On 29 June 1998, a group of impeccably dressed Black men gatecrashed the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in Elephant and Castle, London. Tensions ran high as a gathered crowd bayed for the blood of the young white men suspected of his killing. It was a major public event and prominent mainstream journalists were in attendance. That action of the Nation of Islam amounted to a publicity coup for an erstwhile fringe organisation. For the next few days, the airwaves and the print media were agog over this enigma. It was great publicity. The Nation knew that that time - more than any other - was one where the police could not afford be heavy-handed with them. After all, were they not the victims?
In the rush to create appealing stories and viewer-friendly broadcasts, the press focused on the enigma that was the Nation of Islam and largely ignored its malevolent side. Firstly, very few stories focussed on the farcical roots of the Nation and the illogic of its link to the Black liberation movement. In 1931, one W. Fard Muhammad, described as "a salesman from the Middle East" had built up a small following in the United States during his preaching about Islam. It is not quite certain if or why he set out to target Black people whom he described as "the original members of the Tribe of Shabazz from the Lost Nation of Asia". More importantly, it is difficult to understand how so many Black people fell for this mumbo-jumbo. Tribe of Shabazz? Lost Nation of Asia? Give me a break (another absurd assertion of Fard's was that the white race was produced six thousand years ago in a failed laboratory experiment by an evil wizard named Yacub!). But then, as the Nation showed once again, the degree of respectability, legitimacy or "authenticity" which a movement achieves has nothing to do with the logic of its creation or existence but with the number of followers it is able to attract. And of course the number of followers a movement is able to attract depends not on the truth of the movement but on the availability of a strong orator and a receptive audience.
On July 4 1930 in Detroit, Michigan, Fard Mohammed met and converted one Elijah Poole, whom he later designated his "divine representative". Fard Muhammad apparently left America in 1934. Not much is known or said about his past or his life after this time. Elijah Poole, by now renamed Elijah Mohammed, took up where Fard Mohammed left off, brilliantly marketing Islam as "the true African religion".
The rise of the Nation came at an opportune moment because many Black people had begun to search for the identities that had been stripped from them as part of the process of slavery. They wanted to jettison their slave-master names, religions and other such impositions that came with their enslavement, but with what were they to replace these impositions? The search for knowledge of self was not complemented by the availability of this knowledge. Very few had the resources to go back to Africa. Hardly any knew where to start the search. Most of the images that came out of Africa were still denigrating inaccuracies aimed at the white audience. There was therefore a large number of dissatisfied Black people who were receptive to any ideas that would show their past in a positive light. Enter the Nation of Islam. They preached Black pride and somewhere along the way, they let it be known that Islam was "the true African religion". Right or wrong, their ideology was invariably lapped up. At that time it did not matter what was preached - if it propounded Black pride, it would get followers. And of course Islam was given more credence by the fact that the enslaved peoples from certain parts of Africa were indeed Muslims and Islam is practised in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
With this meeting of need and supply - never mind the inaccuracy of this supply - the growth of the Nation of Islam was unstoppable. However, its founding fathers must have been unaware of the manner in which Islam spread into Sub-Saharan Africa and the role it has played since then. Like the 13th century Catholic crusades, Islam spread through a large part of Africa through Jihads (holy wars). Thus in 1076AD in West Africa, the Almoravids overran the Soninke and "offered" Islam or death. The Jihads of Ibrahim Musa, were launched from Futa Jallon in 1725 and that of Sulaiman Bal began in Futa Toro 50 years later. Such conflicts between the Islam and the indigenous religions continued even through the trans-Atlantic slave trade until the early 19th century when the Fulani cleric, Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, provoked a Jihad across large parts of West Africa.
The replacement of local religions by Islam was not all through violence. Like Christian missionaries after them, Muslim clerics and traders spread the faith, for many centuries, by educating the non-believers in the pillars of Islam, thereby spreading the religion insidiously through many parts of Africa. The real indigenous African religions involved the worship of dieties like like Orisa, Sango, Yemanja, Barbushe, Chineke, Osanobua etc. At its arrival, Islam like Christianity sought to undermine these religions. They were the religions of infidels and were crushed with everything from indoctrination to blackmail and violence.
Again, the founding fathers of the Nation were probably unaware of the first recorded large scale commercial enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans by "outsiders" and the role that Muslim traders played in this. At least two centuries before the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the trans-Saharan trade saw the exchange of items like salt and horses from the north of Africa with slaves and gold from west and central Africa.
The Nation of Islam had created, on inaccurate foundations, an organisation which shaped its followers' worldview. The bigger the organisation grew, the more difficult it was to admit this error. If the basis of their teaching was seen to be wrong, the authenticity of the entire movement would be challenged.
Perhaps worst of all is that the Nation does not appear to understand the potentially destructive effect that religion, particularly Islam, has and will continue to have in sub-Saharan Africa. Now and again, the dangerous possibilities are revealed to them but they conveniently ignore these signs. A case in point was the first "African Liberation Day" celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London, on May 30 1992. The event was organised by a number of Black organisations, one of which was the Nation of Islam. A handful of organisations fighting (in real and metaphorical terms) for the liberation of people of African descent were invited to speak from a podium erected in the Square. Shortly before the Nation's representative rose to speak, UK spokesmen for the Sudanese Peoples Redemption Organisation (Dr Ben Akwang) and the Sudanese Democratic Forum (Dr Ahmed Abass), took the stand and spoke of the inhuman treatment of the southern Sudanese by the Islamic government - all in the name of converting the southern infidels to Islam. The war in Sudan has dragged on since 1983 and has claimed more than 1.5 million lives. Atrocities far worse than we witnessed in Kosovo were and remain the order of the day. In 1991 it was made a criminal act punishable by death for anyone to convert to any other religion but Islam, and today - on the eve of the 21st century - captured non-Muslims are sold to Muslims as slaves - an irony which should not be lost on the Nation.
North of Uganda, the government Yoweri Museveni's government faced a half-hearted - if destabilising - Sudanese sponsored Islamic rebellion. The Sudanese then shifted their support to the pseudo-Christian Lord's Resistance Army rebels who continue to carry out untold atrocities upon Ugandan civilians.
All over Africa, the conflicts in the name of Islam rage. Even in relatively stable and secular countries like Nigeria, there are large scale religious riots involving Islamic fundamentalists every few years. There is so much conflict in Africa arising not in the name of any great social ideal for the benefit of those for whom the instigators purport to fight, but simply for the instigators' belief that Islam must be enforced and spread. Like these people, the Nation fails to realise that religious convictions must be kept private.
Again, the Nation has failed to accept that Africa has never been monolithic in religious terms. Peoples of African descent have always had diverse religious practices and the one thing that unites us in the Diaspora is not our religion but our fight for equal treatment in society. The Nation has thus made the fatal error of linking religion - any religion - to the liberation Black people. Malcolm X, before his death, realised the error of this and, although still practising Islam, formed a secular organisation called the Organisation for African Unity. He was not going to turn anyone away who said: "I would like to get involved in the Liberation of my people but I do not believe in your religion."
Malcolm X was a very powerful man. He was the Nation's best chance to break away from this lie on which it was created. As such, Black people must never forgive the Nation of Islam for his death. So much evidence points at the Nation's complicity in Malcolm's death that if they did not actually fire the shots that killed him, they must blame themselves for being forever linked to the killing. The current leader of The Nation, Louis Farrakhan, gave a speech shortly before the murder, suggesting that Malcolm, deserved to die. He also admitted, in a speech in Chicago in 1994, that he "created an atmosphere in which Malcolm X was assassinated", whatever that meant.
Another major failing of the Nation is its anti-Semitism. Louis Farrakhan and one of The Nation's leader's in England, Leo Mohammed, have consistently labelled the Jews as "evil" and Judaism as "gutter religion". Farrakhan described Hitler "a very great man". In its published account of the slave trade, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews: Volume One, The Nation of Islam heaps untold insults on Jews. The book acknowledges that "no single group of people have faced blanket expulsion in so many places around the world as have the Jews" but argues that this was the case because Jews were monopolisers and loan sharks, they engaged in "sharp practices" and sold "cheap" goods, and they filed for frequent bankruptcies.
In November 1993, Farrakhan's top aide Khallid Abdul Muhammad made a venom-soaked speech at New Jersey's Kean College. Following the outcry that resulted from this speech, Farrakhan was forced to get into the fray and caution Muhammad for his "mockery". However, he refused to rebuke Muhammad for his racism. He said he could not denounce the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-gay speech made by Muhammad because they were true anyway.
In 1994 The Nation teamed up with middle-class white political group, The Lyndon LaRouche organisation to launch programmes and demonstrations against Jews, accusing them of fostering the AIDS epidemic and promoting drugs and violence.
At a speech in Chicago on March 19, 1995, Farrakhan praised the anti-Jewish book None Dare Call It Conspiracy written by white supremacist writer Gary Allen. He lavished praise upon the book and said "I'd like to get 10,000 copies of it, have everybody read it."
It is over this anti-Semitism, above all, that Black Perspective takes issue with the Nation. This prejudice is just too wrong. It is unpardonable; indefensible. Granted, there was some Jewish involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the Nation fails to understand that this in itself does not make Jews devils. Those Jews who were involved in the slave trade were involved not because they were Jews but because they were greedy. No race, no community, no peoples should be labelled, based on the actions of people who happened to be of the same race. No people have a monopoly of good or evil. This viewpoint of the Nation sadly exposes them as being as bad as those who conducted the slave trade in the first place.
Again, the Nation of Islam fails to understand that while Africans may have been the greatest losers from slavery there can be no innocents in the entire sordid matter. A visit to many of the relics and sites of the slave trade in Africa will reveal that this trade could never have been carried out on such a scale and for so very long without the complicity of the African states. In many cases, it was a joint venture between the local rulers/communities and the slaver traders. So much infrastructure went into facilitating the slave trade. Olaudah Equiano, like many others, was kidnapped and passed on through a network of Black slavers before he was sold off to the white slave buyers. Why conveniently lay the blame on Jews when a good chunk of this crime was carried out by the Africans themselves?
But then, no matter how wrong or dangerous an organisation is, all it falsehoods become irrelevant once it has mass support and this is where the complicity of a number of mainstream Black organisations come in. With the spectacular success of the Million Man March in the United States other Black groups - many with flagging fortunes - sought to associate themselves with the Nation of Islam. Suddenly it was cool to hang out with Farrakhan. It did not matter what the Nation's policies were - they held the balance of power and that is what counted. This prostitution shows that public life is equally murky in the White and Black communities. Principles are jettisoned for the vote. Hitler was very popular in Germany and those organisations which pandered to him, gave him further legitimacy just like Benjamin Chavis et al gave Farrakhan further legitimacy. Then of course the success of the of the Nation in America had Black groups and politicians in England pandering to the Nation here. Luckily the standing of the Nation in England remains little more than a joke.
The views of organisations like Nation of Islam are hardly different from those of White supremacists. When both sets of organisations argue their cases, one cannot but wonder at the concurrence of their opinions. For instance the Nation will argue against interracial marriages, just like the white supremacist groups argue against the "mongrelisation" of their race. They preach segregation just like Hitlerite groups.
One clear illustration of this similarity of opinions is revealed in the case brought against one Nick Griffin - the publisher of British National Party magazine, The Rune - in April 1998. At the trial - at Harrow Crown Court in London - Mr Griffin called, as one of his witnesses, the separatist "Chief" Osiris Akkebala of the Pan Afrikan International Movement. Akkebala argued in favour of racial separatists because they "are motivated solely by love of their own kind, not by hostility to anyone else." Nick Griffin was also able to provide the court with a copy of an interview in which Osiris Akkebala discussed "the dangers of integration" and how Black and White separatists could co-operate against forced multi-racialism. Nick Griffin got off with a slap on the wrist.
Both Black and white supremacist groups start out on the fringes of society but they understand that irrespective of their opinions, if they acquire a large following, they would become mainstream and respectable. They have certain ways of achieving this: the Nation has seized upon the disquiet of the Black youth still experiencing racism, while being surrounded by ineffective Black organisations. Again, both groups thrive on racial incidents because any event that sharply divides the racial groups or exposes the "differences" between them, generates fear on both sides. This is why membership of extreme groups always increase during times of such incidents.
Another tool used by these groups is that of oratory. The world is made up of many more followers than leaders and an orator will make even the most illogical standpoint appear sensible to the receptive listeners. Louis Farrakhan is such a good orator that no matter what he says, he will always have followers. In the same vein the fortunes of the British far right has always fluctuated with the arrival or departure of a charismatic leader.
Another potent tool is the fulfilment of positive projects in their communities. One cannot deny that the Nation of Islam has done a lot to improve parts of inner city America which the government has ignored. Their security organisation, fruit of Islam, have run drug dealers out of black estates and they conduct counselling programs for prisoners, drug addicts, alcoholics and street-gang members. As such , they are seen by many as true community leaders. The failure of Black groups like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) to effect positive change to the lives of the generality of the black people has led to the rise of such extreme Black groups as the Nation. Sadly, every positive project that organisations like the Nation carries out is a further blow for racial prejudice. These acts will legitimise a bad organisation. No matter what an organisation achieves, if it is racist, it should be totally repudiated.
The above-mentioned flaws and falsehoods of the Nation does not include the important point that race-type prejudice - or ethnocentricity - is not a simply matter of Black versus White people. Having lived in Africa, this writer has been exposed to such hatred between local African communities as to render the Black/White racism child's play. The Rwanda case is nothing but a blown up version of what occurs in rural Africa EVERYDAY. It is only this threat of a common enemy (ie racism) that creates a semblance of unity for most Black groups in the Diaspora.
Although this article has focussed on Islam, It is important to reiterate that the use of any religion in struggles like that facing Black communities all over the world is most counter-productive. Religious conflict will ultimately assume a higher significance than the original racial war. While racism can be defeated by logic; while the folly of racial prejudice can be exposed with sound arguments, religious conflicts are intractable because religion is based on faith rather than conventional logic.
Finally, this writer has to confess of, many years ago, having feelings towards white people that were not dissimilar to Farrakhan's feelings towards Jews. It is very easy for one to fall into that trap, but let no true anti-racist Black person lose sight of what our real struggle is about - equality of races and not Black supremacy. No community has a monopoly of good and bad and while we are eternally watchful against those who seek to steal our freedom, we must not forget to watch within our own ranks lest this evil which we try to keep out festers within ourselves.