By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the wake of the Portland Six arrests and the capture of alleged sniper John Allen Muhammad, negative ruminations on African Americans who have embraced Islam as their way of life have become dangerously broad. Anything remotely resembling Islam has come in for searing criticism by an establishment press apt to confuse and condemn people in mainstream orthodox Islam, Islamic extremists, the Nation of Islam (NOI), the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), commonly known as the Five Percenters, and all other groups born out of Islamic teachings. Columnist Daniel Pipes, for instance, wrote in the October 25 New York Post that "it came as no surprise" that the sniper suspect is an African American who converted to Islam. "All this was near-predictable," he said, "because it fits into a well-established tradition of American blacks who convert to Islam turning against their country."
The Nation of Islam was founded in the 1930s by W.D. Fard and reached its zenith during the four-decade leadership of the late Elijah Muhammad, also known as the Messenger of Allah. The NOI became known during the '60s as "the Black Muslims," and for its most famous minister, Malcolm X.
The Nation of Gods and Earths was founded in 1964 on the streets of Harlem when Clarence 13X Smith left the NOI. Having taken the name Allah, he began teaching young people a philosophy based on the NOI's lessons with several major differences. He taught Islam not as a religion but as a way of life, the basis of which is the attainment of self-knowledge and his revelation that the black man is God, the black woman is the earth. The name Five Percenters comes from the concept that 5 percent of the population know and teach the truth to 85 percent, who are being exploited by the 10 percent ruling elite, including organized religion. Men who belong have the family name "Allah" and women use "Earth."
As attacks on African American practitioners of Islam have increased, there has been no major unified response. Although NOI head Louis Farrakhan has acknowledged that John Muhammad is an estranged member of the NOI, the media is still rife with speculation that the suspect has a connection to the Gods and Earths, and that all Islam may contribute to anti-American behavior by African Americans.
Speaking of the sniper, Dumar Wa'de Allah, national representative of the NGE, says, "We are not that type of people; we are civilized. We are not a violent people. We are not a hate group. First and foremost, we teach freedom, justice, and equality to all the human families of the planet Earth, and I want to emphasize that, and second, our knowledge that we advocate to the world has nothing to do with violence. We are here to stop violent behavior that is taking place among our young people," he says.
The Associated Press charged on October 26 that the NGE "spreads its message through prison recruitment and popular hip-hop music," and tried to link the sniper, the Five Percent, and hip-hop. Platinum recording artist Busta Rhymes, 30, an NGE affiliate for the past 17 years, attributes the intense scrutiny of the Nation to its teachings of self-determination, economic development, and community control rather than any negative propaganda. "What the fuck do the Five Percent got to do with the sniper? How could they do that? How could they put Brand Nubian, Wu-Tang, and Busta Rhymes as a part of the same culture [as the sniper]as if we are influenced in the same way, and we are capable of shooting somebody on some bullshit because of the Five Percent influence? At the end of the day, [the NGE's] always been a threat because we're the truth, and they've been trying to conceal it. I ain't gonna be compromised through none of this."
Pipes claims there is a "well-established pattern of alienation, radicalism, and violence among black American converts to Islam." And he even asks, "To what extent does Islam attract the disaffected, to what extent does it actively turn them against their country?" Rosa Clemente, 30, an organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Know Thyself Speakers Bureau founder, says the media should look elsewhere for the causes of dissatisfaction among African Americans.
"They talk about what music [John Muhammad] listened to, [and] that he was in the NOI, but they never talk about the fact that he was in the United States military," says Clemente. "And if he did commit these acts, it's the training from the military that perpetuated that. You don't need Five Percenters to do anything extreme. This is an extreme country that uses violence to get what it wants, to have imperial domain over the world."
After studying with the NGE for seven years, this reporter was appalled to read many of the items in the press. The abundance of misconceptions, half-truths, and loaded facts that has been printed in regard to the NGE suggests shoddy research. For instance, in the speculation that Muhammad may have been connected to the Gods and Earths, reporters missed the fact that the NGE does not use Muhammad as a family name. The AP wrongly stated that the Nation rejects "most accepted history, authority and religion." Significance was attached to Muhammad's phrase "Word is bond," which has a common street usage. Additionally, five stars were reported to be among the NGE symbols. "We do not use five stars," says Wa'de Allah. "Our universal flag consists of the Sun, Moon, and star. We use one star."
While there may not be a media conspiracy to smear the Gods and Earths, the potential for inaccuracies when reporting on an esoteric entity is increased when sources come from outside the group. Exchanges obtained by the Voice between USA Today writer Mark Goldblatt and two NGE adherents angered by a October 29 column in which he called the NGE "virulently racist" are illustrative. "What bothered me," says 27-year-old Irize Refined Earth, a Philadelphia music industry executive who wrote Goldblatt, "is that he didn't make any attempt to contact anybody from the Nation to get information." In a response letter to Eboni Joy Asiatic Earth, who also wrote him, Goldblatt admitted using sources other than the NGE, but did not see this as a problem.
Goldblatt wrote to Irize Earth, "You are inspiring the most hateful, misguided, delusional art ever to emerge from black culture, and thus you are indirectly undermining the confidence of young black people that America is their nation as much as anyone'sa confidence which they need in order to succeed." Irize Earth protests, "He was saying that the Nation on a whole is violent, and I definitely disagree with that. I've never learned racism from the Nation." Asiatic Earth noted that Goldblatt based several assumptions on hip-hop lyrics, such as those from Da Lench Mob, but "you have not quoted our founder, Allah, who said, 'We are neither pro-black, nor anti-white. We are pro-righteousness and anti-devilishment.' "
In Seattle, where Muhammad was a member of a small NOI study group, the local NGE is unfazed by press postulations. Wyking Allah, 25, a member of the community, says they are actively working toward the betterment of the community by establishing schools and African-heritage museums, serving on corporate boards, and even running for political office. "We remain focused on building programs that cultivate our youth to help them realize their potential as leaders of the free world," he says.
"Never in any way, shape, fashion, or form," says Rhymes, "have I personally or any God or Earth ever communicated verbally or through action any kind of information that would implicate that this is something that is being taught, or in the slightest way discussed in any aspect, [within] the God Nation. We don't advocate no violence. We can't even be productive in any way unless we're dealing with it peacefully."