The End Of An Era?

Washington Post, Darryl Fears and Hamil R. Harris, Oct. 22, 2006

Nearly 30 years after Louis Farrakhan seized control of the Nation of Islam, the organization is preparing for a change at the top. The controversial minister is battling what he has described as a “life-threatening” illness—painful swelling of the prostate that has left him more than 30 pounds underweight, dehydrated, anemic and unwilling to eat.

Farrakhan, 73, recently relinquished his duties and turned control over to an executive panel of trusted lieutenants, exhorting them to move the Nation of Islam forward and prove that it is more than the charisma and influence of one man.

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Muhammad said the board runs the Nation of Islam’s day-to-day responsibilities. It includes Abdul-Alim Muhammad, Farrakhan’s medical adviser; Leonard Muhammad, the chief of staff; and Mustafa Farrakhan, one of the leader’s sons.

Although they are considered equals, each board member is poised to take over the organization if Louis Farrakhan fails to fully recover.

Power struggles are nothing new within the deeply insular Nation of Islam. After leader Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Farrakhan split with Wallace D. Mohammed, the son who replaced him, and started his own following.

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A change in leadership could allow the Nation to move away from a controversial mythology. Followers are taught that the group’s founder, Wallace Fard, was an incarnation of God and that a scientist named Yacub created white people, notions that are dismissed by orthodox Muslims.

Eight years ago, as he fought prostate cancer, Farrakhan softened his tone and sought to burnish an image that had been improving since the Million Man March. He said reports that he had called Judaism a “gutter religion” misquoted him, and he said he did not mean to offend.

But recently, Farrakhan returned to anti-Semitic statements. During a speech at the group’s Savior’s Day ceremony in February, he was quoted as saying that “false Jews promote the filth of Hollywood,” including homosexuality. “You may not like me,” he said, “but I don’t give a damn. I’m throwing down the gauntlet today.”

Such comments by the Nation of Islam leader are “offensive not only to Jews, but it hurts their credibility as an organization trying to lift up blacks,” said Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization. “Promoting hatred of Jews and whites diminishes the positive messages they’re trying to send. The Jewish people will not sit at the table with hate groups, whether they are black or white.”

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In Washington, Abdul-Alim Muhammad said the Nation of Islam will thrive with or without Farrakhan. “As we go forward, it will not be wise to think that we are going to produce someone like him,” he said.

Although Farrakhan vowed to come back strong, “so that I can continue to serve because I do not believe that my earthly work is done,” some followers, in private conversations, seemed uncertain about his future.

Benjamin Muhammad, who once ran the NAACP under the name Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., wished Farrakhan well and said he is in his prayers. But he said the illness is a difficult challenge to overcome.

Ishmael Muhammad said speculation about life without Farrakhan “is premature when the man is still yet present among us.” He said the Nation of Islam would continue to fight oppression through its members worldwide.

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Others outside the organization wondered whether it could last without Farrakhan’s charismatic influence.

“My guess is that the NOI will be around in some form for the indefinite future,” said Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey, director of human and civil rights for the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation.

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