Farrakhan To Make His Last Major Address

AP, Feb 22, 2007

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is heading into what’s billed as his final major address Sunday, and some Muslims are wondering if the fiery orator—now slowed by poor health—will try to repair old divisions between his movement and mainstream Islam.

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The 73-year-old Farrakhan was released last month from the hospital after undergoing a 12-hour abdominal operation to correct damage caused by treatment for prostate cancer. A statement from the Nation at the time said Farrakhan “doesn’t see himself coming before the public on such a major stage as we are preparing in Detroit.” He might, however, honor lesser engagements.

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Farrakhan rebuilt the movement in the late 1970s after W.D. Mohammed, the son of longtime nation leader Elijah Muhammad, moved his followers toward mainstream Islam.

Farrakhan angered many Americans in the process.

He became notorious for his provocative comments, calling Judaism a “gutter religion” and suggesting crack cocaine might have been a CIA plot to enslave blacks. He met with foreign leaders at odds with the United States—Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein—prompting the State Department in 1996 to accuse him of “cavorting with dictators.”

His closest brush with the political mainstream probably came in 1995, when he attracted hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington for the Million Man March.

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The Nation and orthodox Islam diverge on several key beliefs. While mainstream Islam holds that Muhammad was God’s last prophet, Nation of Islam had taught that God came in the form of [Wallace D.] Fard decades ago in Detroit.

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Farrakhan has credited his mollified outlook to what he called a “near death” experience related to his prostate cancer, which he began battling in 1991. A sign of his softer approach came in 2005, at a Washington rally for the Millions More Movement. Unlike the Million Man March a decade earlier, which was for black men only, the rally was open to men and women of all races.

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In Detroit, some blacks who practice mainstream Islam say a shared history and personal ties with the Nation have united the groups in worship and work. Mitchell Shamsud-Din, a founding member of the orthodox Muslim Center in Detroit who runs its community service programs, is like thousands of Detroit-area Muslims who came to orthodox Islam through the Nation.

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Nation leaders won’t say how many members the movement, now based in Chicago, has locally or nationally—though the Council on American-Islamic Relations and others have estimated it has between 10,000 and 50,000 followers in the U.S. and no more than 1,000 in southeastern Michigan, according to Sally Howell, a University of Michigan researcher who specializes in the local Islamic and Arab-American communities.

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