By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Amid growing unrest inside his black Muslim movementturmoil triggered by allegations of sexual misconduct, adultery, wife beating, mounting financial woes, deviation from the "hate Whitey" rhetoric, and squabbling over a successorembattled 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.)
Farrakhan and Wallace, the son of NOI patriarch Elijah Muhammad, battled for control of the organization after the death of Elijah in 1975. "I think Qaddafi feels he can no longer use Farrakhan for what he wants to use him for," the source speculates. "I think he is pissed with Farrakhan, who was viewed by Qaddafi as progressive, whatever the hell progressive means. But Qaddafi's anger has nothing to do with Islam; it's more about politics. Imam Mohammed does not run the anti-American rhetoric and that's what Qaddafi wants. He wants the anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish rhetoric."
Strapped for cash, the NOI has jettisoned some of its much ballyhooed businesses, including the multimillion-dollar Salaam Restaurant and Bakery Complex in Chicago. "It was closed for financial reasons," a source says. (One NOI member insists it was closed for renovations.) In addition, Mosque No. 2, the Chicago-based headquarters of the group, is in financial straits. "They might be losing the temple; they might lose practically everything," the source adds. In New York City, Harlem's historic Mosque No. 7 also is struggling to pay its bills. And Mosque No. 25 in Newark, New Jersey, a key temple in East Coast recruiting efforts and sales of The Final Call, the NOI's newspaper, is crumbling under the weight of its own financial burdens and allegations of squandered funds. Akinyele told the Voicehe became suspicious of "arbitrary" fundraising drives when Mosque No. 25 officials failed on several occasions to purchase the building in which the temple was housed or bail it out of chronic debt. "We would raise all this money, tens of thousands of dollars, and the money would go to Chicago or to the leadership in the mosque [who] would have better cars, nicer cars, new cars," Akinyele charges.
In 1997, during his annual Saviour's Day celebration in Chicago, Farrakhan blamed the U.S. Treasury Department for the NOI's financial woes. "They are trying to close us off from all funds," he said, referring to repeated denials of his requests for permission to receive the $1 billion award from Qaddafi. At the celebration, Farrakhan was reduced to begging. He called on one million people to make $50 donations and another million to make $1000 donations toward his "billion-dollar economic development plan." Previous donations enabled construction of the Salaam Restaurant. "If you have noticed, in all my years you have heard me teach, I never ask for money," said Farrakhan. "I have to ask because if you don't help me, they won't help me, and they don't want my brother overseas to help me."
In a 1995 exposé, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Internal Revenue Service had filed $354,588 in liens against a Nation-linked security company based in Washington, D.C. The IRS also was trying to collect $93,000 in taxes from a Nation-linked soap-distribution company, which, the Tribune said, also owed $15,000 to creditors. Furthermore, Farrakhan owes more than $1 million in property taxes on the Chicago structure that he calls his Sales and Office Building, and three other Chicago buildings carry a total of $50,000 in unpaid property taxes, the newspaper reported. It also disclosed that the NOI shared at least five separate financial accounts and has ties with a half-dozen other private-security firms, three companies that sell soap and cosmetics, a publishing company, and two clothing firms. Despite the NOI's financial problems, Farrakhan and some of his relatives live lavishly, the Tribune pointed out. "The Minister has turned the Nation into a money-generating machine that benefits only a few while the other believers are constantly being pressed to give more and more and more," Abass Rassoull, a leader in the United Nation of Islam, a splinter group, has charged. But during his fundraising pitch, which also ran as an advertisement in The Final Call in March 1999, Farrakhan pledged that none of the money he receives "will be used for the personal aggrandizement of anybody."
On Kiss-FM's Open Line three weeks ago, Farrakhan berated a caller who asked for an accounting of money collected at the Million Man March. On October 1, in a follow-up interview on the station, Farrakhan said he had "detected . . . in the attitude of the question some distrust and even disrespect." The minister asserted that the NOI was being singled out because no other groups that raise money at events are placed under similar scrutiny. "It was I who promised an audit," added Farrakhan. "No one asked me to do that. I promised an audit. And so the media, knowing how much we distrust each other when it comes to dollarswhen they saw the young men waving those dollars over their headsraised the question as to where the money was going." He said that "three very prominent CPA firms" conducted a three-month audit, and he directed critics to log onto the Web site for the Million Family March if they wished to read it and see "exactly where every nickel, every dime, and every dollar went."
Farrakhan is not as forthcoming about reports of internal strife involving the ideological direction of the Nation of Islam. NOI philosophy is based on black separatism and a view of whites as unredeemable oppressors. That apparently is no longer Farrakhan's way of thinking. For several years, Farrakhan has been toying with Orthodox Islam and made strides toward fundamentalism last February in a public rapprochement with Imam Wallace.
According to some current and former members, Farrakhan no longer teaches that Farad Muhammad, the white man who founded the NOI, is God. "That is major," says one former NOI minister, who is now with Wallace's group. "Farad is no longer God? He is saying that Prophet Mohammed is the last Messenger. So he's made a major theological break. The linchpin of his power in the NOI was that he would adhere to the theology of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad afterdenouncing Imam Mohammed for making that change. How, then, do you come 23 years later and say that you were wrong? In his Saviour's Day address, you see that he's come full circle, saying that Imam Mohammed was right."
The lurch toward Orthodox Islam and Wallace infuriated hard-liners both inside and outside of the NOI. "Of course people in Imam Mohammed's organization don't like it at all," says one member of the Wallace faction. "And most people in Farrakhan's organization don't like it either." Shortly after Saviour's Day in February, two of Farrakhan's ministers bolted in protest. Bashir Muhammad Akinyele, formerly of the Newark mosque, told the Voicethat Keith Muhammad, who presided over the mosque in Plainfield, New Jersey, and Robert Muhammad, who headed the Camden, New Jersey, mosque, resigned "because they disagreed with the direction Minister Farrakhan was going. They feel as though Minister Farrakhan has deviated from the teachings of the most Honorable Elijah Muhammad." Neither Minister Keith nor Minister Robert could be reached for comment. Earlier this year, Farrakhan allegedly thwarted a coup after learning that disaffected members of the Fruit of Islam, the NOI's paramilitary wing, had balked at the changes.
Farrakhan removed Sharrieff Muhammad as Supreme Captain of the FOI and installed his doting son, Mustapha. "I suspect that Farrakhan wants the FOI closer to him," says an insider. "You always want the military close to you." But the more Farrakhan gravitates toward Orthodox Islam, the more once loyal supporters distance themselves from his inner circle.
Among those who appear uncomfortable with Farrakhan's new direction are some of his most trusted advisers who are Islamic scholars. "These people are still teaching the traditional philosophy and are suddenly bucking, too," claims an associate who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are not going along with Farrakhan. If you read between the lines, they are still advocating the God-in-person-Farad concept and Honorable Elijah Muhammad as the Messenger."
If Farrakhan is sincere about abandoning the old teachings, he will become more dependent on Wallace for help with the transition. But sources in the Society of Muslim Americans say Wallace is not keen on rushing to the rescue of his old nemesis. "Farrakhan comes with lots of baggage and he probably wants to unite with Imam Mohammed more than Imam Mohammed wants a unification with him," declares a Wallace loyalist. "Imam Mohammed was sort of obligated to support Farrakhan because of the fact that Farrakhan has made this theological change."
Sex scandals are unraveling the once unquestioned moral fiber of Louis Farrakhan's Nation. Bashir Muhammad Akinyele says one of his reasons for leaving the NOI is the blatant adultery he has witnessed at Mosque No. 25. "Some of the officials in the Nation of Islam were doing things that were against what the Nation had stood for," he claims. "There was even adultery at Mosque No. 25, and there were many of us who disapproved, and spoke out against it."
On October 16, in Washington, D.C., Farrakhan will spearhead the Million Family March. On that day, he also plans to "remarry" or wed for the first time 10,000 couples of all races. But some are wondering whether Farrakhan will deal with the thorny issues of domestic abuse and sexual harassment within his own Nation. Both concerns hit home recently. Farrakhan's son, Louis Farrakhan Jr., was sentenced to 18 months' probation last February for striking his pregnant wife. And in March, Anita Williams, the volunteer recording secretary of an NOI study group in Staten Island, filed a $140 million sexual-harassment suit against Minister Benjamin F. Muhammad, the national director of the Million Family March. In court papers filed in June, Minister Benjamin denied all of the charges.
Williams also is suing Mosque No. 7, whose leaders, the federal lawsuit charges, "created and maintained an environment which was permeated with discriminatory intimidation and sexual harassment." For the most part, Farrakhan shies away from the controversy, saying the case is still being litigated. That's what bothers Williams, a 30-year-old mother of four who wrote two letters to Farrakhan pleading with him to investigate charges that Minister Benjamin (the disgraced former NAACP leader Ben Chavis) sexually molested and intimidated her over an 18-month period after she had gone to him for marriage counseling. In her lawsuit, Williams claims that former Supreme Captain Sharrieff Muhammad, whom Farrakhan assigned to look into her allegations, shunned her and tried to resolve the case in Minister Benjamin's favor.
In one of Williams's strongly worded letters obtained by the Voice, she alleges that Farrakhan was not concerned with her well-being and that he chastised her for going public. "The verses that you sent me said that believers are wrong for going against the Messages of Allah to seek judgement from the devils," she writes in a November 30, 1999, missive. "Nowhere in the Holy Quran or the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad does it condone the disrespect of women or for us to take disrespect in his name. I know that you say that you trust these people, but I am sorry, I do not. I would be a hypocrite to say that I do. I was unfairly mishandled and the evidence is clear. [As] far as I see it, they used Allah's name to shield their dirty religion, which is the abuse and disrespect of women and disregard of our God-given rights as believers in his Nation." Williams tells Farrakhan she has enrolled in a support group that helps victims of alleged sexual misconduct. "It is obvious that no one [in the NOI] understands how this situation has truly devastated my family and myself," she writes.
Williams considers herself a rare voice speaking out about alleged sexual harassment in the Nation. "Until there are some changes in how our rights as women are protected, when a situation such as mine arises, it is unfair to ask us to put up with this madness," she complains in the letter to Farrakhan. "Our Laborers [NOI officials] do not investigate anything unless it concerns them. I believe that Laborers who sexually abuse women in the name of God have to know that they will be punished. There is no fear in them. There has to be fear put in them. Minister Benjamin abused women's trust before (in the name of God), and the fact that he did it again, immediately after he came into the NOI, proves that he did not learn anything from [the] NAACP scandal." Minister Benjamin, she charges, "moves on other brothers' wives, and even when they report it, it goes ignored." She ends her complaint to Farrakhan with this warning: "Something very bad is going to happen if Minister Benjamin is not stopped. He is still, to this day, the same way, and has no intention of changing. He is always talking about how hard he works for the Nation, so it seems to me he thinks that we are the 'perks' of his hard work."
Only a white demagogue would refuse to meet with Louis Farrakhan. He has shown in every way that he has come to terms with American racism and poses no overt or covert threat to the status quo. Meeting with Joe Lieberman would be a not so subtle signal to African Americans that they should follow the lead of the Congressional Black Caucus, which now says that it is comfortable with the right wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Lieberman and Gore. Farrakhan's gesture only buttresses his image as a loyal American who wants to do the best for his nation.