For Farrakhan's Nation, issue is pride

February 15, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Mosque Maryam is nearly full this day as hundreds of the curious and the faithful have come together to hear Nation of Islam leader Louis T. Farrakhan.

Women sit on the right, with members of the Nation resplendent in their white garb and headdresses. Men of all ages sit on the left, the true believers standing out in their trademark bow ties, suits and close haircuts.

Before joining the Nation, they saw themselves as the spiritually dead people of North America -- the lost sheep that Mr. Farrakhan wants to lead to nationhood.

The group's stated goal is to establish a world away from what many of these people have experienced in America, a place brimming with businesses, good will, high morals and opportunities for black people.

Much of the talk from the pulpit is about these ideals. But on this recent day no one is here for a theology lesson.

Instead, they want to hear about Mr. Farrakhan's brush with the "enemy" -- the nation's political and media establishment and, yes, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which they believe is bent on destroying the Nation of Islam.

They want to hear about how Mr. Farrakhan had confounded and infuriated those forces by simultaneously chastising and exalting his representative, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, for his speech Nov. 29 at Kean College in New Jersey. In that now infamous address, Mr. Muhammad attacked and mocked Jews, the pope, whites and even the filmmaker Spike Lee.

Called upon to repudiate his deputy, Mr. Farrakhan demoted him and condemned the "vile" manner of his speech. But he also stood by the "truths" Mr. Muhammad spoke -- leaving many people flabbergasted.

But here at the epicenter of the Nation of Islam, that defiance is cheered. As many as 1,000 faithful have gathered from throughout Chicago to celebrate their oneness, to gird themselves against their enemies and applaud Mr. Farrakhan for his refusal to capitulate under international pressure.

"Contrary to what your enemies want you to believe, Minister Farrakhan would not bow," an assistant minister boomed from the pulpit. "Remember, they don't like brother Farrakhan. Why don't they like him? Because he is independent."

Those words brought loud applause and shouts of approval that seemed to reach to the mosque's soaring rotunda. And the power of that message also seems to resonate in the working-class and poor communities of Chicago.

"For every so-called registered member of the Nation there are probably 10 or so who would go see Farrakhan speak on a moment's notice, and another 10 who would listen to him on the radio or on television," said Robert T. Starks, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University.

"Black people may not all tune in to his theology," he added. "But they tune in to his analysis."

In attendance at the mosque were a school board member and two members of the Chicago City Council, including one running for Congress against Mel Reynolds, the black congressman who dared to speak harshly against Mr. Farrakhan for failing to rebuke Mr. Muhammad more forcefully.

Alderman Allan Streeter is opposing Mr. Reynolds in the March Democratic primary. And, as far as the Nation is concerned, Mr. Reynolds has caved in to their enemies. Knowing that, Mr. Streeter -- not a Muslim -- stands and waves to the crowd in the mosque as Mr. Farrakhan offers him a political blessing.

Members of the Nation take this talk of enemies very seriously -- especially now in the heat of the latest controversy.

"This is not a good time right now," said James Muhammad, editor-in-chief of the Final Call, the group's newspaper, in turning down an interview request.

The Nation seems perpetually braced for assault: Anyone entering Mosque Maryam undergoes a thorough frisking, including security people.

The same is true at the other Nation of Islam properties prominent across this city's South Side. And audiences are patted down before the scores of speeches that Mr. Farrakhan and his representatives make nationally.

And at Mr. Farrahkan's Hyde Park mansion, security people quickly materialize to politely confront anyone who lingers.

Charges by Jews

The Nation's preoccupation with its "enemies" troubles Jewish leaders, who accuse Mr. Farrakhan of feeding anti-Semitic feelings they believe are taking root among blacks.

"Why are the Jews so [angry] with Farrakhan?" asked Murray Friedman, director of the Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. "Because he unfairly puts the finger on Jews for the black condition.

"Mr. Farrakhan talks about a lot of things that people find admirable, the economics and self-help," continued Mr. Friedman, who is working on a book about black-Jewish relations. "But on that wave of good feeling he sends a message of straight-out, old-fashioned anti-Semitism."

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