By Anna Clark
June 9, 2009
Islam is part of America,” said President Barack Obama in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last week. But though Obama cited Muslim communities around the world and championed Islamic influence in the United States, he did not mention one community that’s especially unique to America: the Nation of Islam.
Perhaps that’s to be expected; after all, the Nation has built its foundation as one separate and opposed to the US government, which hardly reconciles with the religious and political cooperation that Obama championed in Cairo.
As well, the Nation itself long kept quiet about Obama, both during and after his presidential campaign.
For a long time, it wasn’t easy to find out exactly what the Nation of Islam thought of the election of the first black president of the United States.
There were no press releases on November 5, no public statements from Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Nation’s leader for thirty years. From Election Day to Inauguration Day, the religious movement of black nationalism kept itself out of the spotlight.
Walters is the director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland. He served as deputy campaign manager and consultant to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs in 1984 and 1988.
“There has not been an official word from the Nation about Obama,” Walters said. “It would be out of character for Mr. Farrakhan to have a press conference to make a statement.”
Out of character for Farrakhan, and out of character for a Nation that is learning to be cautious of interjecting into presidential politics. It is just one more indication of how the Nation of Islam is at a moment of evolution, cued by an unusual collision of factors: the election of President Obama, the age and health of Minister Farrakhan, and the lessons learned in the aftermath of the Million Man marches in 1995 and 2005.
Moreover, the way the Nation evolves from here will influence a great number of people—believers and nonbelievers alike.
As Walters points out, the uncomfortable intersection of the Nation and the Office of the President dates back to Malcolm X’s remarks in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Malcolm X described the assassination as a case of the “chickens coming home to roost”; meaning that the violence the Kennedy administration failed to stop came back to hurt him. Public anger at Malcolm X and the negative attention cast upon the Nation of Islam led then-leader Elijah Muhammad to officially silence his most famous minister. Malcolm X left the Nation a short time later.
Likewise, in 1984, Farrakhan vocalized his support for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. But remarks that Farrakhan made that same year drew fire for being anti-Semitic. Farrakhan described the founding of Israel as ‘’an outlaw act’’ and Judaism as a ‘’gutter religion’’—though the minister fervently denied using that term and claimed, further, that he was referring to Israel’s use of Judaism rather than to the nature of the tradition itself.
Jackson in turn issued a statement that called Farrakhan’s remarks ‘’reprehensible and morally indefensible.’’
The pattern of presidential candidates distancing themselves from the Nation repeated itself when the magazine published by Obama’s former Chicago church gave an award named for Rev. Jeremiah Wright to Farrakhan in January 2008. Obama’s campaign subsequently issued a statement that distanced him from the NOI’s leader.
“I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan,” said Obama, echoing Jackson.
And so, as Obama campaigned and finally won the presidency of the United States, Walters believes that the reasoning of the Nation’s leadership came down to this: “Let us be helpful in the best way we can, and be quiet.”
“At the next event Farrakhan speaks at, he will be very congratulatory,” Walters said. “Obama is someone from his town, after all, and someone he knows.”
Indeed, at the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago—which featured rapper Snoop Dogg as a new convert among the 14,000 attendees—the Nation made its endorsement of the Obama administration apparent by selling $10 Obama T-shirts and offering a session for women called “The Michelle Obama Effect,” according to the Associated Press.
In the convention’s keynote address, Farrakhan noted that:
We are blessed today for the first time in the history of our sojourn in America to have a black man as the 44th president of the United States. And although he has only been in office a little over 30 days, he’s moving at breakneck speed to accomplish what many would think is impossible.
Has it happened, then? Has the Nation of Islam, a tradition that’s hinged on separatism, evolved into patriotic supporters of the Office of the President? And if so, how does that affect the Nation’s ground-up community networks and socio-political analysis of American society that inspires the attention of believers and non-believers alike?
This current era of transition in the Nation of Islam is not unprecedented. Its history is marked by pointed moments of massive reorientation of its membership and theology. Seventy-five years ago, according to the Nation’s founding myth, Wallace D. Fard was chosen by the Prophet Muhammad to be his divine representative on Earth and began years of training in holy wisdom. Among his first students was Elijah Muhammad, who helmed the Nation until his death in 1975. When Muhammad’s son, Warith (Wallace) Deen Muhammad, became the Nation’s leader that same year, he radically reorganized the organization to more closely follow traditional Islam. It was renamed the American Muslim Mission and opened its doors to whites and Latinos. Four years later, Louis Farrakhan broke away from Muhammad’s Mission and returned to the tradition’s roots in black nationalism by forming a new Nation of Islam.
“(Farrakhan) came along to revive it,” Walters said. “The question then was, would (Muhammad’s) leadership be successful? Because its not just the religious roots of the Nation that matters; it’s African American oppression as part of its theology.”
Committed to the spiritual and social welfare of people of color, the Nation identifies as the descendants of the ancient tribe of Shabazz, original settlers of Mecca. It advocates for black separatism, including an independent social and economic structure. Members of the Nation have established unique businesses, temples, farms, schools, and newspapers.
“The Nation has contributed to the soul of cities,” Walters said. “They improve community in its culture. Their businesses and newspapers are important in the black community in terms of its coherence.”
Moreover, the Fruit of Islam (the prestigious group of men trained as bodyguards and security workers) are hired or have volunteered for large-scale safety efforts in, for example, the cities of Washington DC and Detroit.
By being ingrained in community life, the Nation set itself up for what would be one its most inspiring and lesson-learning moments; a moment that would point to the possibilities of its next phase of evolution.
In 1995, the Nation under Farrakhan’s leadership brought astonishing energy to the Washington Mall as part of the Million Man March. In unrivaled numbers, men of color convened in DC for a program that challenged the conservative offensive of the Republican Congress, including cuts to welfare and Medicaid that disproportionately affected people of color. It also called for participants to commit to personal responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities.
“The Million Man March was high point of Farrakhan’s ministry,” said Arthur Magida, author of Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation. “Nobody’s done that before or since.”
“(Farrakhan) is an eclectic and electric leader,” said Walters. “Electric because probably he could be the only person who could assemble that kind of crowd...
“Eclectic because he could make profound change in the black community, but the trajectory wasn’t followed through,” Walters added. “The Million Man March could’ve influenced public policy—there was so much momentum, especially right after the (1996 presidential) inauguration. But not another word was said about it. That gave many of us pause.”
“They didn’t follow through on the Million Man March strategy for what to do, and alliances to build,” Magida said. “It revealed the shortcomings of the Nation and Farrakhan’s philosophy.”
In the months following the March, 1.5 million black men registered to vote—an upsurge attributed to its influence. As well, community-based projects were initiated in the March’s wake, including parenting classes and workshops on gender relations. Local members of the Nation ran for elected offices and after they didn’t win, Walters said, they didn’t persist. Walters added that three years after the March, many community projects had fallen away, but their impact was still apparent. Ten years after the March, its concrete legacy was “negligible.” The Million More March in 2005 was not as large as the one before it and was largely commemorative.
At the same time, Walters points out that 2005 had different challenges, naming the Bush administration and an upsurge in drug addiction among them.
“These are things a march can’t really deal with,” Walters said. “The Million Man March had monumental impact, but new questions came in.”
It is the mixed impact of the Nation in the wake of the marches that invokes what the Nation is peculiarly capable of—and where, in its next phase, it might develop itself or collaborate with others for more sustainable change.
But will the Nation take on the challenge? Or will it be patient with the model that has long fed it?
Magida believes that the influence of Farrakhan and the Nation is waning, which he attributes to Farrakhan’s illness; the 75-year-old leader was diagnosed with prostate cancer more than a year ago. While he made what was then called his last public speech at last year’s Saviour’s Day convention, Farrakhan has made appearances since and looked healthy.
Magida also believes that the Nation’s influence is waning as black nationalism is waning, “at least the kind the Nation of Islam represents...
“They represent a fierce, unapologetic, in-your-face assault on American history, American economics, American politics,” Magida said. “I don’t think this the time for that political theater.”
In part, Magida attributes this changing culture to President Obama.
“Barack showed the United States is not as viciously racist of a nation, as determinedly racist as the Nation has portrayed us. I’m not a white, blue-eyed devil; the tens of millions of who voted for him aren’t blue-eyed devils,” Magida contended.
Dawud Walid is the assistant imam at Masjid Wali Muhammad; the mosque that was once the Nation’s Temple No. 1 in Detroit. Walid notes that, “African American Muslims with no relation to the Nation of Islam are very quick to distance themselves from the Nation.”
“At the same time, many African Americans feel a connection with the Nation,” added Walid, who is also the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter. “Maybe they were former members, or they have family members who are. There’s a feeling of cooperation, though not total agreement on theological issues.”
This is an especially notable point: the Nation’s choices in this moment of transition have an influence that reaches far beyond its membership base.
“What people don’t understand is that how many numbers of people in the Nation is beside the point in terms of the Nation’s influence,” said Walters.
Walters remembers Farrakhan speaking at a Washington DC convention centre to a packed house. A Washington Post reporter was taken aback that Farrakhan had come to town without the newspaper knowing about it, and that without any mainstream media coverage, the speech attracted such high attendance.
“(Farrakhan) is one of the few members of our community who could fill a convention centre on a whisper campaign,” Walters said
The Nation’s influence, then, supersedes the traditional markers. It is fuelled by those who empathize with the Nation’s analysis of oppressive systems and with poor people of colour, and it is sustained by the very self-sufficient media, economic, and social networks that its theology advocates.
While the 2008 presidential election hinged on which candidate presented themselves as most in touch with the middle class, few questioned the very idea of a middle; a class that, by definition, assumes the continued existence of the lower class. The Nation of Islam speaks to those sensitive to that void, whether or not those listeners buy into Nation theology and tactics.
Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Vassar College, contends that while the Nation supports President Obama, and while Obama has changed the landscape that the Nation responds to, there remains a distinct place for the voices of its leaders—whether it evolves its tactics or not.
“The people Farrakhan appeals with aren’t necessarily the same that Obama appeals to,” Mamiya said. “Farrakhan’s message still needs to be heard. Obama hasn’t said much about the black poor, and Farrakhan always put that first.”
“Most African Americans celebrate (Obama’s) election. Farrakhan celebrated his election. But there are still needs in that black community that are not addressed—that’s Farrakhan’s role, to address them.”
At the Saviour’s Day keynote in Chicago earlier this year, Farrakhan qualified his celebration of Obama with a familiar call for self-initiative.
“There’s an energy among our people that has never been seen before, never produced by any man or organization before,” Farrakhan is quoted as saying. “But we must not allow our people to live in a false world of euphoria. We must accept our responsibility to build our communities.”
Particularly since the public announcement of Farrakhan’s illness, there have been questions about who will succeed him as the Nation of Islam’s leader. With the Obama family in the White House, and with Farrakhan’s efforts in the last decade to move the Nation’s theology closer to traditional Islam, the question deepens into how the Nation will evolve.
Walters believes that internally, the Nation has an idea of who’s next in line, though with Farrakhan’s apparent health in continuing public appearances, “it’s hard to know what’s going on.”
Mamiya said that Farrakhan would like the Nation’s leadership to shift to a national board, lessening its reliance on a charismatic leader.
“My personal opinion is that the Nation of Islam will continue to want a charismatic leader,” Mamiya said.
Meanwhile, Magida believes that a larger transformation is brewing.
“They need to adapt their political and economic platforms, their apocalyptic predictions based on what we’ve done to black people, or they’ve done to themselves,” Magida said. “Maybe the age of apocalyptic predictions is over and needs to be modified.
“You could say Barack upstaged Farrakhan by bringing two million people to the (Washington) Mall.”