less exploitative than white ones. Meanwhile, many members gripe that while the nation’s businesses founder, Farrakhan and his closest advisers live in opulence, owning multiple homes and driving luxury cars.