Dual View of Farrakhan's New Path

Religion: Nation of Islam leader makes moves of reconciliation. But some see self-aggrandizement.

Los Angeles Times/May 14, 2000
By Sam Fulwood

Washington -- Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, long a polarizing figure in debates over religion and race in America, has onlookers pondering his latest public efforts aimed at making amends with past adversaries.

Apparently recovered from a near-fatal bout with prostate cancer, Farrakhan admitted in an interview with the daughter of Malcolm X that he may have helped foster a climate of hate that led to the assassination of the black Muslim icon. He has made overtures toward a longtime black Muslim rival whom he exiled from the Nation of Islam in 1978. And, most astonishingly, the separatist leader has extended an invitation to Asian Americans, Latinos and whites to participate in a planned Million Family March this fall, a follow-up to his 1995 Million Man March in Washington.

Could his overtures be sincere peacemaking by a seriously ill man now facing his own mortality? Has illness compelled him to move away from his own words of the past--speeches widely viewed as inflammatory, racially insensitive and anti-Semitic? Or are these just attention-seeking ploys by a man with a history of headline-grabbing stunts?

Nation of Islam observers say that Farrakhan's cancer and related illnesses may have persuaded him to move toward conciliation. Even so, the dogma of his organization in fundamental ways sends a mixed message to outsiders. Though Farrakhan does not draw attention to it in his speeches and has sought to be more racially inclusive, the Nation of Islam's official newspaper, the Final Call, still lists among its core beliefs that whites are a "devil race."

Farrakhan could not be reached for comment. Last year, he told followers that he was nearly free of cancer. The disease was first diagnosed in 1991, and he underwent surgery in 1999 to correct an inflamed ulcer caused by his radiation treatments, touching off speculation that he was near death.

"Has Farrakhan changed?" he asked rhetorically during the Nation of Islam's Saviors' Day ceremonies Feb. 27. "Yeah, I have."

But many of Farrakhan's critics are skeptical of his sincerity.

"Coming face-to-face with your mortality does give you a different perspective on what's important and what's real," said Sonsyrea Tate, author of "Little X," a memoir of her childhood as a member of the Nation of Islam. "Four years ago he called for everyone else to atone for their sins of the past during the Million Man March, and finally he's getting around to heeding his own advice."

Still others are openly scornful, expressing doubt that any show of contrition is evidence that Farrakhan, 66, has become born again. In fact, they describe Farrakhan's expressions of public contrition as yet another sham intended for media consumption and argue that he has done this several times.

In his face-to-face meeting with Malcolm X's daughter, to be televised Sunday on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes," Farrakhan apologized for any role he may have played in prompting Nation of Islam followers to assassinate Malcolm X.

"I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being," Farrakhan said to Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X's eldest daughter.

Carl Evanzz, a Washington journalist and author of two books on the Nation of Islam and its leaders, labeled the "60 Minutes" broadcast a "bogus" effort to drive up television ratings. Evanzz noted that Farrakhan asked Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz, for forgiveness for his role in her husband's murder during a glitzy 1995 program at Harlem's Apollo Theater and told Barbara Walters on ABC-TV's "20/20" in 1994 that his words "helped to create the atmosphere" that led his followers to assassinate Malcolm X.

"He's not saying anything new," said Evanzz, who reviewed a transcript of the "60 Minutes" broadcast before making his comments. "This is the same two-faced Farrakhan that the public is confronted with."

Betty Shabazz, who died in 1997, had accused Farrakhan of involvement in her husband's murder. She agreed to share the Apollo Theater stage with Farrakhan, ending 30 years of acrimony between them, after her daughter Quibilah was charged by federal prosecutors in an alleged plot to kill Farrakhan. The charges were later dropped.

Farrakhan's recent confession of complicity in Malcolm X's death follows his efforts to forge closer ties to his longtime rival Warith Deen Muhammad, head of an orthodox black Islamic group. Warith Deen, son of Elijah Muhammad, who founded the Nation of Islam as a black separatist group, broke with his father's teachings and now leads a group of Sunni Muslims known as the Muslim American Society.

"He and I will be together," Farrakhan said of Muhammad during his 2 1/2-hour Saviors' Day speech in February. "Not for evil, but for love. Not for hatred, but for good."

In that speech--and another two days earlier, witnessed by a contingent of orthodox Muslim leaders--Farrakhan pledged to lead his black nationalist organization toward traditional Islamic practices.

Beyond his words, however, there is evidence that Farrakhan may be making real efforts to shift the Nation of Islam closer to traditional Islam.

He has lifted a prohibition against his supporters participating in the daily prayers led by Warith Deen Muhammad's ministers. In a departure from previous teachings, he has also decreed that his supporters should fast during the Islamic holy season of Ramadan.

But perhaps the most radical departure from Nation of Islam doctrine is Farrakhan's embrace of traditional Islamic theology that has been eschewed by Nation of Islam rhetoric. Orthodox Muslims believe that Mohammad of Mecca, who founded Islam in the 7th century, is the final prophet to humanity and God has never revealed himself in human form. But members of the Nation of Islam have long contended that a black American named W.D. Fard was God incarnate and that Fard instructed Elijah Muhammad to serve as his final prophet or messenger.

Since his brush with cancer, Farrakhan has stopped preaching that Elijah Muhammad was the messenger of God and has encouraged his followers to recognize Mohammad of Mecca as the leader of Islam.

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