Nation of Islam convention returns to Detroit with message of discipline, self-reliance

Detroit Free Press/February 19, 2014 

By Niraj Warikoo

Growing up on the streets of Detroit in the 1980s, Troy Muhammad drifted into a world of violence that led him into prison at age 17 after being convicted of attempted murder.

While incarcerated, Muhammad discovered the teachings of the Nation of Islam, he recalled, after seeing its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, on the Phil Donahue TV show in 1989. He soon changed his last name from Lumpkin to Muhammad — a last name shared by many other Nation members — and left the Christian faith of his youth.

“I was a young man with a lot of problems and issues,” said Muhammad, now 42. “But once I was touched with the teachings and applied them to better myself ... my life changed and improved dramatically.”

After serving 10 years in prison, Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam and today is married with four children and is a student minister who heads the group’s first mosque in the U.S., on Wyoming in Detroit.

His story of redemption is echoed by many in the Nation of Islam, an often-controversial black nationalist group started in Detroit 84 years ago. Now based in Chicago, it’s one of the oldest Muslim-American organizations operating today. It is holding its annual convention in Detroit this weekend, the first time it’s been held here since 2007.

Known for its emphasis on discipline and self-reliance, the Nation has worked to turn around lives in Detroit and across the U.S., say its members. Its message has resonated in places like Detroit, which is 84% African-American and seen as a center of black empowerment.

Not everyone is happy about Farrakhan or his visit here. Some local Jewish leaders are concerned that Farrakhan, set to address the convention Sunday, will repeat the types of anti-Semitic comments he’s made in the past, when he railed against “Satanic Jews” and the “Synagogue of Satan.”

“Every time he comes to Detroit, he includes remarks that are anti-Semitic,” said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit. He said Farrakhan also often makes anti-white and anti-gay remarks. “His appearance is always distressing. ... He’s had a consistent record of weaving in that kind of hate speech.”

Farrakhan maintains he’s not anti-Semitic.

Promoting Scientology

Farrakhan is now 80, and some are raising questions about whether the group can survive after his death. In recent years, the Nation has promoted Scientology as a way to help its members overcome psychological obstacles, a move that members praise but has drawn critics and led to some leaving.

And changes in the racial and political landscapes — with the election of a black president and a white mayor in black-majority Detroit — might have reduced the group’s appeal over the past 20 years, say some observers.

Still, Farrakhan remains popular in the African-American community. Last year during his latest visit to Detroit, he drew packed crowds when he spoke at two churches. And in 2007, close to 50,000 people heard him speak at Ford Field. Farrakhan’s representatives met with Detroit City Council members and Mayor Mike Duggan over the past week to talk about the convention.

The group has 120 mosques or study groups across the U.S. In Michigan, it has study groups in Inkster, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Flint, in addition to its Detroit mosque.

Leaders say they don’t have membership figures. Outside estimates vary widely, from a few thousand to 50,000 adherents nationwide, with the Detroit and New York City chapters the biggest outside its headquarters in Chicago.

The Nation of Islam’s message “is more relevant than ever, perhaps even more so than it was in the 1960s or 1950s,” Farrakhan's national student assistant minister Ishmael Muhammad, 49, told the Free Press.

Muhammad cited statistics showing higher unemployment rates and a growing black-white wealth gap to argue that despite having a black president, blacks are still being left out of the country’s economic and political worlds.

“The government does not have a plan for black people,” Muhammad said. “We have to plan a future ourselves.”

Economic plan

The Nation of Islam last year unveiled an economic plan named after its longtime leader, the late Elijah Muhammad, who led the group after meeting the group's founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, in Detroit.

The plan calls upon African-Americans to donate 5 cents a day toward a central fund. If 16 million African-American wage earners did that, it would amount to $291 million a year, which the community could use to purchase land and gain economic clout, Farrakhan said.

“We have enough money that comes in our hands as a people,” said Ishmael Muhammad. “But we don't have enough unity amongst ourselves that we could take advantage of the dollars that come in.”

The Nation wants to convince African-Americans that “we can break the mindset of being consumers and make us builders of our own community, and put ourselves in a better position to give our young people a brighter future.”

Last year, Farrakhan encouraged African-Americans to invest in Detroit and buy property. And he urged Nation members to help reduce crime in the city’s tough neighborhoods by going door-to-door to offer help.

Group's origins

On the wall of Troy Muhammad’s office inside Muhammad’s Mosque No. 1, the Nation's center in Detroit, are photos of Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan and Wallace Fard Muhammad, who’s believed to have been God in the flesh according to the Nation’s theology. The annual convention celebrates Fard's birthday, called Saviours’ Day.

In the summer of 1930, Fard arrived in Detroit, telling African-Americans they were part of a master race that was superior to whites. His origins are unclear: Some say Fard was originally from South Asia, others say from Saudi Arabia, while some members say he was half-white and half-black. He left Detroit after controversy over a murder committed by a member of the group.

Regardless of his background, Fard’s message struck a chord with poor blacks who had escaped racism and hardship in the South only to find similar struggles in Detroit during the Great Depression. One of Fard's followers was Elijah Muhammad, a sharecropper from Georgia who would go on to lead the Nation from 1934 to 1974.

One of Elijah’s sons, the late Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, then took over, changing the group's black nationalist teachings to Sunni Islam.

Farrakhan split off in 1978 from Warith Deen Mohammed’s group to form his own group more in line with the black separatist teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Under Farrakhan’s leadership, the group gained national attention with the Million Man March in 1995, an event that drew wide support among African-Americans.

“The Nation of Islam's appeal ... stems from its celebration of African-American identity and the integrity of African-American life,” said Anthony Pinn, professor of religious studies and director of graduate studies at Rice University in Texas. “In a context marked by racism and white supremacy, this type of prioritizing of black life appeals to many.”

Troy Muhammad says the Nation of Islam's teachings have lasted because “it deals with every aspect of a person's life.”

“It's clear and it's practical. It’s not just a civil rights message, not just a religious movement. It deals with economics, to do for self ... you have a health aspect, and your mental development and growth.”

Mixed messages

Part of the Nation's teachings in recent years include Scientology, which has people called auditors who lead people in therapy-like sessions in which they recall emotionally painful experiences from their past.

Farrakhan says it’s a useful tool that can help African-Americans, a group that has suffered a great deal of pain. The Nation’s Detroit branch did more Scientology auditing than any other branch in the U.S., said an article last year in the Nation's newspaper, the Final Call.

Ishmael Muhammad told the Free Press that Scientology’s ideas, called Dianetics, can help people overcome past traumas, but Scientology has not replaced the Nation of Islam’s core teachings.

Author Karl Evanzz says the move to Scientology has turned off some members, who feel it contradicts the Nation’s views on Islam and black pride. Evanzz said the issue signifies a broader problem with what he says is the Nation’s inconsistent message. In recent weeks, Farrakhan has talked about UFOs being hidden from the public by what he calls a “shadow government.”

Another issue is Farrakhan’s controversial remarks about Jews during his career. Over the past year, he’s used terms like “Satanic Jews” and “Synagogue of Satan” to describe what he says is Jewish influence in politics and culture.

Ishmael Muhammad, Farrakhan’s assistant, said in an interview the claim that Farrakhan is anti-Semitic “is so unfair, and it’s hypocritical. Anyone who knows Brother Farrakhan and hears his message could never call him or agree with those who call him an anti-Semite or a hater.”

It’s Farrakhan’s charisma as a speaker that keeps the group together, said Evanzz, a former researcher for the Washington Post who wrote “The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad.”

After Farrakhan dies, “I think the group will disintegrate,” Evanzz said. “The group will scatter to the winds. Of you may get a bunch of splinter groups.”

Some observers say that Ishmael Muhammad could become Farrakhan’s successor, but he said it’s premature to talk about and not relevant. He said he and others are focused on the group’s message: “The Nation of Islam is a prophetic voice in America.”

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