By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
He was Louis Farrakhan's handpicked general, a fire-in-the-belly soldier some in the Nation of Islam hoped would guide scores of wayward Muslims back to the disheveled black separatist theocracy. But 16 months after Farrakhan tried to elevate the convicted killer of Malcolm X from cold-blooded assassin to civil rights leader, Muhammad Abdul Aziz remains a tragic footnote in the tumultuous history of the black Muslim movement.
The National Board of Laborers a junta set up by Farrakhan to run the Nation while he battles prostate cancer last month removed Aziz from his post as East Coast regional security chief. While various motives for Aziz's removal have been advanced, the sudden shake-up also affects his high- profile role as the top military officer at Harlem's troubled Mosque No. 7, the Voice has learned.
Aziz, 60, then known as Norman 3X Butler, was one of three men convicted in 1966 of the February 21, 1965, assassination of Malcolm X, who was shot 16 times as he spoke at a rally at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom. He served 19 years in prison before being paroled in 1985.
In March 1998, the Voice first reported that Farrakhan had hired Aziz to reorganize the NOI's elite Fruit of Islam paramilitary guards. But the appointment coming less than a year after the death of Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, who died in 1997 from burns suffered in a fire set by her grandson unnerved even Farrakhan's most ardent supporters. Prior to a public reconciliation with Farrakhan in 1995, Shabazz believed Farrakhan played a role in her husband's death. Although the minister conceded in 1994 that he "helped create the atmosphere" that encouraged the killing, he has denied ordering Malcolm's assassination.
Aziz has been replaced by Majeed Muhammad, 41, the former captain of Mosque No. 25 in Newark. In hailing Majeed's appointment, a black Muslim insider described him as a by-the-book soldier who chews "hot rusty nails with his coffee."
In 1995, Majeed, then known as Carnell Chase, was sentenced to one to three years in prison for second-degree assault in connection with a July 1994 incident at Kennedy Airport. Majeed, along with other members of Farrakhan's security team, was awaiting Farrakhan's arrival from Mexico when Majeed got into an argument with an officer over whether he was parked illegally outside the Delta Airlines terminal. Majeed then allegedly pushed Officer Kenneth Kodak in front of an oncoming car; the officer was struck and seriously injured.
Just as Aziz's appointment baffled some of Farrakhan's followers, his dismissal sent shock waves through the tiny flock at the 127th Street temple. "Everybody's asking what happened," says a member. "The whole thing was so hostile and bitter."
(Aziz could not be reached for comment.)
In a telephone interview, Mosque No. 7's chief minister, Benjamin F. Muhammad, acknowledged that Aziz had been bounced from the top positions, but Minister Benjamin insisted that the captain's departure was "an orderly transition." He said Aziz will be working closely with the National Board of Laborers, which is deciding on his next assignment, and has not left the Nation.
"No one sits in a permanent post," Minister Benjamin said. "The term limits of the post are determined by our own internal rules and procedures."
Asked why Aziz's tenure was cut short when Farrakhan had long wooed the martial arts expert to help him "raise a nation of men," Minister Benjamin slammed the door on an explanation. "That is the private internal affairs of the Nation," he replied.
But the Voice has learned of another possible reason for Aziz's dismissal. "The Board of Laborers prevailed finally on Minister Benjamin to dismiss Aziz because of what they described as 'a lack of productivity' on Aziz's part," says a source with strong ties to some officials at Mosque No. 7. "Minister Benjamin has struggled the last few months to get Aziz to see where the contention was, and that it was coming to a point where he could not defend keeping him in his posts. His 'lack of productivity' was so resounding."
When Farrakhan appointed Aziz, insiders say, he expected one of the Nation's foremost "military geniuses" to help rescue the historic Mosque No. 7 from threatened economic and political demise.
"His appointment brought tremendous curiosity and excitement. A lot of people came out; mosque attendance was very strong," says one member. "But Aziz and the mosque leadership were going through a period where they were preaching to the choir."
Other mosques in smaller cities were beginning to outshine New York in competitive sales of the Nation's newspaper, The Final Call, and financial contributions to "the Black House," internal slang for the Chicago-based NOI palace where Farrakhan lives. The mosque was in such bad shape that Farrakhan eventually was forced to loan its leaders the entire $330,000 that was required to purchase the building from a Masons group.
Although Chicago was repaid, some in the mosque began to focus attention on Aziz, who is a security consultant and allegedly was devoting most of his time to an outside Muslim security firm."Other interests had developed for him that became a problem," claims an NOI source. "He hired the Muslim community to work for him, and it was a good business, but it caused a conflict with his duties," the source continues. "His regional post is a 24-hour job."