Farrakhan Turns the Tables

February 05, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam almost turned the tables on his tormentors Thursday when he appeared at a ''press conference'' in Washington packed with his supporters to denounce the ''Jewish conspiracy'' to destroy his movement. It was a performance worthy of the original Wile E. Coyote.

Mr. Farrakhan's appearance was prompted by criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume, NAACP Director Benjamin Chavis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, United Negro College Fund President William Gray and others regarding a virulently anti-Semitic speech delivered by one of Mr. Farrakhan's aides last November at Kean College in New Jersey.

Specifically, Mr. Mfume had written Mr. Farrakhan asking him to ''clarify'' whether the views expressed by the aide, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, represented the official position of the Nation of Islam.

Predictably, Mr. Farrakhan's response was anything but clear:

''I found the speech, after listening to it in context, vile in manner, repugnant, malicious, mean-spirited, and spoken in mockery of individuals and people, which is against the spirit of Islam,'' Mr Farrakhan said. So far, so good.

But then he went on to add, ''While I stand by the truths that he spoke, I must condemn in the strongest terms the manner in which those truths were represented.''

Huh? What truths? Mr. Farrakhan coyly refused to say. Instead he launched a fresh tirade against the Anti-Defamation League, Vice President Gore and their alleged conspiracy to keep blacks down.

When a reporter asked directly whether he thought blacks had ''a legitimate gripe with Jewish people, Catholic people, white people,'' Mr. Farrakhan produced a pamphlet published by the Nation of Islam entitled ''The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,'' which purported to quote ''Jewish scholars'' as saying that ''75 percent of the slaves owned in the South were owned by Jewish slaveholders.''

That's pretty heady stuff for a guy who says he is trying to mend fences. It's also factually wrong, as any student of Southern history or the African slave trade can attest.

(Later, some observers speculated that Mr. Farrakhan had simply misquoted his own text, and that what he really meant to say was that 75 percent of Southern Jews owned slaves -- not so out of the realm of possibility, perhaps, but still a dubious proposition.)

The point of such remarks, of course, had nothing to do with

historical accuracy. They served simply to embellish the cloud of obfuscation whose emission was the real purpose of the ''press conference.'' Mr. Farrakhan simply wished to talk out of both sides of his mouth. And in fact he largely succeeded.

The elliptical rebuke of Mr. Muhammad's remarks permitted Mr. Farrakhan to claim the Kean College speech didn't represent the position of the Nation of Islam -- thus satisfying the letter, if not the spirit, of Mr. Mfume's request that he distance himself from his aide.

At the same time, by spouting fresh venom at Jews (the ADL was the surrogate villain this time) and denouncing his black critics as dupes and stooges, he reassured his followers that nothing had changed.

No one was fooled by this performance, least of all the Jewish groups who regard Mr. Farrakhan as the leading contemporary American exponent of anti-Semitic propaganda. ''Despite his protestations to the contrary, he is the epitome of a racist and an anti-Semite,'' said Abraham Foxman, president of the ADL. ''It was the same old bone-chilling hate, delivered with a smile,'' said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Still, Mr. Farrakhan has put mainstream black leaders in an awkward position. They cannot embrace him without compromising their own moral integrity. Yet if they reject him he will claim that despite meeting their demands, they still won't work with him.

Over the long term, this works to Mr. Farrakhan's advantage -- and to the detriment of his mainstream black critics. To the frustrated, impoverished masses still waiting for solutions to the massive problems that confront black America, the leaders' indecision looks like politically expedient dithering, while he appears the man of principle.

Mr. Farrakhan has never been part of the mainstream and never will be. But right now that's a bigger headache for the mainstream than it is for him.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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