A perverse appeal across the racial divide

April 20, 1995|By Salim Muwakkil

LOUIS Farrakhan is on a roll. But his soaring success is inversely related to the health of our nation's race relations and offers a stern rebuke to those who claim social justice has arrived in color-blind America.

The leader of the Nation of Islam was named America's "most effective" black leader in a poll conducted by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group that represents publishers of black-owned newspapers. On Feb. 26, at the sect's annual "Savior's Day" celebration, Mr. Farrakhan presided over the premier of the $5-million Salaam Restaurant complex and announced an ambitious three-year plan that got good reviews in places like Business Week and the New York Times.

The Nation of Islam received free publicity during the government's transparent attempt to trap Malcolm X's daughter, Quibilah Shabazz, in an alleged plot to assassinate Mr. Farrakhan. This proved a public relations bonanza for the controversial Mr. Farrakhan.

He is the only black leader capable of attracting thousands to his speeches. Among contemporaries, Mr. Farrakhan is able to command the attention and corral the energies of the so-called hip-hop generations. His increased visibility no doubt will aid in recruiting participation for the NOI's planned Oct. 16 "million-man march" on Washington.

There's little dispute among black activists that Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is one of the few black activist groups left kicking these days of the resurgent right. While organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League find themselves ideologically adrift and strategically inept, the NOI has intensified its black nationalist focus and is flourishing.

Historically, black nationalism thrives when America is in a xenophobic mood, and seldom has this country been in a meaner spirit. Referenda and legislation that virtually negate gains won during the civil rights era are being proposed and vigorously supported across the country. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana gubernatorial candidate, correctly noted recently that the Republican Party has adopted his right-wing platform almost wholesale.

Ironically, that platform also could be endorsed by Mr. Farrakhan. In fact, the Nation of Islam always has been closer to Republican conservatism than to the political liberalism embraced by America's traditional black leadership. Despite the fury of its racial rhetoric, the Nation of Islam urges hard work, family reverence, deferred gratification and all the other buzz-words that make conservatives vibrate.

"We must stop depending on others to do for us what we could, what we should, and what we must do for ourselves," Mr. Farrakhan said at the opening of the opulent Salaam Restaurant.

This is music to ears of those GOP "revolutionaries" in Congress whose well-known antipathy toward federally funded programs has changed the contours of the community development debate. And with Republican domination stretching into the foreseeable future, Mr. Farrakhan's economic path strikes many as the most promising direction for African-Americans.

However, the Nation of Islam also shares the extreme right's conspiratorial version of modern history. At the group's "Savior's Day" ceremony in February, Mr. Farrakhan charged a conspiracy of "international bankers" has promoted global discord for profit. The culprits he named -- Meyer A. Rothschild and Paul Warburg -- and the plots he alleged are identical to those of racist right-wing groups like the Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nation.

Mr. Farrakhan's focus on Jewish villains differs considerably from the style of "Messenger" Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's late founder and supreme authority. In Muhammad's book, "Message To The Blackman In America," considered the sect's scriptural authority, there is not a single reference to Jews. So, while Mr. Farrakhan has shifted the group's political focus since Muhammad's death in 1975, he has resisted tampering with the group's theological doctrine.

Mr. Farrakhan's legitimacy as leader of the Nation of Islam is still TTC based on his fidelity to the Messenger's theology. One of the most fundamental aspects of that doctrine is the belief that white people were eugenically grafted out of black people by an evil scientist who designed them specifically to bedevil the planet. "Original" black people are inherently divine, the Messenger decreed, while Caucasian people by nature are satanic.

If Mr. Farrakhan were to deviate too far from this catechism of eugenic theology, he would risk his leadership and open the way for dissidents who already charge he has corrupted the Messenger's fundamental teachings.

And so we are left with this seeming conundrum: Were it not for Mr. Farrakhan's eugenic beliefs and anti-Jewish preoccupation, the GOP plausibly could cast him as the ideal black leader. And yet, without those same beliefs, it's doubtful he would rate so highly in the 'hood.

Mr. Farrakhan is a symbol of polarization with a perverse appeal to both sides of the racial divide. That is itself a telling commentary on race relations in America.

Salim Muwakkil is a contributing columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a senior editor of the magazine In These Times.

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