The Shame of Mosque No. 7

With a Sex-Harassment Suit Hanging Over His Head, Some Are Wondering Whether Nation of Islam Minister Benjamin Muhammad Is Fit to Lead the Million Family March

Louis Farrakhan's disarming grin belied the embarrassment he felt being in New York City on the morning of July 6. Looking thinner after a year of battling prostate cancer, but still dashing in a royal blue suit, the Nation of Islam leader had stopped Uptown to promote next month's Million Family March in Washington, D.C. Although Farrakhan had planned several weeks earlier to make sweeping changes within the hierarchy of his black Muslim movement, he remained tight-lipped about an impending shuffle in the top echelons at Harlem's historic Mosque No. 7. Once the envy of leading mosques in the NOI, "the house that Malcolm X built" before his assassination in 1965 has been plagued by a series of political, financial, and sex scandals in recent years.

At the center of it all, pulling strings and provoking desperate responses, stands Minister Benjamin Muhammad, Farrakhan's point man for the Million Family March. He is the former Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis, the disgraced ex-chief of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1994, Chavis was forced out of the nation's oldest civil rights group after he secretly diverted more than a quarter of a million dollars of the organization's funds to settle a sex-discrimination claim. Farrakhan rescued Chavis, who went on to organize the successful 1995 Million Man March. Chavis, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, later converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his last name to Muhammad. In 1997, against the advice of some hard-liners in his ruling council, Farrakhan removed the popular Conrad Muhammad as minister of Mosque No. 7 and appointed Benjamin Muhammad the new shepherd and his sole representative in New York.

It has been a scandalous tenure for Minister Benjamin. Until recently, the sordid details of his three-year stint at the 127th Street mosque remained hidden behind Farrakhan's new family-values crusade.

For four months—beginning last November and ending in February—Minister Benjamin allegedly carried on an affair with a young Muslim woman whom he'd been counseling about marital problems. In March, Anita Williams, the former volunteer recording secretary for the NOI's Staten Island Study Group, alleged in a $140 million lawsuit that Minister Benjamin sexually harassed and attacked her. Through a top aide, Minister Benjamin, who is married, emphatically refutes the allegations. "Marriage is so important with Allah," writes Farrakhan in The National Agenda of the Million Family March, edited by Minister Benjamin, "that any interference in the process of the unification of male and female who have committed themselves to each other . . . is a very serious offense."

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, Williams, 30, claimed that Minister Benjamin, 52, pressured her for sex for several months and that she repeatedly rebuffed him. In January, he showed up at her house without his usual bodyguards, according to the documents, first published in the New York Post. "Complaining that he had not had sex with his wife for six months . . . Chavis suddenly grabbed [Williams's] breasts while grabbing his erect penis and said, 'I want to make love with you,' " the suit charges. Williams claims she chided Minister Benjamin about his persistence, pointing out that they both were married. A few weeks later, Williams charges, Minister Benjamin asked her for oral sex. When she refused, he allegedly told her: "This is the will of Allah that the two of us be together." Then he "coerced her into" letting him "perform oral sex" on her. The lawsuit also charges that Minister Benjamin often made lewd remarks to Williams and asked her for sex in his office at Mosque No. 7.

Amid rumors of Minister Benjamin's philandering, Mosque No. 7 plunged into deeper financial crisis. Currently, the mosque barely meets its monthly expenditures. Insiders say it still has not recovered from the brazen theft in February 1999 of thousands of dollars that were earmarked for the Chicago-based NOI treasury. Members of one vociferous faction suspected either the mosque secretary or a top minister's kin, who they claim had a drug problem and had a key to the mosque. Farrakhan dispatched an investigator, who was unable to determine what had happened to the funds. The secretary, however, was fired. "He lost his post because he left the safe open—not because he stole the money," a source says. "They're just saying he didn't admit he made a mistake."

Shortly after the investigation, Farrakhan made a dramatic appearance at the annual Saviour's Day celebration at the United Center in Chicago, partly to confirm his near-death experience from the effects of cancer radiation treatment and also to declare that he had been poisoned. He suggested that the U.S. government was behind an alleged plot to kill him. But in a closed-door meeting at Mosque No. 7, Minister Benjamin told his followers that Farrakhan had confided to him that he had been poisoned in Harlem. Whenever he visits New York City, Farrakhan stays at the Central Harlem home of an influential figure at Mosque No. 7, whom some members fear because of her alleged tendency to undermine the minister in charge. She led a faction that repeatedly challenged Minister Benjamin's leadership, insiders say.

"Min. Ben told me in front of another sister that [the faction leader] was the one who poisoned you," Minister Benjamin's accuser, Anita Williams, claims in a letter to Farrakhan, which is being published here for the first time. "He said that you told him this. He also went on to say that the reason why you cannot get rid of her [is because] she is a close friend to your wife. He said she knows too many secrets. He said you gave him instructions who and where not to eat from. I felt that it was not something that he should be sharing with us. But I just wanted to let you know he played a part in spreading those rumors here in New York."

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