By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Now Minister Farrakhan, I am not coming to you acting as though I am some saint trying to throw stones at someone else. But I'm sorry; there is a real difference between someone making mistakes in their striving to become one with Allah versus somebody striving to win first runner up in the Mac Daddy of the Millennium contest. I mean I truly need to understand this. Why were we left in the trusted care of someone who is acting like a canine in heat? You asked the believers here in New York to help him. But when I tried to help him, he tried to dog me. I am hurt and I don't understand anymore.
From a confidential letter by alleged sex-harassment victim Anita Williams to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan complaining about Minister Benjamin Muhammad
On the evening of July 10, on the verge of giving birth to her fourth child, Anita Williams paused in front of Nation of Islam Mosque No. 7 on 127th Street in Harlem. Her stomach heaved as if the wind had been knocked out of her. Between gasps, the "Muslim girl in training" (MGTs, as NOI women call themselves) reflected on her broken marriage, wondering whether a trial separation with her husband, Kenya Brown, might have worked out had the mosque's former chief minister, Benjamin F. Muhammad, not interfered.
Then it all came rushing back, an avalanche of emotions involving sex, lies, abuse of power, and betrayal in the Nation. Williams, a bonny 30-year-old fashion designer, began to mull over a confidential letter she had written to NOI leader Louis Farrakhan and her landmark $140 million sex-harassment lawsuit against Minister Benjamin, the former Ben Chavis, who was fired as head of the NAACP in 1994 for quietly diverting more than $300,000 of the organization's funds to settle a sex-harassment claim against him. "He," writes Williams, referring to the handsome, charismatic Minister Benjamin in the never-before-made-public letter obtained by the Voice, "told me that he was in the process of divorcing [his wife] Martha because she did not want to settle down and become a Muslim woman. . . . He said that Allah ordained our future together because he needed to be married to a good MGT. He said that he had a lot of enemies in the Nation and that he did not know how to handle the divorce." Williams mentions other alleged victims of Minister Benjamin who, the Voiceconfirms, are afraid to come forward. "He has stepped to at least three sisters here on Staten Island alone," she complains to Minister Farrakhan. "All three of us were going through marital problems. All live within minutes of each other. I mean, I cannot believe that he even attempted something like that in the Nation."
Williams's mind flashed back to her recently amended lawsuit, which alleges that after Minister Benjamin failed to lure her into an illicit affair, he "stalked, sexually assaulted, battered, molested, threatened, intimidated and sexually harassed" her from November 1998 until June of this year. Now as she pondered her next movea showdown that her friends had advised her not to pursueshe felt like the time bomb kicking inside her had been rigged to implode. She prayed that her baby would not be born at the doorstep of Mosque No. 7, this place that was once hailed as the holiest temple in the black Muslim theocracy but now, according to insiders, had been condemned as "a little brothel" by Minister Farrakhan.
Catching her breath, Williams straightened her brown Islamic shawl and gingerly climbed a flight of stairs to the mosque where she had worshiped for four years. Although she expected to be treated like public enemy number one, she was not prepared for the encounter that followed. A top MGT lieutenant rushed menacingly toward the petite visitor. The official seemed more perplexed than aghast: To her and the other gossip-mongers at Mosque No. 7, explains one insider, the identity of the father of Williams's unborn child has been veiled in mystery. What, in the name of Allah, was Williamsviewed by these hard-liners as a vengeful woman scorneddoing?
Observing all of this were two stern-faced members of the Fruit of Islam, the NOI's elite guard. In the old days, according to NOI legend, the FOI, who used to "go out and whip Lost-Founds with pipes," might not have been so restrained: Williams would have been whisked away by the "pipe squad"never to be heard from again. On this awkward occasion, however, one shovel-nosed sentry, apparently thinking that Williams had come to engage Minister Benjamin in "a baby-mama drama," protested loudly that she should not be allowed near the temple. But Williams was not there to confront Minister Benjamin with some shocking truth. She told the MGT lieutenant she had heard that Minister Farrakhan was at the mosque and wanted to see him. "Wait in the street, sister!" the lieutenant ordered, shooing away the pregnant woman.
"I'm not waiting on no damn sidewalk!" Williams remembers retorting.
"You should have gotten clearance," the lieutenant said.
"Clearance for what? Why?" asked the outcast. According to Williams, the lieutenant said it was NOI policy not to allow pregnant women into the mosque, but that the main reason she was being barred was because of her pending lawsuit. "You are not allowed inside the mosque until this situation is resolved," the lieutenant reportedly said. And when the official emphasized that directive meant that Williams was in "bad standing," Williams asked why her alleged harasser, Minister Benjamin, was allowed to stay. Eventually, another MGT told Williams that Minister Farrakhan was not at the mosque.
Williams agonized over the imbroglio during the bumpy ferry ride back to Staten Island. She told the Voice that she had considered "reconciling" with Minister Farrakhan and had gone to the mosque to assure him that, despite what he'd been told about her, she was not an FBI agent, the weapon his enemies would use to derail the Million Family March. The October 16 rally in Washington, D.C., commemorates the fifth anniversary of the historic Million Man March. "I am truly ashamed that after all that you have taught me since I have been in the Nation of Islam, that I could be so naive and foolish," she confesses to Minister Farrakhan in the letter. Through an aide, Minister Benjamin has consistently denied Williams's charges. Joseph Fleming, a lawyer for Minister Benjamin, suggests in one court document that Williams is not the hapless victim she portrays herself to be. "Any harm or injury suffered by [her] was a result of her own culpable conduct, not the result of any act of [Minister Benjamin]," he argues.
On July 15, 1993, Anita Williams became a card-carrying member of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. As a Muslim girl in training, she encouraged other young women to join the organization and religiously attended services and meetings at Mosque No. 7. Five years later, the happily married Williams and her husband would work to establish the Staten Island Study Group, an unchartered branch of the NOI. Their goal was to register enough members to convert the study group into a full-fledged congregation entitled to its own mosque.
Their efforts paid off on October 1, 1998, when Williams was appointed volunteer recording secretary of the study group, according to Williams's lawsuit. The appointment required that she "work closely" with Minister Benjamin, who at the time was the chief minister at Mosque No. 7 and the highest-ranking NOI leader on the East Coast. In court papers, Minister Benjamin "denies that [Williams] was appointed to any position or that her volunteer activities . . . required that she work closely with [him]." Williams, in her lawsuit, asserts that she "respected and admired" Minister Benjamin, the former Christian preacher who had beat the odds, rebounding from the sex-harassment scandal in the NAACP and gone on, by the mercy of Minister Farrakhan, to organize the Million Man March.
During their first alleged meeting, on November 30, 1998, Williams and Minister Benjamin discussed plans for the Staten Island mosque. But the conversation changed rapidly from religion to inquiries into Williams's private life. "Rather than remaining behind his desk and retaining the space customary between a man and woman, as is dictated by the Muslim faith, [Minister Benjamin] came and sat in close proximity to [Williams] during the course of this meeting," the lawsuit contends.
Williams recalls Minister Benjamin cooing, "You're a very beautiful woman." In her letterto Minister Farrakhan, Williams claims that Minister Benjamin bragged that he could help launch her fashion career. "[He] promised me that he would find a financial backer to put my line of clothing into production," Williams writes. The conversation shifted again. "During this meeting, he said that since he prayed so much . . . he was able to sense I was having serious personal problems." But like a faith-healing charlatan who bamboozles his victim, Minister Benjamin allegedly already knew that her marriage to Brother Kenya was on the rocks.
"I told him that my husband and I were on the verge of separation," she writes, adding that she later found out that someone had leaked this information to Minister Benjamin. "He asked me if I wanted to receive marriage counseling from him and I said yes," Williams continues. "Immediately, he began to call me at least every other day to see if everything was okay. I didn't think anything of this. In fact, initially, I thought he was God-sent because I was going through one of the most traumatic times of my life. I told him that I was at a very vulnerable state and even felt like just giving up on everything."
After Minister Benjamin allegedly placed a spate of phone calls to Williams, her "husband became annoyed." But as Williams reasons in her letter, "At the time he was doing what I thought a minister was supposed to do." Williams held on to her lifeline. "The more problems I went through, the more I began to become dependent emotionally on Minister Ben," she writes. "I believed that he was genuinely helping me. I began to completely trust him. I guess you can say, to some degree, he trusted me the same way because he began to treat me like a close friend, telling me a lot about himself and his good and bad experiences in the Nation."
In January 1999, with the sex-harassment scandal at the NAACP still an issue among Minister Benjamin's critics in the NOI, Minister Farrakhan did the unthinkable: He broke with tradition and invited Minister Benjamin to participate in MGT classes at Mosque No. 7. "The next time I spoke to the minister, I explained to him that it was an honor for him to be allowed into our class." Meanwhile, at home, Williams and her husband remained at each other's throats. "At one point, my marriage deteriorated so badly that my husband and I decided that, for the sanity of us both, he would have to . . . leave the house." Brother Kenya moved upstate.
Williams told Minister Benjamin that her marriage could not be salvaged. "He asked if he could come over to speak to me," Williams recalls in her letter to Minister Farrakhan. "I was surprised, but I said yes. When he came over, he did not have any security with him. This was about a week and a half after you were here. He told me that he was in love with me and that he wanted me to be his wife." In her lawsuit, Williams claims that Minister Benjamin said he "had ongoing sexual problems with his wife." After "complaining that he had not had sex with his wife for six months," the lawsuit alleges, Minister Benjamin "suddenly grabbed [Williams's] breasts while grabbing his erect penis, and said, 'I want to make love with you. Where's your bedroom?' " Then Williams quotes Minister Benjamin as saying, "I want to marry you and work side by side with you in the mosque." But Williams "rebuffed his advances, refusing to show him her bedroom, and pushed his hands away."
Of all the women who would jump at the chance to be with him, why, Williams muses in her letter to Minister Farrakhan, did he pick her? "He began to tell me how there was a lot of sisters that was after him but he was not interested," Williams writes. Among those on Minister Benjamin's so-called list of rejected women is one of the NOI leader's daughters. Was Minister Benjamin bragging? "He said while he was over in Africa, [and] had to leave to come back to America, [she] wanted to come back with him," Williams claims. "He went on to say that you okayed it. I was confused and did not know what he was getting at. He then said that I have to understand that 'Minister Farrakhan likes to put his daughters with his key men in the Nation.' I am not going to lie to you. That was information that hit me like a ton of bricks."
Williams adds that she "began to realize that all he was trying to do was gas my head up to be a mistress" or to turn her into "some backdoor floozy." Minister Benjamin, she further charges, "played mind games with me, manipulate me, and tried to completely disrespect me in every way. . . . I will spare you the details unless you request them."
In her lawsuit, Williams does not hold anything back. She claims that "in a bizarre pattern of stalking" Minister Benjamin called her every other day, telling her that he "missed her" and "cared for her," and repeatedly asked if he could "come over and see her."
In February of last year, Minister Benjamin allegedly tracked Williams to a friend's apartment in Harlem. In a futile attempt to keep her distance, Williams suggested that he bring his bodyguards. But Minister Benjamin showed up alone. "Upon his . . . arrival at the apartment [he] grabbed [Williams's] arms and kissed her cheek, and attempted to kiss her mouth," the lawsuit alleges. When Williams "pulled away," Minister Benjamin "insisted" that she have "sexual intercourse with him." She resisted. Minister Benjamin persisted. He "grabbed [Williams] and attempted to embrace her and pull her towards him," according to the lawsuit.
After Williams reiterated that she would not sleep with him, Minister Benjamin allegedly said he would settle for performing oral sex on her, which she initially declined. "This is the will of Allahthat the two of us be together," Minister Benjamin reportedly said. Again Minister Benjamin allegedly insisted that "he perform oral sex" on Williams "and finally coerced her into that act." On several occasions after that encounter, Minister Benjamin allegedly phoned Williams from his office in Mosque No. 7 and used sexually explicit language. "I've been having wet dreams about you," he allegedly said during one conversation. He then summoned Williams to the mosque under the pretext of wanting to discuss business with her. "You got me so excited . . . I've got to take a cold shower now," he told her. In other meetings at the mosque, Minister Benjamin "would suddenly blurt out, 'Now I've got to wait to go outside because I've got a hard-on.' "
According to the court document, Minister Benjamin did not give up trying to have sex with Williams, allegedly telling her during one conversation, "My penis is aching." In her letter to Minister Farrakhan, Williams reveals that she was "messed up," almost cracking under her soul-crushing burden. "Every fiber of my faith was being tested. Sometimes, Brother Minister, I didn't even know how I was going to make it another hour." In March of last year, according to the lawsuit, Williams called Minister Benjamin at the mosque and told him the pressure he was putting on her was unbearable. "You're treating me like I'm your hooker," she cried. She claims she told Minister Benjamin that because she did not want him "to continue to manipulate her," she would not be coming back to the mosque. "I changed my phone number and tried to move on," she elaborates in her letter to Minister Farrakhan. "I only came out to class [on Staten Island]. I mean, I tried to do the right thing. But it did not matter because he tried to hurt me even more. Once I tried to get myself together and come back, I soon found out that he was up to his old tricks again."
Minister Benjamin allegedly persisted "with his stalking, sexual harassment and abusive behavior," according to the lawsuit. In July of last year, he summoned Williams to Mosque No. 7. "As soon as [she] walked into the office, [Minister Benjamin] shut the door, grabbed her by the arms and pulled her towards him and kissed her on the mouth," Williams alleges in her suit. "[She] pulled away and saw that [Minister Benjamin] had an erection, and was rubbing his penis."
"Who do you think I am?" Williams protested. "Monica Lewinsky?" But even that jolting reference to the White House sex scandal, which led to the impeachment of President Clinton, did not deter Minister Benjamin. He allegedly grabbed Williams by her waist, pulled her toward him, and said, "You should have worn a dress."
"My God, Minister Ben, this is the house of the Lord!" Williams remembers telling her unabashed suitor. But Minister Benjamin just "smiled" at the MGT: He allegedly told her she would be "surprised [to find out] what goes on in the mosque." Sickened by the remark, Williams tells Minister Farrakhan: "I wanted to vomit."
Additional reporting by Amanda Ward