Amazing Grace

Why Louis Farrakhan is Desperate to Meet Joe Lieberman

Amid growing unrest inside his black Muslim movement—turmoil triggered by allegations of sexual misconduct, adultery, wife beating, mounting financial woes, deviation from the "hate Whitey" rhetoric, and squabbling over a successor—embattled Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has turned to "gutter politics" in a desperate attempt to save his "ghetto religion." On the eve of the Million Family March in Washington, D.C., which NOI organizers say is open to families of all religions, including Jews, Farrakhan is aggressively pursuing a meeting with Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.

Last week, Lieberman, the first Jewish politician to run on a major U.S. political ticket, reiterated in an interview with American Urban Radio Networks that he was open to meeting with Farrakhan to promote reconciliation in the United States. "I'd be open to sitting and talking to Minister Farrakhan," Lieberman told Reuters last month. "I have respect for him." An NOI official familiar with "the exhaustive planning for a possible meeting" refused to confirm or deny one insider's claim that both camps met secretly recently to "iron out anticipated obstacles" to the unprecedented face-to-face. "I said I, too, would welcome a meeting with Senator Lieberman, knowing that if such a meeting took place it . . . could be a bridge between the black community and the Jewish community," Farrakhan said Sunday on Kiss-FM's Open Line.

The mere prospect of a Farrakhan-Lieberman meeting has enraged groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Republican Jewish Coalition. In an open letter to Vice President Al Gore, which ran as a full-page ad in last Thursday's New York Times, the Coalition urged Gore to ask Lieberman "not to meet with Minister Farrakhan," as it would give "unmerited legitimacy" to the man who once referred to Judaism as a "dirty religion." On October 1, before leaving for Africa, Farrakhan lashed out at his critics.

"It's sick and it's sad that Russia and America could be at odds and Reagan could call the Soviet Union the 'evil empire,' yet there was dialogue," he said on Open Line. "At the height of the Iranian conflict, America quietly sent members of the government into Iran to see what they could do to effect change and release hostages. It seems to me that this no-talk policy between people who disagree is a silly policy. It is uncivilized, it is undemocratic, and it is really the height of [an] un-American policy. The grip [that] the ADL [has] over well-meaning Jewish people, who would like to sit down and dialogue, must be broken. And Mr. Lieberman, I hope, would take the step in breaking this wicked hold that they have, because I think they do nothing but use me to make money for themselves."

While Farrakhan awaits a meeting with Lieberman, some black Muslims, anguished over the rift inside the NOI, fear that the minister, who is battling prostate cancer, has lost control of the 91 mosques that make up his religious empire. People are defecting to Orthodox Islamic groups. "I think many others want to leave, but they don't know how," says Bashir Muhammad Akinyele, cofounder of the Pan Afrikan Muslim Association, who says he was forced out of Mosque No. 25 in Newark, New Jersey, for speaking out. "When I was a part of the organization, our numbers were much greater. There was a higher spirit. You saw more of the FOI [Fruit of Islam] soldiers selling The Final Call. There are many brothers and sisters who stepped off, who left the mosques, for various reasons. Most of it involves contradictions and inconsistencies in Nation of Islam teachings and money."

At a time when the Nation of Islam is saddled with debt, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi allegedly has asked Louis Farrakhan to repay millions in loans the Nation obtained from the Islamic Call Society and other agencies of the Libyan government. "Qaddafi has called in those loans," claims a top black Muslim insider with ties to several Islamic organizations supportive of Libya. "This is a fact," he insists. "There is nothing Farrakhan can do. His representatives went to Libya and met those people and talked to them about trying to negotiate something. But they want the money back. These were loans." It's not that Farrakhan hasn't tried to pay back his friend. In 1986, in the wake of terrorist bombings linked to Qaddafi, the Reagan administration imposed economic sanctions on Libya and prohibited the transfer of American funds to Tripoli. Farrakhan sued, arguing that as a religious organization, the NOI was exempt. In 1987, a federal judge ruled that sanctions prevent Farrakhan from repaying a $5 million loan from the Islamic Call Society. One official in the NOI, who asked not to be identified, ridiculed the claim that Qaddafi wants the money back, adding that in any event it would be a symbolic demand since Qaddafi is aware of the court ruling. In fact, he adds, Qaddafi wants to give Farrakhan $1 billion.

The source says that relations between Qaddafi and Farrakhan have been strained, partly because Farrakhan appears to have toned down his attacks on the U.S. government, and has recently made attempts to end 25 years of hostilities against Imam Wallace Deen Mohammed, leader of the Orthodox and pro-American Society of Muslim Americans. (A black activist who traveled with Farrakhan to Libya recently says that Qaddafi and Farrakhan remain the best of friends.)

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