He was Louis Farrakhan’s handpicked general, a fire-in-the-belly soldier some in the Nation of Islam hoped would guide scores of wayward Muslims back to the disheveled black separatist theocracy. But 16 months after Farrakhan tried to elevate the convicted killer of Malcolm X from cold-blooded assassin to civil rights leader, Muhammad Abdul Aziz remains a tragic footnote in the tumultuous history of the black Muslim movement.
The National Board of Laborers— a junta set up by Farrakhan to run
the Nation while he battles prostate cancer— last month removed Aziz from his post as East Coast regional security chief. While various motives for Aziz’s removal have been advanced, the sudden shake-up also affects his high-
profile role as the top military officer at Harlem’s troubled Mosque No. 7, the Voice has learned.
Aziz, 60, then known as Norman 3X Butler, was one of three men convicted in 1966 of the February 21, 1965, assassination of Malcolm X, who was shot 16 times as he spoke at a rally at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He served 19 years in prison before being paroled in 1985.
In March 1998, the Voice first reported that Farrakhan had hired Aziz to reorganize the NOI’s elite Fruit of Islam paramilitary guards. But the appointment— coming less than a year after the death of Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, who died in 1997 from burns suffered in a fire set by her grandson— unnerved even Farrakhan’s most ardent supporters. Prior to a public reconciliation with Farrakhan in 1995, Shabazz believed Farrakhan played a role in her husband’s death. Although the minister conceded in 1994 that he “helped create the atmosphere” that encouraged the killing, he has denied ordering Malcolm’s assassination.
Aziz has been replaced by Majeed Muhammad, 41, the former captain of Mosque No. 25 in Newark. In hailing Majeed’s appointment, a black Muslim insider described him as a by-the-book soldier who chews “hot rusty nails with his coffee.”
In 1995, Majeed, then known as Carnell Chase, was sentenced to one to three years in prison for second-degree assault in connection with a July 1994 incident at Kennedy Airport. Majeed, along with other members of Farrakhan’s security team, was awaiting Farrakhan’s arrival from Mexico when Majeed got into an argument with an officer over whether he was parked illegally outside the Delta Airlines terminal. Majeed then allegedly pushed Officer Kenneth Kodak in front of an oncoming car; the officer was struck and seriously injured.
Just as Aziz’s appointment baffled some of Farrakhan’s followers, his dismissal sent shock waves through the tiny flock at the 127th Street temple. “Everybody’s asking what happened,” says a member. “The whole thing was so hostile and bitter.”
(Aziz could not be reached for comment.)
In a telephone interview, Mosque No. 7’s chief minister, Benjamin F. Muhammad, acknowledged that Aziz had been bounced from the top positions, but Minister Benjamin insisted that the captain’s departure was “an orderly transition.” He said Aziz will be working closely with the National Board of Laborers, which is deciding on his next assignment, and has not left the Nation.
“No one sits in a permanent post,” Minister Benjamin said. “The term limits of the post are determined by our own internal rules and procedures.”
Asked why Aziz’s tenure was cut short when Farrakhan had long wooed the martial arts expert to help him “raise a nation of men,” Minister Benjamin slammed the door on an explanation. “That is the private internal affairs of the Nation,” he replied.
But the Voice has learned of another possible reason for Aziz’s dismissal. “The Board of Laborers prevailed finally on Minister Benjamin to dismiss Aziz because of what they described as ‘a lack of productivity’ on Aziz’s part,” says a source with strong ties to some officials at Mosque No. 7. “Minister Benjamin has struggled the last few months to get Aziz to see where the contention was, and that it was coming to a point where he could not defend keeping him in his posts. His ‘lack of productivity’ was so resounding.”
When Farrakhan appointed Aziz, insiders say, he expected one of the Nation’s foremost “military geniuses” to help rescue the historic Mosque No. 7 from threatened economic and political demise.
“His appointment brought tremendous curiosity and excitement.
A lot of people came out; mosque attendance was very strong,” says one member. “But Aziz and the mosque leadership were going through a period where they were preaching to the choir.”
Other mosques in smaller cities were beginning to outshine New York in competitive sales of the Nation’s newspaper, The Final Call, and financial contributions to “the Black House,” internal slang for the Chicago-based NOI palace where Farrakhan lives. The mosque was in such bad shape that Farrakhan eventually was forced to loan
its leaders the entire $330,000 that was required to purchase the building from a Masons group.
Although Chicago was repaid, some in the mosque began to focus attention on Aziz, who is a security consultant and allegedly was devoting most of his time to an outside Muslim security firm. “Other interests had developed for him that became a problem,” claims an NOI source. “He hired the Muslim community to work for him, and it was a good business, but it caused a conflict with his duties,” the source continues. “His regional post is a 24-hour job.”
In January of this year, critics at the mosque raised the issue of whether Aziz was the best person for the job. “Aziz began to sort of let go,” according to the source. The embattled leader, one other insider speculates, “really was looking to be forced out. He didn’t want to leave on his own,” the source adds. “He wanted them to dismiss him so he could continue with his business, to come and go as he pleases.”
Some at the mosque hypothesize that although Aziz worked as a prison counselor during his incarceration, he has not fully adjusted to life in the new Nation of Islam. “Some people thought that it was too soon to entrust him with such important posts,” one member says.
“The transition might have been a little rocky,” says another.
A Farrakhan loyalist argues, however, that Aziz had few or no problems picking up from where he left off. He says Aziz quit his job as director of support services at Phase Piggy Back Inc., a drug rehabilitation center in upper Harlem, where he had worked for seven years, to devote his time to rebuilding the Nation.
Aziz was there, for example, when former minister Conrad Muhammad needed advice, this Muslim says. “He was part of the council that gave advice. Of course, it was up to the administration to respect that advice.”
The source adds that Aziz’s military training came in handy after cops stormed into Mosque No. 7 in 1994. Aziz was a member at the time. Police were sent to the mosque to check out reports of a man with a gun. When they got to the building, which had been designated a “sensitive location,” Farrakhan’s followers refused them entry and then allegedly beat eight officers who forced their way in, taking one officer’s gun and another’s radio. The Nation refused to cooperate with a police investigation, and only one member was prosecuted.
Minister Benjamin reportedly agonized over the board’s decision to send in an investigator; it was sort of like the feds moving in to seize control of the NYPD. A source says he tried to jump-start Aziz’s lackluster performance. “Minister Benjamin understood the importance of Aziz’s role in the guardianship of the Nation’s interests,” the source explains. “Aziz is the sheriff. He’s keeper of the law. He’s the one who makes sure that continuity is maintained between the objectives of the hierarchy and the rank and file.”
Fed up, the board, based on the findings of its investigator, reportedly pressured Minister Benjamin to exercise his broad powers of censure. “Seeing that he had nothing else to justify remaining in his posts, the board finally recommended Aziz’s removal,” the source says.
Aziz may not be the only casualty in the internecine warfare at Mosque No. 7. At least two key insiders familiar with Minister Benjamin’s plan to infuse the leadership with new blood say more heads will roll before the ailing Farrakhan returns to the front line of his religious movement.
“He has made recommendations for other removals that I cannot discuss,” says one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He has made these recommendations because he is willing to move forward.”
The other insider speculates that the changes are designed to thwart interference from a clique in Mosque No. 7 still resentful of Minister Benjamin’s meteoric rise in Farrakhan’s inner circle. “They say he is not a true Muslim because he never stood at the corners or in the subway and sold newspapers or bean pies for Muhammad,” the source explains. Formerly known as Ben Chavis, and an ex-head of the NAACP, Minister Benjamin converted from Christianity to Islam three years ago after a sex scandal forced him out of the nation’s oldest
civil rights organization.
“I don’t know of anybody in the NOI that resents him for converting,” the source says. “I do see resentment for the post he holds. Some people in the Nation want New York City, for whatever reason, and that will never change.”
According to the source, the detractors were using Minister Benjamin’s slow deliberation over the removal of Aziz as a test of his leadership. But their motive goes far beyond wanting Aziz’s head. “If Aziz could be looked upon as being a problem or incompetent, then that makes Minister Benjamin look incompetent,” the source says. “It gives his critics a foundation to lobby for his removal: There are people who want his place.
“His seat is the most sought after seat in the Nation. Nobody wants Minister Farrakhan’s seat; everyone wants Minister Benjamin’s seat. Those that really want the seat are those who are waiting to gain something after Minister Farrakhan dies. That’s what they’re looking at, ‘What can I get?’ Fucking wicked bastards!”
The battle for control of Mosque No. 7 resulted in the dismissal two years ago of Captain Dennis Muhammad and the popular “hip hop minister,” Conrad Muhammad. Over the years, there have been secret maneuvers by ambitious Muslims, some with dubious agendas.
But Brother Herman X, a former NOI minister, perhaps is one of the few believers who truly desired to save the temple’s leadership from self-destruction. In December 1991, he tried to get Farrakhan to launch a silent coup. Brother Herman says Farrakhan never received the proposal, which was returned to him about a month later, apparently because of an incorrect address.
“The other day, Minister Karriem, a/k/a Linward X. Cathcart, and I spoke via telephone,” wrote Brother Herman in the pro-
posal, which is being excerpted for the first time here. “I suggested to him, as I have done in the past, that regardless of what reason given for his being removed from his post as East Coast Regional Minister, I know that he should be reinstated at once!
“It’s rather obvious that New York is in great need of Balm. Many Ministers from the NOI have come and gone, even the great Khallid. However, none has been able to rescue our lost and found Brothers and Sisters in New York and take charge of that post! With Minister Karriem as East Coast Regional [Minister] and me as the Minister of Harlem, we’ll get the job done before it’s too late; if it’s not already too late.”
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir